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Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine’s Day query: Is Edna St. Vincent Millay “America’s foremost love poet”?

Complaining about the pressure she feels every year on Valentine’s Day, Bonnie Stewart blogs that she finds “the words I’d like to steal” for her “un-valentine” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is not all; it is not meat nor drink.” What is it about Millay’s love poems, written almost a century ago, that explains their enduring appeal? J. D. McClatchy, editor of Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems, credits it to her being a “romantic ironist”:
. . . it was less passion itself than her perspective on it that gives her poems their distinctive tone. . . The final couplet of one sonnet phrases the disparity perfectly.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
[from “Pity me not because the light of day”]
The slow heart and the swift mind are the instruments of our undoing, and art does not side with either. Millay’s dramatization of desire’s knotted toils and of understanding’s cold comforts remains a remarkable achievement.
In a 2001 biography, What My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Daniel Mark Epstein claimed a unique position for Millay:
[Edna St. Vincent Millay] was America’s foremost love poet, a poet of the erotic impulse and erotic condition whose finest lyrics invite comparison with the sonnets of Philip Sidney and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the amorous verses of Catullus and Horace. . . . Our major poets of the twentieth century —T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens—together did not produce three love poems comparable to Millay’s “Pity me not because the light of day,” “Love is not all; it is not meat nor drink” or “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls.”
Question for Valentine’s Day: is Millay “America’s foremost love poet”? If not Millay, who is?

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems; American Sonnets: An Anthology (includes eleven sonnets by Millay)

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