Millay Sonnett Analysis: Not in a Silver Casket

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Analysis of Millay’s “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls”

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s unconventional childhood, growing up without a father because her mom kicked him out and having to learn independence and responsibility by the age of twelve, influenced her poetry and shaped her as an motivated and self-sufficient individual. By the time “Vincent”, as she liked to be called, was nineteen years old, she already had already made a name for herself as a formidable poet. A couple discovered her and sponsored her education at Vassar College where Vincent experimented with her sexuality. She openly expressed her bisexuality, and continued to have both male and female sexual partners. When she married Eugen Boissevain, the couple agreed to have an open marriage, and she continued to write lustful poetry in which it is unclear if the beloved addressed in her sonnets refer to men or women. In “Not in silver casket cool with pearls”, Edna expresses her love for a beloved who appears to be female; Vincent drops subtle hints in the sonnet alluding to the lover’s gender, and she employs sensory details and sound devices to establish a tone of confidence, security, and joy as she articulates the fact that her non-traditional ways of expressing her love are just as legitimate as the traditional ways she dismisses.

In”Not in a silver casket cool with pearls”, Millay addresses her lover as “you” three times, indicating that although this is a reflective poem conveying her true emotions, it is not an internal monologue by any means. The gender of the beloved is never clarified, although there are details Millay felt compelled to include in a deliberate fashion in her sonnet which point to a feminine companion. Vincent writes to her partner that “one should bring [her partner] cowslips in a hat/ Swung from the hand” (line 11-12). Cowslips are yellow, fragrant, ornamental flowers. A woman would never bring flowers to a man under normal circumstances, so more likely than not, Enda just made clear who her true audience was aside form the reader. Enda refutes traditional practices of devotion and commitment by saying that she will not wear a ring to prove she’s in a relationship—that it isn’t necessary to show someone you love them, but if she was speaking to a woman, she wouldn’t be able to marry them legally and have it be recognized as legitimate anyways. She explains how her love is something that can be proven with an “ungemmed” and “unhidden” hand, but if it was a lesbian couple, they wouldn’t be able to get married so their love would have to be expressed in nontraditional ways similar to those Millay is advocating in the last six lines of her Elizabethan-styled sonnet. A strong indicator that there is something slightly “scandalous” happening is when Millay writes “not in a ring/… [with] a legend plain—/ Semper fidelis, where a secret spring/ Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain” (lines 5-8). Here Millay is saying that she can not be bound by rings—she needs her freedom. She knows what the rings stand for—you must be “Semper Fildelis”, “always faithful”, and instead she’s obviously doing something that a ring would not allow her to do; she’s being “mischievous” and not acting according to how she would be required to had she practiced the traditional methods of showing someone you love them. She needs the spring to be “secret”—she has reasons to not be tied down even though she loves the person she’s addressing in the poem. Also, Millay might have to be mischievous and secretive for another reason—because her beloved is another woman, and homosexuality and bisexuality weren’t widely accepted. A final indicator that Edna wrote this poem for a woman is the copious amounts of references to jewels, jewelry, and precious valuables. Immediately the poem opens with the imagery of a “silver casket cool with pearls”, while the next line only speaks of more jewels—rubies and sapphires. Millay then mentions the ring, the traditional...
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