Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I will put Chaos into 14 lines” sonnet is very vague on the surface. If you dig deeper, there could be a variety of interpretations. One interpretation is that this sonnet could be about a man. ‘Him’ is referred to constantly throughout the sonnet. If you go with that theory, then the sonnet would be about a relationship with the man who seems chaotic to the narrator. The ‘I’ is trying desperately to make some sense of ‘him’.
Her goal is to ‘make him good’ (14). That is only one possible argument, which could be argued, based on textual clues.
The more likely interpretation is that this sonnet is about writing a sonnet. What helps lead the reader to that conclusion is evidence from the first line: “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines” (1). ‘Fourteen lines’ is typically the length of a sonnet, and this particular sonnet is 14 lines. Now that we know what this particular sonnet is about, what does Millay have to say about writing sonnets and how does she say it? These questions will be explored in this paper.
The first step is to look at the sonnet structure itself. This is a Petrarchan sonnet and follows the typical structure for this form.
There is an octave, sestet and there is a rhyming scheme. The octave follows the typical rhyming scheme of ABBAABBA. The rhyme scheme in the sestet is CDCDCD and is a variation to the typical rhyme scheme. “What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why” is another Millay sonnet that follows the Petrarchan form and again has the slight variation in rhyming scheme which is CDEDCE in the sestet.
The octave forms the question and the goal of the sonnet while the sestet addresses the question and attempts to resolve or comment on it.
The overall structure of the sonnet can be quite rigid in the point of view of the poet who has to create based on these restrictions. The poet has to come up with a question and resolution. Poets also have to come up with words that follow a particular rhyme scheme. Creating a sonnet can seem like a difficult task. This is what Millay is struggling with in the beginning of “I will put Chaos into 14 lines”. “I will put Chaos into 14 lines” can be called a sonnet based on the criteria above. The octave sets the goal of the sonnet, and the particular goal of this sonnet is to “put Chaos into 14 lines” (1).
That is what the writer does in the octave. He escapes and “flood, fire, and demon” (4) are released in the next line. Chaos is finally caught “in the strict confines/ Of this sweet order” (5-6). At the end of the octave Chaos “mingles and combines” with the order. Now that the goal of the octave has been set up, the sestet can attempt to resolve the goal. The resolution is that now that Chaos and Order have intermingled, the writer can finish the sonnet. The turn in the sonnet comes in the sestet when the writer proclaims that “I have him. ” (11).
The writer has been successful in putting the “Chaos into 14 lines” (1). What is the “Chaos” that the poet mentions in the first line? The chaos is referred to as ‘him’ in the second line. ‘Him’ is usually a pronoun for man. This again refers to the possible interpretation in the introduction. The ‘him’ brings up an image of a man and since it’s a woman poet, the idea of a relationship emerges. Knowing that this sonnet is about writing a sonnet, a different interpretation emerges. ‘Him’ could possibly refer to a muse since they are sources of inspiration.
This muse is also the cause of the Chaos. The poet’s muse has been released on this sonnet and ideas are starting to form. Some of her early ideas are “flood, fire and demon” (4). Her muse releases these chaotic elements, but they do not work within the confines of the sonnet structure. What happens next is that the ‘Chaos’ is trapped by the sonnet: “his adroit designs / Will strain to nothing in the strict confines / of this sweet order” (4-6). “His adroit designs” were the “flood, fire and demon” (4).
Those were previous ideas that now do not work because they are trapped within the confines of the sonnet structure. The structure of the sonnet is also seen as “sweet order”. The sonnet structure can be confining in the fact that the poet needs an octave, sestet and rhyming scheme. These sonnet elements can bring some order to the Chaos. The poet knows that she needs to utilize these elements in her sonnet. They bring some order to the ‘Chaos’ of her thoughts and ideas. As mentioned previously ‘him’ represents a man. So why is this pronoun used through the sonnet?
The idea of ‘him’ as a muse also seems erotic since it creates an image of a relationship. ‘Him’ eventually becomes caught and combined with ‘Order’. Why is this relationship between Chaos and Order significant? It’s important because it adds another dimension to the sonnet. It adds the image of the relationship. Keeping in mind that this is a sonnet about writing a sonnet, the relationship image adds some insight into the writer. The Chaos is her muse and the Order is the sonnet structure. The ‘Chaos’ that is her muse and ideas, is the one in control at the beginning of the poem.
Then the ‘Order’ of the sonnet structure gains the control and the writer is about to finish the task that she set out to accomplish. The Chaos and the Order play against each other and in the end they come together to create this sonnet. Millay has accomplished what she set out to do in this sonnet. She has successfully written a sonnet about the writing process. She has written the sonnet with in the confines of the sonnet structure. She has been a slave to her muse but she has conquered it in the end. Her ideas about writing have been captured in this sonnet. She has been successful in her goal.