Love Is Not All

capture
Modern Love – by Julie Houts

 

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.

A Little Moment At The End Of All

sm

Sonnet IV

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.


The Last Cigarette

by Billy Collins

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

I Turn My Troubled Eyes

Millay in spring
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

Sonnet I

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,—I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,—with moonlight so.

Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink—and live—what has destroyed some men.

 

To Sin by Silence, When We Should Protest

Ella_Wheeler_Wilcox,_Custer,_1896

Protest

by Ella Wilcox Wheeler

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.


 

Sonnet XLI

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
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.

 

Faithless When I Most Am True

the love letter
The Love Letter by Petrus van Schendel (1806 – 1870)

Four Sonnets

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

III

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you — think not but I would! —
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.

How First You Loved Me For A Written Line

 

All you have to do is write one true sentence.   The truest sentence you know.

Earnest Hemingway

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay saw the tides of public sentiment regarding her writing wax and wane during her lifetime.  She straddled the era of classical poetry and the emergence of new voices, a new poetic language.  The writing of Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, just to name a few, was evolving the accepted poetic style that would bring free verse to the forefront of American literature.

To the literary critics who stabbed and slashed at Edna’s prose in search of some kind of retributive analysis; I say phooey. I have no interest in literary critique as character assassination. I think the critics of her day suffered from the same character flaw strong independent women face today; criticism that hides behind misogyny. I prefer to invest my time as unabashed fan of Millay who brings a sense of humor and humanity to her poetry. Millay’s writing is filled with true sentences which stick with me long after the cover is closed.

Sometimes When I Am Wearied Suddenly

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sometimes when I am wearied suddenly
Of all the things that are the outward you,
And my gaze wanders ere your tale is through
To webs of my own weaving, or I see
Abstractedly your hands about your knee
And wonder why I love you as I do,
Then I recall, “Yet Sorrow thus he drew;
“Then I consider, “Pride thus painted he.”
Oh, friend, forget not, when you fain would note
In me a beauty that was never mine,
How first you knew me in a book I wrote,
How first you loved me for a written line:
So are we bound till broken is the throat
Of Song, and Art no more leads out the Nine.

©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.