What did the poet mean by the following lines?

The most I ever did for you, was to outlive you,
But that is much.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not able to understand the meaning completely, and the context in which this was written.

  • I've been looking for context... was that part of a poem, or a standalone quote?
    – MT_Head
    Jun 25, 2011 at 7:24
  • 1
    I suspect this is impossible to truly understand without context. Jun 25, 2011 at 14:09
  • @MT_Head, @Peter Shor: i am researching the context too :)
    – naveen
    Jun 25, 2011 at 19:43

4 Answers 4


I see two meanings here:

Edit: (with thanks to @Peter Shor) From What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves ond Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Edna's mother, Cora, has just died):

Guilt magnified her grief. Of the three daughters, she was always the one who assumed responsibility. She jotted lines she would never publish:

At least, my dear
You did not have to live to see me die.

Considering now how many things I did that must have caused you pain,
Sweating at certain memories, blushing dark blood, unable
To gather home my scattered thoughts
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You kept no books against me! In my own hand
Are written down the sum and the crude items of my inadequacy.
The most I ever did for you was to outlive you.

(In 1954, Norma would revise the thirty-line fragment and publish it posthumously in such a form that it appears to be addressed to Edna's late husband. But it was written in 1931, for Cora.)

(Norma was Edna's sister, and acted as her literary executor after her death.)

So, although the published version of the poem may have a slightly different emphasis - and I suppose one might speculate as to whether she really loved her husband or not - as she originally wrote these lines, she meant "I let you down, I never did enough for you, but you always forgave me. And now, the most I can do for you is to go on living without you."

  • but did she love her partner? "The most I ever did for you, was to outlive you" i see a paradox.
    – naveen
    Jun 25, 2011 at 10:26
  • 4
    She's minimizing anything that she might have done for (whomever this is addressed to.) The sense I get from it is "however much I did for you while you were alive, it shrinks to nothing beside the burden of outliving you."
    – MT_Head
    Jun 25, 2011 at 16:34
  • @yetanothercoder: Yes, at first glance, it does seem to be a gloating statement: I outlived you and thus beat you. That would require most and for to be sarcastic, with the actual meanings of least and to, respectively. The overall construction sounds, to me, like what MR_Head says. (Especially in the longer context.)
    – Wayne
    Jun 25, 2011 at 19:57

What the poet is saying is, that the only thing, the speaker did, was to outlive the other person, and even the act of outliving that person was difficult.

  • but did she love her partner? "The most I ever did for you, was to outlive you" i see a paradox.
    – naveen
    Jun 25, 2011 at 10:26
  • I reckon she is being sardonic. perhaps she didn't love her partner
    – Thursagen
    Jun 25, 2011 at 11:37

Being the one left means that you are the one who must mourn and experience great sorrow. I personally love my wife enough to be the one who must bear this rather than her.


I think she means that her greatest gift to her loved one was bearing the heavy burden of such a huge loss; something she wouldn't want someone she loved so much to have to go through.

  • 1
    Hello Leah. Isn't this the thrust of Joatmon's answer? May 2, 2015 at 14:18

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