blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "Love is not blind"

Jeff Sychterz

In "Love is not blind" Edna St. Vincent Millay transforms a moment of anxiety over her lover’s lack of beauty into an attack on patriarchal notions of beauty and love. In the process Millay dis-covers the constructed nature of physical beauty, while recognizing that she cannot fully escape the patriarchal structure that "prize(s)" its own construction.

Reminiscent of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," Millay's sonnet critiques the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry. Both sonnets reverse the values of the blason by listing physical "imperfections" instead of praising the transcendent perfect physical features of the love-object. But where Shakespeare catalogues physical ugliness for three quatrains Millay’s blason is remarkably short: "I know the imperfection of your face,— / The eyes too wide apart, the brow too high / For beauty." Through such brevity, as well as through a direct mention of her love’s "ugliness," Millay achieves a different tone from Shakespeare's sonnet. Shakespeare’s blason humorously undercuts the hyperbolic standard of Petrarchan beauty by replacing it with a hyperbolic ugliness, whereas Millay’s seems troubled by the inability of her lover to live up to the standards of Petrarchan beauty.

Also, Shakespeare’s series of "If . . ., Then . . ." constructions indicate that his mistress’s ugliness is contingent upon the overstated tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet—in effect Shakespeare’s speaker says "if the impossible standards of Petrarchan poetry indicate true beauty, then my mistress is not beautiful." However the final couplet, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / as any she belied with false compare," suggests that the traditional Petrarchan similes—hair like gold, eyes like the sun—are overstated and false. Because the speaker draws such an unflattering portrait of a lady who can be favorably compared to other Petrarchan love-objects, the poem brings the transcendent Petrarchan beauty standard back to earth, falsifies it, and evacuates it of meaning.

The speaker in Millay’s sonnet also seems to initially confirm that her lover is ugly: "I see with a single eye / Your ugliness." The first words of the sonnet—"love is not blind"—lead the reader to expect this conclusion, for the cliché that it reverses—"love is blind"—means that people in love are blind to their lover’s faults and imperfections. Therefore the speaker tells the reader that although she is in love she clearly sees that her lover fails to meet the perfect standard of beauty. But by ending the brief list of "ugliness" with the phrase "for beauty" she reveals—like Shakespeare’s speaker, only sooner—the contingency of those imperfections. She further emphasizes that contingency through enjambment; by placing "For beauty" at the beginning of line five a silent "at least" seems to fill in the barely perceptible pause caused by the reader's eyes moving from the end of one line to the beginning of the other. The poem stresses that the love object’s ugliness is contingent upon a certain definition of beauty.

This qualification marks a change of tone that would traditionally come at the beginning of the sestet. However, rather than continuing with the standard blason through the octave, lines five through eight reveal that beauty, not ugliness, is the contingent term; and the speaker calls into question not just the hyperbolic standard of Petrarch but the signifier beauty itself. "Loveliness" is not a natural given that has always existed, but instead something that has to be "learned." Millay’s description of this learning process is very Lacanian: the speaker's mind is inscripted by the word "loveliness:"

        Learned from earliest youth am I
In loveliness, and cannot so erase
Its letters from my mind, (ll. 5-7).

"Beauty" and "loveliness" are more than vocabulary terms that the speaker has learned in school, they are societal constructs that from infancy have shaped her unconscious.

Line thirteen links the word "beauty" with "men" and therefore reveals the problem as one much greater than definitions of physical attractiveness. The "letters" that are inscripted on the speaker's mind are those of patriarchal values that are distributed and enforced through a patriarchal language; and that patriarchal language helps to form the speaker's unconscious. The speaker" cannot so erase / Its letters from (her) mind" because her "mind" has been partially formed by the word "loveliness." The poem indicates that psychic colonization by the patriarchy extends even to the term and act of love, (ironically love is traditionally thought to be a woman’s realm). Therefore the "must" in line eight carries with it a negative connotation: Millay's speaker is doomed to always experience love through the patriarchy; she can only experience a love that has been determined by masculine language and values. She can never rid herself of the notion of beauty.

But the poem paints love as more than a linguistic prison; "the sovereignty of love" is "more subtle" than patriarchal language. The différance inherent in the signifier "faultless" allows the speaker to form a resistance to a patriarchal determined "love." So when the speaker says that because of her early inscription by "loveliness" she cannot "trace" her lover "faultless," she means something different than simply not finding her woman attractive. The speaker cannot apply words like "beauty" or "loveliness" to her lover without the lover failing to measure up to these physically over-determined signifiers. "Faultless," however, does not mean that the speaker can only describe her lover in negative terms such as "ugliness." In fact, a great deal of room exists outside the negative blason—which faults only her brow and eyes—where we can assume that the lover possesses an abundance of qualities that make her an object of desire for the speaker.

But why focus on two imperfections rather than on any of these more desirable qualities? Because the Petrarchan/patriarchal beauty standard inscripted in the sonnet form presupposes a physically perfect love-object; the slightest imperfection would disqualify any woman. Thus the love-object in the sonnet can either be perfect—and therefore nothing more than a fantasmatic projection of the Petrarchan beauty standard itself—or flesh and blood. And the flesh and blood love-object can only ever be defined in the sonnet in relation to that ideal standard, and therefore can only be defined by her distance from that standard, i.e. by her imperfections.

But the speaker never actually describes her lover as ugly. Instead she explains that her lover’s body is too imperfect "for beauty," not necessarily for herself. She quite probably finds her lover very physically attractive, but the sonnet—as the patriarchal/hetero-normative expression of love—is ill equipped to describe homosexual desire; the physical aspect of that desire cannot be rendered in language (compare for example Shakespeare’s vague description of the young man in Sonnet 18 with the explicit blason of the Dark Lady in 130). The problem lies with language itself: those desirable qualities (must) remain outside the realm of language, for the patriarchal/hetero-normative language cannot render them verbal. The moment that the speaker attempts to "trace" her lover in written letters the lover escapes from the poem:

So am I caught that when I say, "Not fair,"
‘Tis but as if I said, "Not here—not there—
Not risen—not writing letters."

The speaker cannot represent her desire or her lover in the poem, because the speaker's desire—and the lover's desirable qualities—exists outside the patriarchal/hetero-normative language that the poem must rely on for expression. The poem can only repudiate the speaker’s homosexual love it can never confirm it. The speaker’s love, therefore, is a "love that (cannot) speak its name."

But how can Millay’s speaker get outside the hetero-normative language to access her lover as an object of desire? She seems somewhat able to escape a patriarchal determined love but not in the space of the poem, for when she attempts to describe her lover she is "caught" by the colonizing language of the patriarchy. Instead she must "trace" after her lover. In addition to the drawing reference, "trace," also means "to traverse," to "find a vestige of," and "to discover the remains of." These definitions add a sense of discovery, adventure and even of linguistic archeology to the speaker’s attempt to verbalize her love. The speaker does more than describe her lover; she seeks after her by digging through and past linguistic notions of beauty to dis-cover her lover and her own desire. While men restrict themselves to the linguistic world of "babbling," the speaker actively pursues her lover through and then outside the linguistic space of the poem, into a non-verbal world of queer desire.

 Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Return to Edna St. Vincent Millay