Some ideas do not come neatly packaged in words, sentences and paragraphs. They arrive in our minds as images, and we struggle to share what we have seen.
Poets frequently encounter this experience. They feel something so big, so deep, that it first forms in their minds as an image, then story, and finally words.
Such an experience must have prompted twenty-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay to write “Renascence,” the poem that changed her life. Reading its 107 rhyming couplets and trying to glimpse the picture in the poet’s mind, the feeling in her soul, is almost painful.
For someone unfamiliar with Millay’s poem, the third hymn in the UU hymnal, “The World Stands Out on Either Side,” must seem strange indeed, if not incomprehensible. First included in the 1964 hymnal, “Hymns for the Celebration of Life,” the hymn is made up of eight lines from the end of the poem (but not the final two couplets).
The selection committee for Singing the Living Tradition must have presumed deep familiarity with “Renascence” among Unitarian Universalists, in the same way that Christian churches presume deep familiarity with the biblical narrative.
This hymn is not easy. Using it in a service would require a great deal of congregational education. Perhaps a sermon that unpacks “Renascence” could be followed by singing the hymn several weeks in a row, allowing the images and ideas of the poem to sink from the head to the heart.