Sonnet XXX – Edna St. Vincent Millay

It’s Valentine’s day, a day I’ve never really cared for. On this day, twee messages are everywhere, muddying the waters of society and confusing themselves with real sentiment. It’s a day I find myself obliged to mark, but it is absolutely one of the occasions that has been crassly commercialised.

In the spirit, however, of the whole romantic thing, I thought I would write about a poem. It’s my favourite poem, at the moment, and one of about four or five that I can recite. I came across it by chance a year ago, and it stuck in my head.

Forgive, gentle reader, the incredible pretentiousness of the following lines (including this one). It is difficult to write about love and love poetry without sounding overly sentimental. I’ve tried to make it as un-gushing as possible, but have mostly failed.

The poem is sonnet XXX by Edna St. Vincent Millay, an American poet who died in 1950. I know very little about her, and she does not seem to be very well remembered. This particular poem though, I feel is well worth remembering.

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.

I love this poem. It isn’t flawless – my accent means that “food” and “would” aren’t even close to rhyming, so the sonnet doesn’t work out loud – but it expresses an idea that I find rather compelling.

Essentially, the first thirteen lines rip into love from every angle the poet can think of,  and the last one reverses all that. Love is shown to be useless – it can’t feed you, it can’t fix you, it can’t save you. Again and again, the message crashes home – “love can not”, “love is not” – love doesn’t do anything, isn’t good for anything.

It’s an unusual message for a sonnet, and it continues right up until the last line. From line nine onwards, the poet does not simply point out the ways in which love is useless, but agrees that it wouldn’t be much of a loss – “I might be driven to sell your love for peace”. For thirteen lines, a poetic form that is traditionally associated with strong emotion denies one. No positives are allowed: the only vaguely non-negative statement is that sometimes people die because the don’t have love.

You could read that as an endorsement, but matched with the other lines ,it is the final nail in love’s coffin – adding insult to injury, this pointless, wasteful thing can kill you. It isn’t just pointless, it’s dangerous.  By the last line, the message is clear: there is nothing good about love.

And then there is that final line: “It may well be. I do not think it would.”

I could write for pages about that line – it is so perfectly crafted, and you can see the purpose of each piece of punctuation, the structure, the way it is the culmination and quiet climax of the entire sonnet.

Ten words to both accept and renounce all the others – to admit that love is useless, to admit that, in a pinch, it is more than likely, highly possible even, that the poet would give away the burden of love. And yet, in the end, the poet turns her back on all that, and absolutely states the strength and importance of the same love that has just been denigrated and denied.

It is an important idea, and one I find myself in agreement with – love is important not because of its use, but in spite of it. And love is held even when everything dictates that you should give it away; even though it is less useful than everything, it’s also more important than all of those practical, useful things.

That’s why I like this poem – it doesn’t lie, it doesn’t exaggerate or embellish the truth in order to make the poem more exciting, to make the emotion sound more interesting. This poem’s eyes are nothing like the sun. Instead, it tells the truth: love is not so many things. But that doesn’t mean that the poet, or anyone truly feeling it, would give it up.

Love isn’t useful. Love can’t help you. Love is worth nothing and gains you nothing. But all the same, despite its manifest lack of practical use, it still matters. Love is something that can’t be measured, that is held in defiance of all practicality, of all pettier concerns.

Sonnet XXX states a simple idea, and one I’d argue is true. For that reason, it’s always stuck in my head. Against all the other love poems, those that claim that love can do the impossible, that a loved one does truly have stars in their eyes, it stands out. Love can’t do anything and that’s not really relevant. People in trouble would probably trade love away for a minute’s peace, but that isn’t relevant either. The poet does not dispute either of the two prior claims.

The poet just doesn’t care – World, do your worst. With the Savage, with every lover ever, the poet claims the seemingly useless and worthless. There is a cliché, that worthless and priceless are extremely similar, and entirely different – that applies here: love has no practical use, and is still more important than everything else.


I’m not going to promise that I’ll never write in such earnest tones about romance, but it is extremely unlikely. If anyone does read this far, forgive me my indulgence – any future posts on poems will probably be less overwrought.

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