On "Well, I Have Lost You"
Several of Millays 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 longerand 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. Millays 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 politicalthat is, antinormativegestures. 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 fašade, exposing the grief that the speaker is trying to de-emphasize.
Some nights of apprehension and hot weeping
I will confess; but thats 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 speakers 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 speakers 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 speakers personal psychic pain. Any such personal suffering corresponds to breaking points in the poems 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 speakers psychic trauma and certain rhetorical traumasliterally, cutsin 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 iteffectively submitting to the forces that resist the poems 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
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