Edna St. Vincent Millay

Rockland / Maine / United States
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Rockland / Maine / United States
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Love Is Not All

Rating: 3.8

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,
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Matthew Bartie 31 January 2008

When a person first reads the title to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Love is Not All: It Is Not Meat nor Drink, ” they would most likely get the impression that Millay harbors bitter feelings towards the idea of love. This first impression, though, is not the product of a mistake; the imagery created by these words was purposefully designed to suggest that love is unimportant. The author cleverly uses this title to ask her readers a valid question: how can love be “all” if it cannot supply us with even the most basic of sustenance? Creating a question out of what seems to be a statement within the title allows the reader to foreshadow the author’s intended message. Therefore, when looked at in this point of view, it starts to make sense that even though the title asserts that “Love Is Not All, ” during the unfolding of the poem we find the ironic truth that love is “all.” However, the ironic fashion that this message is revealed in demonstrates that the message of “love is all” conflicts with the common thought that life is “all, ” producing a poem that is wonderfully complicated within its intricacies. Edna Millay did not intend to confuse readers by using a title that so brashly disregards love, but actually designed the title for an opportunity to establish grounds for her argument that love is “all.” This is evident because the title sets the precedent for the first six lines of the poem as they follow in similar fashion, highlighting the inadequacy of love when juxtaposed with the basic necessities for life. Millay, in an almost systematic fashion, catalogs all the things we need to survive that love cannot replace: 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 cannot fill the thickened lung with breath, Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone; (1-6) Starting at line 1 and moving onward through 6, we see that Millay effectively covers everything humans require to live. By doing this, she also effectively shows what love cannot do: Love cannot fill our belly with food, as represented by “meat” (1): it cannot hydrate us, as illustrated by “drink” (1): love does not rejuvenate the worn out man, as signified by “slumber” (2): it does not offer shelter or “a roof against the rain” (2): love cannot offer a man in peril a life-preserving “floating spar” (3): it cannot give us the air we need to fill our “thickened lung[s]” (5): love cannot rid our body of illness or “clean [our] blood” (6): and it cannot heal a wound or “set the fractured bone” (6) . Love, as described by Millay, seems almost as if it is worth nothing. Yet, for all the things that love cannot do, the author insists that we still need love to live, as evident by the following line: “Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” (7-8) . It important to note that the buildup of what love cannot do is necessary for the dramatic declaration that we need love regardless of how useless it may seem. This is a cleaver ploy by Millay because although she has effectively shown how worthless love is on a physical level, she has also effectively constructed what is known as a “straw man” argument. A “straw man” argument occurs when “when someone ignores an opponent’s actual position and presents in its place a distorted, oversimplified, or misrepresented version… [which] is more easily attacked, much like a straw man is more easily knocked over than a real one” (Moore and Parker 182-183) . Millay effectively “knocks over” her “straw man, ” the notion that love is not “all, ” when she writes the last two lines of the first sentence. These two lines successfully trump the previous six lines because although she has shown that love isn’t needed to live, the author makes it clear that life isn’t worth living without it. This argument can be further characterized as a “straw man” rebuttal because although she has successfully convinced her readers that love is important, she hasn’t done so with empirical evidence. The only “proof” that she can offer her readers is that “many a man is making friends with death… / … for lack of love alone” (7-8) , therefore, love must be important. Along with the notable “straw man” found in the beginning of the poem, it is important to note that the first eight lines are a part of a single sentence. This is important because it means that if we remove the repeated poetic verse found within these lines we discover that Millay is simply saying “Love is not all… / Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” (1-8) . This is a justifiable conclusion because after the words “Love is not all” the author uses a colon, which means that the lines following are simply a definition for what she means by “Love is not all” (1) . When put in such simple terms, it’s easy to see how this is almost indistinguishable from saying, “Love is not all, but it would be better to be dead than not have it.” I want to point out that this line of reasoning, while seemingly identical to the statement made in the previous paragraph, is actually different. The explication made here is anti-climactic while the explanation offered by the previous paragraph highlights the poetic aspects of creating a “straw man” argument in order to dramatically knock it down. By reinforcing the idea over and over again that love is useless, Millay can brilliantly restore the true importance of love by telling us it is so significant it’s not worth living without. Creating a scenario that does this, though, makes an ironic situation because the theme of this first sentence essentially says, “Love is not important, but you can’t live without it.” If Millay really meant that love was not important, then it would be fine to live without. However, because it is not fine to live without, love must be important, and therefore creates an incongruity between what she is saying and what she is implying. Although the first eight lines of this poem establish that love is “all, ” the very fact she uses irony to tell us that love is “all” raises further questions. Why would Millay feel it is appropriate or necessary, to use irony in delivering her message that love is all important? This tactic makes it appear as though she is unsure of making a definite statement about love. As poet and scholar Winfield Townley Scott had noted in Poetry, Millay had a reoccurring theme throughout her poems that “say that death is the bitterest pill of all; and [her poems] fight against it, wail upon it, and defy death.” So, the fact that she even suggests that life is not worth living without love tells us, at the very least, that she feels strongly about the importance of love. Still, it’s noteworthy to observe that she uses other people to establish that love is too great to live without. Line 7 reads: “Yet many a man is making friends with death…” Using the word “man” makes a clear distinction between Millay, who is a woman, and the actual people who are giving up their life for the “lack of love alone” (8) . The very concept that she uses people besides herself to show that love is “all, ” begins to reveal her apprehension about making an explicit statement concerning the importance of love. The second half of the poem is very different from the beginning half because the lines that follow the first sentence begin to uncover Millay’s personal opinion about love. Millay is no longer describing the actions that others take regarding a lack of love, but produces a scenario in which she is forced to choose between love and life herself: 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. (9-13) These lines begin with “It well may be, ” which is the sign that tells us that this sentence is introducing a hypothetical situation. She continues to explain the specific context in how she might be put in this situation, particularly describing being “Pinned down by pain” and “nagged by want past resolution’s power” (10-11) . She then offers herself a solution: she could either “sell… love for peace” or “trade the memory of [a] night [of love] for food” (12-13) . Then, in the very last line, we finally get her answer: “It well may be. I do not think I would” (14) . This last line reveals everything we wanted to know about Millay’s character. She reiterates “It well may be, ” to signify that this scenario could actually happen, and then says that she doesn’t think she would give up love even if it was to release her from horrible pain or to get her food she needs to live. Although she sounds like she is sure of her decision that love is “all, ” she purposefully places the word “think” in her statement to give meaningful insight to her true feelings. Saying she “thinks” she would not give up love exposes that she actually is a little apprehensive about making her decision of whether or not love is “all, ” and it justifies how she uses irony to introduce the idea that love is important in the first place. Also, her unease in making a decision is consistent with her poems’ theme of “defy[ing] death” (Scott) . Since Millay feels that death is the “worst pill of all, ” it is hard for her to choose death over a life without love (Scott) . As we see, though, she does choose love as being the most important thing; it is just a difficult decision for her to make. If we stop to take a look back on this poem, we find that it truly is not just some simple 14 line sonnet that claims, “Love is not all” (1) . Not only is Millay able to seamlessly incorporate both assonance and consonance within her work to deliver a message lined with poetic verse, but she is also able to seamlessly deliver a convincing argument that love is all-important. It is not all black and white, though; during the poem Millay effectively uses irony as a means of poetic apprehension in conveying the dilemma caused by the consequences of choosing love as “all.” These consequences are of particular concern for Millay because although she chooses love as being “all, ” her love for life competes at an almost equal level. It is this uncertainty that we feel Millay battle as she chooses the lesser of two evils that make this poem wonderfully complicated within its intricacies. Works Cited Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Love Is Not All: It Is Not Meat nor Drink.” Living Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. John Brereton. United States: Pearson and Longman,2007.790. Moore, Brook Noel and Parker, Richard. Critical Thinking.6th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.2001.182-183. Scott, Winfield Townly. “Millay Collected.” Poetry. Vol. LXIII, No. VI. (March,1944) : 334-42.29 January 2008 .

99 18 Reply
* Sunprincess * 06 June 2014

.......I truly believe love is God and love can do all things.....supply us with food and drink.....a roof against the rain....a floating spar for the men who rise and sink, rise and sink....even repair our broken bones and give us the air we breathe....and yes truly life is not worth living without God (love)

20 34 Reply
Maya Hanson 14 February 2014

this is so amazing! ! ! ! ! ! I love it

17 9 Reply
John Richter 21 October 2014

Is this in Villanelle form? Lovely in any form. I just discovered Edna. I think she may soon become a favorite.

17 4 Reply
Michael Walker 17 February 2015

A sincere and honest poem.

13 4 Reply
Dr Dillip K Swain 30 August 2021

A unique composition! Loved the way things have been expressed!

0 0 Reply
cooke sharon 10 April 2019

Bentley you are a troglodyte

3 0 Reply
bentley 03 September 2018

This trash, i dont understand how people like this.

7 13 Reply
Michael Brainy 07 July 2018

Great poem, loved so much

1 4 Reply
Nandita Menon 07 December 2017

I am quite capable of reading them without a bad reading.

2 2 Reply