Millay’s short poem is an excellent example of her darker verse. ‘Sorrow‘ contains beautiful examples of imagery that depict a depressed state of mind and convey Millay’s skill with language. Sorrow is the primary subject of the poem. By avoiding a direct description of what’s causing this speaker’s sorrow, Millay allows all readers to relate directly to the speaker’s description.
Sorrow Edna St. Vincent Millay Sorrow like a ceaseless rain Beats upon my heart. People twist and scream in pain, — Dawn will find them still again; This has neither wax nor wane, Neither stop nor start. People dress and go to town; I sit in my chair. All my thoughts are slow and brown: Standing up or sitting down Little matters, or what gown Or what shoes I wear.
‘Sorrow’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a deeply sad poem that explores a speaker’s depression.
The speaker spends the twelve lines of the poem outlining what feeling her sorrow is like. She has no reprieve from it, day or night, and nowhere to go that makes her feel as if there is a purpose to life. She watches people go about their lives while she remains where she is. She expresses disinterest in what she does or what she wears.
Structure and Form
‘Sorrow’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a two-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of six lines or sestets. These stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABAAAB CDCCCD. This unusual rhyme scheme draws attention to the passion with which the speaker addresses her subject matter.
Throughout this piece, Edna St. Vincent Millay makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “People twist and scream in pain, — / Dawn will find them still again.”
- Simile: occurs when the poet creates a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.” For example, “Sorrow like a ceaseless rain / Beats upon my heart.”
Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, —
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.
In the first stanza of ‘Sorrow,’ the speaker begins with a wonderfully evocative simile. She compares the feeling of rain hitting the ground to the way that sorrow beats on her heart. It is constant and without reprieve.
The next lines suggest that sorrow is something that can be expressed in full when one is alone but, when “Dawn” comes, the twisting and screaming in pain ends, and “people” are “still again.” But, for Millay’s speaker, there is no pause to her pain. There is no gaining or lessening. There is no stop or start to her suffering. The words “wax and wane” are used, suggesting the way that the moon grows and shrinks in the sky. This connects well to the image of dawn from the previous line. It suggests that time (time of day and the general passage of time) have no effect on her suffering.
People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.
In the next lines, the speaker describes how others “dress and go to town.” These are the same people who suffered through the night, screaming in pain. But, the speaker goes nowhere. Her suffering is not lightened during the day. Instead, her thoughts are weighed down by it, and she can find no relief. Her options are minimal (suggesting why she may be suffering in the first place). She can either stand up or sit down, but things are the same.
Her sorrow is so total that she has fallen into a negative thought pattern, feeling as though nothing matters in her life. The poem concludes with a resolution to her suffering. The last lines are a classic example of depressed thinking. She notes that it doesn’t matter to her what she wears from one day to the next.
The themes at work in this poem are depression and purposelessness. The speaker is suffering from both. Her undefined sorrow has made her feel as there is no point to anything she does.
The purpose is to describe what sorrow and deep depression feel like. The initial comparison to falling rain is quite evocative, suggesting that the speaker’s sorrow never ends. It is constantly barraging her heart.
The speaker is unknown. It could be Millay herself, or it could be a persona she adopted for this poem. The poem does not use too much detail. This allows any reader to place themselves in the speaker’s shoes.
The tone is resigned and depressed. The speaker doesn’t express any belief that she’s going to be able to find a way out of her depression. Instead, she feels trapped and hopeless.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sorrow’ should also consider reading some other Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. For example:
- ‘Ashes of Life’ – is told from the perspective of a speaker who has lost all touch with her own ambitions and is stuck within the monotonous rut of everyday life.
- ‘Elegy Before Death’ – is about the physical and spiritual impact of a loss and how it can and cannot change one’s world.
- ‘First Fig’ – a well-loved and often discussed poem. In it, readers can explore a symbolic depiction of sexuality and freedom.