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4.9: Student Writer at Work- Kelly Ann Wolslegel’s Close Reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love Is Not All”

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    The New Critics are particularly fond of poetry, especially poetry that is complex and ambiguous. The New Critics feel that poetry, in its reliance on all the nuances of language for effect, best reflects the concept that literature is a unified organism. Thus New Critics are able to find unity in the well-wrought poem.

    Kelly’s paper analyzes a love poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950). Please read the poem before examining Kelly’s paper.

    Love Is Not All

    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.Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Love Is Not All,”,

    Watch Kelly’s writing process as she moves from exploring ideas informally, to outlining, and to producing a final product. Kelly wrote numerous drafts and received feedback from peers (using the peer-review sheets) to accomplish her writing task—to perform a New Critical close reading of a piece of literature.


    Exploratory Journal Entry

    I have chosen to write my essay on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Love Is Not All.” I read this poem the first time during my sophomore year of high school. I like it so much I put it in a Forensics reading and made it all the way to state! So I hope my luck holds!

    The poem seems to set up a tension about love. It starts by pointing out the things that love cannot do. It ends with the notion that some may die from a lack of love. I think the key to this poem lies in how the reader interprets the last line. It can be read with doubt or with affirmation. I guess the poem works on ambiguity and paradox. Love cannot feed us or shelter us from the elements. However, love can break hearts and put people in a state of depression. Lack of food can kill someone, but the misery of a heart-break can have the same effect. Don’t I know that!! Love cannot quench, but it has the power to fulfill one’s emotional needs. Love has a power of its own, but it is not all-powerful.

    The realist in me is telling me that Millay is ending this poem with a hint of questioning. However, the romantic in me is telling me that she says the last line with affirmation—indirectly stating that there is no replacement for love. I don’t know yet how to say this in my paper and get my point across effectively. But then again, maybe the “title” gives it away—love is not “meat nor drink.” Ok, I guess after writing this little bit that she would not sell love for food, even though people can live physically without love, but not food. Love seems very ironic to Millay, yet she seems to say that one can have both love and basic necessities. This poem seemed so simple, but now it is so complex. I think I’ll see if our library has any helpful sources.

    Working Thesis

    The poem “Love Is Not All” by Edna St. Vincent Millay is an ironic poem that suggests that even though love is not needed for survival, it is still necessary for human existence.

    Working Outline of Ideas

    Love Is Not:

    • meat
    • drink
    • slumber
    • roof (against the rain)
    • mast (spar to men that sink and rise)
    • breath
    • blood
    • bone

    Irony: love is so powerful, but it is not physically essential


    Some would kill themselves b/c of a “lack of love”


    Maybe some would surpass love for food—trade it or sell it


    Narrator—would I give love away for essential: food, etc.?


    Love is more valuable that food, etc. Love is irreplaceable because there is no other emotion like it.

    Ending tension:

    “I do not think I would.” Seems uncertain, thus reaffirming the ambiguity and tension of the poem.

    Revised Thesis

    Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Love Is Not All” is centered around a paradox: love is not needed for physical survival but seems needed for emotional survival. The poem displays this by paradox and tension.

    Final Draft

    Kelly Ann Wolslegel

    Professor John Pennington

    Introduction to Literature

    April 25, 20–

    The Ambiguity of Love: Millay’s “Love Is Not All”

    Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink,” sonnet xxx in the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview (1931), affirms the fact that love cannot fulfill our basic human needs, yet it has an undefinable power. The speaker in the poem writes to her lover, it appears, after a night of passion and contemplates the ultimate power of love. Using the sonnet form, the traditional form for love poetry, the speaker points out that because there is no other emotion quite like the many-faceted emotion of love, it is utterly irreplaceable. However, the poem also claims that love cannot feed the hungry, provide shelter from the elements, or heal physical pain, for these basic needs must be met to maintain a happy human existence. Thus the poem is based on a tension or ambiguity about love: on the one hand, love is useless for physical survival; on the other hand, it is essential for emotional survival. Millay’s poem is structured on such a paradox and provides a tentative resolution: though “Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink,” the poem suggests that love is still an essential ingredient for happiness because it emotionally fulfills a need that is lacking in the physical world.

    The poem can be broken into three parts or movements: the first movement (1–6) tells the reader what love is incapable of doing; the second (7–8) defines the paradoxical nature of love: “Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.” Finally, the third movement finds the speaker contemplating the necessity of love. All these parts are artistically integrated to build to the poem’s climactic moment. As Allen Tate writes of Millay’s sonnets, “From first to last every sonnet has it special rhythm and sharply defined imagery; they move like a smooth machine, but not machine-like, under the hand of a masterly technician” (64).

    In the first movement, Millay personifies love and uses familiar images such as food and shelter to show the reader what love is incapable of doing; thus, she yokes the commonplace and abstract together. For example, she points out that love cannot “fill the thickened lung with breath” (5). Breathing is perhaps the single most important necessity for human existence; take away oxygen and we all die. Also, love cannot take the place of “meat nor drink” (1); it is unable to quench the physical desires of hunger or thirst. Furthermore, though the body may be fatigued, love cannot take the place of “slumber” or provide “a roof against the rain” (2). Obviously, love lacks the material necessities essential to survival. Our physical needs and desires cannot be quenched by love alone.

    The narrator also points out that love is unable to protect or save us from physical dangers. Thus, love cannot rescue us from the powerful ocean tides by providing “a floating spar to men that sink / And rise and sink” (3–4). Love is also unable to “clean the blood” or “set the fractured bone” (6). It seems as though the hands of love are tied, preventing it from aiding us in any physical need. Throughout the first movement of the sonnet, Millay juxtaposes love with the concrete physical necessities needed for survival; love simply cannot save us from the physical dangers of the world. The poem’s catalogue of images creates tension, for the poet exposes that love cannot protect or save us.

    Such tension is further highlighted in the poem’s second movement: “Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” (7–8). If love cannot physically sustain us or save us from injury, then it seems absurd that the “lack of love alone” drives humans to death. The central paradox of the poem is defined: Why is love so essential for survival when it is not a physical necessity?

    In the third movement, Millay’s poem works toward resolution by questioning whether or not people should trade love for physical fulfillment. The speaker, addressing her lover directly, asks if “in a difficult hour” she would “sell your love for peace, / Or trade the memory of this night for food” (9, 12–13). Love’s uselessness has been made concrete by negative comparisons: it cannot feed, clothe, provide shelter, or prevent physical pain from occurring. The speaker says, “I do not think I would” (14). If this line is interpreted as an affirmation, Millay’s poem takes a romantic view of love, that love does conquer all. On the other hand, if the speaker presents this statement more as a question, then the speaker is indicating that she is wary of the power of love. Millay maintains this tension or hesitation throughout the third movement by repeating “It well may be” twice (in lines 9 and 14), and the speaker even admits: “I might be driven to sell your love for peace” (12). Even the trademark rhyming couplet that should bring closure to the poem is absent, for food and would are only near rhymes, thus reinforcing the tension between blind faith in love and the reality of its limited physical power. The poem ends with uncertainty: the speaker is uncertain whether she would sacrifice the memory of love for physical wholeness. However, the poem appears to use understatement to resolve this ambiguity. Though we know what love is incapable of doing, we also know that the speaker does not “think [she] would” give up on love. Thus the hesitation on the speaker’s voice ironically provides the answer—yes, indeed, love is powerful enough to cherish, but a commitment to it does require sacrifice.

    Many romantics would like to think that “love can move mountains” or “conquer all.” In the poem “Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink,” Edna St. Vincent Millay asserts that love cannot serve as a replacement for our basic physical needs, yet it is essential for a person’s emotional needs. Patricia A. Klemans suggests that Fatal Interview “offers something new expressed in the framework and terms of the old. It presents love from a woman’s point of view, yet it treats love as an ageless and natural experience” (206). Thus, the poem plays with love’s tension, showing that a commitment to love necessarily demands sacrifice, a sacrifice, it appears, well worth it.

    Works Cited

    Klemans, Patricia A. “‘Being Born a Woman’: A New Look at Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Thesing 200–212. Print.

    Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Love Is Not All: It Is Not Meat nor Drink.” Collected Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper and Row, 1941. 99. Print.

    Tate, Allen. “Miss Millay’s Sonnets.” Thesing 61–64. Print.

    Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Hall, 1993. Print.