Poetry Analysis: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is Not All”

millay

LOVE IS NOT ALL (SONNET XXX)

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

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.

One of my guilty pleasures is Chris Brown and Jordan Spark’s “No Air.”  I have many an embarrassing memory of my best friend and I blasting this cheesy, over-the-top love song during senior year.  Devastated that she lost the “love of her life,” Sparks opens the song with crooning melodrama: “Losing you,” she insists, “is like living in a world with no air.”  

But is it?  

19th century poetry and sappy top 40 love songs tend to exaggerate the role of love in our lives.  This idealized vision of love is just what modernist poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is rallying against in her lovely, understated poem “Love is Not All.”  Though Millay uses none of the unorthodox pyrotechnics of her modernist contemporaries, she still manages to undermine convention, albeit in a more traditional style. In this Shakespearean-style sonnet, Millay resorts to none of the time-worn cliches about love and instead subverts such familiar platitudes:

…it is not meat or drink

Nor slumber, nor roof from rain;

Nor 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” (Millay 1-6).

Here, the profusion of negation suggests Millay is more interested in revealing what love is not than in defining exactly what love is. The poem’s very title- “Love is Not All”- refuses to offer a concrete definition, only explaining love in terms of what it is not.

For Millay, love is not adequately described by the banalities of cheesy Hallmark cards and rom-coms. The objects Millay chooses to name in her illumination of what love is not- “meat”/“drink”/“slumber”/“roof”-represent necessities essential for physical survival. Though gushy love songs may proclaim that “love lifts us up where we belong,” Millay reveals such hyperbolic language a farce: however giddy and exciting the experience of love, it can never, she argues, sustain us. And despite popular claims to the contrary, love is not redemptive: it cannot reawaken our “breath” or heal a “fractured” bone. We can be pretty certain that Millay would disagree with the Beatles’ sweet-if naïve-assertion that “all you need is love.”

So is Millay just a coldly rational, love-bashing cynic? Interestingly, no. In the tradition of the Petrarchian sonnet, “Love is Not All” sees a major shift at its 8th line:

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” (Millay 7-8).

So though Millay aims to refute the prevailing misconception that love is “all”, she is not negating its importance all together. Sure, love might not bring a drowning man to shore but it can still provide solace in a lonely world.

 Millay’s problem, then, is not with love itself but its exaggerated importance in our minds.  You can profess genuine, profound love for another, she’d say, but please, for the love of god, don’t  claim that living without them is like “living in a world with no air.”

 

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