Love is not all, Edna St. Vincent Millay – an analysis

Standard

Title
No, it really isn’t, is it?

Gut Reaction
Well that’s a bit contradictory to the title. It’s kind of saying love isn’t anything of the body, not a physical thing, it’s something else entirely – and there’s the implication that it’s something that’s ‘more’ important than ‘all’.

What does it all mean?
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
No, not it is not all. Not by a long shot. But what we’re saying here is simple: love itself cannot keep you alive.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
It can’t nourish, or conquer hunger or thirst.

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
It doesn’t provide sleep or shelter.

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
It doesn’t prevent you from sinking or buoy you up – when things get tough, when you’re lost at see – whatever the situation I suppose. It isn’t a lifeline, or safety. It doesn’t provide security.

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
No, it cannot do the biological things that the human body needs. It isn’t the NHS.

Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
Yet still it is something that drives people to their deaths – at least, when a person is without love.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
It’s possible that at my weakest moment…

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Huh. Now this could have sexual connotations, and for that I’d say there’s some people out there who suddenly proclaim love in the throes of passion – and we all know better to believe that, now don’t we? Then there’s also the thought that if you are in so much pain that it hurts to be alive, you’d want the release of death. Which is a little more sombre and a lot less fun to think about.

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
When you want something that is impossibly out of your reach..

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.
We’ve spent all the poem up until now listing all that love isn’t and so far the story is telling us that love isn’t very much use at all to us. But now, we’re talking about it like it’s the most precious of things. If I’m in my darkest moment and I have no options, I’d sell your love for peace.

How do you sell love? You can’t sell love, it isn’t a physical thing to sell. I mean prostitution isn’t selling love, no matter how much of a spin you put on it – you’re selling release, physical release, not love. So how would you get peace from selling love? It isn’t a commodity to trade.

Same with trading memories of a night for food – it’s impossible. It’s not something that you ever can do. Maybe that is the point. You wouldn’t give up love for peace – even if you argue that if you love something you let it go no matter if it means that it – they – find love elsewhere. There’s still love involved in that act of giving up what you want. Nor can you trade a memory for food. It’s not like you’re dishing out memories from a pensieve like they’re sweets, is it? You just can’t do it.

And then the last line. It’s like saying even if I could sell/trade your love, I wouldn’t. I can’t let you go, because your love is not all, but it is somehow more.

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
English/Shakespearean sonnet with run on and end stopped rhyme throughout.

Tone
Misleading. That’s what it is. You feign sense when it comes to love and then boom! Right at the end, you’re kind of saying it’s bigger than anything.

Suggested rhyme scheme
ababcdcdefefgg

Similes and metaphors
Meat and drink – nutrition? Sustenance?
Floating spar – saviour when things get rough?

Author’s relationship with their subject
They too seem as confused by love as the rest of us often are!

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Analyses talk of the difference between the first and second sextets, with the former showing the negative ‘qualities’ of love – i.e. the things it can’t do – and the latter is like a dawning realisation of its importance. Also that the overall message says love may not keep you alive but you still might have to give up love in order to survive.

Signing off
It’s almost like the author is arguing with herself, because there isn’t really a right or wrong answer here. Sure, love is lovely when you have it and heartbreaking when you don’t, but you can live without it. But that isn’t true for all, because some people simply can’t seem to go on without the love of their lives, whilst others still don’t appear to need love at all. I suppose that all depends on your definition of love.

No. Love doesn’t keep you alive, but when you lose it you feel like dying. No. Love isn’t essential like a bodily function but when you don’t have it you do forget how to breathe properly. No, you can’t trade love for the material wants of the human being, but even if you could, you probably wouldn’t.

Love. It might not be a thing you can pick up and carry and buy, but it still weighs on you like nothing else, whether you have it or not.

Links

Poetry Foundation

Poem Hunter

When I read this I think of the song… All you need is love

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