Beneath Your Moon, Almighty Sex:
the Love Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay
the Love Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St Vincent Millay was born on 22nd February, 1892 in Rockland, Maine. After her parents' divorce when Edna was eight, her mother moved with Edna and her two younger sisters to Camden, and attempted to support the family by working long hours as a nurse, leaving Edna de facto head of the household. Her early maturity paid off in 1912 when she entered her poem "Renascence" into a poetry contest run by The Lyric Year. Although the poem was only placed fourth, the publicity generated was sufficient to engineer Millay a place at Vassar College, and to launch her literary career.
Over the next thirty years Millay produced ten collections of poetry, including The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, which made her the first female poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, and Fatal Interview, one of the most famous sonnet sequences of all time. Millay's charisma and style––a combination of traditional techniques with contemporary subjects such as sex and the liberated woman––brought her an unprecedented popular audience and her work remains widely read to this day. She died on October 19th, 1950, only a few months after her husband's death from lung cancer.
Two years before she died, Edna St. Vincent Millay's publishers offered to bring out a book of her love poems, complete with a foreword in which she was to explain the genesis of each poem. Millay refused, citing the indelicacy of such a project (Milford 489.) And yet fifty years later the two things for which she is best remembered are the lyric beauty of her love sonnets and the unconventional private life which is believed to have provided their material. Recent biographies of Millay, Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty and Daniel Epstein's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, have made impressive efforts to link individual poems to specific intimacies. Such conjecture makes fascinating, if somewhat salacious, reading. However to read Millay's sonnets purely on such a basis is to overlook not only their unique merits and force, but also the arc of emotional self-knowledge Millay traveled as a woman throughout her writing life, and the importance of that knowledge, as transmitted by her work, in the sexual emancipation of early twentieth century women.
She was twenty-four, and already a conspicuous figure, when she wrote one of her earliest, best-known sonnets, "Time does not bring relief; you all have lied." Unlike many of her later poems, this one assumes a traditional outlook on romance––the woman speaker is mourning the end of a relationship and asserts that the pain does not diminish with time-a clear indicator of monogamous expectations, at least in serial form. The freshness of the poem rests in the notion that the absence of a specific memory associated with a place can itself invoke the memory of the faithless lover:
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, 'There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him. (Millay 13, 11-14)
We can take this poem as evidence that Millay's physical relationships––with men anyway––were still few at this stage, and also that, as Epstein puts it "the idea that there can be no true happiness apart from a perfect human love will remain at the core of Millay's philosophy, even years after she has given up hope for it" (40.) What I find perhaps more interesting is the theatricality of the persona speaking the poem, and it is worth remembering that Millay's own stage presence was both legendary and carefully managed. The poem draws attention ultimately not to the actual sadness of the speaker, but to the spectacle of that sadness: a tragic and yet not entirely believable figure posing for the reader's sympathy. That the poem is successful despite this is a testament to our own hope that love might exist which is profound enough to make suffering on such a grand scale possible. Whether Millay felt and believed these emotions fully herself is not relevant––she believed in them enough not to find them ridiculous, and to understand that her readers' sentiments would be swayed.
Another frequently anthologized sonnet is "If I should learn in some quite casual way," which Epstein credits to an early Millay affair (108.) Some critics have accused the sonnet's speaker of displaying indifference, but a wiser reading is that the poem is an acute observation of a far less theatrical form of grief.
I should not cry aloud––I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place––
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face; (Millay 14, 9-12)
It is pertinent when we compare these two poems, whose chronological order cannot be established with certainty, that Millay portrays a more sincere grief for the death of one former lover than she does for abandonment by another. There is also, in the poem's understated lines, a strong sense that here Millay is talking of a friendship that has transcended the passionate love affair which might have been its inception. Millay did in fact have a remarkable ability to remain on good terms with her former lovers, and it is not unrealistic to suggest that this idea is inherent in this poem.
We can definitely place the sonnet "I shall forget you presently my dear" as later than the previous two, and by this point we have a recognizably typical Millay voice: cynical and animalistic. The speaker acknowledges the impermanence of the emotion of love, while allowing that the animal passions which accompany it have enabled the species to propagate healthily:
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer lived
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature had contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, (Millay 25, 7-12)
The emotional philosophy of this speaker is serial monogamy of relatively short duration. How freeing this must have sounded to the young women of 1920, just a few years out of the Victorian era of prudery and repression. The snappy final couplet offers little more in the way of traditional romance: "Whether or not we find what we are seeking/ Is idle biologically speaking" (13-14.) Millay had recognized both that her restless emotional adventures were a search for some form of soul mate, and also that this search was likely to prove fruitless.
Similar sentiments regarding the impermanence of love are expressed in the sonnet "Pity me not because the light of day." This poem, however, is far less flippant: it is one thing to make jaunty observations about inconstancy at the beginning of a love affair, and quite another to be proven right at the end of it.
Nor that a man's desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This I have known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails. (Millay 53, 7-10)
Millay is making an important point about the gap between idealistic notions of love, which persist beyond all reason, and the intellectually acknowledged truth of the failure of any relationship to live up to such.
So, three tenets provide the framework for the typical Millay sonnet of this mid-period: a yearning for romantic love, an intellectual rejection of its practicality, and a recognition of the power of physical passion. Meanwhile, her capacity to imbue fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with vigor and verve is evidence of her supreme technical skill. In the above sonnet the trick is anaphora: eight lines begin either "Pity me (not)", "Nor that" and "Than the."
"I, being born a woman and distressed" is a more cerebral sonnet written, somewhat ironically, about physical passion.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,––let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again. (Millay 55, 8-14)
This is perhaps the first sonnet where we get the impression that Millay has come to believe monogamy is not a natural condition for her. There is also no pretense that the narrator feels any romantic attachment. Millay was at this point becoming somewhat less discriminating about her sexual partners, but to me this sonnet smacks of bravado––there is no doubt that Millay continued to form very strong romantic attachments throughout this period. She had however ceased to believe that such attachments constituted a binding requirement for physical faithfulness. It is almost as if, having internalized the fact that romantic love did not and could not last, she refused to allow herself ever to treat it with sufficient seriousness that it might.
Millay's unusual marriage to Eugen Boissevain took place in 1923, a few months before the publication of her fourth book The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems. Given what we can surmise about Millay's emotional philosophy, it seems sensible to assume that they intended the marriage to be an open one from the beginning. During the early years of the marriage, however, she was not only smitten with her new husband, but also often physically unwell, and this perhaps curtailed her romantic adventures. Her frailty is a new factor we can see emerging in her work, in sonnets such as "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why," a beautiful poem which hints at an ageing narrator: "I only know that summer sang in me,/ A little while that sings in me no more" (56, 13-14.) Millay also here demonstrates her facility with the Petrarchan sonnet form and its suitability for more wistful and less epigrammatic conclusions.
The combination of a shaky faith in monogamy and an increasing sense of her own mortality was a volatile one. Some of Millay's finest sonnets written during her marriage are presumed to be addressed to her younger poet lover George Dillon, who became part of a ménage a trois in the Millay household. These sonnets were collected in the book Fatal Interview. The narrator of "Love is not all: it is not meat or drink" demonstrates Millay's newest philosophy of romantic love. There is no doubt that the speaker is expressing love for the object of the poem, yet there is no commitment, the love is spoken of already almost as of something in the past, and the poem lacks an absolute conviction of permanence:
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would. (Millay 86, 12-14)
At the same time, Millay was still composing sonnets to her husband which resonated perhaps with less passion, but certainly with more commitment. "If in the years to come you should recall" ended up as the penultimate poem in Fatal Interview: "How of all men I honoured you the most,/ Holding you noblest among mortal-kind." It seems Millay had, in Eugen Boissinville, found "what she was seeking"––not an eternal love affair, but a friend, companion, and in later years, caregiver (Epstein, 215.)
As Millay aged, and the prospects for renewed passions diminished, she began to look back at her sexual freedom with the wisdom of experience. Again, to the immense benefit of her female readers, she never regretted, apologized or justified. Her love sonnets gave way to sonnets of cool self-analysis, such as "I too beneath your moon, oh mighty Sex."
Such as I am, however, I have brought
To what it is; this tower; it is my own;
Though it was reared To Beauty, it was wrought
From what I had to build with: honest bone
Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;
And lust is there, and nights not spent alone. (Millay 125, 9-14)
The tower represents Millay's poetry, which she recognized owed a huge debt to her sexuality. By the end of her life Millay was writing more and more free verse in accordance with the drift of contemporary poetry away from received forms, but she never lost her mastery of the sonnet. The pacing of the aforementioned sonnet is superb––double caesuras in the first two lines of the sestet are followed by two strongly enjambed lines, and then a line with four pauses, concluded with a classical single caesura'd line.
Ultimately, Millay understood herself: both the idealist in her that had sought eternal romance, and the animal in her that had craved the excitement of sex with new partners. She had also found an enduring, if not lastingly romantic, love with her husband until his death a year before her own. She communicated these personal struggles in some of the most beautiful sonnets written in the last century, and in doing so gave permission to an entire generation of women to be sexual beings. What is "Chaos" in the classic late sonnet "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines" if not her own conflicting desires for sex and romantic love, mastered inevitably not through conscious reformation but with age? She remained shameless, even unshameable, to the end. She knew that the sonnets, at least, had always been good.
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
or answer; I will only make him good. (Millay 152, 11-14)
Epstein, Daniel Mark. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2001.
Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty. New York: Random House, 2001.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Selected Poems. New York: HarperCollins Books, 1999.
Anna Evans' poems have appeared in the Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, and 32 Poems, and she was a finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award in both 2005 and 2007. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and is the Editor of The Raintown Review and of the Barefoot Muse. Her chapbooks Swimming and Selected Sonnets are available from Maverick Duck Press.