Edna St. Vincent Millay's "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines"

Updated on February 7, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edna St. Vincent Millay


Introduction and Text of Poem, "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines"

Edna St. Vincent Millay's Petrarchan sonnet, "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines," includes the traditional octave and sestet.

In the octave, the speaker asserts that she is placing Chaos in the cage of a sonnet in order to tame him, or make order from confusion.

In the sestet, the speaker reveals that all the negative, undesirable features of "Chaos" will soon be restored to "Order." By placing Chaos in a sonnet, the speaker will go about making him behave as she would have him do.

The octave of Millay's traditional Italian sonnet plays out in the rime scheme, ABBAABBA, while the sestet's rime scheme is equally traditional featuring the DEDEDE rime scheme.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

I will put Chaos into fourteen lines

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.

Reading of Millay's "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines"

The Octave Movement: "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines"

In the movement of the octave, the speaker reveals that she plans to put Chaos into a sonnet. Also she has in mind to "keep him there," so he will be unable to flee, or at least, only if he has luck on his side will he be able to escape.

The speaker has suspicions that he may attempt to scare up some way of breaking out of his confinement. Therefore, she says, "let him twist, and ape / Flood, fire, and demon."

However, she believes that with being strictly confined within the cage-like bars of the sonnet, he will not be able to break out, no matter how hard he squirms and fights. Her confidence in the ability of the sonnet to keep him confined leads her to suspect that that cage will prove stronger than Chaos.

The speaker is convinced that "sweet Order" will be won by placing this recalcitrant being inside the iron bars of a 14-lined cage of the sonnet.

The speaker asserts that she has brought him away with a religious fervor from his heretofore lack of steadiness and his vague design.

The speaker is confident that after having placed him inside the sonnet, he will take the shape of the sonnet. By thus settling into that sonnet form, he will become manageable. This new manageability will thus restore order and civility through her training methods.

The Sestet Movement: "Past are the hours, the years of our duress"

The sestet finds the speaker explaining that those many years through which she and her fellows have put up with the arrogance of Chaos will finally come to an end.

The speaker and her world will no longer tolerate the mayhem that invaded her life. She asserts that bowing down to Chaos has resulted in an "awful servitude."

Fortunately, the speaker has seized upon him, and now she can describe him as "something simple not yet understood."

The speaker claims that she will not "force him to confess." And she will not even compel him to take responsibility for his arrogance and aversion to order; quite simply, she is going to "make him good."

Greek Mythology: Chaos and Order

Within the narratives stemming from Greek mythology, "Chaos" is deemed to be the colossal emptiness out of which the entire cosmos has been created.

This fact makes for the logic of terming "lack of order" chaos. The undifferentiated masses that swam across the skies hitherto the coming of order is thought to have been nothing but big blob of confusion, hence, mayhem, or "chaos."

The speaker intends to put order into her confused life by limiting the mayhem and confusion, limiting the motion of chaotic events that treat her like a tyrannical master whom she must serve.

For a poet, the placing of words and achieving a useful meaning into a simple 14-line form will result in a discipline that will erase flabby language use from her toolbox.

As a poem needs to provide a pared down, orderly progression in order not to appear chaotic and thus flimsy, the poet's disciplined mind needs to be able to put chaos in a cage and tame him.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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