I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines | Study Guide

Edna St. Vincent Millay

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Course Hero. "I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines Study Guide." January 10, 2020. Accessed January 28, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Will-Put-Chaos-Into-Fourteen-Lines/.


Course Hero, "I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines Study Guide," January 10, 2020, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/I-Will-Put-Chaos-Into-Fourteen-Lines/.

I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines | Themes


Order and Chaos

In Greek mythology, Chaos was the emptiness that existed before the material world formed. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) interpreted this original state of the cosmos as being a disorderly mass from which an orderly universe was created. "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines" echoes with these ancient ideas and expresses them in poetic terms. The poem introduces Chaos as the personification of disorder, actively trying to disrupt "sweet Order" with flood, fire, demons, and twisting. Chaos is described as being arrogant and oppressive.

The sonnet form represents Order, which is the opposite of Chaos. The speaker says she will use the orderliness of the sonnet form to trap Chaos, cause him to mingle with Order, and thus "make him good." It's significant that the speaker does not want to destroy Chaos and does not see forcing Chaos into an orderly poem as being an act of annihilation. Rather, trapping Chaos inside Order will cause the two to coexist and combine. It is a creative, not a destructive, act. This may seem like a paradox because making the disorderly orderly would seem to cause disorder to disappear. Yet that is not the image presented in the poem. The poem suggests Chaos can be mingled with Order in such a way that Chaos is transformed, becoming a force for good as part of the act of poetic creation.

Ultimately Edna St. Vincent Millay uses this paradoxical idea as a way to explore this creative process. Taking the Chaos—the flood, fire, and demon—and forcing it into the order of a poem makes something out of nothing, order out of disorder, and goodness out of arrogance. The poem presents this creative act as a deeply personal process. The speaker talks of years of "duress" and "awful servitude" to Chaos's arrogance. The speaker has not always had the ability to capture Chaos and make him good. Yet something has changed since her years of "awful servitude," and she is now able to control him and make of him what she will. "I have him," she states, with certainty. She has come into her own, and she boldly proclaims her readiness to make Chaos good.

Power of Poetry

In many ways this poem is a tribute to poetry in general and to the sonnet form in particular. The image presented in the first 8 lines of the poem is of an unruly Chaos being caught securely in the "strict confines" of the poem's 14 lines. Chaos twists, mimicking "flood, fire, and demon," yet ultimately all his straining is in vain. He is caught and made to combine with Order. The poem is referred to in glowing and loving terms: "this sweet Order." Yet it is extremely powerful—powerful enough to confine and transform Chaos. This image presents poetry, especially the very formal sonnet, as having power over Chaos. It can facilitate creation and transformation. What's more, it can hold together two opposite things—Order and Chaos—in a way that makes something new—the mingled Order and Chaos. Poetry has the power to make the paradoxical and contradictory sensible and unified.

In the final 6 lines, the sestet, the power of poetry is developed through a new image. The speaker depicts an arrogant Chaos to which the speaker and others like her spent years in "awful servitude." Now, however, the speaker is no longer subject to the arrogant Chaos. The time of "duress" is over. The power of poetry is a freeing power. It granted the speaker the power to rise up and overpower Chaos.

The final line circles back to poetry's power to create, transform, and renew. The speaker says she will make Chaos become "good." Through poetry, the arrogant and oppressive Chaos will be changed into a force for good.

A Powerful Woman

Many critics have pointed out that the history of the sonnet form is dominated by male poets, several of whom give their names to sonnet forms: Petrarch, 16th-century English poet Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare. Often sonnets are written by men in praise of women and so represent the male gaze and male agency. The woman may be the subject of a sonnet, but she is not active. This sonnet turns that convention on its head. The poet is a woman, and she overpowers and confines Chaos, who is described with male pronouns.

Throughout the sonnet the speaker has agency and power, while Chaos is depicted as powerless. The speaker can choose whether to keep Chaos or let him escape. She also overpowers Chaos in "pious rape" and forces him to combine with Order. This image takes rape, a typically male crime, and makes it part of the speaker's action toward Chaos. While the image of "pious rape" may seem shocking or uncomfortable, Millay was unafraid of being controversial. In addition, her characterization in the sestet can be seen as a feminist message. Chaos is an arrogant force that has kept the speaker and others in "awful servitude" for years. But now, a powerful woman will rise up and overpower him. She will use the power of poetry to do it.

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