Explain the irony in "Lament" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Lament” uses a widow as the speaker of the poem. The husband dies and leaves a few things behind that will be put to use by the family.  There are two children left with the widow.  The  mother must face both her grief and the continued daily needs of her children: clothing, medicine, food. 

Using a familiar idea of the making of the clothes [“The Ballad of the Harp Weaver], the narrator tells the children that she will make them clothes [jackets and trousers] from their father’s clothes. The mother’s approach involves irony throug her intention to teach the children to let go of  death. 

The man is gone so the family will make use of the things that he left behind.  The irony comes from the idea that the mother teaches the children: Do not grieve because he is gone.  That is life.  They are the living, and they must take what he has left them and find a way to live life. Yet, this is hard for anyone to forget a person that meant so much to so someone.

The poet makes use of the apostrophe--- which is the direct address from a person to someone who is absent as though they were present.  This is shown in the first line of the poem: “Listen, children.” It becomes apparent that this is first person point of view with the mother speaking directly to her children.

The author also uses repetition of the line “Life must go on.” Her purpose emphasizes that grieving serves nothing.  The children will miss their father; however, life is for the living. It is too late for the dead. 

Life must go on,

And the dead be forgotten;

Life must go on,

Though good men die;

Again the poet uses an ironic approach to the mother and widow’s actual feelings.  When she admits that she does not remember why one has to go on or let go of the good man that has died, the apparent bleak, emptiness of the widow’s loss overwhelms her.  Easy to say let go…harder to carry out.