Concept and Execution :: 3 Unities

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by emmiD 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.

Three Unities.




All writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The job of the writer, any writer, is to control the words flowing onto the page so that those unnecessary digressions are avoided.

For example, remember the Death of Agamemnon in Greek mythology? He sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the winds so that the Greek warriors could sail to Troy. On his return, his wife Clytemnestra killed him, in revenge for Iphigenia. The ancient law of lex talionis demanded vengeance. Therefore, their son Orestes had to avenge his father which meant he had to kill his mother. Twisted stuff, you know.

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 1] that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or 2] 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. These present the concept that Frost wants to work with; placing them into the poem is his execution of that concept.

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”.

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

Everything else is description.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.

“Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets also controlled by Action, Time, and Place.


Action: Solitary Walk. Place: Streets of a town. Time: Late loneliness, “neither wrong nor right”.


Action: A white spider catches a white moth, life and death entwined, the one feeding on the other. Place: a white heal-all flower (more irony). Time: the very moment when the spider snares its prey.

His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery. He cannot express his emotions; she cannot control hers.

All action concerns the grieving wife’s decision to leave her husband. Frost captures the moments in time that lead up to the decision: what is she doing? What is he doing? What are they both thinking—and not saying? Place triggers the decision: the stair landing that gives a view of the cemetery where their child is buried. There she stands when the husband is out.

Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. Action: 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. His death at the end (Time) with the understated “little – less – nothing” has all the unexplainable mystery of Doom.

“My November Guest” approaches the Action as if it were a reported 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 desolated land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.

“Mending Wall” is another unexpected use of the three unities. 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 and repair the wall.

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 first line begins with the conflict that she must resolve:  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.

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 are separated, just as 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 grasp their methods of writing.

  • They begin with an idea and find a foundation to build on.
  • The foundation isn’t the sonnet; the foundation is the execution of concept, how the idea will develop.
  • The sonnet, then, becomes the poetic craft, fitting the ideas into a form for the reader.
  • The structure—the form that the lines take, that comes last.

The Three Unities can form the foundations for our ideas. In the hands of masters like Frost and Millay, the audience will not notice the framework that develops the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into unnoticed unless we stop to analyze.

As we go forward, we’ll look at the poetic craft, the way the words are put into poetic form. Structure.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse. Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse. Where does Blank Verse fit into this structural decision-making by poets?

First, however, in September, we begin with those unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.

Join us.

Poetry: Burning Candles

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by emmiD 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.

Burning Candles

“First Fig”

The entire poem, from poemhunter

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 seems merely 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, this poem 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 a persona reveling in an unending carouse as the persona burns daylight and nightlife, as stated in line 1. This is the Roaring Twenties, and the persona is a roaring flame through her life.

St. Vincent Millay employs the “brief candle” allusion to Macbeth’s famous speech by Shakespeare (“Out, out, brief candle.”). 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?

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 than a simple metrical analysis is needed to comprehend this diamond-cut poem.

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 the symbolic meaning of 7. 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 (not achieving 10). 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 to achieve any deeper meaning.

The title of “First Fig” is an unusual choice. Why not “Burning Bright” or “Single Candle” or “Candlewick”?

Could Millay create 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. Those sweetly savored events create potential, birthed through each poem in the collection.

Remember the title? “A Few Figs from Thistles.” This little gem of a poem is just the first in the collection.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

The poem is also a self-referent allusion. Millay’s 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 may not approve of the sustenance she takes).

Mark of Excellence

The burning candle is the obvious metaphor that dominates the first reading. It begins pointing to Millay’s theme. Yet to reach Millay’s overall meaning, we need a harmonious blending of all three elements—metaphor, structure, and title.

This harmonious blending of metaphor, structure, and title is the mark of an excellent poet. To create this blending in four short lines reveal Millay’s touch of inspired genius.

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods inspired poets. That was the only answer for poetic lines, living as if they had the breath of gods in them.

Celebratory of a life that others condemn, Millay’s “First Fig” speaks to the sparkling independence that each individual seeks to craft from life.

Like a rough diamond or the spiky thorns of a 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.

To reach our desires, we may have to burn our candles at both ends, passionately pursuing our labor and our leisure, no matter what our foes and friends advise.

Coming Up

Millay used rhyme and meter as well as extended metaphor to control the structure and meaning of her poem.

On the 25th, we look at another device that poets can use to control structure and meaning. We’re doing Robert Frost and St. Vincent Millay (again). Join us.

Copyright: The law of copyright states that a work is copyrighted for the life of the writer plus 70 years. Millay died in 1950. It’s now 2020, 70 years later. Her work is entering the public domain. On the 25th, when we analyze Frost, we will have to link to his poems rather than reproduce them here. Frost died in 1963; his works won’t be in public domain until 2033. Know your copyright laws.