Understanding the Sonnet: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Modernism

When discussing the sonnet in the 20th century, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s name has to appear in the conversation. Millay Not only did Millay find value in the sonnet when other poets were vociferously rejecting it, she also used this traditionally male-dominated poetic form to express female sexuality.  In her sonnets, Millay challenges the role that women often occupied in poetry – that of the object of the poet’s affection.

A Few Figs from Thistles  (1920) is regarded as Millay's most important collection of poetry

A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) is regarded as Millay’s most important collection of poetry

If you think about it, we only ever get one side of the story in a sonnet, the one told from the male poet. Generally, the woman is silent, voiceless. Millay gives voice to the other half of the relationship.

But first I want to turn to the question of why it was such a bold move as modern poet for Millay to write in the sonnet tradition.

Millay and the Value of the Modern Sonnet

Millay’s writing career spanned 38 years: her first collection of poetry, The Lyric Year, was published in 1912, while Second April appeared in 1950. She wrote during the artistic and literary period known as the Modern Era. Though it would be impossible for me to define what the Modern Era, or Modernism, is in the space of a blog post, let me just mention that Modernists valued spontaneity, authenticity, and originality. Modernists wanted to break all existing past forms of artistic expression. They saw rules, conventions, and forms as inhibiting/holding back the artist’s or writer’s creativity.

The sonnet form particularly drew the condemnation of Modern poets. Ezra Pound , one of the most influential poets of the early 20th century, said, “The Sonnet is the devil.”

Ironically, a man who looked like this would call the sonnet the devil!

Ironically, a man who looked like this would call the sonnet the devil!

T.S. Eliot doubted whether poets would even write sonnets much longer.  So for Millay to continue to compose sonnets was going against the artistic current of the period.

Enter Millay’s sonnet “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines.” Here Millay argues for the importance of the sonnet, and really all poetic forms. The sonnet details the poet’s struggle to wrest Chaos into Order. Chaos and Order come to metaphorically represent two parts to artistic expression: Order becomes the structure, the means through which the poet can communicate, while Chaos Millay sees as the artistic impulse or creativity. To have Order without Chaos results in empty, passionless poetry; to have Chaos without order gives us poetry that is incomprehensible. Millay’s task as a poet is take that “something simple not yet understood” (Chaos) and hold him “till he with Order mingles and combines.” Being a poet for Millay is negotiating between the desire to break down structures to express an original thought and the need to be understood.

Now in lines four through seven, Millay presents a really disturbing image of her confining Chaos (the impulse to create) to Order (poetic form): “his adroit designs/ Will strain to nothing in the strict confines/ Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape, I hold his  essence and amorphous shape.” Yes, Millay compares wrestling creativity into form as a religious rape! While most of us would hopefully find such imagery as reprehensible, Millay here speaks to her power as a poet, her ability to make Chaos comprehensible through Order.  In line 9, the volta of the sonnet, Millay claims to have finally conquered Chaos:”Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,/ His arrogance, our awful servitude: I have him.” Most importantly, though, is the reversal of power between the sexes here. Millay through her poetry has made the personified male Chaos subservient to her. This leads me to the other facet of Millay’s sonnets…

Millay and the “Free Love” movement

The Free Love movement, the idea of love not confined by marriage or even monogamy, did not start in the 1960s, but actually became popular among the Bohemian culture of 1920s, especially in Greenwich Village. (Millay lived in Greenwich Village for much of her life.)  You may have noticed when reading Millay’s sonnets that she challenges the traditional passive role that women are often placed in within love poetry. Millay’s “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” not only is told from a female perspective but also presents a frank discussion of female sexuality.

Let’s start with the opening two lines: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,/ I have forgotten” Already there is stark contrast to the idealized love we normally expect in poetry. (For reference, read Elizabeth Garret Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”) The love written about in poetry is supposed to be all-consuming, innocent, and focused on one person. Here the speaker’s sexual liaisons have been so numerous that she has  forgotten the details of the relationships, even their names. The most radical aspect of Millay’s poem is that this is a female voice speaking openly about having many lovers. Millay writes about her sexual freedom in such a frank and unabashed manner – rather than conforming to the sexist double-standard that shames women for engaging in multiple relationships , Millay writes about it honestly.

This is not to say that the sonnet is free of regret. The speaker in the sonnet is later in years. At line 9 (again the volta), Millay offers the image of the “lonely tree” in winter, whose boughs, now empty, were once crowded with birds. The sonnet’s tone is nostalgic, looking back to a time when “summer sang in” her ” a little while.” Interestingly, the root of “nostalgia” is Greek for a type of pain.  The speaker of the sonnet experiences this pain when hearing the rain on the window and then being reminded of “unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry” (lns. 7-8).

This theme of reminiscing, often painfully so, about one’s younger years Millay picks up from Shakespeare. In some of his sonnets, Shakespeare writes about aging, particularly the realization that the lustful days of his youth are gone. Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 best captures this theme:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

To gloss over the situation of the sonnet, the speaker confess to being past his prime and anticipates his impending death. (Notice how both Millay’s sonnet and Sonnet 73 share the same image of a leafless tree in winter.)

"Thus in winter stands the lonely tree"- Millay "That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold" - Shakespeare

“Thus in winter stands the lonely tree”- Millay”That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” – Shakespeare 

However, the speaker finds hope in the fact that his younger beloved see this as well and yet stays with him: “This though perceivest, whcih makes thy love more strong,/ to love that well which thou must leave ere long” (lns. 13-14). The speaker’s beloved beyond his advancing years. This leads me to the final aspect of the Millay’s sonnet. Looking back over the sonnet tradition, the object of the speaker’s affections is often a much younger woman. (Petrarch’s sonnets are thought to be written about his love for Laura de Noves, about eleven years his junior.)

Petrarch depicted here wearing the traditional symbol of the poet, the crown of bay leaves. Laura de Noves depicted as being all sorts of creeped out!

Petrarch depicted here wearing the traditional symbol of the poet, the crown of bay leaves. Laura de Noves depicted as being all sorts of creeped out!

Older women are pretty much absent from sonnets, and yet here Millay’s speaker is a woman looking back on her youth.

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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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