Love is Not All
Drabble characterizes Edna St. Vincent Millet’s literary persona as being romantic and cynical…. These traits are very much on display in her poem “Love Is Not All”. This short essay attempts to show that Ms. Millay is in this poem attempting to project an image of herself as a world-weary, experienced, sophisticated, but somehow still sensitive human being. I believe that she is only partially effective in doing so, that the poem is too “obvious” in some respects, but that it is sort of an interesting “nice try” at something other writers have done and done better.
The poem opens with an extended list of things that love will not do for one. There is an ironic tension between this message and the form of the poem which is an Elizabethan sonnet of the type that William Shakespeare wrote with rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg. This is a poetic form closely associated with feverish love poetry. I am quite sure that the irony is intentional.
The list of what love will not do contains a host of items. Love will not satisfy hunger, thirst, or the need for sleep. It will not shelter one from the rain; it will not rescue one from drowning. It will not give one physical health. But, Millay says, love constitutes a powerful human need. She says, “…many a man is making friends with death/…for lack of love alone….” She then goes on to state her own personal affirmation of love’s importance. She seems to link love with integrity. She says that it might be the case that certain pains and privations might make her sell “your love” (note that the poem assumes the beloved as audience, just as a sonnet should), but she does not think it would.
This is a kind of tentative, caveated love that is being talked about here. There is a lot of self-doubt expressed by Millay. Her attitude towards love is ambivalent and so is her attitude about her own ability to truly love. The first lines of the poem deny any transcendent power to love. No Renaissance flights of fancy here! The middle lines note love’s importance. The last lines express a half-hearted conviction that Millay’s own love for the poem’s addressee will prove faithful and true. There is a tired quality here, a sense that the author sees the necessity for love as a kind of burden, as one more need that may not be met, as something imposing obligations that she may be too weak to carry.
This is quite modern in tone, but there is, in my opinion, something ineffective about it. One can be simultaneously tough minded and very sensitive. That is a Romantic conception which many writers have tried to project and some have succeeded. Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man in The Old Man and the Sea is an excellent example of how this can be done. But Millay does not quite bring it off. There is something a little muddled here.