Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Assault”
Let’s talk about epigraphs.
Typically, an epigraph – a short quote from some other work an author inserts at the beginning of her own piece – is considered a thematic introduction, or perhaps a contrast to the ideas to come. It’s always fun to figure out the connection.
As I read this essay following the portion of the poem above, I kept trying to figure out the connection. Savage beauty: is this a person, an idea, some metaphorical thing? Why is it blocking her path? Ah, there are beer bottles on a hiking trail, is this another ecological piece, a “leave no trace” thing?
But then I encountered, as did the narrator, the man with the hatchet.
But Cheryl kept moving ahead. I didn’t want to follow her and I can’t say why I did, really, but together we came upon a man and a woman atop a slope. The woman saw us and said please. That one word. Please, please. The man had his left arm clamped across her chest and in his right hand he held a hatchet. The shiny blade was poised at her neck, which poked out of her filthy T-shirt like a cherry-red thumb.
I whispered to Cheryl, “Run.” We could be back at my car in a half-hour if we hurried like we’d never hurried before, with me at the wheel, doors locked, Cheryl calling the sheriff. Wouldn’t people with uniforms and guns and squawky radios be better equipped to deal with this? But my friend acted as if she hadn’t heard me and she started talking to the woman on the hill in a voice I could hardly make sense of. Oddly calm, the cadence of a mother to a worried child, the singsong of someone slipping a hand under a wounded rabbit, as if we were a hundred miles from any hatchet-wielding man.
Ok, I get the savage, but where’s the beauty in this scene?
Turns out this was all a kind of prelude. The encounter on the trail was a trigger for Gwartney, a reminder of childhood trauma. Her father hit his other daughters. Never her, but her two younger sisters. As a nine-year-old, she deeply learned a lesson: “Whatever it took, I was never to infuriate the man.”
Her friend Cheryl learned other lessons. She somehow got the man to lower the hatchet, and led his wife away, even as the man followed them to their car where they finally found safety and brought the woman to a haven where she could rebuild her life.
And this then is the core of the essay: we can cling to lessons necessary when we are nine years old and defenseless against the adults in our lives, or we can learn other ways of reacting to violence upon others. We can become defenders, not appeasers. What really drives this home is that Gwartney knows there will be no punishment for the husband who threatened his wife with a hatchet; the state itself has become, worse than an appeaser, a sympathizer, because the state is significantly comprised of men who might one day wish to hatchet their wives. And, as well, who has time to prosecute every abuser.
But what about that epigraph?
Since I am admittedly dense when it comes to poetry, I poked around looking for some analysis. It’s typically seen as a nature-versus-civilization type of thing. The speaker encounters frogs on a path, and while she would like to investigate them further, she’s too timid, and thus begs the Savage Beauty of nature to let her pass, to stay on the path from house to house with no messing around in frog ponds. I found a nice outline of this in a 2015 thesis posted online:
Yet, the woman senses that her anxiety stems not from the elements of nature, such as the “crying of the frogs,” but from her compliance with civilization’s demands as she hurriedly travels from one house to another. The speaker recognizes the absurdity of her fear, and senses that society has tamed her the same way it has tamed natural landscapes. For instance, her complacency within her unnatural social environment exemplifies why she would refer to herself only as “a timid woman,” but this self-depreciation also takes on a sarcastic tone which further suggests a longing for a more natural state.
Jenna Lewis, Master’s candidate, Appalachian State University
The conflict for Gwartney is not nature vs civilization, but appeasement vs defense: the allure of safety envisioned by a nine-year-old versus the courage of an adult.
The poem brings a lot to the essay. The title “Assault” refers to the assault of nature on the speaker, who is too convention-bound to meet it with the abandon it requires. Then there is the editing so that it opens everything with that word, suffer. I learned, in the prior essay “Gutted,” about lyric association, and I would guess this would be an example of that technique, sharpening the impact of the essay on a poetic grindstone.
I’ve never experienced physical abuse of any kind. I don’t think I was even slapped on the playground in a grade-school melee. Yet I’m as paralyzed by observed violence as Gwartney is; my instinct is to run, to call for help from people who are better equipped to deal with such things. This doesn’t necessarily stem from fear, though of course I do feel fear, but more importantly, it stems from the sense that I am incompetent. No matter how bad things are, my involvement will make them worse. The greatest help I can give anyone is to keep far away.
We all learn different things. Like Gwartney, I wish I had learned to be Cheryl. And now, like her, I fear it is too late.
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