Several of Millay’s sonnets are characterized by an iconoclastic rejection of the common sense regarding so-called “romantic” inter-personal relationships. “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” disassociates sex from commitment, whereas “Love is not Blind” separates sexual attractiveness from beauty. Similarly, the speaker of “Well, I Have Lost You” refuses to submit to the emotion generally associated with a break-up. S/he coolly admits to having lost his or her lover “fairly” (l. 1) and speculates that their relationship might have been prolonged, but only by force (“keeping / Rubbed in a cage a wing that would be free”, l. 8), or by loving less or strategically (“If I had loved you less or played you slyly”, l. 9). And even then they would not have been able to repeat their past joys. The result is a determination to drink deeply of love while it lasts and no longer—and to not hold grudges thereafter (“I shall have only good to say of you”, l. 14).
This determined stoicism is noteworthy for at least two reasons. One is that it challenges common sense (read hegemony) in the first place. Millay’s speakers solicit sex from the ugly, and from someone refused the privilege of any future conversation; the speaker of “Well, I Have Lost You,” refuses to respond to a break-up stereotypically: by crying, defaming the ex, &c. In so far as these unusual responses to sexual partners disrupt the rote script of “romantic” love, they can be considered political—that is, antinormative—gestures. A second compelling feature of these gestures is their failure to fully dispel that which they would deny: emotion, inter-personal connection, & the like. "Well, I Have Lost You" opens admitting to having lost a lover fair and square and ends promising no ill will. But the second quatrain opens a crack in this determined façade, exposing the grief that the speaker is trying to de-emphasize.
Some nights of apprehension and hot weeping
I will confess; but that’s permitted me;
Day dried my eyes; (l. 5-7).
The loss that the speaker has been trying to mitigate wells up at night. S/he hastens to add that such “anguish” is allowed, and only temporary (l. 13). But in the final couplet s/he admits the downright courtly possibility that s/he may not “outlive this anguish” (l. 13). In this instance, the curiously gender-specific assurance is that “men do” outlive such anguish. The speaker’s stoicism, or determined refusal to submit to the stereotypes of “romantic” love, is limited then; it fails to erase all of the “anguish” of loss. By calling the anguished moments in “Well, I Have Lost You” failures, I do not mean that the poem fails, nor that the speaker’s at least determinedly fair, and at best antinormative, commitments are total failures. Rather those instances of loss that the speaker fails to rhetorically dispel strike me as traumatic. Here I do not only have in mind the speaker’s personal psychic pain. Any such personal suffering corresponds to breaking points in the poem’s rhetoric: the “nights of apprehesion and hot weeping”, the “anguish” that the speaker would explain away but fails to. Such moments point to both the speaker’s psychic trauma and certain rhetorical traumas—literally, cuts—in the argument of the poem.
The non-erasable grief in “Well, I Have Lost You” operates like the "blood" and "pulse" that "urged" sex in "I, Being Born a Woman." In this sonnet, the rational speaking voice submits to sexual desire despite her cool, calculated treatment of it—effectively submitting to the forces that resist the poem’s argument. In each of these two sonnets, the iconoclastic, critical voice that deconstructs the common sense circumscribing sexual relations fails to do away with desire and loss. Desire and loss remain then as that which cannot be controlled and neutralized symbolically.
Copyright 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt