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

As is traditional with sonnets, Millais covers the topic of love. However the slant of the subject differs from
that of many poems in the same form. Sonnets such as those by Shakespeare talk of undying love and
compare the subject to a goddess or “the eye of heaven“. Millay on the other hand tackles the inadequacy
of love and leads her reader to question the purity and truth of the love her speaker feels. Doubt is shed on
whether 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 is
that “meat” and “drink” are “all” whereas love is not. In theory this is true, but without love, one must
question then the quality of the life being led. Those in love would dispute the inessentiality of love, as
would 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 perform
useful actions which are also essential to life. However, the observation that: “many a man is making
friends with death/… for lack of love alone”, acknowledging that there is more to love than the speaker

The last section of the poem suggests doubt about the real depth of the love and implies a superficiality to
the speaker’s emotions. Would a true lover give up their partner for tangible possessions to keep themselves
alive (“in a difficult hour”)? In short, does love supersede death? Even if it does not, then a true lover might
never admit the reality of this end and would confidently think and profess, until the final moment when a
choice 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, instead
leaving endless room for doubt. Yet perhaps this is the explicit conveyance of the doubts that all lovers feel
deep 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 reluctance
to 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 bring
wisdom. 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 in
their emotional conflicts. Approaching the sonnet from this position, it becomes clear that the speaker is
most 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 love
which 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 referring
to 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 to
her husband who awaited her. In this poem, the “difficult hour” the speaker describes in the sonnet could be
seen as: the difficulties with her marriage; or the difficulties she faces with Dillon. With either of these
interpretations 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 satisfaction
elsewhere, then she may not have loved him in the sense that one imagines, again drawing parallels to the
emotions of the speaker. Her husband can thus be seen as the weight keeping her “pinned down… moaning
for release”. On the other hand Millay’s return to her husband indicates that she realised her own fault and
did 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 the
sonnet is seen as an internal development of the character and her emotions then it can be describing the
shift 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 married
life. The second half of the sonnet seems to increase the pace and the imagery is more fiery and vivid. The
line: “pinned down by need and moaning for release” appears desperate and almost sexual. This change in
tone could be the introduction of the new man in her life: Dillon. Yet the end still puzzles. The speaker, it
seems, 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 just
not 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 on
love 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 the
speaker knows the answers to any of them. The speaker’s own uncertainty is the reason the reader becomes
intrigued 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 so
doing doubts the eternity of love.


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