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My English class had a bit of a dispute over this poem. There are two general trains of thought that most readers of this poem seem to fall into:

  1. The author is one of those neat, orderly people who needs everything to be in its right place. She is struggling against a force that she cannot handle and hubristically trying to achieve dominince over chaos. I hate this poem.
  2. The author is using the power of poetry to conquer a seemingly invincible force. She simply exposes chaos for the fraud that it is: something that we dismiss as incomprehensible merely because we are currently unable to understand it. "(Chaos) is nothing more nor less/Than something simple not yet understood." I love this poem.
I solidly belonged to camp #2, while my teacher was a defender of camp #1. When looking back and reading the poem, I can see his point in several places. What's so great about creating more order, anyway? What about the last line, "I will only make him good"? Is this statement a goal that the poet values or disvalues?

But my admiration of this poem comes mainly from the speaker's voice. Her faith is in the power of poetry (truly "the pen is mightier..."). She writes like a knight setting off to fight a dragon, wielding the power of poetry like a sword. What the speaker accomplishes in this poem should be the goal of all arts (and sciences): to illuminate the unknown, to provide hope, and to use power against evil in order to create good.

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon --- his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950)


This is a Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. This form of a sonnet can be broken down into two parts: an eight line stanza called the octave and a six line stanza called the sestet. These can be seen in the rhyme scheme:
ABBAABBA CDCDCD
(This rhyme scheme is slightly different than the classical CDCCDC style)

Classically, in this form, the octave forms a question - in this case, the question and goal of the poem is spelled out in the first line:

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines

Some have interpreted this sonnet as an erotic poem and forced break with the classical style. The sonnet typically takes the voice of a man talking to his female lover. The argument goes on to show that the poem is that of a woman talking to a man, or chaos as the personification of man. Rather than the untouchable woman on a pedestal, chaos becomes caged and held - a symbol of feminism? Possibly, in the 1920's Millay was one of the symbols of a modern woman.

Another approach to this sonnet is that of a poem about poetry and the confusion from which ideas are birthed. In catching the idea and confining it to a poem - and the restrictive form of poetry there is at that, the sonnet.

Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.

The sestet then addresses the question to resolve it or comment upon it. Often a transition word is used or strong punctuation to indicate this this shift in the poem.

Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:

The sonnet is often thought of as the most arrogant of the poetic forms - a friend of mine once compared writing rhyming poetry as mental masturbation, and the sonnet as the orgasm resulting. Ok, so he had sex on the mind.

The writer (and especially that of the poet) often finds himself (or herself) as a slave to the muse that speaks these ideas to be written down. The muse of a poet is as much a blessing as a curse (the friend mentioned above kept a note pad next to the bed and once interrupted a romantic session to scribble some ideas down... yes, I told you he had sex on the mind. He was rather unhappy that his parter didn't appricate being the muse.).

And here, Millay claims to have caught the muse - and stick this muse into a poem.

I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;

Has the poet accomplished what she sent out to do? Yes, and admirably.

I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950) is considered by some as the best sonneteer of the twentieth century. "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines" was published in 1954 as part of Mine the Harvest.

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