Love is Not All by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love Is Not All, also referred to as Sonnet XXX, is a traditional Shakespearean sonnet with fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. It consists of three quatrains and a couplet at the end. The poem was first published in Collected Poems, in 1931 an remains one of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s most popular works. This poem is a contemplation by the speaker on all the ways in which humans suffer for love. Millay begins by stating all the things that love is not, all the physical ways it cannot help someone in need of food, shelter, water or sleep. She continues on to write about how love cannot cure disease “nor set the fractured bone.” Despite these things, she writes, men still physically and mentally kill themselves for love. The poem takes a turn at this point to first person in which the speaker contemplates selling her own love to save herself from  a variety of fates. In the last line the speaker comes to the conclusion that she may trade her love away, but more than likely she, as all those stated above, would not.

 

Love Is Not All Analysis

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

The poem, which can be read in full here, begins with a basic statement that stands to summarize the first half of the poem, and is also the title, “Love is not all.” This is followed up by to more statements that carry the poem through the first quatrain. Millay states that, “Love is not all;” it is not, she continues, either meat or drink. It is also neither, “slumber nor a roof against the rain.” These are things that are critical to human survival, shelter, sleep, food and water. They plainly contrast with the emotion of love, something that Millay is hoping to call attention to. She is attempting to lessen loves importance by comparing to things one physically cannot live without.

Continuing on to the second half of the first quatrain, Millay creates another metaphor, or a comparison between two unlikely elements.

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

In this instance Millay is once again comparing love to something physically critical to human survival, a “spar.” A spar is a strong pole that is used as a mast of a ship. In this comparison, it is something a man on a sinking ship would want desperately as a way to reinforce his damaged vessel. Love would do him little good at this critical moment. The next line is a repetition of the motions of a drowning man as he sinks below the surface only to rise up again and sink once more.

The second quatrain begins with:

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Millay continues the comparison at the end of the first quatrain as she speaks here of death and the little good love will have in stopping it. In this case the “thicken[ing] [of] lung.” This could refer once again to drowning or more likely to tuberculosis. This second theory is reinforced by the first half of the next line:

Nor clean the blood,

It is well known that when one is afflicted with tuberculosis the lungs can begin to fill with blood and during the 1930’s TB was much more prevalent than it is today. This makes it a likely disease for Millay to have chosen to contrast against love. She makes one last comparison in this quatrain, describing how love cannot set the fractured bone. In general with these metaphors she is attempting to get across the notion that love is nothing but an emotion that can do nothing for one in a critical, life threatening situation. This is the turning point of the sonnet, or volta. A volta is a vital point in almost all sonnets in which many things can happen. The transition from one speaker to another, a change in opinion, or in this case, a change in perspective. After this point the speaker starts using first person to address the issue more personally.

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

In these lines Millay references all the comparisons above, and her speaker is saying, basically, that even with all the truths that have thus far been stated, men still kill themselves because they do not have love.  This line is written with a kind of disbelief as if the speaker has a hard time understanding how this could possibly be the case. The next quatrain and final couplet are single idea contemplated by the speaker on what she might do in various situations if she had love and could give it away to save herself or assuage some kind of pain.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Here the speaker begins to list possible scenarios in which she might be willing to, give away “your love for peace,” as she states in the last line of the final quatrain. These two scenarios mirror the ones the speaker has described in the first half of the poem, a difficult hour without food, water, or shelter, and pinned down by pain as if afflicted with a deadly disease such as tuberculosis was then.

The next line is one of the most poignant.

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,

In this line the speaker remembers her life before the start of this love she is ruminating on. She remembers the decisions she used to make and the resolution, or determination, that they had. One may infer that now, at least to the speaker, her decisions are weaker, influenced by love’s sway or the stronger will of her partner. The final comparison comes in the first line of the couplet in which the speaker considers “trading the memory” of one particularly special night for food, These are all things, the speaker contemplates, she may be willing to sell her love to gain, or regain.

The final line of the poem is the conclusion of all of this contemplation and consideration. She considers once more that she may “sell your love,” but concludes that, even with all her rational arguments throughout the sonnet, she does not think she would. This final turn in the last line of the poem shows the speaker to be just as fallible and subject to the control love places over one’s decisions as all those she formally references.

 

About Edna St. Vicent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892. She was raised, along with her two sisters, by a single mother. She became involved in writing poetry at a young age and gained a scholarship to Vassar College where she became involved in theatre. She would become one of the most respected poets in America 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.

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