“Feast,” by the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), is typical of Millay’s best-known writings in several respects, including its clear, simple language, its relative brevity, and its strong, assertive voice. It is not surprising, for instance, that the first word of the poem is “I” and that this word is used so often throughout the text. Although it is rarely a good idea to assume that the speaker of a poem is necessarily the poet, Millay loved to create speakers (often women speakers) who had strong opinions and who felt no hesitation in expressing them. The speaker of “Feast” is precisely such a person and thus resembles Millay herself.
The opening line suggests the speaker’s strong sensual appetites; she does not apologize for them. The fact that she drinks “at every vine” (1) is significant. The effect would be significantly different if “pond” or “fountain” were substituted for “vine,” or if she had simply said “at many vines.” The phrase “at every vine” (emphasis added) suggests not so much a desire to satisfy basic needs as it suggests a yearning for strong (even extreme) sensations involving physical and emotional stimulation and even intoxication.
The shift to line 2—“The last was like the first”—thus comes as a bit of a shock. Just when we might have begun to assume that the speaker is a hedonist interested only in constant stimulation, we discover that her repeated indulgence in wine disappoints and/or bores her. The poem’s second sentence is as brief, abrupt, and emphatic as the first. The second sentence undercuts or modifies the first, but both assertions are strongly stated.
Lines 3 and 4 help resolve the tension created by the opposition between lines 1 and 2. Desire (the speaker has come to realize) is ultimately more pleasing—and more pleasantly enduring—than the momentary satisfaction of a physical yearning. The pleasure provided by imagination and anticipation is more pleasurable than the pleasure of a bodily desire fulfilled. Does this mean, therefore, that the speaker plans to completely abandon efforts to satisfy her...
(The entire section is 900 words.)