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Edna St Vincent Millay

Sonnet 29

Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field to thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea.
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon.
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails.
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore.
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
When the swift mind beholds at every turn.

My thoughts (in response to being asked why is this poem so sad?)

Millay’s “Sonnet 29” evokes feelings of sadness and loneliness that reflect the speaker’s sense of solitude and remorse. The poem’s diction and its form contribute to conveying the persona’s nostalgia for the past.  An analysis of the poem’s structure, its choice of words and its juxtaposition of the mind and the heart, will reveal what “makes this poem so sad”.

Millay’s poem is structured in such a way as to build up towards a sense of despair and sadness even though it begins with an assertive statement “Pity me not” (line 1). The beginning of the poem and the repetition of the imperative “Pity me not” seemingly depict a persona who is in control of her emotions, and who orders the readers to not feel pity for her. Yet the first half of the Sonnet (lines 1-7) is written using the negative form which invites the reader to question the emotion that underlies the orders. Line 8, half way through the poem, introduces the dichotomy between mind and heart that controls this sonnet. The persona declares: “This have I known always” referring to her mind. The mind allows us to know, while the heart allows us to feel. The mind reveals that “love is no more” (line 8). Lines 9-14 develop the image of a love that is “no more” and culminate in the rhyming couplet that asserts yet again the dichotomy that is causing the sadness: “the heart is slow to learn” what the “swift” mind has understood many times.  Thus, the sonnet’s structure, with its regular rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg) suits the poem’s emphasis on the repeated sorrows that have befallen the speaker while the rhyming couplet at the end confronts us (and the speaker) with the reality of her dilemma: she is torn between heart and  mind.

In addition to its regular structure, the poem’s diction plays a crucial role in conveying the speaker’s emotions. Millay’s choice of words that evoke the passing of time, the violence of love and the sorrows caused by the heart is poignant. For example the poem is littered with words that signify death, dying, ends and endings. The first two lines of the poem invite the reader to think of the speaker’s death by mentioning the extinction of the “light of day” and the disappearance of the sun from the sky. The “close of day” could refer to dusk but it could also refer to an impending death, however the phrase “no  longer walks the sky” gives the impression of an irreversible phenomenon such as death. The passing of time is represented by references to the passing of youth, “beauties passed away” (line 3) although here too the phrase “passed away” encourages the reader to think of death. Furthermore, the poem associates the sense of an impending death by referring to the “waning” of the moon, thus evoking images of a fading, declining, weakening that are reinforced by the impression of the “ebbing tide” withdrawing, disappearing into the sea. The association of the speaker’s feelings with the natural landscape creates a powerful sense of defeat as the reader recognises that the speaker is reconciled to her old age and is at peace with the knowledge that her life might be ending soon.

In addition to its examination of the speaker’s relationship to time, the poem also depicts the sadness surrounding the realisation that with the fading of youth, there is a diminishing in one’s sense of their desirability. Lines 7-8 contain a powerful lament of the loss of “desire” and the fragility of love. The second half of this sonnet powerfully represents the fragility and the violence of love. It depicts love as a delicate “blossom” (line 10) which is violated by the “wind”. Here we witness the powerful image of a feeble blossom being attacked by various problems in life. If impending death is symbolised by the retreating “ebbing tide” (line 6) then love is as changing as the “great tide” that uncovers the most violent and  fractured parts of our selves, “the wreckage gathered in the gales” (line 12). Love is not a source of happiness, it is violent, temporary and destructive.

Hence, the speaker’s final plea is for the reader to pity her, not her old age and the loss of love but, her fated confinement to a heart that takes its time to understand the passing of time and the violence of love, and to a mind that has understood, “beheld” and comprehended this fate.  The absence of a title is significant here because although this poem is a highly personal lament, yet its meaning is universal. The absence of a title allows readers to imbue this poem with their own personal reflection on its theme, it relinquishes the author’s power as the “owner” of meaning and allows a unique individual interpretation. The greatest sadness, it would seem, comes from knowing the source of our sadness and from knowing that we are confined to it.

 

 

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