The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink” is a sonnet with a traditional structure of octave and sestet in its fourteen lines. Its focus is a personal message addressing the question of the depth, importance, and transitory nature of love. The reader may assume that the poet speaks directly to him or her concerning a message that is both emotionally and intellectually “suffered”—as traditionally expressed in a sonnet. Akin to much sonneteering, this poem bears no title except a number in both its original publication and in its collected version. Thus it is referred to by its first line, a practice dating back to Renaissance times.

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The “love” discussed in this sonnet is not dramatically different from that in many Millay works, nor is the love unique in the long tradition of sonnet-making. It is partly the technique used that makes this poem singular and oft-repeated. The stark language and bold metaphors create an ambivalent tone and an uneasy resolution to the sonnet.

In the first six lines, the poet provides a negative definition of what love is not, ending with a transition that is somewhat startling: Without love, one “is making friends with death.” The change causes the reader to stop suddenly to contemplate the clipped irony of the close of the octave. The lines seem almost final, as though the poet has abandoned the traditional format and divulged the sonnet’s solution before the proper moment.

The sestet, or last six lines, reflects a new line of thought. The poet begins to wonder whether, in spite of the fact that lack of love can be related to death, she might trade love for life’s necessities. If her situation became bad enough, she wonders if she would sell love for mental peace or trade love’s memory for food. The sonnet ends on a surprisingly ambiguous note expressing deep doubts; the poet can say, “I do not think I would,” but she cannot say with certainty that she would not.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink” is tied closely to the revitalization of the sonnet observed in the work of nineteenth century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Browning and Millay share the limelight in returning the form to its traditional content—love. This focus is reflected in Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). She not only revitalizes the intimate, personal direction of the love sonnet but also experiments with format, taking new liberties with old devices. “How do I love thee?” introduces a sonnet (Sonnet 43) by stating the problem quickly, in half a line, with the solution occupying most of the sonnet’s remaining lines.

“Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink” opens in the anticipation that its format will conform to the traditional sonnet schematic, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter having a rhyme pattern suggesting compliance with the traditional Petrarchan scheme (that is, octave and sestet) or relying upon the English (Shakespearean) use of three quatrains and a couplet.

Millay, however, chooses pieces of both traditions. She employs an octave and sestet in content, wherein the problem (statement) occurs in the first eight lines and the solution (resolution) occurs in the last six lines. Her innovation is seen in the rhyme pattern, wherein Millay uses the Shakespearean pattern (abab, cdcd) instead of the rigorous abba, abba of the Petrarchan form. Flexibility in sound is gained by creating a fresh approach to the older Italian form.

In content, Millay strikes out rapidly (as sonneteers must) to make her point. Her negative metaphors (“not meat nor drink”) create the illusion that she is suggesting that love is unimportant or not vital to life. She elongates the negative by forging more metaphors and encompassing essentials of life—food, shelter, and slumber.

In line 3, she begins a metaphor whose repetition strongly suggests the boredom of a life in which men “sink and rise and sink and rise again.” Lines 5 and 6 continue the metaphor along the lines of illness and accident. Here too the author suggests that love is useless in any healing process.

It is line 7 that introduces the juxtaposition of an irony that negates all previous statements. Indeed, Millay clearly admonishes the reader that love may fail to feed, shelter, or heal; nevertheless, unless one attempts to love, one is flirting with death. The insertion of “even as I speak” emphasizes the urgency toward which she tries to persuade her reader. The octave closes with a seeming solution: love or die.

Opening the sestet, line 9 plods slowly and rhythmically to set up a dichotomy typical of much of Millay’s work. The use of the expletive “It may well be” (a grammatical device delaying the real subject of the sentence) is an intentional delay tactic used by the poet to suggest the doubt that exists somewhere deep in her thought. The repetition of this phrase in line 14 reinforces the delay, the doubt, and the possibility that one may have to trade the best of love for another way of life, another kind of peace.

This technique, the use of a surprise ending that capitalizes on irony, exists in many of Millay’s sonnets, especially the earlier offerings in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923). This trait is one reason her sonnets remain interesting and fresh through the years.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Freedman, Diane P., ed. Millay at One Hundred: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2002.

Nierman, Judith. Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.

Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.

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