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Friday, October 17, 2014

Love IS Not All ... But It IS Everything


 
Love Is Not All 

by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950) 

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.


What might we take for the love we possess? Edna St. Vincent Millay contemplates this question in her poem, "Love Is Not All."

We understand that we can't survive on love alone. Although that gracious emotion is the reason for living, we would soon die without other basic human needs. As Millay writes the line "Love is not all," she warns us that, in reality, love is not even basic sustenance strong enough to insure our existence.

Still, despite all the things love cannot do, Millay stresses the precious need for love and her belief that many people expire for "lack of love alone."  Love may not be an object, an act, a spirit, or a thought; however, it is necessary possession. Love is an intangible force of the soul and not just some irrational notion.

By beginning with the statement "Love is not all" and then telling the reader what it is not, Millay sets the stage for a powerful assertion that love is all. She employs this technique of direct contrast, or antithesis, to establish the theme of her verse.

"It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would."


The perspective change in the sonnet occurs at the end of the octave (eight lines) and reverses the ordinance about love to be something quintessential, something that people value even above their own lives. 

Even in the most “difficult hour,” when she is “pinned down by pain and moaning for release," Millay may be tempted to "sell" or "trade" her understanding of love, yet she would not. In the verse, the poet acknowledges that for lack of love some of us will court death, and yet if faced with death, we would not exchange the moments of intense love to save our bodies.

That is it. That is the “message” of Millay's poem: love is not all, but she would not let go of her love. She values it so much that she would not even trade one night of its memory for sustenance. For one Pulitzer Prize winning poet, this dramatic declaration in the last line of the poem confirms her belief that we all need love regardless of how useless it may seem.

Edna St. Vincent Millay


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