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Edna St. Vincent Millay's Sonnet I: “Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Introduction and Text of "Sonnet 1"
Millay's speaker in "Sonnet I" uses rich irony and alludes to the King Mithradites legend to assuage her overwhelming passion for beauty.
Edna St. Vincent Millay's " Sonnet I" is indeed a sonnet, an innovative Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and a sestet. The octave's rime scheme is ABBAABBA and sestet's rime scheme is CDECDE. The theme of the sonnet is that love of beauty can be as devastating as poison.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Sonnet I: “Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no”
Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,—I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,—with moonlight so.
Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink—and live—what has destroyed some men.
Reading of Millay's Sonnet 1
Octave: "Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no"
The speaker begins the octave by addressing some object or person of great beauty, something or someone to which or whom she is desperately attracted: "Thou art no lovelier than lilacs,--no, / Nor honeysuckle." Her description of her object of desire is rendered in the negative because the speaker wishes to calm her passion.
The speaker, therefore, compares the target of her passion negatively: "thou art 'not' more fair / Than small white single poppies." Because she has determined that the person/object is not so attractive as certain flowers, she is able to "bear / [Its] beauty." She employs irony to assuage her overwhelming attraction.
If the speaker can convince herself that this beauty is not so alluring, then she believes she can calm her longings. She can become more evenminded than she otherwise would be. Nevertheless, even though she claims she can "bear / [Its] beauty," she admits that she "bends before [it]."
Overwhelming sensation motivated by deep attraction causes the body to bend, usually at the knees, but her bending is "[f]rom left to right." She admits she does not know "where to go." She then avers that she "turn[s] [her] troubled eyes."
But even turning her eyes gives no relief; as the speaker turns those anxious eyes, she cannot "find any refuge from [that beauty]." She then compares her dilemma to the way she has felt about "mist" and "moonlight."
Sestet: "Like him who day by day unto his draught"
In the sestet, the speaker reveals her method. She alludes to the legend of King Mithradites, who supposedly feared being poisoned, and therefore the king began to drink small amounts of poison each day, increasing the amounts until he had achieved immunity from even a massive dose.
As King Mithradites dosed himself with poison, this speaker, who feared being done in by beauty, has let herself be exposed to beauty in small installments. She has, thus, become "inured to beauty" by "quaff[ing] / Each hour more deeply than the hour before."
By withstanding larger and larger amounts, she has become so hardy that she can "drink—and live—what has destroyed some men." Through this method, she has trained her senses so that she can now say what she said in the octave, that the object of her passion is not as lovely as the lilacs and other flowers, when in her heart, she feels quite the opposite.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes