Poets & the Three Unities

Three Unities

Sprawling tree roots support the central tree.

Action.

Time.

Place.

Writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The struggle for writers is to keep that sprawl focused so that every element seeds ideas relevant to the theme.

When relating the story of father killing daughter, wife killing husband in revenge, and son killing mother to restore a balance, any writer might be tempted to stray away from the central storyline.  Aeschylus managed to stay focused for his trilogy The Oresteia, and he didn’t have the Three Unities to guide him.

I am tempted, just from that previous sentence, to comment that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or that killing doesn’t restore balance to the scales of justice, even in Greek myth with its differences between revenge and justice and its taboo on kin-killing.  See?  It’s hard to let things go.  Orestes had to argue with the Furies to get them to leave him alone for re-balancing the scales of justice.  And Aeschylus took three dramas to tell that one story.

Action. Time. Place.

Aristotle laid down the law about the Three Unities.  These three “laws” help structure any writer’s work.

To create the law of Three Unities, Aristotle looked at the most impressive dramas (tragedy and comedy) and classified the reasons for their success.

The story should focus on one action occurring over a tightly controlled time frame within a closely bounded place.  For ancient dramas, this meant one conflict occurring during one day and situated in one place, such as the front steps to a palace.

The law of the Three Unities, however, is not limited to ancient Greek dramas.

Novelists are similar enough to dramatists that no persuasive evidence is necessary.  Short stories maintain a tighter control on all three elements while novels might address one single conflict (with subplots) over several days yet still in a closely-bounded culture.

The James Bond sagas focus on one antagonist to be defeated with a close-monitored ticking clock within the culture of the British spy game.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring saga seems to sprawl all across Middle Earth [place] as the Fellowship gathers allies in order to defeat Sauron [action] before he becomes too powerful [time].

When poets work with the Three Unities, something unexpected and extraordinary occurs.

Frost and the Three Unities

Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” presents Aristotle’s Three Unities.

Action:  God considers re-making the world as he did with the Deluge.

Place: The great ocean crashes on to a shoreline saved only because it is “lucky in being backed by continent”.

Time: “A night of dark intent / Was coming”, and it could be that the dark night might turn into an age of destruction.

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.
  • “Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets controlled by Action, Time, and Place.
  • His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day (Time) she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery (Place).  He cannot express his emotions;  she cannot control hers. (Action)
  • Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. The son is cutting wood while the sister stands close by (Place).  Since the boy does not keep close watch on what he is doing (classic hubris:  challenging Fate), the chainsaw leaps out to take his hand (Action).  His death at the end of the day (Time) with the understated line of “little – less – nothing” has all the inexplicable mystery of Doom.
  • “My November Guest” reports the Action as a conversation between a man and his love: “My Sorrow when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be . . . She talks, and I am fain to list”.  The Time is the unexpected beauty of November, and the setting is the simple beauty of the land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.
  • “Mending Wall” is another unexpected use. Two neighbors are in unexpressed disagreement over the wall between their properties:  one is instinct, delighting in the fairy shifts to the rock wall, while the other is plodding logic that dislikes sudden changes.  They meet on an appointed day (Time) and repair the wall (Place & Action).

Millay and the Three Unities

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief” covers all Three Unities.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The conflict to resolve begins the poem:  her love is gone, and she must go about forgetting him so she can move on.

Time ~ Her entire existence is taken up with remembering him and their love.  Every day of her past year she has tried to forget him only to have her grief renewed:  the rainy season, last autumn, and winter have passed, yet her heartbreak remains acute.

Place ~ Typical romantic places have also served as reminders of him, therefore increasing her loss:  the oceanside, the mountains, country lanes.  We can assume the city from the “weeping of the rain.”

Left unmentioned is Action.  Since time and place have not eased her pain, the Bohemian Millay may move on to action to bring her relief.

More of Millay’s Structural Techniques

A Petrarchan sonnet without the stiff formality of the 19th century and earlier, Millay presents her mastery of the sonnet by providing rhyme we barely notice.  Only occasionally do we slow to read her meter-based lines, which lesser poets must twist to create.

Three coupled images tighten up her structure:  “I miss him / I want him” and “Last year’s leaves / Last year’s bitter loving” and “So with his memory / So remembering him”.  The first two sets are coupled together;  the last set is separated, for the couple is broken apart.

Wrapping Up

Millay constructs her poetry more tightly than Frost does, but both are masters of the poetic line reading like conversation.  With Aristotle’s Three Unities, we can see a bit of their approaches to writing.

The Three Unities become a device for writing.  Skillfully used, the audience doesn’t notice the framework for the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into the structure to become unnoticed.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse.  Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse.

Join us August 25 for a reminder of unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.

Burning Candles : Edna St. Vincent Millay

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, by Emily R. Dunn of Writers Ink Books.  Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.  We’ll also intersperse news about books.

Burning Candles

 

“First Fig”
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.

1914 photograph
Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her early 20s

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig” is a rich gem.  An unassuming jewel of four deceptively simple lines preceded by a clever title, the poem lights candles to celebrate the bravado and esprit of the bohemian lifestyle:  adventurous, blithe, and insouciant.

Closer examination reveals the poem is crafted with a diamond-cutter’s precision, sparkling with St. Vincent Millay’s talent.

Part of a collection entitled A Few Figs from Thistles and published in 1920, it heralded the Roaring Twenties.  In many ways, “First Fig” pronounces the prophet’s message for the decade.  In concept and execution, “First Fig” rewards deeper analysis with its treasured secrets.

At First Glance

A quick read finds the persona reveling in an unending carouse as the persona burns daylight and nightlife, as stated in line 1.  St. Vincent Millay employs the “brief candle” allusion to Macbeth’s famous speech by Shakespeare.  She burns her metaphor even more quickly than Macbeth did.

Like Macbeth, she may even see the end coming.  She remarks that her life “will not last the night”.  Yet she does not care what her gossiping “foes” or her worried “friends” will say.

Why doesn’t she care?  Her deeds provide “lovely light”.  So, now we ask about her deeds?  How do we find out?

from a public newspaper
My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night.

Return to the first line.  How can a candle burn at both ends?  It has to be held horizontally and kept balanced to avoid burning the holder.  If candle = life, then how does a life “burn” at both ends?  It can only do so if the daytime hours are as fully utilized as the nighttime hours.

Like Emily Dickinson’s “labor and leisure, too,” (from “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, perhaps another poem St. Vincent Millay had in mind), we realize the persona is enjoying herself as equally as she is performing her laborious daytime duties.

A Closer Look

The structure reinforces the revelations of the extended metaphor.  The clear rhyme of lines 1 & 3 (“ends” to “friends”) and 2 & 4 (“night” & “light”) clues the reader that more is going on than simple rhyming lines.

The rhythm is primarily iambic, which is a traditional meter providing no additional information.  A stronger magnification is needed for this diamond.

The syllabication per line is a clearly cut facet, in sequence 7, 6, 8, and 6.  The persona clearly relishes her life which “burns at both ends”.  It is perfect to her, and 7 is symbolic of perfection.  Virtually everyone knows this.  Let’s go deeper.

The persona may not achieve what some would call a complete life (symbolized by the number of 10).  Friends and foes caution that her life may be cut short, a possible interpretation for line 3 with its 8 syllables.  The persona does not care.

That eight-syllable third line also lets us know that St. Vincent Millay is very careful with her word choice.  “Foes” could easily have been enemies;  that’s 10 syllables.  She wasn’t after 10 syllables, though.  She wanted to play out the alliterative f, and the 8 fit with the rapidly burning candle.

Just as she relishes life’s adventures, so may she relish the adventures of the after-existence, the exploration of the greatest mystery that we face ~ thus, the two lines of six syllables, a number of doubled mystery.  (I am “reading in” here, but it fits.)

Back to the Title

Since the metaphorical idea and the line structure mirror and reinforce each other, we need to chip away and polish off the title.  “First Fig” is an unusual choice.  Why not “Burning Bright” or “Single Candle” or “Candlewick”?

Could she make a metaphorical allusion with the title just as she does with the candle?  Could it be a Biblical allusion to the fig leaves sewn together by Adam and Eve when they first recognize the shame of their nakedness?

Is it an art allusion to the classic fig leaf used to cover a male statue’s genitals?  Again, a cover for nakedness.

Is she picking off one leaf after another, revealing a shame others want her to feel but she has no trouble baring to the world?

That fits—but it doesn’t.  St. Vincent Millay says “first fig”, not “first fig leaf”.

A fig is a seed-filled fruit.  Its sweetness is an acquired taste.  And the tiny little seeds are potential that bring growth.

This also fits her poem:  The sweet-tasting events of her life, daytime and nighttime, are seeding her writing.  The events’ potential is birthed through each poem in the collection.

And this little gem is just the first in the collection.

wikimedia commons public domain
Thistle, from Wikimedia Commons

The poem is also a self-referent allusion.  Her bohemian lifestyle is an acquired taste, delectable only to her.  Thistles are beautiful purple flowers on ugly, spiky stalks.  This fig, this “First Fig” taken from a thistle, may prick and seem ugly to others.  However, it provides the sustenance she desires (even as other people do not approve of such sustenance).

Summing Up

The burning candle is the obvious metaphor that dominates the first reading and points to the meaning, yet it is all three elements—metaphor, structure, and title—which reveal the theme.

Celebratory of a life that others condemn, “First Fig” speaks to the sparkling independence each individual seeks to craft from life.  Like a rough diamond or a thorned thistle, our existence must be polished or pruned of thorns.  We must peel away the layers of others’ expectations to reach the glittery heart or sweet fruit of what we desire.

Join us in August on the 5ths.  We return to Songs.