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Sonnet: Love Is Not All -- Edna St Vincent Millay

My thanks are due to Rajat Sharma for introducing me to this poem:
(Poem #860) Sonnet: Love Is Not All
 Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
 Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
 Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
 and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
 Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
 Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
 Yet many a man is making friends with death
 even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
 It well may be that in a difficult hour,
 pinned down by need and moaning for release
 or nagged by want past resolution's power,
 I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
 Or trade the memory of this night for food.
 It may well be. I do not think I would.
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
"Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes,
then burn the ashes.  That's our official slogan."
        -- Ray Bradbury, "Fahrenheit 451"

I read Bradbury's classic cautionary tale long before I had even heard of
Millay, but I assumed (given the august company she was placed in) that she
was a writer of note. Unfortunately, the first few poems of hers that I came
across were remarkably unremarkable, and so I added Millay to my list of
Poets Whom Other People Like.

That categorization has changed, though, and I think it was today's poem
which changed it. The tinge of desperation that colours even her most
romantic offerings is present, of course, but there's something else as
well: a compression of thought and word and deed, a _concentration_
reminiscent of no one so much as the early Dylan Thomas. The relentless flow
of metaphors in the opening three lines, the density of syllables in the
wonderful third couplet, the desolation of the sestet - they're all handled
with consummate craftsmanship, and they come together to form a whole that
unequivocally _works_.

The twist right at the end is typical. The lines preceding it are dark, yes,
but where some writers would have been cynical, Millay's tone is one of
experience refined by sorrow. She knows first-hand what love can and cannot
do, and that knowledge makes her final, defiant affirmation of its
importance all the more poignant and powerful. Love is not everything, but
it does not need to be; what it is, is enough.


[Minstrels Links]

Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Poem #34, First Fig
Poem #49, The Unexplorer
Poem #108, The Penitent
Poem #317, Inland
Poem #590, Sonnet XLIII
Poem #604, Euclid Alone Has Looked On Beauty Bare
Poem #817, Grown-up

Walt Whitman:
Poem #54, When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer
Poem #157, O Captain! My Captain!
Poem #268, The Dalliance of the Eagles
Poem #246, I Hear America Singing
Poem #445, A Noiseless Patient Spider
Poem #498, The World Below the Brine
Poem #508, I saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

33 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

SFX106 said...

great poem

sandi_ordinario said...

This is Millay's take on love. She is trying to be practical
in so many lines on what love is NOT. In essence she is saying
love cannot fulfill the basic necessities of life like food,
housing. Neither can it be a spiritual buoy for the lost and
sinking which of course I tend to disagree. According to her,
Love cannot also heal or alleviate bodily diseases or
discomfort although some men would rather consider death than
live without love. After these contemplative considerations,
Edna starts to reason out what possible things might make her
compromise her love. Certain things such as being "pinned down
by need, moaning for release (gasping for air could be another way to
describe it)" or succumbing to want (temptation, perhaps) beyond
her powers to resist. She might give up love for peace,
or exchange the memory of what she and her lover had just
experienced for some physical necessity and yet...maybe not at all.
The last line gives love's lasting attributes examined under the
harsh light of reality some hope.




clark2tc said...

Accuracy is important! Line #10 should read:

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Line #14 should read: It well may be. I do not think I would.

C. Clark

Ben Belser said...

about your comment on love as a spiritual buoy in "love is not all"--
edna st. vincent millay is not saying that love is not a spiritual
support. far from it. like the other lines before this one, she is
merely pointing out that it will not save the life of a drowning man.
that is, just as it can't give you food or water or shelter, it can't
keep you alive in other terrestrial ways either.

in fact, the poem continually hints at the fact that, if it has any
meaning at all, love is spiritual or extra-terrestrial altogether--
that it floats above the bedrock necessities.


Nachum35 said...

This has been one of my favorite poems since I first read it as a teenager.
I always imagined it to be some older and wiser persons explanation to
someone my age on the danger in pinning all of ones hopes on love, and also on the
joys and terrible agony of giving ones self over to it.

Aaron L. Miller

Tandy Cronyn said...

You have a misprint in the text of the Millay sonnet, "Love is not
all" posted on your website. The last line has inverted two words:
it should read "It well may be" , rather than "it may well be".

Tandy Cronyn

Derik Ha said...

Lick it, "Love is Not All"!!!!!!!!!!!
How do you like them limons!!!!!
< I'm Rick James, BIIIIOOOOTCH!!!!!!!!!!!!>

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Anonymous said...

I really don't get this poem, I think things in life should be simple.. STUPID SCHOOL PROJECTS!

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Anonymous said...

This poem may be confusing but it is an enjoyment to english literature(:

Anonymous said...

this poem should not have been as long is it is, because the title says it all. hard poem to write 4 pages on for school.... >.<

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