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A Close Reading of Edna St Vincent Millay, Sonnet 30, from Fatal Interview

A Close Reading of Edna St Vincent Millay, Sonnet 30, from Fatal Interview

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Published by: Adzza24 on Apr 12, 2010
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11/28/2012

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A Close Reading of Edna St Vincent Millay, Sonnet 30, from
 Fatal  Interview
As is traditional with sonnets, Millais covers the topic of love. However the slant of the subject differs fromthat of many poems in the same form. Sonnets such as those by Shakespeare talk of undying love andcompare the subject to a goddess or “the eye of heaven“. Millay on the other hand tackles the inadequacyof love and leads her reader to question the purity and truth of the love her speaker feels. Doubt is shed onwhether the love would stand up to trials and whether she is in love to the extent of the speakers in other sonnets such as those by Shakespeare.The first section of the poem compares love to objects essential to life. The idea the reader takes away isthat “meat” and “drink” are “all” whereas love is not. In theory this is true, but without love, one mustquestion then the quality of the life being led. Those in love would dispute the inessentiality of love, aswould many who have been in love and look to be again. This immediately alerts the reader to the possibility that the speaker is in fact not in love. Love is then again discussed as inadequate to performuseful actions which are also essential to life. However, the observation that: “many a man is makingfriends with death/… for lack of love alone”, acknowledging that there is more to love than the speaker denotes.The last section of the poem suggests doubt about the real depth of the love and implies a superficiality tothe speaker’s emotions. Would a true lover give up their partner for tangible possessions to keep themselvesalive (“in a difficult hour”)? In short, does love supersede death? Even if it does not, then a true lover mightnever admit the reality of this end and would confidently think and profess, until the final moment when achoice must be made, that death would be a preferable option to living with loss.The final line in the sonnet attempts to give hope for the speaker’s love, yet the uncertainty of the statement“I do not think” is neither confident nor determined enough to convince the reader of any sincerity, insteadleaving endless room for doubt. Yet perhaps this is the explicit conveyance of the doubts that all lovers feeldeep within themselves, afraid to admit the possibility that their fate is not yet cast, and any amount of unforeseeable obstacles and trials could render their love obsolete.The actions of those without love (“making friends with death”) compared with the seeming reluctance of the speaker to die for love appears to show that those in love know something that others, do not. It is perhaps more accurate to say that those
not 
in love know something more than those in love for the latter may takes their emotions for granted and forget what they truly mean. Love appears keeps their souls alive,unlike those who are dying because of their “lack of love”. Thus the difference in knowledge could simply be the realisation of the importance of love. Perhaps the insinuation is that love gives something to live for  but this would contradict the earlier statement that loves is not all. It could explain the speaker‘s reluctanceto die: the paradoxical realisation that it was for their lover that they wanted to live may not become clear until after loss has taken hold. Love is often seen to bring with it maturity, which would in turn bringwisdom. It could be this wisdom that makes one able to see the worthless sentiment of dying for love.However, the assumption is made here that the speaker in this sonnet is speaking for every individual person who is in love. It might be more accurate to instead see the speaker as a specific person, unique intheir emotional conflicts. Approaching the sonnet from this position, it becomes clear that the speaker ismost probably not in love, though thinks he/she is, and so talks rather perplexedly about the actions of those that seek ‘love’. The fact is that they do not seek what the poet believes to be love; they seek true lovewhich the poet has not experienced.Another assumption the text makes is that love is a possession, an object that one can “trade” or “sell”.Following this notion, it can be seen that the speaker is merely collecting an object and is in fact referringto the relationship itself, not the emotion behind it. The speaker’s confusion between having someone
to
love and loving someone could thus explain the lack of attachment to the partner which is evident.The ambiguity of the speaker about the strength of her love could be seen to mirror Millay’s personal position. It is commonly agreed that
 Fatal Interview
is inspired by Millay’s lover, George Dillon. After 
 
meeting him, she became somewhat obsessed, but the relationship eventually cooled and she returned toher husband who awaited her. In this poem, the “difficult hour” the speaker describes in the sonnet could beseen as: the difficulties with her marriage; or the difficulties she faces with Dillon. With either of theseinterpretations it still makes the reader unsure of her real feelings. The only thing which seems clear is her ambivalence towards the subject in the sonnet.If Millay’s relationship with her husband was not adequate to keep her from searching for satisfactionelsewhere, then she may not have loved him in the sense that one imagines, again drawing parallels to theemotions of the speaker. Her husband can thus be seen as the weight keeping her “pinned down… moaningfor release”. On the other hand Millay’s return to her husband indicates that she realised her own fault anddid love him and not Dillon. Thus her damp scrutiny of love in this sonnet indicates that truth about her love for Dillon.There are clear signs which could indicate either of these arguments. However, it could be both. If thesonnet is seen as an internal development of the character and her emotions then it can be describing theshift from one man to the other. First she describes her first love: it was not “all”. The repetitive imagery of “men that sink and rise and sink and rise and sink again” illustrate the ritualistic monotony of her marriedlife. The second half of the sonnet seems to increase the pace and the imagery is more fiery and vivid. Theline: “pinned down by need and moaning for release” appears desperate and almost sexual. This change intone could be the introduction of the new man in her life: Dillon. Yet the end still puzzles. The speaker, itseems, though trying to be positive cannot find happiness, or perhaps love, in her new situation any better than she did in her first, illustrated by the tempo of the text decreasing once again by the introduction of  punctuation in the middle of the last line. So is she looking for too much from a relationship? Or is she justnot looking in the right place? Despite any developments or changes she undergoes, she is in love at neither the beginning nor the end of the sonnet. If it is taken that she knows this, then perhaps her dampener onlove at the start is a consolation herself.The reader of this sonnet is left with many questions at the end. However, there is no indication that thespeaker knows the answers to any of them. The speaker’s own uncertainty is the reason the reader becomesintrigued to know more but cannot. This ultimately begs the question whether the speaker is truly in love.There are also links which can be drawn to Millay’s own life and her transition between husband and lover and back again. In essence the sonnet doubts the power of emotion to conquer life and death and in sodoing doubts the eternity of love.
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