I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem Conscientious Objector


  1. weavehole says:

    Christopher Hitchens quotes from this poem here in a recent talk with Salman Rushdie.

    It may give you another way of appreciating it.

    You’ll have to do a search in youtube to see it as I don’t think I can post a link here, sorry.

  2. Ricky McLeod says:

    I think this poem is just as relevant today as when it was written…times and places may change…mankind stays the same….’Conscientious Objector’ is simply a great poem !

  3. Rob Holland says:

    Just had parts of this recited at a Quaker Meeting. Very powerful. If anyone who reads it has quaker friends, copy it to them!

  4. bob says:

    vincent’s mention of the balkans may be a reference to the first world war; as if began in 1914 in sarajevo, bosnia with the assassination of the austro-hungarian prince, ferninand. i wonder then: could the reference to cuba be intended as the spanish-american war of 1898? american participation in that misadventure was primarily in cuba. both wars were waged immediately prior to the creation of this poem, which i believe was written in the 1930s. the next american war was, of course, world war two.

    i don’t believe that the poem is primarily about war however. a poet will always object to choas and venality, and it seems to me that this is vincent’s critique of the world-wide malaise that was beginning to envelope the entire world. it is the pre-condition, the oncoming horror that she is recoiling from here. and she bravely asserts that she wants no part of the duplicity that will lead to death.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Why does she choose to mention Cuba and the Balkans our of all places?

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