‘Ashes of Life’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a short three stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains conform to a consistent rhyming pattern of abab cdcd efef. This piece was first published in Millay’s collection, Renascence and Other Poems, in 1917.
Summary of Ashes of Life
The poem begins with the speaker stating that “Love” has left her and in it’s wake is the inescapable sameness of the days. She no longer knows how to live her life and must force herself to eat and start her day. As soon as she is awake she is ready for night to fall, but when she finally gets in bed, she is unable to sleep. This pattern is repeating itself over and over.
In the second stanza the speaker states how she no longer knows what she is supposed to do everyday, and that anything she does attempt to do, she gets bored of quickly. She feels as if there is no point to finishing anything she starts.
Finally, the narrator describes how her neighbors are spying on her and hoping to find out what happened in her life. She feels a deep depression about the state of the world she is living in. She does not want to have to deal with “to-morrow and to-morrow.”
Analysis of Ashes of Life
Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike;
Eat I must, and sleep I will, — and would that night were here!
But ah! — to lie awake and hear the slow hours strike!
Would that it were day again! — with twilight near!
In the first stanza of ‘Ashes of Life’ the speaker states the main problem which is haunting and disrupting the patterns of her life. It is the fact that “Love has gone.” The reader does not know at this point, nor at any point in the poem, what exactly happened to the speaker. Whether a lover has died, or only left, or what came between the two of them.
It is not only the fact that the speaker has lost her love, but the resulting impact of that loss. All the days that she is living are “all alike.” She follows the same routine every morning and night. The speaker gets up and makes herself eat, and then finds herself once more ready to sleep, wishing that night would come more quickly. This is a clear sign that the speaker is in the deep throws of depression, wishing for any escape she can get from the monotony, and emotions of her real life.
She desires sleep all through her waking hours and when it is time to rest she is unable to. She lies awake and listens to “the slow hours strike.” The narrator is unable to find the relief that she is so desperately craving. The last lines provide a reversal of her previous state of mind. She now wants nothing more than for it to be “day again—with twilight near!”
Love has gone and left me and I don’t know what to do;
This or that or what you will is all the same to me;
But all the things that I begin I leave before I’m through, —
There’s little use in anything as far as I can see.
The second stanza of ‘Ashes of Life’ begins with the same six opening lines as the first. “Love has gone and left me,” and in this instance, the speaker is highlighting the fact that she doesn’t “know what to do” with her life. The fundamentals of her daily routine and emotional actions have changed. While the speaker does not seem to mourn the actual loss of this person in her life as she states that, “what you will is all the same to me,” she does fret over how she will spend her days.
Whenever she starts something she “leave[s] before [she’s] through.” She seems to be quite impatient and disinterested in the things that she might have been concerned with before this relationship. The speaker states that as she is working on something, whatever that may be, she stops because he does not see the point. She feels as if there” is little use in anything as far as [she] can see.”
Love has gone and left me, — and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse, —
And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
There’s this little street and this little house.
The first line of the final stanza begins the same way as the previous two stanzas have, with the phrase, “Love has gone and left me.” In this instance she continues on to describe how her neighbors, curious about her life and what happened to her, come to “knock and borrow.” They check in on her, hoping, through the crack in her door, or by looking over her shoulder, to gather some knowledge of what is going on.
While she is bothered on all sides, “life goes on forever.” There is nothing she can do to stop the progression of time and it seems as if she is unable to regain her place in it. The fact that she has more life ahead of her is more irritating and than thrilling. She dreads the monotony of every day, and the day after that.
All she sees for herself in the future are endlessly repetitive days on “this little street and [in] this little house.”
About Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892. She was raised, along with her two sisters, by a single mother, from whom she learned self sufficiency and gained an appreciation for art. She became involved in writing poetry at a young age and was awarded a scholarship to Vassar College where she became involved in theatre. While there she continued to write and had a number of relationships with several women. She published her first book in the year of her graduation, Renascence and Other Poems. In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain who gave up his own career to manage Millay’s literary one.
She would become one of the most respected poets in the United States and would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her collection of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Her popularity stemmed from both her remarkably crafted sonnets and her bohemian lifestyle, including her political stances, and open relationships. Millay died in 1950 at the age of 58.