Born near the cusp of the 20th century, Millay was a fiercely independent, feminist poet who refused to yield to societal norms. After her parents separated in 1904, Millay’s mother raised her and her two sisters in an all-female household, encouraging them to voice their ideas and hold their own beliefs. Millay did not take this advice lightly, getting in trouble with school authorities for her frank attitude and ultimately deciding to pursue a liberal education at the all women’s college, Vassar. While earning her degree, Millay began to perfect her poetry and explore her sexuality, having several short-lived romantic relationships with both men and women. Known as being particularly promiscuous by her classmates, Millay avoided committing to serious relationships for the duration of her youth and touches upon her feelings after finally settling down in her poem “If I should learn, in some quite casual way.” Through the progression of the quatrains, Millay’s poem “If I should learn, in some quite casual way” conveys to the reader that, despite outwardly denying her love for her partner, in reality, she cares for him.
The sonnet’s opening quatrain consists of Millay attempting to show how trivial her current lover is to her while, simultaneously, undercutting her point with the structure and method she chooses to express her message. The poem begins with Millay fabricating the hypothetical scenario of her lover’s death and restating the poem's title “If I should learn, in some quite casual way” (Millay, Line 1). By establishing her partner’s death as only a hypothetical scenario with the phrase “If I should learn,” Millay is able to distance herself from confronting the actual effects her lover’s death would have on her. After distancing herself, she attempts to trivialize him by suggesting she would learn of his death “in some quite casual way/... Read from the back-page of a paper, say,/ Held by a neighbor in a subway train” (Millay, Lines 1-4). By placing herself learning of her lover’s death off “the back-page of a paper... in a subway,” she not only suggests his whole life was only one small part of her journey somewhere else, but others – such as the man reading the paper – do not care about his death; his death is only worthy of filling the “back-page of a paper.” Yet, the broken sonnet Millay utilizes undermines her argument that she feels indifferent toward her partner. A sonnet consists of fourteen lines, each containing ten syllables and written in iambic pentameter; Millay breaks the traditional form by concluding her first line with an anapestic foot in the phrase “casual way.” The fact that the anapestic foot in “casual way” is forced into the sonnet’s underlying meter shows that the indifference Millay says she has for her partner is difficult to say because it is inconsistent with her underlying emotions. Millay’s first line also exceeds the ten-syllable length sonnet lines have and, by failing to fulfill another fundamental requirement of a sonnet, further suggests that her apathetic statements are inaccurate. The text continues to break the sonnet’s form in the first quatrain by using an apparent rhyme between the second and fourth lines, which read “That you were gone, not to return again–/... Held by a neighbor in a subway train.” The apparent rhyme not only breaks the sonnet’s structure, but shows her thoughts linger on her partner’s death as she writes “That you were gone, not to return again.” The phrase “not to return again” also suggests that she will miss his “return” and shows that she does feel for him. Millay attempts to deceive the reader and, in doing so, creates a microcosm of what her text does with her emotions: directly states a lack of emotion while subtly conveying through diction and structure that in actuality she has great affection for him.
The second and third quatrains reinforce the pattern set in the opening four lines: first distancing Millay from her partner to enable her to show apathy for him and then revealing how she in reality cares for him. The first lines of the second quatrain begin with Millay continuing her hypothetical scenario, stating “How at the corner of this avenue/ And such a street (so are the papers filled)” (Millay, Lines 5-6). The vague terminology of “this avenue and such a street” enables Millay to not directly confront the emotions she has and deny the fact that her affection for her partner exists. Ambiguous diction is further used in the following lines, which states “A hurrying man – who happened to be you –/ At noon to-day had happened to be killed” (Millay, Lines 7-8). The text touches upon the incident that killed Millay’s lover, yet does not use his name and simply calls him “A hurrying man – who happened to be you,” allowing her to distance herself from the event and discuss it less emotionally. Despite the denial Millay’s poem voices in the text’s first two quatrains, the poem’s third quatrain and final couplet confirms that the author cares deeply for her partner. The final quatrain begins with Millay stating after reading the news that “I should not cry aloud – I could not cry/ Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place” (Millay, Lines 9-10). Although beginning with an attempt to conceal her true emotions, “I should not cry aloud,” she quickly fails and the true reason why she does not “cry aloud” is stated: “could not cry/ Aloud... in such a place.” Millay implies that, although she wishes she could “wring [her] hands” and “cry aloud,” she is unable to do so since she is “in a subway train.” The poem concludes with the lines “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” (Millay, lines 11-14). By beginning with “I should,” Millay implies that the proper thing to do would be to act as if she did not care at all and simply “watch the station lights.” Yet, since Millay was never one to adhere to societal expectations, she likely writes of doing trivial things such as reading “with greater care/ Where to store furs” to speak to how ridiculous denying her emotions would be.
Millay’s poem “If I should learn, in some quite casual way” takes the traditional sonnet – a poetic form used countless times throughout European history to express love – and contorts it to allow the structure to aid in communicating her complex feelings in a modern era. Therefore her work is not only an exemplar of modernist poetry but a wonderful window into who Millay as well. Rarely yielding to societal expectations, even in the face of hundreds of years of European tradition, she breaks the sonnet to announce her profession of love exactly as she intended: with her own voice. It is that willingness to experiment and challenge the accepted that allows poets and their poetry to consistently puncture fallacies and portray every human emotion precisely. Edna St. Vincent Millay, having articulated the ineffable, has solidified her legacy as one of the great American modernist poets and a woman who will forever speak her mind through her work.