Use of Indirect Message and Contrast in Poetry Poets must utilize many tools and techniques to create a mood or convey a thought. Metaphor, simile, spacing, form, voice, and setting are all common poetic utilities. Some tools, however, are more understated. Some of the more delicate methods used by poets are rhythm, language, and the consistency of the theme throughout the poem. One work that makes use of inconsistent theme is Edna St. Vincent Millays sonnet “Love Is Not All: It Is Not Meat nor Drink” (page 936).
This poem uses indirect theme and abrupt change in message to add more emphasis the meaning of the poem. By beginning the poem with an image that contrasts the main theme, the poet is able to inflict a more vivid impression on the reader. Even the title of Millays sonnet gives us an idea of what the poems theme is likely to be. “Love is not all” suggests that the persona is decrying love. It prepares the reader for a put-down of love and all things romantic.
Millay proceeds to use a group of anti-similes that declare what love is not; “it is not meat nor drink,” therefor we presumably can not live without it. Love will not refresh you or protect you from the elements, as it is not “slumber nor a roof against the rain.” She then relates love to “a floating spar to men that sink,” stating that it will not support you in times of disaster. The entire first six lines generally knock love by declaring it useless and unsubstantial. After reading this the reader jumps to the conclusion that they know what Millays message is. The turning point of the poem is the seventh line.
“Yet many a man is making friends with death / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone” contradicts everything the reader is led to believe thus far. The following lines are equally contrary to the initial message. They state that though love may not be absolutely necessary, life is hardly worth living without it. The persona states that though in a time of “nagging by want past resolutions power” she could trade her lovers affection for a moment of relief, she doubts that she would. This change of message is one of the more delicate and indirect tools used to drive a point home to the reader.
If we simply read the last sestet of the poem, the message seems trivial and mundane. The persona wouldnt trade her love for anything. So what. It has no emphasis, and lacks voice. The reader is left with no lasting impression.
However, when read with the first octet included, the poem takes on a new importance. The sudden contrast in mood and theme catches the readers attention. Contrast is used in all forms of art and imagery. Visual artists use contrasting colors and light and dark to make an image more independent and defined. When held to a dark backdrop, a white object appears much more vivid than it would against a light backdrop.
A soft melody proceeding a loud crescendo is often used by musicians to make the latter even more impressive and overwhelming. Millays use of contrast in this poem punctuates the message in a similar manner. The last line jumps upon the reader with emphasis. To create this emphasis, she employs inconsistent line structure and rhyme scheme in addition to the theme change. Throughout the sonnet, the lines are long and full of many-syllable words.
The final line, however, is very simple. It contains single syllable words, and uses no figurative language. “It well may be. I do not think I would” simply states the message. The prolific use of figurative speech earlier in the sonnet to state the opposing thought makes this line more memorable and powerful. This line does not fit into the rhyme scheme of the sonnet, either. Lines one through twelve follow the standard scheme of abab.
Lines thirteen and fourteen, however, dont rhyme. Millay breaks away from the rest of the poem, giving the last lines independence. These techniques combine with the change in message to embed the theme deep into the readers mind. Contrast is a very effective tool in poetry. Just as clever metaphor and innuendo catch the readers attention and emphasize a point more authoritatively than simple statement; contrast leaves a thought with a reader long after they have read the poem.
Millay utilizes several forms of contrast in “Love Is Not All,” the result being a poem that expresses distinctly that love is indeed all.