Themes and Meanings

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That love poems, including sonnets, delve deeply into the poet’s personal and intimate thoughts is an inherent aspect of the form. Indeed, lyric poetry in general has traditionally been an avenue for expressing a subjective thought or feeling. The Italian poet Petrarch, in the fourteenth century, developed the sonnet style now called the Italian sonnet; English poets, including Sir Thomas Wyatt and William Shakespeare, later adapted and altered the form. Within this long tradition, Edna St. Vincent Millay relies upon some very traditional heritage while creating her own particular use of the form.

As a sonneteer, Millay dramatizes love in fresh and personal ways. Millay’s candle “burns at both ends” (as she once wrote), and this light brings myriad reactions to love in her sonnets. Her first publication in 1917, Renascence and Other Poems, featured sonnets as well as the primary lyrics. This tendency continued, as Millay included sonnets in most of her major works.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink” was a part of Fatal Interview (1931) and it may be an expression to one of her lovers. Edmund Wilson and Elizabeth Atkins maintain that, although this may be the case, the poem seems to be “the perfect expression of Millay’s sentiments to her husband, Eugen Boissevain.”

Some critics suggest that the octave represents sexual love, perhaps since the metaphors are so physical and the repetition of sinking and rising may allude to erection. The second portion of the octave may refer to Eugen’s care of Millay during her various illnesses. The contrast of love with physical problems (“thickened lung,” “fractured bone”) is a departure from the metaphor of the first four lines, if one accepts Wilson’s and Atkins’s position, and could be construed as literal in meaning.

On the other hand, one might take the position that the second part of the octave is simply an extension of the earlier metaphors. This explication seems in keeping with the original problem that “Love is not all” and the idea that Millay wishes to extend her statement to a host of physical possibilities. This wide range builds intensity toward the irony to be delivered in the close of the octave.

To clarify the meaning of the sestet, one might conclude that Millay has reached a maturity in her life and writing. Many critics comment upon Millay’s gradual growth toward more general themes and her departure from highly personal and intimate comments as she approaches universals; this may be endlessly argued. The literal meaning, if one assumes this posture, is a caustic, realistic view of life; one may be forced to give up “valued love” in search of either mental peace or a physical need, such as food. The mature Millay often writes in a similar surrendering fashion in her poetry. Life, she has discovered, is rife with the uncertainty of commitment. This position is supported by other sonnets in Fatal Interview; particularly noteworthy in this respect are the sonnets from this period that appear in the Collected Sonnets (1941). It is this understanding of the uncertainties of love and life that enriches the later poems of Millay.

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