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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

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 bone:Shake it with dancing, break it down with joy.No man holds mortgage on it; it is your own . . .

Millay, though, was wise enough to understand that Time is an enemy, whether by making the hours of love fly by, or by lengthening the day of grief, or by sapping beauty and strength away. She faces the facts in these, perhaps her most poignant lines:

Love is not all; it is not meat or drinkNor slumber nor a roof against the rain,Nor yet a floating spar to men that sinkAnd rise and sink and rise and sink again . . .

There may come a time when love either turns false or grows cold. Millay’s philosophy of love offers a remedy for the anguish of lost love. The broken heart is a heart no more. It can be consoled by letting go, by being relieved of care, by realizing that “the bankrupt heart is free.”

So the poet advises young lovers, in the phrase she coined, to burn their candles at both ends, so that all possible joy can be had before old age converts that unspent energy to doubts, fears, and feeble compromises.

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