This slim volume of four sonnets and nineteen other brief lyrics overturned the tone of high seriousness in Millay’s early poem “Renascence” and delighted a broader range of readers. The poet’s new, plucky persona pricks the pretensions of stodgy moralists by ridiculing domesticity, remorse, and what she calls “pious planning.”
In “The Penitent” she reconsiders the feeling of guilt brought on by a little sin and concludes that, if her sorrow is not genuine, she “might as well be glad!” In “The Merry Maid” she finds compensation for a broken heart in being freed from care. She hungers for a lover “wanton, light and false” but gives fair warning that she would leave him immediately except that she admires his beauty. “Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!” she declares. “Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.”
There is much more than impudence in Millay’s few figs. She justifies her wantonness as the psychological result of best wishes bestowed upon her by parents with contradictory personalities. “What should I be but a prophet and a liar,” she asks, “Whose mother was a leprechaun, whose father was a friar?” Hers would be of no common sort but a dual personality, “a harlot and a nun” combined into one. She strikes a note heard in later works as well. “What should I be but just what I am?” Here, in modern dress, reappears the high Romantic insistence on the autonomy of the individual following his or her own intuition.
Millay works a twist on the ancient poetical theme carpe diem. In her treatment, a woman—-be she a merry maid, a penitent, a singing-woman, a philosopher, or the poet’s own persona—-must have the freedom and drive to seize pleasure during youth, before dreary duty and responsibility can tame her energy. Petulantly refusing to let “Sleep’s dull knife” cut her day in half, she commands Time only to take away from the other end of her life, leaving youth unhampered.