The poet reached the peak of her powers in this sequence of fifty-two sonnets which deliver much unhappy wisdom on the perplexities of a failed love affair closely resembling that of Millay and Dillon. The first and last sonnets allude to the myth of Endymion and Selene, a goddess who falls in love with a handsome mortal. The poet’s persona suffers love in the ancient way, on a grand scale like that of Cleopatra or Cressida.
The central problem, though, is as modern as it is ancient. The beloved defies possession even as the lover must possess. The poet’s persona feels condemned to “drag [Love’s] noisy chain” even as she longs to bind her beloved to her. Yet “what you cannot do,” she tells him, “Is bow me down.” In the twentieth sonnet the poet states it another way by declaring that beauty cannot be bought, even if it has been paid for. Likening erotic love of beauty to the freedom of a bird’s flight, she reminds lovers that the turtle dove has never even heard of possessive love.
Thus these lovers begin their affair in freedom, “not in a ring” or a marriage vow to be forever faithful. In an unforgettable vignette, Millay depicts giving her love as generously as a country girl carries apples in her skirt and gives them all to her beau. The poet extols the ecstasy of love’s consummation. “Heart,” she encourages her lover,
have no pity on this house of...
(The entire section is 445 words.)