Edna St Vincent Millay Poems
“Love Is Not All” Commentary and Analysis
The speaker in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Love Is Not All” describes reality and crushes the fairy tale belief that love brings infinite happiness and solves all problems. This narrator expresses her thoughts on falling in love throughout the poem; bluntly, she describes life’s most basic necessities, which love cannot replace. Mocking those who strongly believe in the power that love holds, she aims to persuade the reader to accept love as an irrational notion. What appear to be her cynical thoughts developing throughout the beginning of the poem turn outs to be a dramatic build-up to emphasize her real intentions.
The speaker uses repetition in the first six lines as an important tactic, thus guiding the reader’s thoughts into circling around the negative aspects of love. Repetition of “not” and “nor” exaggerates all that love cannot do. It “is not meat nor drink, nor slumber nor roof,” and it cannot “clean blood, nor set the fractured bone”; simply put, love does not even begin to fulfill a human’s most basic needs for survival. Continuing the repetition of all that love cannot do, the speaker notes its inability to take the place of a “floating spar,” comparing it too a life preserver or floating piece of wood for someone drowning to clutch onto. Lacking the capability to save one’s life, even given numerous opportunities as the person “sink[s] and rise[s] and sink[s] and rise[s] and sink[s] again,” accounts another one of love’s faults. This situation suggests that love cannot be a form of aid in some of life’s most crucial situations, no matter how many chances arise.
In the first six lines, each verse consists of ten syllables. These lines, in iambic pentameter, appear to present the speaker’s thoughts: basic and cynical thoughts creating a negative view, in the reader’s mind, on the subject of falling in love. Adding an extra syllable to the seventh line, the speaker shifts her point of view. Throughout the remainder of the poem, lines seven through eleven, each verse now includes eleven syllables. While the rhythm changes, the expression of thoughts alters, the tone of the speaker shifts, and the thoughts conveyed to the reader suddenly transform.
The structure of the first eight lines, which constitute one complete sentence, serves to aide the reader in understanding the shift in the poem. The first line begins with the statement “Love is not all,” and a colon follows; this colon sets the introduction for the following seven lines, the first six of which offer a summary of love’s incapabilities. If we remove the negative, repetitive verses of the sentence, the words left simply introduce the change in ideas: “Love is not all: / Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.” In the seventh and eighth verses, the speaker acknowledges that many choose to voluntarily approach death due to an absence of love. The poem is concerned with not only the death of the living, but also the death of a person’s moral beliefs, the death that results in dependencies and dissatisfactions that create other substitutes for love. The shift in ideas and the speaker’s comparison of love’s absence to death provide the reader with the image that love brings life.
Following her comparison of love to life and death, Millay develops a situation in which the narrator faces the harsh reality, contemplating giving up her love for a glimpse of relief. “Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,” the speaker faces a time in her life when only the hardships and struggles of her days cross her mind. As she wishes “to sell [her] love for peace,” she comes to the realization that no matter how much she desires to, she “[does] not think [she] would.” The speaker leaves the reader’s thoughts revolving around how and why she will not trade love to relieve such vivid pain.
Presenting an opposition to the words of Cyc Jouzy, “love life comes last in [our] life, [we] put real life first,” the speaker in “Love Is Not All” proves that obsessing over love is one of the biggest mistakes man can make. Man’s first thoughts on falling in love revolve around love as an all-powerful notion, but materialistically it proves useless. Realistically, preoccupied love is nothing greater than a weakness. However, the speaker truly admits some aspects of love’s significance, disseminating the importance of love in one’s life. As the speaker uncovers the falsity of the perception of love, she allows the reader to understand that although materialistically and fundamentally love serves no purpose, without it man never becomes intimate with the inevitable beauty in the world, life.
A Wholesome Glimpse into Memories of Past Lovers: “Once More into My Arid Days Like Dew” and “I Think I Should Have Loved You Presently”
Edna St. Vincent Millay centers her poems “Once More into My Arid Days Like Dew” and “I Think I Should Have Loved You Presently” around memories of past lovers, yet they have very different themes and focuses that, when put together, give a wholesome message about the different types of memories and lovers. “Once More Into” uses imagery and a sad tone to explain the way painful memories about long-term lovers can affect us by bringing fleeting joy, only to leave us with the realization that those moments are gone; meanwhile, “I Think I Should” has a nonchalant tone while explaining that some memories of fleeting moments might make us regret the way we acted with ephemeral loves, but that they cannot be changed.
“Once More Into” reveals that recurrent memories of a past lover make her feel like they are there, just for a fleeting moment, but that as she realizes they are long gone, those memories only bring her pain and sadness. The first line, “Once more into my arid days like dew” (1) emphasizes that these memories come repetitively, if not daily, like dew, yet they are memories of something that could never happen now, as seen when Millay compares them to “wind from an oasis, or the sound /of cold sweet water bubbling underground” (2-3). It becomes clear that these thoughts and memories are painful and about someone, more than likely a lover since this is a sonnet, when Millay says, “the thought of you /Comes to destroy me” (4-5). The reason why these memories are so painful to her is simply because they “renew /Firm faith in [their] abundance” (5-6), meaning they make her feel like her lover is still with her, yet she quickly realizes that this is impossible as she describes it as “one other mound /Of sand, whereon no green thing ever grew” (7-8) Although she clearly is saying that she is reminded that those moments will never occur again, the imagery of growth within “abundance” (6) and “green” (8) hints that her past lover is not dead, it was simply someone she could not grow and develop a relationship with. She shows the readers her pain by with the imagery of her falling, and getting up pitifully, and having “stinging eyes” (13). However, “colored phantom” (10) shows that although they are long gone, they still have color and are still lively, another hint at the fact that it is about a past lover, not a deceased love. Millay then goes on to end the sonnet with “Once more I clasp – and there is nothing there” (14), which shows again that she is in pain and desperate, but that no matter how she feels, her lover is gone.
“I Think I Should” uses a lighter tone in talking about the same topic, a memory of a past lover, showing that the main difference between the focus of both poems is the nature of the relationship she had with the lovers. In “Once More Into,” the pain and remembrance of her lover shows us that it was someone she had developed strong feelings for and had gotten attached to, but in “I Think I Should,” she regrets not having acted upon her feelings to develop a relationship with a lover who never turned into anything more than an ephemeral fling. The tone difference, the somberness versus the nonchalant attitude, serves to highlight that although memories are what they are, a recollection of the past, the subject of those memories can bring up different feelings and thoughts. She also underlines that there can be many types of “past lovers,” such as flings versus actual relationships where feelings are developed. But the similarity between the topics is evident as Millay says, “walk your memory’s halls” (“I Think I Should,” 12) and “the thought of you” (“Once More Into,” 4), just as the repetitiveness of those memories is made clear in “one more waking from a recurrent dream” (“I Think I Should,” 10) and “once more into my arid days like dew” (“Once More Into,” 1).
In “I Think I Should,” Millay makes it clear that she regrets not having told a past lover how she truly felt, and that she “should have loved [them] presently, /And given in earnest words [she] flung in jest; /And lifted honest eyes for [them] to see” (1-3). Instead, they had a brief sexual affair, which was why they liked her in the first place. “Caught your hand against my cheek and breast” (4) tells the readers that the poem indeed is about a past lover since the hand touched her breast, but catching the hand also signifies making them stay, something Millay was not able to do. The word choice with “beneath your gaze, /Naked…and shorn of pride” (6-7) has vivid sexual imagery, another reminder of this being about a past lover with whom she had a fleeting sexual affair. Her use of “recurrent dream” (10) and “memory’s hall” (12) allows the readers to understand that this is all a memory and that the lover is long gone, and that although Millay wishes she had told them how she felt, she realizes that she cannot change the past and does not regret their fleeting moments together, seen when she says, “Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained” (11). However, she also acknowledges that she has changed since then, by describing herself as “a ghost in marble of a girl you know” (13); she is now a mature woman looking for a stable relationship, which is hinted at by her usage of the word “marble” (13). With the last line, she tells the readers that had he stayed for longer, she would have fallen in love with him by saying “would have loved you in a day or two” (14). This last line also indicates that their moments together only lasted a few hours. But no matter what her feelings were at the time, she knew he would never love her back, since she says, “all my pretty follies…that won you to me” (5-6). All in all, she regrets not having been honest and not having it last longer than a few hours, but she knew he would not love her back, had she fell for him.
The importance of these two poems lies within the fact that Millay was openly writing about past lovers and sexuality, something rarely done by women at the time. They allow readers to get a wholesome view at different types of emotions elicited from memories and are easy to understand, as well as relate to, since most readers have been through a similar love situation, making her poetry relevant over one hundred years after it was written.
Breaking Gender Expectations in Millay’s “I, being born a woman”
In the poem “I, being born a woman”, Edna St. Vincent Millay focuses on the idea that women can exist outside of what men make them to be, including the idea that they are ruled by their impulses. She uses the poem to show that women can not only exist and survive without the support of men, but rather they can thrive in their own lives outside of the cultural mores. The poem has a matter of fact tone that may be perceived as sharp or condescending toward the way women are seen and also makes a mockery of the cultural perception of women.
“I, being born a woman” is arguably challenging the expectations of women. In the article, “‘Being Born A Woman’: A New Look At Edna St. Vincent Millay”, Klemans claims that the poem is “feminist.” The final couplet “I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again” (Millay) explores a lack of willingness to conform to the idea of how women should have acted. Instead of talking when the two lovers meet again, the woman plans on simply ignoring the man as if their encounter meant nothing to her. The man that is being addressed in this poem can expect no pleasantries from the speaker. Instead their encounter was purely sexual, and nothing more, no emotions attached. These lines and their accompanying explanation show that women do not need men the way men think they do, and women are not as unstable and needy as they perceived. Instead, women can function as sexual beings without having all of their actions being ruled by their impulses, thus illustrating the “feminist philosophy” (Klemans) through the idea that women do not need men and their approval, but rather they are equals and can function the same as men. Since the speaker of the poem is a woman as well, the final couplet shows that she is taking control of the relationship and that she is the one deciding that talking is not merited by their past actions. The control this woman has in the relationship also furthers the idea that this poem is ultimately feminist because it reserves the right of deciding the future of the relationship for the woman.
Additionally, the speaker’s curt words in the final couplet support the idea that the tone is sharp and looks down upon the culture’s idea of what women should be and how they should act and react. Hubbard also addresses the sexual component in her article “on ‘I Being Born a Woman’” through the idea that the woman “only submits to herself” and therefore is never controlled by a man and is instead ruled only by herself and her own desires. The lines “the poor treason / Of my stout blood against my staggering brain” (Millay) support the idea that the woman plays “both winner and loser” (Hubbard). The speaker must betray herself, thus losing, and succumb to her fleshly desires no matter what her brain is telling her in order to win by defying and showing the man that she has control and he is essentially powerless in the situation. He cannot argue her decision since he is not written into the poem, thus rendering him silent. However, arguably, since the speaker never falls under the control of a man, the woman always wins in the end and never truly plays the part of the loser, because the speaker can only lose if she succumbs to her feelings and relies on the man for approval and her emotional stability. This argument supports the thesis because it shows that while men expect women to submit to their authority, women are actually the ones holding the control over man and using it for themselves. The woman is able to walk away in the end leaving the man behind, showing that a woman may exist and thrive outside of man’s mold for her.
Not only does Hubbard argue that the poem is fundamentally about women taking control, but Dr. Ghani draws influence from Hubbard in her paper, “Feminine Revolt and Self-Expression: A Study of Selected Poems By Edna St. Vincent Millay” because she also believes that the speaker in the poem does not rely on “sexual coyness.” Ghani claims that the speaker does not associate sexual appeal with “youth and beauty” but rather quotes Hubbard in stating that “the body’s ruin as its badge of sexual authority…” This line illustrates that both authors believe that the sexual freedom that Millay wrote into her poems and gave to her female speaker was what gave the speaker authority. It had nothing to do with their age or appearance, but rather their rights to decide upon their own actions. The woman in “I being born a woman” plays not only the “distressed” mistress but also the “frenzied” and the “urged and undone” (Millay). Therefore the woman takes on numerous roles, supporting Hubbard’s idea that the woman is both the winner and the loser. The speaker is “distressed” and “urged and undone” showing how the lack of physical contact has left her. However, the use of the word “frenzied” illustrates that she also has control over her partner despite being out of control herself.
The final couplet then shows the speaker regaining control of herself once again after she is no longer “distressed” thus showing that while she did allow herself to submit to her own desires, in the end she overcame and took control of the situation. The speaker’s triumph shows that despite the woman momentarily proving the man’s predisposed ideas about her, she quickly overcame them and proved him wrong in the end. This provides an essence of trickery and mockery towards the cultural ideals of the time. All of these authors and their explanations and analyses of “I, being born a woman” support the ideas in the thesis that women are able to exist and be outside of man’s and the culture’s constructed views of them. The poem not only becomes condescending towards the views of the culture, specifically in the final couplet, but also creates a sense of mockery of the expectations of women. The speaker ultimately gets the last laugh in the poem and gets away with using the man for her own gratification.
Arguably, Millay’s representation of oppression is still valid in some senses. Despite being one of the most developed countries, the United States still lacks gender equality; women are expected to conduct themselves in specific ways and are often shamed for their desires or experiences. Ultimately, it will take generations with the aspiration to eradicate gender inequality for it to truly happen.