Millay demonstrates her linguistic prowess as she artfully dodges around admitting her romantic feelings in Loving you less than life, a little less. She never fully admits her love, but repeats and circles around the idea many times.
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She purposely makes the poem complex through linguistic manipulation, suggesting that she doesn’t want to openly admit her feelings, trying to hide her love altogether. Be it from embarrassment, or simply not wanting to say that she loves this person, Millay uses this poem to cleverly beat around the bush, never fully admitting her love, only implying it heavily. A shy love poem, but a love poem nonetheless.
Millay employs the Petrarchan sonnet form, with her poem measuring 14 lines. There is a classic aabbaabbaabbcc rhyme scheme, with the final couplet marking the poem as a Petrarchan sonnet structure. Millay uses this form because the sonnet is intertwined with archetypes of love poetry, this being the most common theme discussed within the structure. The linking rhymes throughout can be understood as a representation of the lovers, Millay linking herself and her love through his paired rhyme. This is carried further within the final couplet, the structure exuding a sense of romantic pairing.
One of the key techniques Millay employs within the poem is the manipulation of syntax. This poem discusses love, with the poet trying to avoid outright saying that she loves someone. To do this, Millay twists the syntax of her lines, ensuring that it must be read multiple times carefully to work out exactly what she is trying to say. Her lines are twisting over each other, Millay trying to obscure the meaning of Loving you less than life, a little less through his changing syntax.
Another technique Millay uses is enjambment. This technique goes hand in hand with the manipulation of syntax, with Millay allowing her lines to quickly flow from one to another. This loose flow of poetry means that ideas become connected across different lines, a web of words linking ideas in odd ways. The balance of changing syntax and enjambment successfully hides Millay’s emotions under layers of linguistic games. For Millay, her love is not something she wants to openly admit, displayed through the techniques she has chosen to employ that attempt to obscure this fact.
Loving you less than life, a little less
Than bitter-sweet upon a broken wall
Or brush-wood smoke in autumn, I confess
I cannot swear I love you not at all.
The poem beings with the central theme explored within the first word, ‘Loving’. Millay instantly centers the poem on her emotions, allowing the reader an insight into what Loving you less than life, a little less is going to discuss. Yet, this is perhaps the most direct moment of the whole poem, this providing a springboard for Millay to use to go and talk about tangents, never really revealing her true feelings.
The second word similarly cuts to the heart of the poem, the pronoun ‘you’ takes the central focus, this being a love poem directed at one person. These first two words are incredibly important in understanding the whole poem, as they give the reader a clue to decipher Millay’s ramblings.
The caesura within the first line is the first sign that Millay is going to begin to move away from her central theme. ‘Loving you’ becomes all of a sudden ‘a little less’. The use of the caesura makes ‘a little less’ a subordinate clause, suggesting Millay has just quickly bolted this on to ensure that her original comment doesn’t seem too strong. She is essentially covering her tracks linguistically, not wanting to show her lover all her cards yet.
The emotions she discusses are summarised succinctly int he second and third lines, the ‘bitter-sweet’ nature of love being explored by Millay. The elusive nature of ‘smoke’, slipping through the poet’s fingers is a reflection of love, Millay not quite being able to pin the concept down into one form.
The fourth line conveys the first double negative statement within the poem. Millay states that she ‘cannot swear I love you not at all’, the use of a cryptic syntax structure ensuring that this comment is a little hard to read. In this statement, ‘cannot’ is canceled out by ‘not’, the double negative actually suggesting that this statement means that Millay ‘swears’ that she loves this man a little bit. But of course, the poet would never want to openly admit that, so she hides her true feelings in layers of linguistic circles
For there is that about you in this light—
A yellow darkness, sinister of rain—
Which sturdily recalls my stubborn sight
To dwell on you, and dwell on you again.
After this first confusing comment, Millay then moves to discuss the characteristics of her lover, specifically his ‘light’. The double hype after ‘light’ and ‘rain’ add long pauses to the poem at these sections, almost as if Millay is directly stuttering or stopping and taking time to think about her love. The connotations of ‘light’ link the lover to ideas of happiness and joy, Millay clearly using her muse as inspiration for the confusion yet glee-filled Loving you less than life, a little less
The double repetition of ‘dwell on you’ present’s Millay fascination with her love. Her narrative is cyclic as it constantly moves away and then back to her lover, the theme of love never escaping, merely being hidden from, Millay’s poetry. She cannot stop thinking about her lover, the length suggested by ‘dwell’ indicating that she often spends large amounts of time simply thinking of them.
And I am made aware of many a week
I shall consume, remembering in what way
Your brown hair grows about your brow and cheek
And what divine absurdities you say:
The idea that she ‘consumes’ the time spent ‘remembering’ her lover indicates that love her made itself a large part of her life. It has ‘consumed’ her from within, the constant attention she pays to recall her lover metaphorically eating through her ‘week’.
Yet, Millay always remains at a passive distance. It is never the poet actively acknowledging that she is thinking about her love, instead, it acts upon her, she is ‘made aware’, the emotion being separated linguistically from her. This is another way she distances herself from love, the constant use of passive sentences a barrier to admitting the truth.
Till all the world, and I, and surely you,
Will know I love you, whether or not I do.
The final two lines are stuttered, Millay finally almost admitting that she loves this person. The use of caesura reflects this deliberate pause, almost as if Millay is wrestling with her own words, not wanting them to escape. ‘World, and I, and surely you’, syntactically places ‘you’ last, also indicating that the person she loves is more important than both herself and the ‘world’. Millay both reveals and obscures her love through these little linguistic tricks.
Finally, the rhyming couplet draws a connection between ‘you’ and ‘I do’. The classic marriage acceptance phrase, ‘I do’ is directly linked to her lover, ‘you’, cementing the fact that Millay really does love this person, even if she struggles to admit it.