Thursday, April 14, 2011

Love is Not All by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

After the last week's poem and their headiness, their complexity, and their idiosyncrasy, there is something remarkably--I don't know, simple?--about Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love is Not All." There are no tricks here, no sprung rhythm: that's a standard Shakespearean sonnet.

I love "Love is Not All" because it is seems to me the other side of heartbrokenness, the words of a Catullus in middle age. A therapist once told me that when relationships end, we go through a process not unlike the stages of grief when someone dies: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. When hearts are broken the thought of one day finding acceptance isn't always a happy one; to feel nothing seems hardly preferable to feeling heartbroken. And yet, Millay shows us, past love has immense value even when we are long past loving.

For the first thirteen and a half lines of the sonnet, love is no grand thing: It is decidedly non-useful, as it cannot feed us, or quench our thirst, or provide shelter, or rescue, or health, and yet we destroy ourselves trying to get it:

Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

This is what the ancients meant when they said "love conquers all." And I hear echoes of it in yesterday's poem from Aiken:

...Loved without reason the laughter and flesh of a woman,
Enduring such torments to find her!

The standard Shakespearean sonnet has a two-line volta that turns everything that was said before around, or casts it at a new angle. (For example, the last line's of Shakespeare's "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun" ends, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love is rare / As any she belied with false compared.) Millay's one deviation--and a subtly devious one it is--is that she saves the reversing effect of the volta for the very end, the final six syllables: "I do not think I would." After expending so much effort diminishing love, those six words somehow manage to lift it up again.

I memorized this poem some years ago because it was a comfort to me at the end of a long relationship in which I agonized over the idea that so much time--a thing of which we have so little--had been wasted. I cannot tell you what useful remains to me of that time in my life, but I agree with Millay. I wouldn't change it.

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