Most of the poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, including ‘The Betrothal’, deal with the expression of very personal problems. Millay tells the readers about her predicament involving unfulfilled love.
‘The Betrothal’ is a poem about being in love with someone, but never being able to be with that person because the feeling is not mutual. The poem’s theme is a very complex situation that causes a very complex emotion as well.
The poem was published in 1921 and we might need to look at the poet’s personal life to get a better understanding of the poem. First, let’s look at the poem.
The Betrothal by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad, And love me if you like! I hardly hear the door shut Or the knocker strike. Oh, bring me gifts or beg me gifts, And wed me if you will! I'd make a man a good wife, Sensible and still. And why should I be cold, my lad, And why should you repine, Because I love a dark head That never will be mine? I might as well be easing you As lie alone in bed And waste the night in wanting A cruel dark head! You might as well be calling yours What never will be his, And one of us be happy; There's few enough as is.
Meaning and Analysis of ‘The Betrothal’
‘The Betrothal’ is a poem written from the perspective of a woman who is about to marry someone she does not love, but she doesn’t mind that because the meaning of marriage is lost to her.
She doesn’t care if anyone loves her or not, marries her or not. She has lost hope and trust in all these human associations because the person she loves does not love her back.
To her, marriage and other relationships are of no meaning and worth with anyone else other than the one she wants to be with. And she has described her ‘numbness’ in a very poetic way.
Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad,
And love me if you like!
I hardly hear the door shut
Or the knocker strike.
The first stanza tells us about how unbothered she will be if anyone loves her not. The speaker uses the metaphor of knocking and closing doors to represent the coming and going of her lovers.
She does not notice if someone loves her or leaves her.
Oh, bring me gifts or beg me gifts,
And wed me if you will!
I’d make a man a good wife,
Sensible and still.
She is also not concerned if someone treats her nicely or asks her to be treated nicely. She says that if someone is looking for a wife who is sensible, still, and easy to manage, then she’d be the perfect fit.
All of this is because she is completely numb to all the relationships. She does not care at all what’s going on. She can put on a good pretense.
And why should I be cold, my lad,
And why should you repine,
Because I love a dark head
That never will be mine?
Now we come to understand why she is cold and numb to love from all the other people.
While she says that she is not cold to anyone, we know that deep down, she is affected by the fact that she can never be the person she loves.
She says that her cold behavior should not make the other person worry or fret that they might have done something wrong. That’s not the reason for her coldness.
She is in love with someone who is not affected by her pain; hence she calls him someone with a dark head.
I might as well be easing you
As lie alone in bed
And waste the night in wanting
A cruel dark head!
The speaker says that she will not bother the person she will be with as she will just lie alone in the bed, spending the night just thinking about this ‘cruel’ love of hers.
She would not complain, argue, or fight with the person she is with because she would be too lost in the thoughts of the other person.
You might as well be calling yours
What never will be his,
And one of us be happy;
There’s few enough as is.
To make the other person feel a little better, she says that the other person would get to call her his, something that the cruel person she loves never can.
Perhaps this other person loves her, but she does not. So she is ready to marry him and in that way, at least one of them could be happy. She knows that she never will be.
She ends the poem by saying that there are already many people who are unhappy. So in this way, at least there will be one less person in this unhappy pile.
Theme and Essence of ‘The Betrothal’
To understand the theme and essence of the poem, we’ll have to learn about the poet and her personal life briefly. Edna St. Vincent Millay was infatuated with many people in her life.
She was always in polyamorous relationships and believed that there are so many great people that you can love that you should not just restrict your love to just one.
So perhaps this poem was inspired by someone who did not like her way of life. Maybe he wanted her to be with him alone or perhaps loved someone else.
The poem is about not being able to forget someone or be with someone you love deeply. Perhaps because they do not want to be with you or love you.
So you are with someone else, and even though you do not want to, you are cold to them. The poem is just a description of this feeling and what goes in the head of the person who goes through it.
That’s the theme of the poem; unrequited love, desire, pain, and compromise.