Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Pity me not because the Light of Day’: An Analysis

Edna St. Vincent Millay was an award-winning American poet who lived between 1892 and 1950. In this essay, I will attempt an analysis of one of her sonnets, ‘Pity Me not because the Light of Day’, which is also known as ‘Sonnet 29’. Structurally, Millay’s poem is an English sonnet. It is made up of fourteen lines, written in iambic pentametre and has the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. It should be recalled that this type of sonnet was popular in the England of the 16th century when William Shakespeare and his contemporaries practised the art form. Millay was a modern poet who deployed the sonnet form to express modern themes and subject matter. Thus, her poem is more like putting a new wine in an old bottle. Being a lyrical poem, the sonnet is often used to capture the feelings of its author on certain issues bordering on love and life generally. It is usually based on something that is personal to the poet. This is not different with Millay’s ‘Pity Me not because the Light of Day’, whose subject matter revolves around love, its loss, or denial in an individual’s life. It is important to mention that Millay as an individual had an adventurous love life as most of her biographical accounts have revealed. Thus, this poem could have been written as a response to one or some of her love experiences.

 In the poem, it is noticed that Millay brings to bear her feminist attitudes on matters of love and emotion. The idea of love depicted in the poem is one in its unrequited or failed state. In the poem, human love is depicted as temporary, momentary and brief, just like human life or the ebbing of the tide or the waning of the moon, which are analogous events in life and nature that the persona uses to explain why human love often suffers setbacks. The persona sees human love as being linked to a man’s desire; the love ends the moment the desire exhausts itself. The persona also compares earthly love to the beautiful plants in the field which will eventually be destroyed by the wind. Like strong waves (tide), love destroys everything in its path.

It is important to mention the brave attitude that the persona puts up right from the beginning of the poem. This is seen in the expression ‘pity me not’ which also constitutes a repetend in the poem. The persona appears to be saying that she should not be pitied for her sad love tales because she anticipated everything even though she did not have the will to act in order to avoid them: ‘This have I known always.’  It is in the final couplet that the persona states the grounds on which she should be pitied: ‘Pity me that the heart is slow to learn/What the swift mind beholds at every turn.’ This statement implies that when it comes to love, people tend to be led by their heart (emotion) rather than their mind (reason/logic). Thus, the couplet is a fitting conclusion to the poem as it resolves the poetic discourse in a witty and creatively abrupt manner.

Millay deploys a number of poetic devices to send across her message on the fleeting nature of romantic love as practised by humans. Among such devices are personification, metonymy, euphemism, alliteration, assonance and anaphora. Personification is noted in the lines: ‘Pity me not because the light of day/At close of day no longer walks the sky’. In these lines, the persona causes the reader to reflect on the temporary existence of the day which ends when the sun sets, and at the same time prepares the reader’s mind to appreciate how the day’s temporality compares with human love. The word ‘beauties’ used in the third line of the poem exemplifies metonymy as it is a term usually associated with ladies. The expression ‘passed away’ in the same line constitutes euphemism, as it is a mild way of referring to the act of dying. All these images are used to illustrate the ephemerality in nature and how that accounts for the short span of human love. In the fourth line, the poet uses alliteration in the expression ‘from field’, where the voiceless labiodental fricative sound is repeated. That, in my opinion, lends force and drama to the departure of the beautiful souls the persona mentions in the previous line. The expression ‘as the year goes by’ is an example of personification. It is used to emphasise the idea of the passage of time and how it affects human life, and perhaps, human love, both which disappear with time.

Just as the ‘waning of the moon’ affects the ‘ebbing of the tide’, a modern scientific fact expressed in poetic terms, man’s love or his romantic feeling is influenced by many human and natural factors which force it to reduce or completely disappear with time. Both the moon and the tide have their periods of fullness or abundance as well as their period of lack or complete absence. This is the same thing with human love. Lines 6 and 7 express personification as can be seen in ‘the ebbing tide goes out to sea’ and ‘a man’s desire is hushed so soon’. Both express a sense of departure and ending which illustrate the state of romantic love. This idea is succinctly captured in the eighth line where the persona begins to admit her vulnerability despite having been brave and stoical from the beginning of the poem. The persona says: ‘And you no longer look with love on me.’ There is a conscious use of alliteration in this line as can be seen in the repetition of the alveolar lateral sound in ‘longer’, ‘look’ and ‘love’. This is the line that portrays the theme of ephemeral or fleeting romantic love often observed in human relationships. Note the caesura in the ninth line and the statement that follows it: ‘Love is no more’. It is important to note that though the poem is written in run-on-line, one can derive a useful poetic meaning if the ninth line is read as complete on its own.

The repetition of the semivowel /w/ in ‘wide’, ‘which’ and ‘wind’ constitutes alliteration in line 10. The poet, in my opinion, uses this sound device to emphasise the extent of the damage that the wind wrecks on the crops in the farm, which at the same time represents the havoc that the forces of nature wreck on human love. There is also the use of anaphora in the sixth and the seventh lines, as can be seen in the repetition of the word ‘nor’ at the start of the lines. Another case of anaphora is observed in lines 10 and 11 as can be seen in the repetition of the word ‘than’ at the beginning of the lines. Line 11 utilises alliteration with the repetition of the voiced dental fricative in ‘than’, ‘the’ and ‘that’. It is also seen in the recurrence of the voiceless palato-alveolar fricative in ‘shifting’ and ‘shore’. The alliterative devices in the line reiterate the idea of change and impermanence noted in the movement of the tide and that of the shore. They are deployed by the poet to point to the changing nature of human love. The use of assonance in the twelfth line of the poem is striking. It can be observed in the words ‘fresh’, and ‘wreckage’. There is also alliteration in ‘gathered’ and ‘gales’. Together these devices help to convey the idea that human love is one stormy adventure full of accidents and disasters, and that no matter how careful the individual might be, he or she cannot avoid its attraction and eventual entrapment. Millay herself had experienced it and she, perhaps, warns us in vain.


How does Millay make love such a compelling subject matter in the poem?

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