At last we move forward—Years of Grace takes us to 1931, and for the first time in many months, I glance at poetry from a specific year, as part of my curiosity about the parallels (or lack thereof) in art from a given point in time. We are in luck with 1931: among the worthy publications of note is a collection of sonnets written by one of my favorite poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay. The collection, entitled Fatal Interview, chronicles the rise and fall of a love affair, expressing Millay’s greatest hopes, worst fears, and most lingering of regrets. One of the sonnets in particular, Sonnet XXX, is moderately well-known: I taught it on more than one occasion, and have heard a recording of Millay declaiming it in a very stirring voice. Below, find the sonnet, and beyond it my reflections:
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 can not 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 pain 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 well may be. I do not think I would.
I think this sonnet holds in tension two ideas that are hardly original to Millay here—the first, that love is a trivial emotion that is hardly worth all the attention and praise lavished on it, and the second, that love is somehow more enduring (after all) than anything else on Earth. I’m sure of the first (the sonnet is, after all, pretty direct about it), but the second’s a matter for dispute, I think. I’ll try to say why I see it in the poem later on.
What “sells” this sonnet for me, and has me convinced it’s one of the better sonnets ever written by an American (the Italians and the English invented the form, and are generally best at it, I think), is Millay’s skill with words. Look at the power of the first four lines: Millay goes right after love, and the punch of the lines is in their simplicity—36 words, of which 32 are one syllable. The strength of a line like “Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink”, is in how swiftly it gets past your defenses with good sturdy Anglo-Saxon words that don’t have the beauty of some longer Latin-based compounds, but make up for it in being direct. Even more powerful, I think, is the rhythmic bobbing of “sink and rise and sink and rise and sink again”, where you feel the drowning man’s struggle as the voice rises and falls with the words (it is no accident, I think, that “rise” sounds uplifting, and “sink” plummets in tone). I’m overanalyzing this, but it’s because I really love how Millay constructs the poem out of the simplest possible language.
This is not always her approach: I’ve read plenty of what are, frankly, mediocre sonnets by Millay in which she loads down the poem with classical allusions and darling little flowery phrases. This kind of simplicity is what she does when she’s at her best, and comes (I suspect) from really serious feeling. At the end of this sonnet, she looks her lover squarely in the eye and says that she might easily trade all memory of their love, if she could, for something real and reliable like food or safety. And certainly the sonnet leading up to that moment makes that sentiment plausible. But it deflates suddenly with the understated line “I do not think I would.” The tide of emotion she’s restraining there feels enormous to me. Maybe I read too much into the poem, but I think Millay is screaming inside by that point—she wants to tell him that despite the utter helplessness she feels in trying to love him, despite her knowledge that it can all evaporate tomorrow and that she can be left behind, completely forgotten, there is nothing in the world that could tear her away from him. I recognize the poem can be read differently—that Millay is genuinely uncertain. That she loves him but she does not know if it is a love that could withstand the kind of stress that really exists in the world. I don’t think so: I think the fact that she expresses the sentiment so late in the poem, and with such reserve, is her way of undercutting the sonnet—executing “the turn” that poets put at the end of many sonnets, like Shakespeare admitting that despite his mistress’s eyes being nothing like the sun, he finds her more rare and lovely than anyone he’s ever known. But what do you think—am I reading this right?