Here’s an analysis of ‘Sonnet 29’ by Edna St Vincent Millay, it’s tailored towards GCSE or IGCSE CIE (Cambridge) students but is also helpful for anyone studying this poem at any level or with any exam board — including AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC and CCEA.
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Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field to thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea.
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon.
And you no longer look with love on me.
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails.
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore.
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
When the swift mind beholds at every turn.
Pity — to feel sorry for someone
Assails — attacks
Thicket — group of bushes or trees
Gales — strong winds
Wreckage — the broken objects / amount of damage created after a violent event such as a storm
Waning — when the moon disappears from the sky a little day by day
STORY / SUMMARY
The speaker asks the addressee to not feel sorry for them when sunlight leaves the sky, or for the passing of ‘beauties’, which could refer to her own beauty or beautiful things that she found in life which are now gone. These beautiful things have passed from the field — where they would be easily visible — to the ‘thicket’, i.e. hidden. She also doesn’t want the reader to feel sorry for her because the moon is ‘waning’, disappearing. Or because the tide is flowing out. She then switches from natural imagery to more personal, human imagery and says we shouldn’t pity her because men stop loving too quickly, and ‘you’ stopped loving her. This is the first time we realise that the poem is addressed to her previous partner.
She says she has always known that love is nothing more than flower blossom being attacked by the wind, than the sea tide that touches the beach, which brings up litter and destroyed objects. Finally, she asks the addressee to pity her only for the fact that her heart is slow to catch up and process, whereas her mind is quick to adapt and move on.
SPEAKER / VOICE
The speaker has a female presence, and she speaks directly in the poem to her past partner or lover. We don’t know how long their relationship lasted for. She changes her tone from being quite defiant in the beginning — where she asks the addressee not to feel sorry for her when he stopped loving her because it was a natural process — but at the end she does ask him to pity her as her heart is too slow to catch up (she still loves him / finds it hard to move on), so it has a more sad and poignant tone. There is a transition from inner strength to weakness in the poem.
“And you no longer look with love on me.” The woman is being defensive that she realised that the man didn’t love her. It’s almost as if she’s accusing him.
“Pity me that the heart is slow to learn” This suggests that the woman wants the man to understand that she doesn’t know how to deal with or recover from this type of situation.
“When the swift mind beholds at every turn.” The mind of the woman is quick to catch up and move on. Logically, she understands that the relationship is over and it makes sense to her.
“light of day” fades into night, “beauties” disappear over time, “waning moon” “ebbing tide”
The woman observes natural processes in nature and believes that relationships are the same. They grow and then fade, and this normal
Anaphora — “Pity me not” / “Pity me” — Millay repeats the phrase ‘pity me not’ early on in the poem. Each time providing a new example from nature about why we shouldn’t feel sorry for her. The repetition of the phrase might suggest that she has an obsession over this man and their ended relationship, or it might indicate that her brain is trying to give lots of different reasons why she should accept it and move on. Eventually, this phrase breaks down and becomes positive instead of negative. She says ‘pity me’ and asks the addressee to feel sorry for her, suggesting she has let her emotions overcome her mind and that she is still broken in some ways despite trying to move on
Natural Visual Imagery– “ebbing tide goes out to sea.” “waning of the moon” “field to thicket” “wide blossom which the wind assails”
Alliteration: the tide brings “fresh wreckage gathered in the gales” > the repeated ‘g’ sounds emphasises the circularity of the image. The pieces that the sea brings in have been collected in a storm, and the repetition of the ‘g’ is quite a forceful sound that emphasises the strength of the storm and also the swirling motion of the sea as it collects debris — there is a hidden sense of violence that perhaps suggests she had quite a fiery and difficult relationship
Metaphor: cyclical forces of nature suggest that love is also cyclical, and Millay states in the poem that a man’s love for a woman always ends: “a man’s desire is hushed so soon.”
STRUCTURE / FORM
Traditional Shakespearean sonnets
The traditional themes of a sonnet usually revolve around the tormented lover
This role is evident in her sonnet, “Pity Me Not”:
Famous for her works of sonnets: Poems which explore emotions and ideas in an abstract way, without any strict story or narrative, especially focused on different aspects of love
Millay perfected this “tormented lover” role in her sonnets. It is not her opinions directly in the poem, she is taking on a persona or becoming a character in order to explore certain emotions
Nature — the poet says that disappearing or fading away is a natural part of life. Then she gives many examples of how this happens in nature e.g. the moon wanes, the tide flows out. So, she says that the man falling out of love with her is just natural, like all of these other processes.
Cycles — the cycles of nature are used as a justification for why the love between the speaker and addressee faded away over time. However, in the final two lines we feel some tension and resistance to this idea. The speaker’s heart is unable to adapt quickly to the loss of the partner.
Beauty — Millay talks of fading beauty. She says that when beauty fades it is natural that a man’s attention should fade too. We could say that demonstrates the tragic nature of love and relationships, and that women at this time felt a lot of pressure to be and stay beautiful.
Emotions — the poet changes the emotions of the poem in the second half. In the first half of the poem the woman tries to justify why the man left her, so she restrains her emotions. However, in the second half of the poem she feels as if there’s a split between her heart and mind. Her mind has moved on, but her heart is taking a long time to recover.
Relationships — the relationship was strong between the man and the woman, because it was enough for her to write a poem about in order to explore her emotions and feelings. However, the speaker is trying to let go of negative feelings after the relationship ended. She is not bitter or angry, regretful or sad. We have a feeling that part of her reaction is being suppressed when she says ‘the heart is slow to learn’
Love– she looks at the sunset and one is reminded of the warmth love brings to life. Millay finishes the octave directly tying love to nature.
Psychoanalysis — Millay is ruthless when it comes to exploring her own nature — she delves deeply into difficult and complex emotions