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Michael Israel (Maryland): The Logical Structure of Pathetic Appeals: On the Uses of Negation in the Poetry of Edna St.Vincent Millay

The sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay (e.g. Millay 1917, 1931) are widely admired for their depth of feeling and technical precision, but their logical structure has been strikingly underappreciated in the critical literature. Logic and emotion are typically seen as separate, even antithetical: for a line of reasoning to be sound, one assumes it should be free from emotional bias; and for an emotion to be authentically felt, one expects it to be spontaneous and uncalculated, free from from the dictates of reason. In practice, however, pathos and logos are not always easily separated, and in some of Millay's most moving poetry the two are in fact intimately interconnected.
Drawing on work in Neo-Gricean pragmatics (e.g. Horn 1989, 2009), formal semantics (Giannakidou 1999; Hoeksema and Rullmann 2001) and cognitive linguistics, (Langacker 1991; Verhagen 2005; Israel 2011; Bergen 2012) I argue that the emotional effects of lyrical discourse in general, and of Millay's sonnets in particular, are often a function of the ways that logical operators guide the imagination in the process of meaning construction.
I will focus on three sonnets (appended below) in which negative and other averidical constructions play important roles in the creation of emotional effects. In "If I should learn", the speaker's expressed desire not to cry paradoxically highlights her grief by prompting the reader to imagine its suppression. In "Love is not all", a slow crescendo of weak denials and mild concessions culminates in an implicature that the speaker's love, which is never directly asserted, is in fact intensely felt. And in "Of all that ever in extreme disease", a complex arrangement of contraries, superlatives and double negations evokes in its contorted logic a lover's intense ambivalence. Each of these sonnets is in effect a compact argument leading the reader through a series of inferences to an implied conclusion - the reasoning is essentially logical, but the effects are clearly emotional.
The proposed analysis demonstrates the utility of linguistic pragmatics as a resource for literary analysis, revealing a kind of formal precision and logical rigor in the apparent sentimentality of Millay's poetry. In so doing it suggests a more complicated picture of the relation between pathos and logos in rhetoric, and of the relation between semantics and pragmatics in linguistic theory.

Bergen, Benjamin. 2012. Louder than Words: the New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. New York; Basic Books.
Giannakidou, Anastasia. 1999. "Affective dependencies" Linguistics and Philosophy 22: 367- 421.
Hoeksema, Jack and Hotze Rullmann. 2001. "Scalarity and polarity: A study of scalar adverbs as polarity items." In Hoeksema et al. (eds.), Pespectives on Negation and Polarity Items. pp. 129-171. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Horn, Laurence R. 1989. A Natural History of Negation. Chicago. Chicago University Press.
Horn, Laurence R. 2009. "Hypernegation, hyponegation, and parole violations." In Proceedings of BLS 35. pp. 403-23.
Israel, Michael. 2011. The Grammar of Polarity: Pragmatics, Sensitivity and the Logic of Scales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Concept, Image, and Symbol: the cognitive basis of grammar. Amsterdam & Philadelphia. Mouton de Gruyter.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. 1917. Renascence and Other Poems. New York & London: Harper Bros.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. 1931. Fatal Interview. New York & London: Harper Bros.
Verhagen, Arie. 2005. Constructions of Intersubjectivity. Oxford University Press.

from Renasence and Other Poems 1917

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again?
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man?who happened to be you?
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud?I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place?
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

from Fatal Interview 1931


Of all that ever in extreme disease
"Sweet Love, sweet cruel Love, have pity!" cried,
Count me the humblest, hold me least of these
That wear the red heart crumpled in the side,
In heaviest durance, dreaming or awake,
Filling the dungeon with their piteous woe;
Not that I shriek not till the dungeon shake,
"Oh, God! Oh, let me out! Oh, let me go!"
But that my chains throughout their iron length
Make such a golden clank upon my ear,
But that I would not, boasted I the strength,
Up with a terrible arm and out of here
Where thrusts my morsel daily through the bars
This tall, oblivious gaoler eyed with stars.


Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.