Jenna's Reviews > Collected Sonnets

Collected Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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's review
Mar 06, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry-in-english, formal-poetry-in-english, new-england-writers
Read in March, 2008

If you like Edna St. Vincent Millay, you're fine by me.

Now, I don't dispute the critics who say that Millay was a limited poet; I don't entirely disagree with those who say that Millay's "Look at what a bad girl I am! Look, look: I'm naughty, I love sex and I love talking about sex (as well as nature and, occasionally, world affairs), and I don't care what people say about me!" posturing has a limiting effect on her poetry, such that many of her poems end up saying virtually the same thing as one another. It's similar to how Ashbery's poetry is able to say more than O'Hara's, because Ashbery relies on an autobiographical persona less than O'Hara did. I don't dispute that all this is true; nonetheless, I think Millay is redeemed by her technical proficiency and her clever condensations of big meanings into elegant little turns-of-phrase. Not only is her message sympathetic and compelling, but she speaks it with impeccable eloquence. She is the sort of person who would have taken top marks in the sort of rhetoric classes they used to teach at British boys' schools, the ones that required a solid grounding in Greek and Latin.

Millay's most memorable poems are, I think, the very early love sonnets ("I shall forget you presently, my dear," "I, being born a woman and distressed," etc.), but some of the more mature and polished "Fatal Interview" sonnets are also lovable; even the political sonnets, despite the plenitude of abstract nouns they contain ("mercy," "honor," "allegiance," etc.), manage to save themselves from badness through their rhetorical strength and picturesque wordings ("The barking of a fox has bought us all....Peter warms him in the servants' hall").
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