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shakespeare sonnets

What topics from the traditional sonnet are at work in Edna St. Vincent Millay's Sonnet V ("If I should learn, in some quite casual way")? How are...


A traditional Shakespearean sonnet uses this same form and rhyme scheme, usually to explore the nature of human love. A sonnet is thus most often a very precise way to examine a minute aspect of what it means to desire, have, or lose love. In most of Shakespeare's sonnets, the beloved is a young man, so the idea of romantic love leading to marriage is not part of the equation. There is an isolation of the emotion from a larger social context. In Millay's sonnets, love is also often the subject, but, as in this one, the speaker is detached and observant of, rather than enthralled by, her emotion.

A Shakespearean sonnet is typically structured as follows: Quatrain 1 proposes an idea that may come upon the speaker rather suddenly, or even whimsically (e.g., "Shall I compare they to a summer's day?"). Quatrain 2 explores this proposition, usually with a more complex understanding of the images used to construct the conceit. Quatrain 3 depicts a crisis of thought developing from that complex understanding, and then a couplet resolves the crisis. Millay's sonnet follows this same arc of development.

A Shakespearean couplet resolves the question of the sonnet but often does so by forcing the reader to acknowledge a far more complicated way in which humans relate to each other. Millay's does the same thing. We might read the poem as a flippant response to the thought that a lover could die and she would remain untouched by the news. The speaker thus seems rather shallow and cruel. But the easiness of the rhymed couplet at the end of this poem might also imply that the speaker would be stunned enough to process the news through only visual perception.

The more careful view of the street or of the advertising text might belie an outward calmness that covers an inward ambiguity of emotion.

I don't know that either metonymy or metaphor is significant here, through they would be in a Shakespearean sonnet. Here, the speaker's voice is entirely casual. One imagines her sitting on a train and noting from a fellow passenger's newspaper that someone has been killed. She then considers the scenario of her finding out it was the person she addresses the poem to—a former lover, perhaps. No longer in close relation to this person, she might discover the news through the newspaper. While the relationship is distant enough in the present to not warrant her learning directly about the death, she still contemplates what that news would feel like. She has a momentary, imagined grief over a person so she cared for in the past. That is actually an unusual and complicated emotion for a sonnet.

Like many Millay poems, this one contemplates an in-between state—between caring a lot and not caring at all about the death of a former acquaintance, between a past (presumed) passion and a present coolness. It is the thin slice of human emotion, presented for examination, that makes this poem intriguing, as the reader must construct what that experience would be. Similarly, Shakespeare gives enough material in his sonnets to imply a far more complex human condition than can be conveyed easily by simple description or declaration.

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