‘The Penitent‘ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a three stanza poem that is structured with a consistent rhyme scheme of ABCBDDDB, with varying end rhymes, throughout the entire piece. Additionally, a reader will find that Millay makes use of internal rhymes, such as that located in the third line of the poem; in which “room” and “gloom” rhyme. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Penitent
“The Penitent” by Edna St. Vincent Millay describes the internal turmoil of a narrator who wants to feel sorrow for a sin she has committed.
Millay begins this poem by describing a room in which the speaker is going to lock herself, her “Sorrow,” and her “Sin.” This room should be full of gloom and compel her emotions to right themselves. She will mediate on what she has done, and they will “weep” and “pray God to die.”
As the narrative continues it becomes clear that her self-appointed task is easier said than done. As she resides in her gloomy room she is unable to feel the remorse that she believes she should. The world has told her that it is appropriate to feel badly about her actions, but she is unable to.
In the final section the speaker come to a liberating conclusion. She is not going to force this gloom upon herself any longer and instead she will leave this room with gladness instead.
Analysis of The Penitent
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing the state of her soul. Something that will go undefined in this piece, has happened to her. This event, that she claims she had an active hand in, created within her a small amount of “Sorrow.” Millay chose to capitalize “Sorrow” and “Sin” in an effort to show their persistence and independence. It is as if they have their one wills and are imposing these wills on her.
Due to this event that the reader will never have clarified, the speaker has had some “Sorrow” blossom inside her. Her sadness has led her to feel like she did something wrong— that she committed a sin for which she must be forgiven.
In an effort to right her perceived wrong she has “shut us,” referring the herself, Sorrow and Sin, in a “room all damp with gloom.” While this image helps the reader imagine the discussion that is going to take place between these three, it is her own mind of which she speaks. She has created for herself a place in her mind in which she can analyze what she has done and ask forgiveness for it.
Now that the three are safely trapped in her mind she bids them “weep” and “pray God to die.” She wants her own emotions and actions to cry themselves out, and to beg God to be forgiven. It is as if she wants them to act even more independently while she does nothing but “lie / And think how bad I’ve been!”
In the second stanza of the poem the reader is given a little more background about the speaker and how she wants the next moments to progress.
Even though she has set up what she thinks is an ideal place for her emotions to play themselves out, they refuse to obey her. For all her “pious planning” the room was not gloomy enough to have the intended effect. It is as if a “lamp might have been lit.”
“Sorrow” and “Sin” will not obey her commands. They do not “weep” or “go to sleep.” They stay exactly as they are due to the fact that in her quiet meditation, she is unable to feel truly bad about whatever it is she did. Her “graceless mind” is wandering from thought to thought, unable to focus on this perceived wrong.
In the final stanza the narrator comes to a conclusion about what it is she should do. She is angered by her own inability to feel bad, and “penitent,” and gets up.
She is now resolved to go about her problem in a different way. She gathers up her single belonging, a book, and leaves the room. But before leaving, in an effort to impress and please a “passing lad” she ties a ribbon into her hair. This is the only real clue that the reader will get when it comes to understanding the speaker’s “sin.” Perhaps she has been in relationships that would have been deemed inappropriate in the early 1900s when this was written, or been, loose, as some might say, with her morals.
In the final four lines of the poem the conclusion she has come to becomes clear. She knows she is not going to be able to feel true regret for what she has done, so she decides that she will enjoy herself instead.
She says she knows there is no way around what she has done, she has been “wicked,” but if she cannot feel remorse, she might well “be glad!”
What began as a depiction of a penitent sinner, sorrowful over what she had done, turned into the a liberating narrative about the lives of women. She has decided to cast off the shame that she should feel, and instead follow her own guidelines and live the life that she wants.
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.