Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tone Analysis of "Love Is Not All," a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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 cannot 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.

This poem, like most sonnets, has a shift in tone. In the first section, the parallel structure within this poem contributes to a calm, logical tone. This "nor" section simply states logical arguments why the narrator, or anyone for that matter, shouldn't actually need love, creating an almost "convincing" or "persuading" tone. Because this section of the poem takes up six lines in only one sentence, the lengthy, elaborate syntax with parallel structure weaved throughout it creates a slow pace that ultimately reveals the narrator's tranquil tone of voice. Also, the meter of phrases like "And rise and sink and rise and sink" indicate steady, rhythmic tranquility. However, when compared to the rest of the poem, the tranquil and persuasive tone of section one seems contrived. This is because the second section reveals desparation and desire. First the author continues making logical statements- "I might be driven to sell your love for peace, Or trade the memory of this night for food.." The author has been using a purely logical tone to set us up for the last line- the "key." In the last line, the author's short, staccato sentences create an overwhelmed, irrational tone; thus, both in syntax and in tone, the last line contradicts the rest of the poem. While the majority of the poem tries to convey the unnecessary impracticality of love through contrived self-persuasion, the last line submits to the pure desire that keeps love alive within humanity, despite its irrationality.


  1. I love Edna St. Vincent Millay sosososososososososo much.

    Excellent analysis Maddie, though I want you to seek out even more so the EMOTIONAL quality of the poem. You're absolutely right: the first eight lines are logic driven, and your comments on the syntax and how they inform the meaning is wonderfully astute. Likewise, your note of the switch to staccato sentences marks a shift; the author now bucks all that practicality she first described, and acknowledges she would be keep this love even if it meant sacrificing far more practical things. What is the EMOTIONAL tone of that last couplet? It's more than just irrational-- in fact, it might actually be the most "rational" line of the poem, depending on your opinion of love. ("Much madness is divinest sense...") Still though: what is the emotional tone of the poet in that moment?

    I also feel like there's a shift between the first quatrain and the second; the first focuses on nature, and the images are, as you say, more tranquil. However, the second quatrain is all about the body-- it's more primal, more biological. Bones are fractured; lungs are thick. ("To what end?") The stakes have risen here: we see that love cannot provide for us even our most basic biological needs.

    How does the emotional quality change for us as the diction changes?

    You clearly understand this poem; taken your understanding one step further now. Let it seep out of your head and saturate your heart... then tell me how it feels. :)


  2. Very difficult to read with current background. Pity.