“Sentimentality is a failure of feeling,” says Wallace Stevens, and Robert Browning speaks of “Lyric Love, half angel and half bird”–the difference between lyricism and sentimentality

As Wallace Stevens, never sentimental and occasionally even one of the most coldly obfuscational of poets, warned us at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the sentimentality of the Victorian Era was on the wane, “Sentimentality is the failure of feeling.”  No one could doubt that there was intense truth in his poetry and very little false feeling, though just what the poetry is about has often perplexed and frustrated other poets, literary critics, and scholars alike.  And though Robert Browning was a poet of the Victorian Era, and had ups and downs of sentiment himself, that’s not the same as saying that he was sentimental.  The two are different things, sentiment and sentimentality.  As he apostrophized in “The Ring and the Book,” “O Lyric Love, half angel and half bird,/And all a wonder and a wild desire.”  In a sense, the two capitalized words in his long poem are interchangeable, “Lyric Love” and “Love of Lyric.”  Even as long ago as the time of Horace (65-8 B.C.E.), Horace was enthusiastic enough to say in one of his odes, “But if you name me among the lyric bards, I shall strike the stars with my exalted head.”  That image, though comic perhaps to the ironically inclined, is still not guilty of the bathos–false inflated sentiment, unlike the true feeling of pathos–which I have singled out for part of my post topic today.

All of this background fluster and flurry is part of my setting for a discussion of a poem or two by a woman poet (“female” or “feminine” poet are terms of opprobrium to sexist men and terms of reduction to women themselves, used to ducking the charge of being too “gushy” and “touchy-feely” in their poems).  The poet herself is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and she has been charged by some with being a minor poet and participating in the sin (especially to our cynical, hard-minded times) of sentimentality.  But I would like to insist instead that her love poetry is both hard-minded, occasionally quite biting and ironic, and full of genuine feeling.  Her point of view on the question of the charge is quite clear.  As she said in one of her lyrics, entitled “To Those Without Pity,” “Cruel of heart, lay down my song/Your reading eyes have done me wrong./Not for you was the pen bitten,/And the mind wrung, and the song written.”  Note that she calls it a “song,” a synonym in a particular context for the word “lyric.”  There must be something which sings and moves and encourages rhythm in a poem, whether it rhymes or not, whether or not it has meter, and her poetry has all of this.  And often, critics’ objections against what they call “sentimentality” or “bathos” is in actuality an objection to being caused to have feeling themselves, to be drawn to emotion by the skilled words of another.  Love poetry is especially susceptible to this charge, because love is the one subject upon which we all are vulnerable, whatever kind of love it is, the one weakness that few of us can defend against at some time or other of our lives, and the particular thing we like being challenged upon the least, whether someone would say we feel too much or not enough.  Let’s look at one of her shorter lyrics, called “Never May the Fruit Be Plucked”:

“Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough/And gathered into barrels./He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs./Though the branches bend like reeds,/Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,/He that would eat of love may bear away with him/Only what his belly can hold,/Nothing in the apron,/Nothing in the pockets./Never, never may the fruit be gathered from the bough/And harvested in barrels./The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,/In an orchard soft with rot.”

That poem certainly contains a cynical enough view, and yet it is a love poem, and is full of image and feeling and sense and does not force the reader’s head down with overdone emotion.  The feeling communicated is sufficient to the subject itself.

Or this one, a rhyming and more “singing” poem this time, called “The Betrothal”:

“Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad,/And love me if you like./I shall not hear the door shut/Nor the knocker strike./Oh, bring me gifts or beg me gifts,/And wed me if you will./I’d make a man a good wife,/Sensible and still./And why should I be cold, my lad,/And why should you repine,/Because I love a dark head/That never will be mine?/I might as well be easing you/As lie alone in bed/And waste the night in wanting/A cruel dark head./You might as well be calling yours/What never will be his,/And one of us be happy./There’s few enough as is./”

This poem has an especial effect which I really like, and it’s in the ungrammatical last line.  To be grammatically correct, the expression (referring to people in the plural) should read “There’re few enough as are.”  But by using a colloquial and idiomatic “sting” of a line as the last, which moreover rhymes, a more folkish wisdom emerges from the final portion, and seals off the entire experience of the foregoing lines with an almost gnomic feel.

Probably the most famous poem Millay ever wrote (which has been recorded musically and is reprinted on several sites) is the longer poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which I don’t have space for here today, but which I strongly recommend as a marvelously lovely picture of mother love, full of emotion and caring and none of it false, of a length of about five printed pages, all of which will repay study and attention for their smooth flow and melodic development of the theme of how a child witnesses a parent’s love and concern without always knowing until it’s too late how much that care costs.  The fantasy element that is present from the beginning of the poem makes the life picture broad enough to cover a number of slightly different situations, all of them with the same emotional tenor, proving that certain conditions are worldwide, like impoverishment, generosity, worry, ingenuity, beauty, death, and even magic, of sorts.

Finally, Millay is a veteran composer of the sonnet form, and I would like to add one example of this to my discourse of today.  The sonnet is entitled “When I too long have looked upon your face”:

“When I too long have looked upon your face,/Wherein for me a brightness unobscured/Save by the mists of brightness has its place,/And terrible beauty not to be endured,/I turn away reluctant from your light,/And stand irresolute, a mind undone,/A silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight/From having looked too long upon the sun./Then is my daily life a narrow room/In which a little while, uncertainly,/Surrounded by impenetrable gloom,/Among familiar things grown strange to me/Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark,/Till I become accustomed to the dark.”

Millay is more modern in many ways than Christina Rossetti, but the domestic and natural imagery, the sometimes fantastic elements as in “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” and her book of poetry for children which is equally important to adults (as with Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”) make her Rossetti’s true inheritor poetically speaking.  Try this experiment:  read a number of Millay’s poems, both the rhyming and the metered and the blank and free verse and then read this famous poem of Rossetti’s, and see, barring a slightly more stiff-upper-lipped emotional resonance in Millay, if you don’t find them very similar in their styles, perhaps their world views, even.  This poem of Rossetti’s is called simply, “Song”:

“When I am dead, my dearest,/Sing no sad songs for me;/Plant thou no roses at my head,/Nor shady cypress tree./Be the green grass above me/With showers and dewdrops wet;/And if thou wilt, remember,/And if thou wilt, forget./I shall not see the shadows,/I shall not feel the rain;/I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on as if in pain./And dreaming through the twilight/That doth not rise nor set,/Haply I may remember,/And haply may forget.”

Points proven if only in brief, I hope.  In an era in which we have a proliferation of mass literature with plenty of bathos and sentimentality, and a literary fiction pulling hard in the other direction, even to the point of sometimes seeming too callous and unfeeling, perhaps, as Richard Gilbert has recently posted on his site in reference to Wordsworth, we need to return to the middle ground via reading good lyric poetry which, while enshrining feeling in a key and secure spot at its heart, yet fends off the “bad” sentiment or the weak line (the two are often one) by the depth of its reaching into the human experience.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

4 responses to ““Sentimentality is a failure of feeling,” says Wallace Stevens, and Robert Browning speaks of “Lyric Love, half angel and half bird”–the difference between lyricism and sentimentality

  1. Richard Gilbert

    Very interesting, Victoria. Sentimentality is really a great topic because all art skirts it because it is made of emotion and asks for an emotional response but has to earn it. And that depends on the eye of the beholder—and as you point out, our eyes are fairly cold these days.


    • Thanks, Richard, incidentally, for the tip about what to read. I was feeling a little bit “dry” creatively speaking recently, and suddenly I remembered your adventure with Wordsworth and I went back and read several poets, not even necessarily the ones I liked best, but ones whose individual poems I was fond of. And as things go in cycles, I’m sort of hoping that eventually things creative will moderate themselves, and we will cease to be afraid of our emotions. It’s not that I want to wallow, it’s just that I want the freedom to express things without always feeling that I have to curb feeling, if you know what I mean. People who aren’t plagued with this knowledge suffer less from holding back, and in one or two of my novels, I have some poems which are of one camp (for the characters who know to hold back) and some poems written by those in the other camp (who are clueless as to modern cynicism). But even I worry occasionally that people will not see them as the inset character clues they are, and will take the bathetic ones to be indicative of my own stance. It’s a hard row to hoe!


      • Richard Gilbert

        Yes! But one person’s sentimental bathos is another’s deeply moving transcendent art. And one CAN love the occasional poem by someone whom one otherwise disdains . . .


  2. True enough, I suppose. Just now, I’m trying to read an anthology of contemporary American poetry collected by Daniel Halpern, and so much of it contains poems that are just lists of images, or sets of posturing statements, and I don’t find much that I would call “great” there. Maybe it’s I, but it doesn’t seem to have the stature of Wordsworth and Keats.


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