cover image for Love is Not All (Sonnet XXX) featuring poet Edna St. Vincent Millay

Analysis of the Poem Love Is Not All By Edna St. Vincent Millay

“Love is Not All” is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay which presents her cynical view of love and how love fails to provide for the basic necessities of life. It was written in 1931, and was included in her collection Fatal Interview with other 52 sonnets. However, the most successful one among them is “Love is Not All”.

We all might have heard someone say that “Love is not everything” and we often wonder why they say so. They give you examples that love is not going to make you money, or give you food when you are hungry or give you a roof over your head.

These statements might hurt some lovesick people, but to some extent these are points to be considered before making a life- changing decision.

The speaker in the poem states that love does not hold or possess the power to heal or save something, and she knows that she might face hardship due to these reasons but she would not trade love for food and peace.

Love is Not All(Sonnet XXX)

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 can not 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. 
-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Meaning and Summary

“Love is Not All Sonnet” is a poem that discusses the harsh realities of love. The poet argues that love cannot sustain life nor provide its basic necessities. It cannot stop someone’s death or repair a bone.

 It is not a spar that will save someone from sinking. Therefore, the poet provides us with all the practical arguments against love. But when it comes to her love for someone she might not actually do the same.

The poem takes a dramatic turn where the poet depicts an image of her suffering in pain because of the lack of love. Her lack of control over her love would conflict with her power of love and in that moment she might want to give up all the memories and sell her love for mental peace. 

The speaker would think of trading the “memory of this night” for food, money or peace but her lack of control over love would never let her do so. She accepts to choose suffering just so she could have all the memories and moments she spent with her beloved. 

Though she is confident about her resolution and would choose love over any necessity, because to her love is a form of survival.

Analysis of the Poem

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;

In the first quatrain, the speaker tries to be practical and suggests that love is not everything. Then the speaker goes on and names a few things that cannot be compared to love, that are critical to human survival, shelter, sleep, food and water. 

The poem can be read as an attempt to lessen the importance of love by comparing it to the physical needs of humans.

Then, the speaker compares love to an inanimate object to prove how unimportant and useless love is at the time of survival. The poet compares love to a “spar” which is a strong, thick pole used to mast a ship. 

The poet implies that love is not a “spar” that can save a man who is drowning. Drowning men can hold onto that pole and survive but love cannot help them in such a dreadful situation.

However, through the image of drowning men and their rising and sinking in the water, the speaker suggests her desperation. 

Love can not 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. 

In the second quatrain, the speaker presents a few situations where love does not play any role. She suggests that love cannot stop someone from dying, it cannot cleanse the blood, or repair a fractured bone. However, many men are becoming friends with death for the lack of love.

The poet has tried to suggest that even after knowing about all these practical reasons, men still kill themselves because they do not have love. The poet is left in disbelief even after arguing against love.

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, 

The poet suggests that she might go through a difficult time in which she would be hurt and “pinned down” by pain and she would want love. But, then the power of love would exceed her resolution power in which she proved love to be “not all”. And, in that moment she would want to sell his love for her mental peace.

These lines are indicative of a turn in the poem, where the poet actually goes against whatever she has said, and implies that even she cannot live without love, and with the lack of love alone all she would go through is pain. A pain that has no release.

Or trade the memory of this night for food. 

It well may be. I do not think I would.

The last two lines of the sonnet are very important as the poet tells us that she might trade all the memories she has of her lover for “food”, not literal “food” but all the basic necessities of life. And after writing she might have realized that it could be, but she would never do it.

These lines are actually a reference to the fact that even though she was in dire need of food or shelter, she would never sell her memories of the night that she made with her lover. She is confident about her resolution, and she chooses suffering over peace.

Peace would mean moving on, and suffering would remind her of all the memories of the past, and she is happy with suffering but not without love.

Themes

The theme of the poem “Love is Not All” is the mysterious nature of love. Since the beginning of the poem, the speaker was against love as it is unimportant and useless. The poet describes the reality of love and crushes everyone’s notion of love. She tells us that love is not important for survival because it does not provide for the basic necessities of love.

The speaker continues to add that it is not going to save a drowning man, it is not going to save someone from a deadly disease and cleanse their blood. Yet, people die because of the lack of love. 

In these lines the speaker has tried to express the powerlessness of love and compared it to more important things in life. The poet was against love and everyone who believes that love is important.

However, towards the end of the poem the tone of the speaker changes and she suggests that the lack of love has resulted in pain. She might think of trading the memories of her beloved for mental peace, but then instantly says she would not. 

The speaker is confident about her resolution of suffering. She would not want to move on from her memories of the past, she would rather suffer in those memories so that she does not forget about the love that she once had.

These lines also explain the nature of love, sometimes it’s powerless and sometimes its value exceeds more than one’s food, peace and basic necessities. The poem suggests that love may not be crucial to survival but central to human life. 

Literary Devices

The literary devices used in the poem “Love is Not All” are:

Caesura- The poet uses caesura to imply the pause or breaks in between the sentences and with the purpose of giving the poem a rhythm.

For example:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be. I do not think I would.

End- stopped lines- Most of the lines are end-stopped in order to suggest that end of a complete thought. A few examples are:

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath, 

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

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

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release, 

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,

Metaphor-Millay uses metaphor to compare love with the basic necessities of life. Moreover, she also compares love and memories as tradable objects that she would trade for food and peace. Also “pinned down by pain” is a metaphor that she uses to compare pain caused by human action. For example:

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,

Juxtaposition- The poet uses juxtaposition to draw out differences between love and basic necessities of life by placing them side by side in the poem. It creates a contrast between love and human needs. 

Imagery– The poet uses imagery so that the readers can understand the poet’s desperation for the lack of love. For example:

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink 

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Irony– The poem can be read as an ironical one as in the beginning of the poem, the poet presents an image where she provides practical arguments against love. However, in the end the poet was ready to trade peace and food just for the memories of her beloved.

Repetition– Millay uses repetition in the poem with the purpose of depicting her cynicism concerning love. For example: “nor”, “not”, “love” and “it well may be”.

Symbolism– In the poem, Millay uses a number of symbols to signify their importance. For example: “meat or  drink” symbolizes the physical and basic necessities for living. The “roof” symbolizes protection  and safety, “thickened lung with breath” symbolizes tuberculosis and “clean blood” means the infected blood that comes out from the mouth of a person suffering from tuberculosis. 

Conclusion

“Love is Not All” is a poem that can be read on an intense level. This poem sends a strong and powerful message to the readers where Millay expresses her lack of control over love. I believe that it is not just her, love is a powerful thing and the lack of love hurts people. 

Even after knowing the relative unimportance of love, the speaker is ready to trade it for food, even if she was starving. The poet might have thought that writing about the power of love would make her actually gain power over it. But then self realization hit and she is left in disbelief that one can never survive without love. 

Love is not crucial to survival, but for some people love is the reason for survival, one exists because of love. Love is central to human life. Lack of love is nature without trees, an  ocean without water. Love is not all, Love is everything.

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