cover image showing Edna St. Vincent Millay for her Poem "Ashes of Life"

Ashes Of Life by Edna St. vincent Millay: Complete Analysis, Summary and Meaning

“Ashes of Life” is a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay and was published in 1917. The poem discusses the life of a woman who has lost touch with her own life and ambitions. She tells us that what kept her happy has left her and now she is stuck in the monotony of everyday life. 

Have you ever feared the next morning that is about to come, because you feel that you cannot survive another tomorrow?

You have just been eating because you have to, and doing your same monotonous chores and you know this is not the end. We all have gone through a phase, where life was not easy when all we faced were setbacks with no better results. 

Ashes of Life

Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike;
Eat I must, and sleep I will, — and would that night were here!
But ah! — to lie awake and hear the slow hours strike!
Would that it were day again! — with twilight near!

Love has gone and left me and I don't know what to do;
This or that or what you will is all the same to me;
But all the things that I begin I leave before I'm through, —
There's little use in anything as far as I can see.

Love has gone and left me, — and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse, —
And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
There's this little street and this little house.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Meaning and Summary

In the poem, “Ashes of Life” we learn that the speaker of the poem is going through a time when “love” has left her. She does wake up every day, but only to sleep again. And sleeps only to wait for the morning.

Her life has become monotonous and dreary. She is in the throes of depression and wishes that there was an escape from the emotional and mental state that she is going through.

Moreover, she never fails to repeat the line “Love has gone” to symbolize that the one who has left is never going to return. She tells us that everything is the same to her now, every feeling that she feels is sad, and every day is monotonous.

She might start to do something different, but her impatient nature stops her. Her mind tells her that every escape that she finds is useless.

Her neighbors are checking up on her and trying to find out what happened to her, and are spying on her.

She feels depressed about the world that she lives in, she feels miserable that there is going to be another day in her life, when she will live on the same street and same house. Nothing is going to change, her life is always going to be melancholic. 

Analysis of the Poem

Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike;

Eat I must, and sleep I will, — and would that night were here!

But ah! — to lie awake and hear the slow hours strike!

Would that it were day again! — with twilight near!

In the first quatrain of the poem, the speaker states the main cause of the disruption of her daily life patterns. And it is all because there is no love in her life anymore. She tells us that “Love has gone”, but where did her lover go? Just left her or died? We do not know that.

All the days feel and look the same to her because she does the same activities every day. She tells us that to live she has to eat and finds herself ready to sleep. She wishes that only night could come more quickly.

It is not just that love has left her, but the impact of loss has taken her down. She is just living because she has to.

These lines also symbolize that the speaker is going through depression which she finds inescapable. The speaker yearns to sleep when she is awake, and when it is time to do so, she is unable to do it. All she does is hear the time passing by, but she cannot do anything. 

The speaker wishes if only there was any going back from this monotonous life that she is living. She is unable to find the relief that she is craving.

Therefore, when she rests, all she can think about is when will it be morning again. Maybe “twilight” will bring her some hope. 

Love has gone and left me and I don’t know what to do;

This or that or what you will is all the same to me;

But all the things that I begin I leave before I’m through, —

There’s little use in anything as far as I can see.

The second quatrain begins with the same opening line as the first one, “Love has gone”. She tells us how deeply it has affected her, that she has lost the ability to think anymore.

Therefore, she does not know what to do in her life anymore. Everything is the same to her because it makes her feel all the same.

The speaker of the poem has become numb to all feelings, she is unbothered about whatever her “love” is doing or will do. She tells us that as soon as she begins to do something, she leaves it because she thinks it’s useless. The speaker becomes uninterested and impatient.

Millay portrays that the speaker is going through a phase where she cannot spend her days, but she is also unbothered about her “love”. It seems difficult for her to concentrate on things that she starts to do, everything seems useless to her. The escapes are monotonous for her.

Love has gone and left me, — and the neighbors knock and borrow,

And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse, —

And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow

There’s this little street and this little house.

In the last stanza, the speaker repeats the opening line. The speaker tries to tell us that all she has become is because of the love that has gone. She blames love for leaving her which resulted in her doing all this. 

She tells us that her neighbors are curious about what is going on in her life and what has happened to her. Her lover who left her is not concerned about her, but rather her neighbors check up on her. But even after all this, even after “love has gone”, she tells us that life will never end, it goes on forever.

Life never ends, just like the “gnawing of a mouse”. But all she sees for herself is repetitive days lined up, in the same street and the same house. She dreads the monotony of all the tomorrows that are yet to come. The fact that she has more life ahead of her terrifies her.

Themes

The theme of the poem “Ashes of life” are love and loss, depression, and the monotony of everyday life. The speaker in the very beginning of the poem tells us that “Love has gone”, which implies that she did love someone, but the person she loved has left her and now she mourns.

We do not know what happened to the person, all we know is that he is no more there with her.

The person leaving has affected the speaker so deeply that she can hardly do anything, everyday she sinks deeper and deeper into the ocean of depression from where she knows she is never going to return.

Love made her lose her life, not just herself, but also her social and emotional life. It has impacted her not only mentally but also physically, she is not living, she is just surviving.

She has become numb and depressed, everything feels the same to her, and everything has a feeling of nothingness. It’s as if even spring cannot make the flowers grow in her heart.

To her, every day is the same, every day she is going to wake up and wait for the night, and then as soon as it is the night she is going to wait for the next morning.

She simply tells us that she does not know what to do, her life which is not just life but the remains of her dead life has left her in an urn, which is inescapable. She loses interest in everything she does.

The fact that there is going to be another tomorrow eats her within. She is terrified of living another day like this. 

It is upsetting what the speaker has to go through all by herself. People ask about her not because they care for her, but because they just want to know what has happened.

No one is helping her out, or listening to her. Her life had ended when her “love” left her and now all she has is the ashes of the relationship she once had.

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the poem “Ashes of life” are:

Caesura– The poet uses caesura in each line to state that every word is a statement that she makes. For example:

Eat I must, and sleep I will, — and would that night were here!

Would that it were day again! — with twilight near!

Love has gone and left me, — and the neighbors knock and borrow,

Repetition– The poet repeats the line “Love has gone” to state that it is the only reason for her depression. Love was so important to her, that its loss has impacted her life deeply. 

Enjambment– The poet has used enjambment in the last line, to imply that just as the readers have to move to the next line to complete the poem, the speaker has to live another “tomorrow”. For example:

And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow

There’s this little street and this little house.

End-stopped lines- The end-stopped lines in the poem indicate the end of a particular thought. For example:

Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike;

Eat I must, and sleep I will, — and would that night were here!

But all the things that I begin I leave before I’m through, —

There’s little use in anything as far as I can see.

Consonance- A few examples of consonance from the poem are:

Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike;

Would that it were day again! — with twilight near!

There’s this little street and this little house.

Alliteration– A few examples of alliteration from the poem are:

This or that or what you will is all the same to me;

But all the things that I begin I leave before I’m through, —

And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow

Conclusion

“Ashes of Life” is a poem that describes a time that most of us had to go through not just because of love, but also some other reasons. It is difficult to survive that. 

And it is unbelievable how Millay could portray all the emotions and misery that one feels during that unbearable time of living. Every day feels like another war that one has to fight. Getting up from bed does not seem easy, but sleeping is also not an option.

The title “Ashes of Life” is quite a thoughtful one I believe, because the poet has tried to tell us that the speaker’s life has ended when her lover left her, she is just surviving on the ashes, the remains of her body. Her soul has left her.

The readers can relate to the poem at once, we all have had that phase when living another day feels like a nightmare. Sometimes you sign up that this is how your life is going to end. 

However, in these situations, one must remember that every other day is another chance given to us, and every morning symbolizes hope. It might take time for us to completely change and become happy, but little by little we have to start taking steps toward that happiness. 

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