Andromeda Unbound: Gender and Genre in Millay's Sonnets

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Author: Debra Fried
Date: Spring 1986
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 32, Issue 1)
Reprint In: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 6)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,351 words

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[In the following essay, Fried discusses Millay's use of traditional sonnet form in relation to the influence of modernism on her poetry, her repudiation of social conventions, and her status as a woman poet.]

In a critical climate in which we are rediscovering the powerful experiments of American women poets in the modernist era, the tidy verses of Edna St. Vincent Millay have remained something of an embarrassment. Tough-minded as they can be about sex, betrayal, and the price of being a woman who can write candidly about such matters, Millay's poems, particularly her sonnets, can often seem like retrograde schoolgirl exercises amidst the vanguard verbal dazzle of H. D., Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore. In revising the history of modernism to make more central the achievements of these innovative poets, it has been convenient to dismiss Millay's work as copybook bohemianism. Millay may rightly be judged as a minor star in this constellation, but this is not, I think, why there have been so few serious investigations of Millay of late. Our silence attests rather to a failure to ask the right questions about how traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet may serve the needs of women poets. Why does a woman poet in this century elect to write sonnets? What sort of gender associations can a poetic form such as the sonnet accumulate, and how may such associations, and consequent exclusions, make that genre an especially lively arena for the revisionary acts of women's poetry? What model of the relation between generic restraints and expressive freedom is suggested by the sonnet? How does genre shape the meanings of allusion within a sonnet, particularly allusions to other sonnets? And, most centrally for thinking about Millay, how has the sonnet historically implied connections between formal (generic, metrical, rhetorical) constraints and sexual ones?

Instead of asking such questions, we have tended to assume that we know just how and why a poet like Millay must use circumscribed, traditional poetic forms: to rein in her strong, unruly feelings. This idea is a commonplace in earlier writing on the poet, as in Jean Gould's observation in her popular biography [The Poet and Her Book] that Millay “found security in classical form: the sonnet was the golden scepter with which she ruled her poetic passions.” We can find similar claims in two recent essays on Millay's poetry. Jane Stanbrough caps a persuasive analysis of the deep sense of submission and constriction that lies behind Millay's seemingly defiant, unharnessed poetry [in her “Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Language of Vulnerability” in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar] with the observation that Millay's sonnets and sonnet sequences illustrate her tendency to “resort to the constraints of traditional verse form”:

The sonnet, her best form, is a fit vehicle to convey her deepest feelings of woman's victimization. Through it, Millay imaginatively reenacts her constant struggle against boundaries. The wish for freedom is always qualified by the sense of restriction; couplets and quatrains suit her sensibility.

This claim, sensible as it sounds, calls for considerable scrutiny. What poetic “sensibility,” we may ask, is not in some degree suited to the strictures of poetic form? (Isn't that what it would mean to have a poetic sensibility?) The identification of sonnets with a creative temperament that both needs boundaries and needs to strain against them is by no means applicable exclusively to Millay or to women poets. Too many assumptions go untested in Stanbrough's implication that in Millay's dependence on poetic constraints to embody the drama of vulnerability and resistance we witness a particularly female response to lyric form. A full declaration of those assumptions would require an inquiry into the ways a potentially stifling poetic form may amplify—give pitch, density, and strength to—a poet's voice. If we are to isolate the particular resources, if any, with which a woman poet may rebel against formal constraints, we must begin with an examination of the tropes for the sonnet that are part of the history of that genre. Only then can we determine the particular uses a woman poet can make of the liberating fetters of the sonnet form. The power of Millay's sonnets, and their usefulness for the study of the relations between gender and genre in twentieth-century poetry, derives from the readiness with which, while working within formal boundaries, they challenge the figurations for which the sonnet has been traditionally a receptive home. Through her revisions of those tropes and related devices—particularly as found in sonnets of Wordsworth and Keats—Millay's allusive sonnets, I will contend, reclaim that genre as her plot of ground, not chiefly by planting it with “woman's” themes or using it as mouthpiece for the woman's voice (though she does both these things), but by rethinking the form's historical capacity for silencing her voice.

It is this kind of reflectiveness about what it means to work within traditional forms that another recent essay would seem to deny to Millay. In a study of the Elizabethan sonnets of Millay and Elinor Wylie, [in Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance edited by Maynard Mack and George de Forest Lord], Judith Farr argues that Millay's particular temperaments, attitudes, and skills sometimes led her to

marshall against the lively but serene mathematics of contained forms like the sonnet, quatrain, or couplet a battery of dissheveled impulses expressed in terms calculated to shock. ... Millay's best work exhibits a tutored sensibility that enabled her to compose effectively within literary traditions she respected. The Petrarchan conventions to which she submitted in Fatal Interview served her well, moreover, disciplining her imagination yet encouraging the emotional scope her poetry instinctively sought.

One may readily take Farr's point that all of Millay's efforts in the Elizabethan mode are not equally successful. More questionable is the assumption here that the poet Millay is a creature of raw emotion or instinct who, when she is good, submits to a form that will tame that rawness, and when she is bad, invades the decorous parlors of poetic form like a spoiled child with her mad manners. The language of power-in this passage from Farr's essay is also tellingly confused: the process whereby conventions to which the poet “submits” may then in turn submit to or “serve” her is a complicated one that needs to be explained and argued in specific instances. To assume, as Farr would appear to do, that in choosing “contained forms” Millay either bombards them with mischievous, whimsical “impulses” (are these the same as the “emotional scope her poetry instinctively sought”?) or submissively “composes” within them lest impulse get the better of her, is to imply that Millay worked unwittingly at the mercy of these opposed moods. But the question of whether writing in an established lyric genre is an act of taking command or of being commanded is one upon which Millay's sonnets reflect.

It is, moreover, a reflection to which Millay found the sonnet is supremely suited, in part because it is a subject explored in the English Romantic sonnets Millay knew well. One of the dubious things about Stanbrough's and Farr's accounts of why Millay found the sonnet suited to her poetic needs is that they so strikingly resemble Wordsworth's claim that he turned to the sonnet to find relief from “too much liberty.” The sonnet is such a difficult form that from its inception in English it took as one of its topics the paradoxical release and scope to be derived from its intricate formal requirements. ...

Edna St. Vincent Millay found herself in what was perhaps a unique position in the history of women writing poetry; she was called upon to uphold the tradition of binding lyric forms against the onslaught of what her supporters saw as a dangerously shapeless modernism. In 1917 the prodigious schoolgirl who wrote “Renascence” represented “an alternative to the `new' poetry ... whose work could serve as a rallying point for the rejection of free verse, imagism, and Prufrockian ennui” [according to Elizabeth P. Perlmutter in “A Doll's Heart: The Girl in the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Brogan,” Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 23, 1977]. At the same time Millay was identified with the bohemian literary life of Greenwich Village, seen as a kind of poetic flapper who, as Elizabeth Atkins put it in 1936, “represents our time to itself.” It was, in short, an interesting time for a woman to be writing sonnets. The issues of poetic and sexual freedom were being explicitly linked; why should free-spirited Millay stick to the sonnet when other women poets were experimenting with free verse? It would be easy to suspect the poet of merely posturing at promiscuity, aping a man's freedom in order to earn the respite of poetic formalism on a man's ground. But for her the sonnet's formal patterns and its brevity both come to figure the price of freedom rather than a welcome retreat from it.

To the degree that Millay identifies the working of the sonnet with the poetics of the bohemian life, she rejects the Wordsworthian figuration of the sonnet as controlled respite from freedom. The self-fulfilling prophecies of the sonnet's tight formalities—the set of interlocking rules and obligations any sonnet sets itself early on and its “metrical contract,” in Hollander's terms, not to waver from it—Millay found useful as a trope for a poetics of burning one's candle at both ends, of using one's life up completely. The sonnet can embody metrically, sonorously, and syntactically a kind of perfectly efficient hedonism, culminating in a closure with no residue. The sestet of “Thou famished grave, I will not fill thee yet” from Huntsman, What Quarry? defiantly tells Death how lives and poems are to be ended:

I cannot starve thee out: I am thy prey
And thou shalt have me; but I dare defend
That I can stave thee off; and I dare say,
What with the life I lead, the force I spend,
I'll be but bones and jewels on that day,
And leave thee hungry even in the end.

The poet “staves off” death by the achieved design of her stanzas. Here the sonnet's closure—completing its metrical and rhyming requirements, leaving nothing formally unsatisfied, filling its staves—mimes the way the poet vows to use up her force completely and leave nothing behind. Millay allows her life to end with no residue of unlived days, as the completed sonnet, ending “in the end,” permits no residue of unpaired rhymes, unbalanced argument, or dangling syntax. Not a matter of wanton wastefulness but of almost methodical, tasking exhaustiveness, the bohemian project is thus aptly figured in the seemingly opposite, straitlacing, vow-keeping, binding contract any sonnet must be. Recalling Farr's charge that Millay “marshall[s] against the lively but serene mathematics of contained forms like the sonnet, quatrain, or couplet a battery of dissheveled impulses,” we might rather say that the self-fulfilling equations of poetic forms provide the formula whereby Millay makes sure that those impulses play themselves out to the full.

All this insistence on the scrupulous hard work of being liberated suggests the occupational hazards this job has for women. For them, the weight of too much liberty too often can be translated into a demanding lover's “weight upon my breast” (“I, being born a woman and distressed” from The Harp-Weaver). Free love itself can be a prison. Dazzled by the sight of her lover, the speaker of “When I too long have looked upon your face” (Second April) compares her condition, when she “turn[s] away reluctant” from his “light,” to a very scanty plot of ground indeed:

Then is my daily life a narrow room
In which a little while, uncertainly,
Surrounded by impenetrable gloom,
Among familiar things grown strange to me
Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark,
Till I become accustomed to the dark.

The new woman may fret a great deal in her freedom's “narrow room,” it seems; and we may take Millay's soft but audible allusion to the opening line of “Nuns Fret Not” as a reflection on the different kinds of narrowness to which their own freedom may condemn men and women. The enclosing solace of the Wordsworthian sonnet becomes here an almost tomblike, if chosen, claustrophobia, a prison into which the woman dooms herself when she turns away, a “silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight,” from the overpowering brilliance of her lover's face.

In Millay's posthumous sonnet on the sonnet [included in Mine the Harvest], the form appears not as a small plot of ground or a chosen cloister, but as an erotic prison:

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon—his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more or less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

When Millay claims that her sonnets “put Chaos into fourteen lines,” she does more than simply repeat the inherited fiction of the sonnet as brief solace or momentary stay against profusion. The stakes seem higher than in Wordsworth's poem, the tasks put upon poetic form more demanding; this sonnet figures poetic form as a cage for a wild creature. Millay may have in mind Donne's dictum that “Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, / For he tames it, that fetters it in verse” (“The Triple Fool”). But the fourteen lines of this sonnet's cage are not rigid iron bars or fetters but tethers whose strength derives from their flexibility. In refusing to make Chaos “confess,” Millay refuses to use the machinery of rhyme and meter to force her stubborn, resistant subject into saying something against his will, perhaps with a glance at Ben Jonson's “A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme,” where rhyme is figured as a torture device to extort false words from the poem: “Rime the rack of finest wits / That expresseth but by fits / True conceit.” She will not use the sonnet form to urge a confession or reply, to reveal the “something simple” that his complicated “designs” conceal. The simple goodness—virtuosity, well-craftedness—of the poem is sufficient, will “answer” or be adequate to the job of capturing Chaos. That alone will yield the solution, that is the way to make the prisoner speak up—to reform him, not punish him or make him squeal. This is a mildly coercive inquisition, a “pious rape.” The curt, determined vows that close the sonnet leave us with a sense that this poetic mastery over an old rival takes its sweetest revenge from its substitution of an inescapable gentleness for the rival's former cruelty and “arrogance.”

This late poem gathers up a recurring image in Millay's sonnets of eros as prison. In the fifth poem of the sequence Fatal Interview, the speaker counts herself the most abject of prisoners of love since “my chains throughout their iron length / Make such a golden clank upon my ear,” and she would not escape even if she had the strength to do so. By sonnet XVIII in the sequence, the speaker questions her voluntary incarceration more closely: “Shall I be prisoner till my pulses stop / To hateful Love and drag his noisy chain?” Chaos is like a fugitive, faithless lover captured at last, his amorphousness like that of the unapproachable man of whom the woman says “I chase your colored phantom on the air. ... Once more I clasp,—and there is nothing there” (“Once more into my arid days like dew” from Second April). “I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines” explicitly equates sexual and poetic dominance in its insistence on the control and compression required of the woman poet who seizes upon traditional forms in order to free herself from the forces that would deny her the power to order poetic forms—forces that include traditional male accounts of the need for poetic order.

Like [Wordsworth's] “Nuns Fret Not,” Millay's “I Will Put Chaos” ends in such a way as to suggest that the controlling process it describes has been enacted in the sonnet as we read it. Wordsworth's closing hope that in the sonnet the liberty-weary “Should find brief solace there, as I have found” fulfills the promise it expresses, as it refers to the solace afforded by this very sonnet as well as by the poet's habitual writing of them. In the same way, Millay's final promise—“I will only make him good”—points to her goal in all her sonnets as well as to the technical excellence of this one she has just finished. A pun gives this closure a double force. Millay makes the sonnet aesthetically good by tempering the behavior of the unruly subject in its artful cage, making him “good” in the sense of training him to be well-mannered, obedient, and orderly. In Millay's figure, the woman poet binds “Chaos”—a kind of male anti-muse, perhaps the divisive forces of sexuality, or whatever the force may be that tears poems apart rather than inspires them—with the “strict confines” of her ordering art [according to Norman A. Britten in his Edna St. Vincent Millay]. The entire sonnet is almost an allegory of Judith Farr's somewhat paradoxical formula that the “conventions to which [Millay] submitted ... served her well.”

“I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines” presents the struggle of the syntactic unit to find its completion, and to fit into the metrical and rhyming requirements of the sonnet (here, particularly of the octet), as an erotic tussling. The octet of “I Will Put Chaos” entertains the fiction that the single long sentence that comprises it is allowed free rein to flow from line to line, but is gently curbed (by the poet or by Order itself) at each line ending by the bars of rhyme and meter. The sestet, written in short sentences, largely end-stopped, looks back with precarious assurance on the struggles of the octet. The sonnet's trope for its own procedures is a peculiar one: the poet who dooms her subject into the prison of form acts almost like a pander supervising the mating of Chaos and Order. The twisting of the sentence from line to line illustrates Chaos' snaky attempts to wriggle out of the poem's snare, but the “adroit designs” the poem attributes to Chaos are, of course, the poet's designs by whose grace the caged creature may be as lively and various and protean as he wants. Only the sonnet's strict order of meter, rhyme, and syntax allows us to register the twists taken by the long sentence (lines 3–8) describing Chaos' ineffectual attempts to escape. Millay here makes enjambment positively sexy.

Perhaps this is merely to say that Millay makes good use of the resources of the sonnet, combining Miltonic or Romantic use of heavy enjambment with a strict Petrarchan division between octet and sestet. But, as we shall see, in the context of Millay's allusive polemic against the tradition of sexual myths for the sonnet, it is to say rather more. Again the figurative status of poetic closure is at issue. For Wordsworth, when in a sonnet “the sense does not close with the rhyme,” the result desired is a “pervading sense of Unity.” The way in which that unity is achieved is made invisible in favor of the satisfying fullness of the closure. In Milton's sonnets Wordsworth admires not the unfolding spell of the “sense variously drawn out” in run-on lines, but the achieved plenitude of the completed experience. Once the “brief solace” is found, the poem is over, and the poet can go on to other things, to wander and soar at liberty. For Millay, such run-over lines in the orderly sonnet figure rather the difficult wrestling of the poet to achieve unity, a wrestling that is inseparable from a rallying of opposed sexual forces. Wordsworth's sonnet ends with a sigh of satisfaction, the remedy having done the trick (“as I have found”), Millay's with the challenge still ahead, a vow the poet makes to herself (“I will only make him good”). She focuses on the syntactic drama itself, rather than the feeling of satisfaction after the curtain is rung down. The tug of line against syntax figures the poet's constant struggle with “Chaos,” not the assurance of Miltonic authority, or the comforting sense of respite and accomplishment Wordsworth claims to derive from the sweet order of sonnet constraints. Intricate play with enjambment is a way Millay demonstrates and monitors that she is in charge of the words, not in some “awful servitude” to them. It is a game she knows she is playing, and knows which rules she has invented and which she has inherited. The critical view of Millay that judges her as in need of poetic form to control her emotional impulses merely repeats Millay's own strategic presentation of herself as such, a self-presentation that itself is in need of interpretation and cannot be taken as a straightforward outline of her poetics.

A sonnet from Second April, Millay's third volume (1921) brings together the two main figurations for the sonnet which we have been examining. Here a small plot of ground becomes an imprisoning site of too much liberty:

Not with libations, but with shouts and laughter
We drenched the altars of love's sacred grove,
Shaking to earth green fruits, impatient after
The launching of the colored moths of Love.
Love's proper myrtle and his mother's zone
We bound about our irreligious brows,
And fettered him with garlands of our own,
And spread a banquet in love's frugal house.
Not yet the god has spoken; but I fear
Though we should break our bodies in his flame,
And pour our blood upon his altar, here
Henceforward is a grove without a name,
A pasture to the shaggy goats of Pan,
Whence flee forever a woman and a man.

Again we see the high price exacted by the bohemian life: the sonnet, and presumably the affair it commemorates, ends with the sickening sense of loss and satiety that follows from banqueting on unripe fruits. No sacrifice to love can make the grove suitable for proper worship again; such overeager illicit lovers can never thereafter become spouses, dutifully bound in marriage. This may be an illicit and transient affair, but as we expect from Shakespearean sonnets, the transient is transformed into something permanent, and the agent of this permanence is the poem itself; Millay's final vision of the goatish couple fleeing “forever” borrows from this expectation while giving it a bohemian twist. But instead of two lovers frozen in the instant before a kiss, as on Keats's urn, this overheated pair is caught in a gesture of self-exile from a hot pastoral they have sullied with their excesses.

As a character in Millay's all-male verse drama Conversation at Midnight (1937) argues, with a glance sidelong at Shakespeare's Sonnet 94,

        it seems
Even to my nostrils that the lilies are beginning
 to smell;
And that the time has come to deck our amorous
With the honester stenches.

With its bracing candor about modern love, “Not with Libations” lets fresh air into the sonnet, but that air is already tainted with the stench of overindulgence. We might find it a sufficiently revisionary move on Millay's part simply to give the female half of the couple room to admit that she too knows desire and has a sexual will (Millay gives us simply “a woman and a man,” no longer poet and disdainful mistress, burning lover and dark lady), and Millay's sonnets often testify that women, too, know the lust that the Renaissance sonnet traditionally allowed only men to feel. But it would be too simple to say that through its act of bestowing on the woman desires as impatient as the man's the poem bestows on the woman poet the capacity to write sonnets as weighted as a man's. The woman's desire cannot resonate in the room of the sonnet with the same force as his desire; it is a room that has been designed to amplify his tones and to silence hers. To bring these issues to the fore, Millay treats the sonnet as an echo chamber, where we can listen to the voices this improperly proper sonnet has appropriated and revised.

“Not with Libations, but with Shouts and Laughter” is burdened with the weight of too much literature. The poem addresses “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room” in its marking for erotic indulgence the scanty plot of ground Wordsworth identifies with serene retreat. The narrow room of conventional passion is too restrictive for these lovers, who turn their erotic bonds into a prison in which they doom themselves. Despite the Wordsworthian figures and the Shakespearean design, however, this poem's grove is drenched with Keats, from incidental glances at the hymn to Pan in Endymion, the “Ode to Psyche,” and the sonnet “On Solitude,” to more importantly polemical allusions to Keats's sonnet on the sonnet.

Typically, the Keatsian echoes resound in a coarser tone in Millay's “Not with Libations.” The lovers crowning themselves with “love's proper myrtle” have plucked some foliage from the “many that are come to pay their vows / With leaves about their brows” (Endymion) in the hymn to Pan, but Millay's lovers consign their grove to “the shaggy goats of Pan,” not to an uplifted, Keatsian deity who is “the leaven / That spreading in this dull and clotted earth, / Gives it a touch ethereal.” The music that drifts over from the “Ode to Psyche” becomes likewise sensualized. The closing prophecy in “Not with Libations” that “Henceforward is a grove without a name” alludes audibly enough to the vow in the ode to dress Psyche's sanctuary “With buds, and bells, and stars without a name” (“Ode to Psyche”). Like the speaker of the ode, Millay's lovers consecrate themselves as their own priests to a form of love which does not have its proper cult in poetry, and like him they adapt the available religious emblems to serve their new god and build him an altar that is erected more in the mind than in any special spot. Keats's ode closes with an invitation to “let the warm Love in,” while Millay's sonnet ends with the exile of the warm lovers who, once they have celebrated their inventive rites, must abandon the spot. “Not with Libations” closes on a note from Keats's early sonnet beginning “O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell.” Locating solitude on a natural prospect or “'mongst boughs pavilioned,” the sonnet ends with the anticipation, addressing Solitude, that “it sure must be / Almost the highest bliss of humankind, / When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.” Whereas Keats's kindred spirits are left fleeing into the grove of solitude, to engage in “sweet converse of an innocent mind,” Millay's lovers “flee forever” from the carnal pasture they have desanctified. Keats's gentle sensualism of anticipation becomes in Millay the disheartening aftermath of consummation.

The most resounding echo in Millay's “Not with Libations” is to Keats's sonnet on the sonnet, “If by Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chained.” As in “Nuns Fret Not,” in Keats's self-reflexive sonnet the poet effects the cure his poem complains of:

If by dull rhymes our English must be chained,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fettered, in spite of pained loveliness,
Let us find out, if we must be constrained,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of Poesy:
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gained
By ear industrious and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Like the “Ode to Psyche” and “Not with Libations,” this sonnet adapts and loosens the instruments of tribute to a deity who is ultimately the muse. In contrast to the trope of the sonnet as a binding place—a scanty plot, writer's colony for one—the sonnet here is explicitly figured as a bound woman, the muse as Andromeda, with the poet as Perseus to the rescue. But rather than free the damsel in distress, this hero simply makes her chains less chafing. It is the fettering, the rules and rhymes and restrictions, that make the sonnet “sweet,” for she is sweetest not when she is free but when she is “sweet / Fettered.” The intricacies of the sonnet form guarantee that in some measure the poet “must be constrained” in writing it; the poet's task is to make that multiple manacling—of poet to set pattern, of each line handcuffed to its rhyming partner—less constricting, less strictly ornamental and thereby more graceful. The “dull rhymes” of the English sonnet as Keats inherited it are “more interwoven” in this poem's muted, complex rhyme scheme, a double liberation in that it led Keats to develop the pattern of his ode stanzas.

Poetic form itself is the sea-monster that has chained Andromeda to the rock of dull rhyme and stony, unyielding traditions. The poet does not release her, but reweaves her chains, turning them into honoring garlands. The poetic tradition he works in itself has tightened the strands from which Keats is to release her by binding her with new ones, with the assurance that then “She will be bound with garlands of her own.” The trick is to make Andromeda her own sea-monster, to craft a chain for her so cleverly natural that she can believe she has woven it herself as an adornment. In this sonnet Keats has woven a very powerful myth of poetic convention as a prison into which poetry willingly dooms itself, and part of its power derives from the identification of a constricting form with a willingly bound woman.

What are we to make of the echoes from Keats's sonnet of gentle shackling that resound in Millay's sonnet of unbridled eros? What in particular are echoes from a man's sonnet about the sonnet as bound woman doing in a woman's sonnet about the (perhaps enslaving) price of throwing off the conventional shackles of love between men and women? Keats promises Andromeda that she will be “bound with garlands of her own,” while Millay's improper modern lovers, celebrating Love in their own reckless way, “fettered him with garlands of our own.” They impose their own shackles on Love, whereas Keats works to impose no shackles on the sonnet from outside poetry herself. Millay's lovers reject the miserly care marking Keats's project for the sonnet. In their profligacy they “spread a banquet in [Love's] frugal house”; they reinterpret the traditional cestus and myrtle of restrained love as celebratory garlands, binding their brows as a mark of erotic victory with the cinctures designed to bind the waist as a mark of purity in love.

In both sonnets, then, the iconography of celebratory, erotic, and poetic garlanding is playfully unraveled and rewoven into a new pattern. Millay's “grove without a name” should perhaps be named the grove of the Romantic poetics of the sonnet, a lightly constraining enclosure which Millay turns into a bower of irreverent excess. Just as traditionally the woman poet is denied the kind of freedom that may drive the male poet into the retreat of the sonnet's boundaries, so neither can she be given the responsibility of a poetic Perseus to free the muse from her formal strictures, since she is supposed herself to be the muse. Even if a poet wishes to bind her with “garlands of her own” they will be the garlands he has experimentally determined are proper to her, garlands of his own after all. Millay does not take up Keats's call to reshuffle the sonnet's pattern of rhyming, knowing that no rearrangement can make the form more “natural.” Poetic forms and genres are not natural but ideological. Andromeda's unfelt, self-willed fetters can figure a perfect marriage (of man and woman, form and subject) or a perfectly crippling ideology. Looking at Keats through the lens of Millay, we can begin to see Andromeda as torn between having to stand for a poetic form herself or for a free spirit that the form holds chained. For a woman writing poetry in the years between the wars, the brittleness of oaths and the shaky fiction of new sexual freedom for women made the sonnet an apt form in which to scrutinize the inherited stances of men toward women and poets toward their muses. By identifying the sonnet's scanty plot of ground with an erotic grove of excess, turning the chastity belt of poetic form into a token of sexual indulgence, Millay invades the sanctuary of male poetic control with her unsettling formalism in the service of freedom, a freedom that can, as the lovers learn in “Not with Libations,” turn into another kind of entrapment.

In “Not with Libations,” as in “I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines,” Millay addresses the Romantic myths of the sonnet as liberating prison and pleasing fetters, the figurations governing Wordsworth's “Nuns Fret Not” and Keats's “If by Dull Rhymes.” Her sonnets reshape those myths with the revisionary force of a woman poet who, however rearguard in the phalanx of modernism, recognizes that she has inherited a genre laden with figurations exclusive to a male poetic authority, and who knows that her adaptations of that genre must engage those very myths and figurations that would bar her from the ranks of legitimate practitioners of the sonnet. While more work on Millay along these lines is not likely to result in the elevation of her to the status of a major twentieth-century poet, it should lead to a more searching understanding of why we judge her to be minor, and to our estimate in general of poets in the modernist period who continued to write in traditional forms. Current feminist work on Millay suggests that in her use of poetic forms “the wish for freedom is always qualified by the sense of restriction”: such an estimate, I believe, even when intended as evidence of Millay's virtuosity, echoes older dismissals of Millay on the grounds that she moodily concedes to poetic forms or, crippled by emotional turmoil, desperately leans on them, because it tends to see the poet as an unwitting victim of these two desires rather than as working consciously in light of the fact that the tradition itself is constantly troping on just this very debate. I have only suggested how a few of Millay's most effective sonnets engage in and reflect upon the struggle between poet and form as to which shall be master. Such engagement is a sign not only that Millay has mastered these inherited forms, but also that she has taken into account the full implications for the woman poet of the figure of poetic “mastery.”

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420005614