Epitaph for the Race of Man

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950) 

"Might I your scribe and your confessor be"

I felt like singing, but that is hopeless on a tractor; you can't hear yourself.  So instead, as I sometimes do, I began remembering a poem.  I am very fond of poetry, and this one, one of my favorites, was a sonnet.  It began:

Oh earth, unhappy planet born to die,

Might I your scribe or your confessor be . . .

     I had thought of that poem many times since the war, and of myself, by default, as "scribe and confessor."  But now I was neither of those.  I was the one, or one of the two, who might keep it from dying, for a while at least.  When I thought of that, and how my idea of my own future had been changed in the past week, I could not stop smiling.

     Then, as I plowed, I thought I heard, over the noise of the tractor, a high squawking sound overhead.  I stopped, turned the engine down to idle, and looked up.  There were crows, sharp and black against the sky, wheeling in a circle over the field.  I counted eleven of them, and I realized they had remembered the sound of plowing; they knew there would be seeds to follow.  My father used to call them pests, but I was glad to see them.  They were probably the only wild birds left anywhere.  (Z for Zachariah, Ch 9, p.96-97)  

"Here lies... / Most various Man, cut down to spring no more...."

Millay's 18-sonnet sequence "Epitaph for the Race of Man" describes the tenacious will of humans to survive despite continual adversities, but it also warns that humans must look into their own character for the fatal flaw that will probably doom them as a species.  The lines quoted by Ann begin the fourth sonnet in the sequence, in which the speaker asks Earth what it would tell her of humans if she could be the Earth's scribe and confessor: "O Earth, unhappy planet born to die, / Might I your scribe and your confessor be, / What wonders must you not relate to me / Of Man." 

For over a year, Ann has believed she is the last surviving human, so she has often thought of herself as the "scribe and confessor" described in the poem--the one who records the story of the Earth after its end and is specifically interested in the fate of humans.  Ann's viewing herself this way points to the fact that she is such a scribe, and her diary records the fate of the last two people.  Ann is also a "confessor"  because her diary shows that the end of the human race is caused by human selfishness (as Millay's poem predicts) for which Ann is largely responsible. 

At the time Ann recites this poem while plowing a cornfield, she believes she no longer has to be humanity's last scribe, since Loomis' arrival gives her hope she will be one of the two people who keep Earth and their own species from dying.  Readers of the story should have no doubt that Ann is here thinking happily about saving the human race by having children with Loomis and starting a colony in Burden Valley.  When Loomis later states explicitly, "we've got to plan as if this valley is the whole world, and we are starting a colony," Ann even admits to herself, "It was the same thought, or nearly the same, as the one I had had when I was plowing" (Ch15, p.152).

When Ann is thinking of having children with Loomis and helping the human race to continue, it seems appropriate that she sees crows overhead because crows in the story are depicted as a species that is successful at surviving.  Two of them make a nest in the church steeple, and Ann rescues one baby crow that fell from it.  Ann also comments twice that crows seem to be the only surviving birds, saying once of them that they "seem to have had the sense to stay around," whereas "other birds...flew out into the deadness and died" (Ch 3, p.29).  Thus, crows seem to be symbolic of the survival instinct, including the natural instinct to mate and bear children.  When Ann sees the crows while plowing, she seems to be guided by her animal instincts much like they are.

In addition, the use of the word "burden" in the 10th sonnet to refer to humanity's struggle to survive suggests the symbolic significance of Ann's family name in the story.  Ann bears the burden of having children to continue humanity's struggle to survive, just as the soil of Burden Valley bears the burden of producing and sustaining all living things in general.

Furthermore, although the speaker in the poem describes the ability of humans to survive all the adversities inflicted by nature, she believes that Man will ultimately cause his own destruction because of "Bearing the bad cell in him from the start"--that is, because of the burden of the human ego,  selfishness, or "Obsequious Greed."  This flaw in human nature is also suggested in the story by the name "Burden," particularly through the association of the name with the poisoned river Burden Creek.  To ensure her own safety, Ann allows the last man and her dog Faro to swim in this creek; and she walks beside its beautiful but dead water when, pursuing selfish fantasies of being a school teacher, she leaves the valley in search of another habitable place she has seen in dreams.  In the end, she heads west walking beside a similar dead stream, entirely abandoning her former hopes of having children with Loomis and helping to save humanity. 


Epitaph for the Race of Man

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Notes about the poem

and its relevance to Z for Zachariah



Before this cooling planet shall be cold,

Long, long before the music of the Lyre,

Like the faint roar of distant breakers rolled

On reefs unseen, when wind and flood conspire

To drive the ships inshore — long, long, I say,

Before this ominous humming hits the ear,

Earth will have come upon a stiller day,

Man and his engines be no longer here.

High on his naked rock the mountain sheep

Will stand alone against the final sky,

Drinking a wind of danger new and deep,

Staring on Vega with a piercing eye,

And gather up his slender hooves and leap

From crag to crag down Chaos, and so go by.


The planet is slowly dying, like all living things born with a limited lifespan. The opening lines refer to a future time when the planet shall be cold and dead.

"Long...before the music of the lyre" seems to refer to a future time when the story of the Earth will be told like an epic recited by ancient Greeks to the accompaniment of a lyre.  The story of the Earth will be similar to that of the fall of Troy, an early example of a doomed civilization.



When Death was young and bleaching bones were few,

A moving hill against the risen day,

The dinosaur at morning made his way,

And dropped his dung along the blazing dew;

Trees with no name that now are agate grew

Lushly beside him in the steamy clay;

He woke and hungered, rose and stalked his prey,

And slept contented, in a world he knew.

In punctual season, with the race in mind

His consort held aside her heavy tail,

And took the seed; and heard the seed confined

Roar in her womb; and made a nest to hold

A hatched-out conqueror...but to no avail:

The veined and fertile eggs are long since cold.



"Death" here actually means life, referring to Earth's existence as a long process of dying.

The speaker describes a male dinosaur impregnating his mate in vain, unaware that a natural disaster will prevent the fertile eggs from ever hatching. This sonnet evokes sympathy for the experience of creatures in the distant past long before humans even existed. Also, it suggests that we and other animals living today are similarly vulnerable, capable of becoming extinct in a short time. In describing dinosaurs mating "with the race in mind," the speaker implies that the sex drive in all animals is a natural instinct necessary for their species to survive.



Cretaceous bird, your giant claw no lime

From bark of holly bruised or mistletoe

Could have arrested, could have held you so

Through fifty million years of jostling time;

Yet cradled with you in the catholic slime

Of the young ocean's tepid lapse and flow

Slumbered an agent, weak in embryo,

Should grip you straitly, in its sinewy prime.

What bright collision in the zodiac brews,

What mischief dimples at the planet's core

For shark, for python, for the dove that coos

Under the leaves? — what frosty fate's in store

For warm blood of man, — man, out of the ooze

But lately crawled, and climbing up the shore?


Earth's inevitable destruction could be brought about by its collision with another object in space such as an asteroid or comet, or by changes in the planet's core; and all living things will be helpless to save themselves.

Some such fate is in store for humans, though we are just a new species that only recently evolved.



O EARTH, unhappy planet born to die,

Might I your scribe and your confessor be,

What wonders must you not relate to me

Of Man, who when his destiny was high

Strode like the sun into the middle sky

And shone an hour, and who so bright a he,

And like the sun went down into the sea,

Leaving no spark to be remembered by.

But no; you have not learned in all these years

To tell the leopard and the newt apart;

Man, with his singular laughter, his droll tears,

His engines and his conscience and his art,

Made but a simple sound upon your ears:

The patient beating of the animal heart.



The first two lines are recited by the narrator Ann Burden in Z for Zachariah.

"Might I...be" means "If I might be." The speaker is addressing Earth, asking what it would tell her about humans if she could be Earth's scribe and confessor--that is, the one who records events and either hears confessions of wrongdoing or gives such confessions.

But Earth does not value any particular animal specially or distinguish humans from other animals. Humans are just another creature with a beating heart. See also Ecclesiastes 3:18-19: "the fate of human and the fate of animal is the same."



When Man is gone and only gods remain

To stride the world, their mighty bodies hung

With golden shields, and golden curls outflung

Above their childish foreheads; when the plain

Round skull of Man is lifted and again

Abandoned by the ebbing wave, among

The sand and pebbles of the beach, — what tongue

Will tell the marvel of the human brain?

Heavy with music once this windy shell,

Heavy with knowledge of the clustered stars;

The one-time tenant of this draughty hall

Himself, in learned pamphlet, did foretell,

After some aeons of study jarred by wars,

This toothy gourd, this head emptied of all.



The "gods" mentioned here resemble those of the ancient Greeks, particularly Ares (the god of war). But the reference to gods remaining after humanity's extinction seems ironic, suggesting they are cultural myths which will lose all meaning and disappear along with humans.  Thus, the speaker needs to ask who will "tell the marvel of the human brain" when only draughty, empty skulls remain of human intelligence. 




See where Capella with her golden kids

Grazes the slope between the east and north?

Thus when the builders of the pyramids

Flung down their tools at nightfall and poured forth

Homoeward to supper and a poor man's bed,

Shortening the road with friendly jest and slur,

The risen She-Goat showing blue and red

Climbed the clear dusk, and three stars followed her.

Safe in their linen and their spices lie

The kings of Egypt; even as long ago

Under these constellations, with long eye

And scented limbs they slept, and feared no foe.

Their will was law; their will was not to die:

And so they had their way; or nearly so.



Despite their power and their belief that they could preserve their bodies to live forever, the pharaohs could not escape death; and even their great civilization is now merely crumbling ancient ruins.




He heard the coughing tiger in the night

Push at his door; close by his quiet head

About the wattled cabin the soft tread

Of heavy feet he followed, and the slight

Sigh of the long banana leaves; in sight

At last and leaning westward overhead

The Centaur and the Cross now heralded

The sun, far off but marching, bringing light.

What time the Centaur and the Cross were spent

Night and the beast retired into the hill,

Whereat serene and undevoured he lay,

And dozed and stretched and listened and lay still,

Breathing into his body with content

The temperate dawn before the tropic day.





Observe how Miyanoshita cracked in two

And slid into the valley; he that stood

Grinning with terror in the bamboo wood

Saw the earth heave and thrust its bowels through

The hill, and his own kitchen slide from view,

Spilling the warm bowl of his humble food

Into the lap of horror; mark how lewd

This cluttered gulf, — 'twas here his paddy grew.

Dread and dismay have not encompassed him;

The calm sun sets; unhurried and aloof

Into the riven village falls the rain;

Days pass; the ashes cool; he builds again

His paper house upon oblivion's brim,

And plants the purple iris in its roof.



This stanza refers to the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1st, 1923, which devastated Tokyo, Yokohama, and surrounding prefectures, also setting off firestorms that caused about 142,000 casualties. At the time, news services reported it as "the greatest disaster in the history of Japan." Miyanoshita was a small onsen (hot springs) resort town in the Hakone Mountains, a popular tourist destination.


A survivor who builds a new home on the edge of ruin represents the tenacious will to live, or the survival instinct.




He woke in terror to a sky more bright

Than middle day; he heard the sick earth groan,

And ran to see the lazy-smoking cone

Of the fire-mountain, friendly to his sight

As his wife's hand, gone strange and full of fright;

Over his fleeing shoulder it was shown

Rolling its pitchy lake of scalding stone

Upon his house that had no feet for flight.

Where did he weep?  Where did he sit him down

And sorrow, with his head between his knees?

Where said the Race of Man, "Here let me drown"?

"Here let me die of hunger"? — "let me freeze"?

By nightfall he has built another town:

This boiling pot, this clearing in the trees.



Mt. Tokachidake erupted in 1926, killing 144.

Again, the speaker uses an example of a natural disaster to illustrate human resilience.  In terms of this poem’s relevance to Z for Zachariah, it is important that the speaker is not just concerned with individual struggles for survival but views individual efforts as significant because they enable the entire race to survive.  The man and wife who escape a volcanic eruption are described as building a new "town" that consists of just a cooking pot in a forest clearing, suggesting that even two survivors (like Ann and Loomis) represent society and the human race.




The broken dike, the levee washed away,

The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,

Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,

And nothing left but floating disarray

Of tree and home uprooted, — was this the day

Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound

And died, having laboured well and having found

His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?

No, no.  I saw him when the sun had set

In water, leaning on his single oar

Above his garden faintly glimmering yet . . .

There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds . . . .

And scull across his roof and make for shore,

With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.



Here the speaker refers to the "burden" that humans might be tempted to lay down by accepting the death of their species. This is a poem about humanity’s survival (not just individual survival), and the use of “Man” indicates that the referenced “burden” is carried by all humanity. Clearly, the word “burden” means a powerful natural drive to procreate and continue the species. This fundamental motive force underlies the human survival instinct.


The name “Burden” is fitting for the protagonist in Z for Zachariah because the survival of the human race depends on her. More precisely, humanity’s survival depends on Ann Burden's will to procreate.



Sweeter was loss than silver coins to spend,

Sweeter was famine than the belly filled;

Better than blood in the vein was the blood spilled;

Better than corn and healthy flocks to tend

And a tight roof and acres without end

Was the barn burned and the mild creatures killed,

And the back aging fast, and all to build:

For then it was, his neighbor was his friend.

Then for a moment the averted eye

Was turned upon him with benignant beam,

Defiance faltered, and derision slept;

He saw in a not unhappy dream

Teh kindly heads against the horrid sky,

And scowled, and cleared his throat and sat, and wept.



Now the speaker asserts that adversity from natural disasters was, paradoxically, better than good fortune because it provoked unusual sympathy from other people, who are normally indifferent or competitive due to their egocentricity. This paradox seems illustrated in Z for Zachariah by the change in Ann’s feelings from fear of Loomis to sympathy for him when he becomes sick and she comes out of hiding to care for him.

Also, in sonnet XI we begin to see how the desire to procreate that underlies the survival instinct is threatened by the desire for solely individual success, which also seems instinctive. This selfishness is the innate “bad cell” that the speaker later refers to in Sonnet XVI.



Now forth to meadows as the farmer goes

With shining buckets to the milking-ground,

He meets the black ant hurrying from his mound

To milk the aphis pastured on the rose;

But no good-morrow, as you might suppose,

No nod of greeting, no perfunctory sound

Passes between them; no occasion's found

For gossip as to how the fodder grows.

In chilly autumn on the hardening road

They meet again, driving their flocks to stall,

Two herdsmen, each with winter for a goad;

They meet and pass, and never a word at all

Gives one to t'other.  On the quaint abode

Of each, the evening and the faint snow fall.



Sonnet XII deals mainly with the alienation of different living creatures from one another. A human farmer and an ant go about their respective labors concerned only for their own survival, paying no attention to one another and indifferent to their similarity. As with the description in Sonnet II of dinosaurs mating “with the race in mind,” the speaker suggests the kinship and similarity between humans and other animals (even ants), all driven by the same basic instincts.

In Z for Zachariah, this similarity between humans and animals is similarly suggested by descriptions of other creatures (particularly crows) going about the business of procreating and continuing their species.



His heatless room the watcher of the stars

Nightly inhabits when the night is clear;

Propping his mattress on the turning sphere,

Saturn his rings or Jupiter his bars

He follows, or the fleeing moons of Mars,

Till from his ticking lens they disappear . . .

Whereat he sighs, and yawns, and on his ear

The busy chirp of Earth remotely jars.

Peace at the void's heart through the wordless night,

A lamb cropping the awful grasses, grazed;

Earthward the trouble lies, where strikes his light

At dawn industrious Man, and unamazed

Goes forth to plough, flinging a ribald stone

At all endeavour alien to his own.



Sonnet XIII describes a person viewing stars and planets through a telescope, with ordinary sounds of life on Earth in the background. During the night, which is “wordless” while most people sleep, Earth is peaceful at the center of the void of space (“at the void’s heart”). But this peace is only temporary because as soon as humans wake at dawn they begin fighting one another to promote their selfish interests.


Also, the phrase “Earthward the trouble lies” suggests the error of thinking that the stars, destiny, or any supernatural agents cause human misfortunes. As Edmund says in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion” (1.2.123-125).



Him not the golden fang of furious heaven,

Nor whirling Aeolus on his awful wheel,

Nor foggy specter ramming the swift keel,

Nor flood, nor earthquake, nor the red tongue even

Of fire, disaster's dog — him, him bereaven

Of all save the heart's knocking, and to feel

The air upon his face: not the great heel

Of headless Force into the dust was driven.

These sunken cities, tier on tier, bespeak

How ever from the ashes with proud beak

And shining feathers did the phoenix rise,

And sail, and send the vulture from the skies . . .

That in the end returned; for Man was weak

Before the unkindness in his brother's eyes.


The speaker reiterates that humanity’s will to survive always enables our species to survive, repeatedly rising phoenix-like from the ruins of civilizations. Yet the threat of humanity’s extinction (i.e., passing into the void) always returns because its survival instinct is undermined by people’s unkindness to one another.  In Z for Zachariah, humanity’s survival depends on the last two survivors of a nuclear war being sympathetic towards one another. Ann’s desire for complete control over her life gives her an irrational fear that the last man will enslave her, leading her to hide in a cave as he approaches. She is then willing to let him die rather than put her freedom at risk by coming out of hiding to warn him of a radioactive stream. Such a beginning does not bode well for humanity’s survival.




Now sets his foot upon the eastern sill

Aldeberan, swiftly rising, mounting high,

And tracks the Pleiads down the crowded sky,

And drives his wedge into the western hill;

Now for the void sets forth, and further still,

The questioning mind of man . . . that by and by

From the void's rim returns with swooping eye,

Having seen himself into the maelstrom spill.

Blench not, O race of Adam, lest you find

In the sun's bubbling bowl anonymous death,

Or lost in whistling space without a mind

To monstrous Nothing yield your little breath:

You shall achieve destruction where you stand,

In instimate conflict, at your brother's hand.


The speaker describes human curiosity about space and warns against fear of venturing beyond Earth, since we will otherwise finally be swallowed by the sun or destroy ourselves on this planet. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has expressed the same views:

“Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

(Winnipeg Free Press 11/19/2011)




Alas for Man, so stealthily betrayed,

Bearing the bad cell in him from the start,

Pumping and feeding from his healthy heart

That wild disorder never to be stayed

When once established, destined to invade

With angry hordes the true and proper part,

Till Reason joggles in the headman's cart,

And Mania spits from every balustrade.

Would he had searched his closet for his bane,

Where lurked the trusted ancient of his soul,

Obsequious Greed, and seen that visage plain;

Would he had whittled treason from his side

In his stout youth and bled his body whole,

Then had he died a king, or never died.



Sonnet XVI describes the problem of human selfishness most explicitly, identifying it as an innate trait (“the bad cell in him from the start”) and a passion (“wild disorder”) that destroys the capacity to reason, replacing it with “Mania.” Reason is viewed as “the true and proper part” of human nature, meaning perhaps that it is the main guide to truth and the aspect that most distinguishes humans from other animals. Further, humanity’s bane is defined as “Obsequious Greed,” in which greed is used as a synonym for selfishness. It is called “obsequious” because it always flatters the ego, slavishly serving solely personal opinions or desires.




Only the diamond and the diamond's dust

Can render up the diamond unto Man;

One and invulnerable as it began

Had it endured, but for the treacherous thrust

That laid its hard heart open, as it must,

And ground it down and fitted it to span

A turbaned brow or fret an ivory fan,

Lopped of its stature, pared of its proper crust.

So Man, by all the wheels of heaven unscored,

Man, the stout ego, the exuberant mind

No edge could cleave, no acid could consume,

Being split along the vein by his own kind,

Gives over, rolls upon the palm abhorred,

Is set in brass on the swart thumb of Doom.



Here the speaker likens humans to diamonds. Just as only a diamond is hard enough to cut diamond, the greatest threat to the survival of humanity’s “stout ego” is its own kind.


In Z for Zachariah, Ann and Loomis destroy their own and humanity’s chances of survival because of their selfish preoccupation with their own ideas and desires. Though both act selfishly at times, Ann seems more at fault because her reasoning is repeatedly undermined or distorted by irrational fear. Moreover, although Loomis later uses force to get Ann’s cooperation, it is clear he wants her companionship and hopes they can save humanity from extinction. And, as Ann realizes too late, Loomis’s efforts to control her are a direct response to her denial of companionship.



Here lies, and none to mourn him but the sea,

That falls incessant on the empty shore,

Most various man, cut down to spring no more;

Before his prime, even in his infancy

Cut down, and all the clamor that was he,

Silenced; and all the riveted pride he wore,

A rusted iron column whose tall core

The rains have tunneled like an aspen tree.

Man, doughty Man, what power has brought you low,

That heaven itself in arms could not persuade

To lay aside the lever and the spade

And be as dust among the dusts that blow?

Whence, whence the broadside? Whose the heavy blow?

Strive not to speak, poor scattered mouth; I know.




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