The Duplicity Of Hope

I really enjoyed my Freshman English classes in college. Studying literature and poetry was something I would have loved to spent more time on. While at my parents house in Georgia, I’ve tasked myself to “clean out” a number of English papers I wrote back then and have been holding on to thinking Clara might be interested in seeing one day. After rereading them, however, I doubt anyone will have much interest in them, with the exception some of the poetry analysis that I still find interesting.

I really enjoy reading poetry, but it’s not something that I “get” like some people do. In rereading these papers, however, I’m reminded of some wonderful poems and find even my analysis of them at the time to be quite enlightening. Although I don’t see any of my English teacher friends giving me an A for these papers, I do see a poetry series coming up on The Joy of WAHM-ing starting with the following:

1 Pity me not because the light of day
2 At close of day no longer walks the sky;
3 Pity me not for beauties passed away
4 From field and thicket as the the year goes by;
5 Pity me not the waning of the moon,
6 Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
7 Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,
8 And you no longer look with love on me.
9 This have I known always: Love is no more
10 Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
11 Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
12 Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
13 Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
14 What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

Poetry has the ability to touch each and every one of us in a uniquely personal way by the music of it’s carefully chosen words. It is how this music has been created by a poet that leads us to examine such poetry in more detail. Pity Me Not is a wonderfully written sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. While using this familiar form, Millay manages to keep the reader’s attention by combining the elements of diction and tone in such a way as to illuminate a theme understood by many, but state it in a way no other than she could.

Millay’s poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, traditional in its fourteen lines of five beat iambic pentameter with an alternating rhyme scheme, finishing in a rhyming couplet. The octave (the first eight lines) of the sonnet classically presents a question, which the sextet (the remaining six lines) then answers. Millay, however, keeps this sonnet from becoming predictable by making more of a general statement about her feelings in the octave and having the sextet then specify what she is trying to say.

The rhyme scheme for the octave is ab ab cd cd. Each of the ab phrases is a complete thought: Do not pity her because the sun goes down, and do not pity her that she grows older. All four lines have something to do with the passage of time. It is between the first and second cd couplets, particularly lines 6 and 7, that we begin to see the transition from the general to the specific. She does not want to be pitted because time passes (as, she tells us with some indifference, there is nothing to be done about it), nor for the specific reason that this passage of time has cost her the love of a man. That she uses the repetition of “Nor” to ease us seamlessly into this transition is testament to her power as a poet. The last cd couplet brings us to the point, “Nor that man’s desire is hushed so soon,/And you know longer look on me with love (7,8).” The true turning point of this sonnet, however, is between the eight and ninth lines. We have been introduced to the specific topic and now, beginning the sextet, are receiving the “reality” of what the woman of the sonnet is trying to tell us.

To prevent her poem from becoming predictable, while still using the traditional form of the sonnet, Millay takes time to set its tone via the words she chooses (i.e. diction) in general, as well as the words she chooses specifically to repeat. Millay selects the word “walks,” for example, to describe the sun in the first two lines of the sonnet, ” . . . the light of day/at close of day no longer walks the sky.” The sentence implies the passage of time, but use of the word “walk” implies that time goes by very slowly. It is this impression of leisure which helps set the tone as sad but almost indifferent, as though there is nothing that can be done and never was. This indifferent, sorrowful tone continues as the poem progresses through phrases like “as the years go by,” “waning of the moon” (an ever-continuing cycle), and “ebbing tide.” With the idea of “life goes on” established, Millay brings the reader to the same conclusion as the woman: It is inevitable that a man’s love would also cease, leaving no reason to pity her. She state’s this so matter-of-factly, “This have I always known (9),” it is hard to deny.

In her conclusion, Millay unites the poem by coming back to the word “pity” which she had given up when beginning the sextet. This is significant for a number of reasons. The repetition of words such as “nor,” “than” and “pity” help to quickly convey a tone of sorrow and distress as previously noted. But, in truth, the reader is not exactly sure why we are lead to feel this way until the last reiteration of “pity” in the final couplet.

The general statement being made by Millay in Pity Me Not is about the duplicity of hope. She begins to give us, the reader, hope when, as mentioned above, we no longer see “pity” being used as it previously had been in the octave. However, as Millay concludes her sonnet, we see “pity” has returned in the final rhyming couplet, “Pity me that the heart is slow to learn/what the swift mind beholds at every turn (13, 14).” The woman of this sonnet is stating that though we all can recognize the reality of the situation, Hope is constantly there saying, “Yes, but maybe this time it will be different.” Even though we know it will not be different this time, we find ourselves disregarding this truth and holding on to a false hope. That in itself is something to be pitied more so than the actual event, in the woman’s case, the loss of a man’s love.

Millay uses form, diction and tone to say something about hope that many of us can relate to. By artfully interweaving all of these poetic tools, she relays her message beautifully, in a way most of us cannot. This is but one reason her Pity Me Not sonnet stands out among its traditional counterparts.

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