When it comes to suitors and publishers…”Although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love Is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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.
Few poets have seen their fame shine so brightly, only to rapidly fade, and then hang on in the periphery than Edna St. Vincent Millay. If ever there was a rock star female poet, her shooting star success allowing a lifestyle of sex and drugs, it was Millay. Millay was an unabashed drug addict, love addict and alcoholic who died as recklessly as she lived, by falling down a flight of stairs and breaking her neck at the age of 58.
I adore Millay for her excesses. It is in her frank reality that Millay’s writing survives as relevant. Millay wrote about love and passion with unapologetic honesty. Millay refused to live by the rules of her time, never settling down, never having children. She was an elfin siren-diva of perfect proportions, standing a mere 5 foot 1 inch, weighing only 100 pounds, with all the female physical attributes that men find attractive, not the least of which was a willingness to live with abandon with no apologies for the consequences.
Few writers have used the sonnet form to more skillfully narrate their inner life when it comes to love and sex than Millay. She could be spectacularly heartless and in doing so, the reader finds a satisfactory glimpse of their own complex psyche when it comes to their own crimes of passion.
Millay’s life and writing does not lend itself to a short narrative. Her biographer, Nancy Milford failed miserably at the task, taking over 30 years to deliver an overly long, overly academic brick. Milford then repeated her offense by publishing an incomplete collection of Millay’s poems that leaves out whole sections of some of Millay’s finer sonnets written late in her life. The problem with biographers is it’s hard for them to leave out salacious details and still capture the essence of something they may know nothing about. I propose that a poet’s biography should only be written by another poet of similar complex character and disposition and in the case of a sonneteer like Millay, be limited to 14 lines. I think George Meredith may have been up to the task, but their lives did not intersect chronologically. George understood modern love, his 50 sonnet sequence of 16 line sonnets by the same title, explores many of the same themes that Millay would explore in her writing throughout her career. Maybe this sonnet of Meredith’s would suffice for both their biographies….
XXIX (Modern Love)
By George Meredith
- Am I failing? For no longer can I cast
- A glory round about this head of gold.
- Glory she wears, but springing from the mold;
- Not like the consecration of the Past!
- Is my soul beggared? Something more than earth
- I cry for still; I cannot be at peace
- In having Love upon a mortal lease.
- I cannot take the woman at her worth!
- Where is the ancient wealth wherewith I clothed
- Our human nakedness, and could endow
- With spiritual splendor a white brow
- That else had grinned at me the fact I loathed?
- A kiss is but a kiss now! and no wave
- Of a great flood that whirls me to the sea.
- But, as you will! we’ll sit contentedly,
- And eat our pot of honey on the grave.