Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900
“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 desires? Probably not. It simply means, apparently, that one pleasure is more intense than the other and that the mind is at least as important as the body in arousing and fulfilling sensual yearnings. Significantly, the word “wonderful” (4) implies a response of literal wonder, awe, and astonishment—a response that is more psychological than merely physical. The speaker effectively postpones the crucial word—“thirst” (4)—until the very end of the very last line of the first stanza so that it receives maximum emphasis.
Stanza 2 echoes the first stanza, although the emphasis in the new stanza is on eating rather than drinking. The second stanza opens somewhat surprisingly when the speaker proclaims that she “gnawed at every root” (5). The verb “gnawed” implies strong effort and even a kind of passion; it almost makes the speaker sound like an animal. The effect is much fiercer than if she had said (for instance), “I picked from many trees.” It is partly because the speaker’s appetites seem so fierce, in fact, that her eventual dismissal of mere physical satisfaction seems so striking. She is not by nature inclined to moderation or self-discipline, and so when she does say that thirst is more satisfying than drinking and that hunger is more fulfilling than eating, these claims are all the more striking and impressive. The structure of the second stanza mirrors the structure of the first, and once again the crucial word—“want” (8)—is saved for the very end so that it receives special stress.
Stanza 3 immediately departs from the structures used in the first two stanzas, a fact that implies its significance as the final section of the poem. No longer does the speaker emphasize her own actions; instead, she now instructs others how to act. No longer does she present herself as a consumer of drink and food; instead, she now seems to dismiss actual consumption altogether. She thinks that grapes are most appropriate to those who make wine and that beans are most appropriate to those who sell them. The speaker no longer seems interested in food and drink. She will content herself with her “thirst” and her “hunger” (12).
A poem as apparently simple and straightforward as this one doesn’t appear to require much extended analysis. Some of the sound effects are noteworthy, as in the assonance of “Feed” and “bean” in line 9 or the alliteration of “lie” and “lean” in line 11. In shape and structure, the poem is highly balanced, and in its phrasing it is exceptionally simple and clear. The speaker deals with very basic needs, and she does so in language that is almost wholly uncomplicated. The brevity of each stanza, of each line, and of the entire poem itself is appropriate to the straightforward simplicity of the poem’s “message.” The speaker makes her points briefly, abruptly, and clearly.
The poem’s title—“Feast”—can seem ironic in view of the work’s final two lines. Although much of the poem describes literal physical feasting, the rest of the poem suggests that the most satisfying feasting involves the mind and imagination rather than simply the body. The word “Feast,” as a title, can be read both as a descriptive noun and as an injunction or command, but ultimately the poem suggests that mental feasts are more satisfying than those that merely involve the flesh.