How poetry works: two love poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950) was an openly bisexual American poet and playwright who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 and was the third woman to win the award for poetry. She was also known for her feminist activism.

It was said she wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.

These are two of them.

I, Being Born a Woman, and Distressed

I, being born a woman, and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, this poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

The Sonnet is a 14 line poem and has been popular with poets for more than 500 years. Shakespeare wrote 152 of them. They come in slightly different forms. This first one comes in two parts: an octave (the first eight lines) followed by a sestet (the last six lines). It’s held together by the rhyme structure. (abbabba dedede).

The two parts of the poem deal with two different, but related, ideas. The structure of the ideas and the song is reflected by the rhyme structure

The poem is addressed to a lover to whom the poet says that because she is a woman making love leaves her “distressed”. The very presence of her lover and his “weight upon my breast” makes it easy for her to understand her sexual frenzy and to disregard her intellectual response, leaving her “undone, possessed”. This section of the poem is about poet’s disconnect between her mind and her body.

The second section of the poem, the sestet, introduces a new idea, the idea that this sexual frenzy is a “poor treason”. The poet says her lover should not to be deceived by this poor treason: “Think not…. I shall remember you with love.”

It is usual, in a sonnet, for the last two lines to be the killer lines. This one is no exception.  The poet’s scorn is withering, let me make it plain, she says,

I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

In effect, she is saying to her lover that the frenzy of sexual pleasure is really not worth talking about.

So, it’s not really a love poem, it’s almost an anti-love poem. The poet writes about love and sex from a perspective that would have been quite revolutionary (and shocking) in the 1920s and this is probably one of the reasons why Millay was regarded as one of the great feminist writers of the early 20th century.

The second sonnet is different in form, tone and content. With sonnets, it always helps to start by looking at the rhyme scheme. It gives you a clue to the way the the poet has constructed the poem.

In this case, the rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg.  This is the form that Shakespeare used most frequently, three sets of four lines or quatrains and then a concluding couplet. In this case, you can expect three ideas and some kind of killer idea at the end.

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.

In the first four lines, the poet begins by defining love by what it isn’t. In particular, it isn’t enough to keep you alive, to keep you afloat when you’re sinking. In the next four lines, the poet turns that idea around saying “many a man is making friends with death
..for lack of love”.  The paradox is that while love is not enough to keep you alive, lack of it may kill you.

In the next quatrain, the poet reflects on her own condition and how that  “pinned down by need”  or some other dire extremity she might  “sell your love for peace.”

And then, standing in contrast to the whole poem, the final beautifully lyrical line. Notice the beautifully timed pause in the middle of the line with the full stop. It turns the whole poem round.

It may well be. I do not think I would.