The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.