"[I will put Chaos into fourteen lines]" is an interesting and dark poem, which begs the question: Was Edna St. Vincent Millay going through a rocky relationship at the time? From reading and scrutinizing the poem, it surely sounds like the speaker's tone is disparaging and is out for revenge.
"The Norton Anthology of American Literature" (Vol. D) describes Millay's poetry appropriately: "Millay achieved notoriety mainly for love poetry that described free, guiltless sexuality, her poems are more founded in the failure of love than in the joy of sex. The tone of her earliest work was flippantly cynical; later work became more muted and lyrical" (1610).
This depiction of her work is right on target because "[I will put Chaos into fourteen lines]" is darkly cynical and has the sense of a failed relationship - where a man is to blame.
For a better understanding of such complex piece, this sonnet will be scrutinized in couplets.
Lines 1 and 2 state:
1-I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
2-And keep him there; and let him thence escape
The first line puts emphasis on Chaos with its capitalization. In this sense, Chaos becomes significant and takes the form of a human. Line 2 supports the human aspect of Chaos due to the fact that it is referred to as "him." In other words, she refers to the imprisoned man as Chaos. Moreover, the semicolon in line 2 is crucial because it makes the reader pause before continuing on. Metaphorically, the man (Chaos) is also in pause because he is not going anywhere and can only think of escaping.
This man is locked up in a cage or somewhere like an animal. She seems extremely angry at a man who has treated her badly, or a man who has done something terribly wrong. In fact, the word "furious" would be more fitting because the tone of the poem indicates that. She is furious at Chaos; and for that reason, she is punishing him by holding him captive.
Lines 3 and 4 state:
3-If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
4-Flood, fire, and demon - his adroit designs
Line 3 appears to be a man who is trying to escape from the miserable place he is in by turning and twisting, but he fails and isn't so lucky. She also uses the word "ape" which often connotes an animal and a clumsy/unintelligent person. In the context of this poem, both meanings would be appropriate, because a cheating man is usually referred to an animal (dog is the commonly used word); thereafter, other unflattering words like stupid, idiot, etc. usually follow.
In line 4, Millay refers to Chaos as "flood," "fire," and "demon." Interesting, all of these words carry negative connotations: Flood destroys and hurts people; fire destroys and hurts people; and demon destroys and hurts people. What is destroyed and hurting in the context of this piece? A relationship is destroyed and a woman is hurting. Thus, Chaos is a monster.
Moreover, she ends line 4 with "his adroit designs," which can be interpreted differently because of the many meanings; however, with "adroit designs" one meaning takes priority: a cleverly dishonest plan in which Chaos undertakes to be unfaithful. How does such assertion come about? Because the word "designs" (with its various meanings) also implies a selfish or untruthful plan; in other words, it's a secretive plan undertaken for selfish or dishonest motives. Fittingly, because Chaos cheats on his woman, he is selfish and dishonest. Consequently, he pays the price for it when she finds out.
Lines 5 and 6 state:
5-Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
6-Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape,
Line 5 shows that even if Chaos strains and fights captivity, it will do him no good because he is strictly confined. His extreme efforts to free himself are useless. To show that Chaos is in COMPLETE submission, Millay gives him another name and refers to him as Order in line 6. Chaos has been subdued, so now he is Order.
It appears as if she enjoys Chaos's Order and calls him "sweet Order" in a sarcastic manner. The ending words in line 6 are intriguing because "pious rape" presents an oxymoron. The word "pious" has a religious overtone; whereas, the word "rape" implies a violent and spiteful act. So what does she mean by "pious rape?" Two explanations will be rendered:
First and foremost, "pious" also implies one who acts in a falsely moralizing way - and that person is Chaos. Therefore, she feels like she has been raped - not physically but literally, because Chaos's cheating ways. Chaos violates their relationship and rapes it away.
Secondly, because she feels that he rapes away their relationship, she is returning the favor to Chaos via taking away his freedom through imprisonment - and metaphorically rapes him. In other words, she rapes away his autonomy. These examples provide a possible meaning of the phrase "pious rape" in line 6.
Lines 7 and 8 state:
7-I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
8-Till he with Order mingles and combines.
In line 7, Chaos appears to be in dire shape, for his liberty is gone. This line is very profound because it shows that she controls him in every way; she is the master of his "essence" and "amorphous" shape. With the usage of the word "amorphous," the people-friendly features are removed from him, leaving him with no shape or structure.
Line 8 shows that she will continue to hold on to his freedom until he behaves properly and obtains some Order, which will lead to the proper treatment of woman and render respect. Free will is nonexistent for him.
Lines 9 and 10 state:
9-Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,
10-His arrogance, our awful servitude:
Line 9 implies that their relationship at one time was rather lengthy, but currently all is down the drain because of his cheating. This line also implies his cheating ways was ongoing, but no action was taken because she probably loved him at the time. Therefore, she suffered with all the stress with false expectations that he would change his ways until she had enough - which presents the current situation she undertakes.
As line 10 states he is arrogant and thinks about himself, rather than his relationship with his woman. This is what drives her to take such drastic measures.
Lines 11 and 12 state:
11-I have him. He is nothing more nor less
12-Than something simple not yet understood;
She continues to dehumanize Chaos, the cheater, in line 11 by stating "he is nothing," which connotes something of insignificance. She doesn't care for him anymore, but she also believes that he is not too hard of understanding; rather, he is simple but she hasn't reached him yet. With her disposition, she doesn't wish to reach him; her motive is to torture him.
Lines 13 and 14 state:
13-I shall not even force him to confess;
14-Or answer. I will only make him good.
These two final lines do not need too much explanation because it's clear how she feels. The voice of the poem takes a nonchalant attitude in line 13: "I shall not even force him to confess." What else could she force him not to confess? It has to be an INFIDELITY issue. She refuses to make him confess to any wrongdoings, for she knows he is a cheater.
The last line of the poem indicates that imprisonment will make him good and deter him from cheating again on any other woman. The poem is surely not delightful, nor does it manifest happiness. It takes joy in punishing a man for his cheating ways. Essentially, revenge is the only priority.
Edna St. Vincent Millay does a great job putting "Chaos" in 14 lines, because that is Chaos to the extreme. In fact, she shows her complete control of him by embedding brackets with the title: "[I will put Chaos into fourteen lines]"
Wouldn't every woman love to get even with a cheating husband or boyfriend by servitude? Perhaps.
Nevertheless, the poem has a vindictive and baleful connotation to it. Someone is obviously being punished and that someone is the man named Chaos. He seems to be tortured into remission and is absolutely paralyzed from vertex to base.