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Speaker, Subject, and Theme in Edna St Vincent Millay's ''Women have loved before as I love now''

“Women Have Loved Before As I Love Now” by Edna St. Vincent Millay Women have loved before as I love now; At least, in lively chronicles of the past- Of Irish waters by a Cornish prow Or Trojan waters by a Spartan mast Much to their cost invaded-here and there, Hunting the amorous line, skimming the rest, I find some woman bearing as I bear Love like a burning city in the breast. I think however that of all alive I only in such utter, ancient way Do suffer love; in me alone survive The unregenerate passions of a day When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread, Heedless and willful, took their knights to bed. The speaker in Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet is a woman who compares her conflagration-igniting love to the love of unnamed, female figures from antiquity and Medieval Europe—to the love of “[w]omen [who] have loved before as I love now;/ At least, in lively chronicles of the past—/ Of Irish waters by a Cornish prow/ Or Trojan waters by a Spartan mast”; and to the historical quality of “[t]he unregenerate passions of a day/ When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread,/ Heedless and willful, took their knights to bed.” The speaker is a woman who draws inspiration and kinship from perhaps heroines of the distant, fabled past to give words to the unique nature and quality of her love, which she confers to some as yet undesignated lover or recipient in this sonnet. Furthermore, the speaker is a woman who feels uniquely alone and isolated in the manner of her love, for she wanly regrets that “I think however that of all alive/ I only in such utter, ancient way/ Do suffer love; in me alone survive/ The unregenerate passions of a day.” The subject of this sonnet is closely linked to what has already been said about the speaker in the preceding paragraph. The subject is about a woman who likens her love for some mysterious, as yet unspecified recipient to the love of perhaps famous or even infamous heroines of the days of old of Classical and Medieval antiquity. For in this sonnet alone there are references made to the Achean (or Spartan) siege of Troy, that is, to the Trojan War of Greek epic-poet Homer's “The Iliad”; and to the queens and knights of the chivalric past, as in the following lines, respectively: “Women have loved before as I love now;/ At least, in lively chronicles of the past—/ Of Irish waters by a Cornish prow/ Or Trojan waters by a Spartan mast”; and, “...in me alone survive/ The unregenerate passions of a day/ When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread,/ Heedless and willful, took their knights to bed.” Moreover, an indirect reference is made to the very similar love of some possible, tragic heroine in these following lines: “I find some woman bearing as I bear/ Love like a burning city in the breast.” Perhaps the allusion is a reference to Helen of Troy, who supposedly survived and witnessed the destructive conflagration of Troy after its conquest and sack by Agamemnon's Greek armies as told in the epic poem, “The Iliad,” by Homer. Which, as generations of scholars and historians know, was brought about by Helen and Paris of Troy's adulterous relationship and union. In any case, the subject of this sonnet is about a woman who feels that the essential nature and quality of her love are both a source of destruction and possibly a very probable cause for personal guilt and self-condemnation for unethical or immoral behavior of a sexual nature. Which, in this context, begs the rhetorical question: Is the sonnet therefore actually a kind of confession for its speaker—and hence for its author, as well? The theme of this sonnet would therefore naturally follow from the treatment of its subject in the paragraph just preceding. The theme is undeniably about a woman whose love is of a destructive and tragic nature—one so potentially ruinous and catastrophic in its essence and quality so as to beg unfavorable comparison to the ancient collapse and downfall of entire cities and kingdoms brought about by the unfortunately similar love of infamous heroines of antiquity and the distant past such as the fabled Helen of Trey of “The Iliad” or the errant Queen Guinevere of former Camelot of the legendary King Arthur (and the Knights of the Round Table). The love of this woman—the speaker—is a love “like a burning city in the breast.” In addition, such a love is a love with which “treacherous queens, with death upon the tread,/ Heedless and willful, took their knights to bed.” Finally, because this type of love isolates and alienates the speaker from others (in her polite and genteel—and therefore respectable—society and community)—in much the same way the adulterous love of infidelity isolates and alienates Helen and Queen Guinevere from their respective peers, communities, and societies in general—she sighingly confesses in the closing lines of the sonnet that “I think however that of all alive/ I only in such utter, ancient way/ Do suffer love; in me alone survive/ The unregenerate passions of a day/ When treacherous queens...took their knights to bed.”

Copyright © | Year Posted 2020




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Date: 6/13/2020 8:57:00 PM
I found your analysis of Ms Millay's poem to be insightful and educational, especially your conclusion that the love the author describes is an allegory of the fall of a once-great civilization-she is my all-time favorite poet (and I just posted a tribute poem to her!) so was delighted to read your thoughts!
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Ngoc Nguyen
Date: 6/14/2020 6:13:00 AM
Thank you so much, Michelle Faulkner, for reading and for commenting! I am very glad to know that you feel that I did Ms. Millay, your all-time favorite poet, the justice that she deserves as a poet. Ms. Millay, too, is one of my favorite poets; as I admire her bravery (as a poet and as the epitome of a contemporary "modern woman"). ~Ngoc