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Millay, Edna St. Vincent

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Born: February 22, 1892
Rockland, Maine
Died: October 19, 1950
Austerlitz, New York

American poet

Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American lyric (expressing direct and personal feeling) poet whose personal life and verse reflected the attitudes of rebellious youth during the 1920s.

Early life and education

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892, one of Henry Tollman Millay and Cora Buzzelle Millay's three daughters. Her father worked as a teacher. Edna's parents divorced when she was eight, and she moved with her mother and sisters to Camden, Maine. Her mother worked as a nurse to support the family. She encouraged her daughters to be independent and to appreciate books and music. Edna studied piano and considered a music career, but when one of her first poems appeared in St. Nicholas magazine, she decided to become a writer. "Renascence," a long poem written when she was nineteen, appeared in a collection called The Lyric Year (1912) and remains a favorite. A wealthy friend, impressed with Edna's talent, helped her attend Vassar College in New York.

Begins writing career

Following her graduation in 1917, Millay settled in New York's Greenwich Village and began to support herself by writing. Her first volume, Renascence and Other Poems (1917), brought her some attention. She also wrote short stories under the pseudonym (false writing name) Nancy Boyd. A Few Figs from Thistles appeared in 1920. In 1921 she issued Second April and three short plays, one of which, Aria da Capo, is a delicate but effective satire (making fun of) on war.

In 1923 Millay published The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize. She also married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a wealthy Dutchman. In 1925 they bought a farm near Austerlitz, New York. Millay participated in the defense of Nicola Sacco (18911927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (18881927), two Italian anarchists (those who rebel against any authority or ruling power) who had been accused of murdering two men in a Massachusetts robbery. Many people believed that the two men were charged only because they were foreigners and because of their political beliefs. In 1925 Millay was hired to write an opera with composer Deems Taylor (18851966); The King's Henchman (1927) was the most successful American opera up to that time. That year, after Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death, she wrote the poem, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," and also contributed to Fear, a pamphlet on the case.

Addresses social topics

Millay issued Buck in the Snow (1928), Fatal Interview (1931), and Wine from These Grapes (1934). She tried a dramatic dialogue on the state of the world in Conversation at Midnight (1937), but the subject was beyond her grasp. She returned to the lyric mode in Huntsman, What Quarry (1939). The careless expression of her outrage at fascism (a political movement that places nation and race above the individual and supports a government run by a single leader) in Make Bright the Arrows (1940) took away from its power. The Murder of Lidice (1942) was written in response to the destruction of a Czechoslovakian town by the Nazis (members of the controlling power in Germany from 1933 until 1945). Then Millay began to lose her audience; Collected Sonnets (1941) and Collected Lyrics (1943) did not win it back.

Millay's last years were dogged by illness and loss. Many of her friends died, and her husband's income disappeared when the Nazis invaded Holland during World War II (193945; a war in which Germany, Italy, and Japan fought against Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States). In 1944 a nervous breakdown kept her in the hospital for several months. Her husband died in 1949; on October 19, 1950, she followed him. Some of her last verse appeared after her death in Mine the Harvest (1954).

Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems' included such topics as sex, the liberated (freed from traditional roles) woman, and social justice. Though she wrote in traditional forms, her subject matter; her mixed tone of unconcerned calm, courage, and extreme force; and her lyric gifts were highly appreciated in her time.

For More Information

Epstein, Daniel Mark. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2001.

Sheean, Vincent. The Indigo Bunting: A Memoir of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper, 1951. Reprint, New York, Schocken Books, 1973.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was an American lyric poet whose personal life and verse burned meteorically through the imaginations of rebellious youth during the 1920s.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, on Feb. 27, 1892, and was educated in her native state. One of her juvenile poems appeared in St. Nicholas, and she delivered a verse essay at high school graduation. "Renascence," a long poem written when she was 19, appeared in The Lyric Year (1912), an anthology, and remains a favorite. A wealthy friend, impressed with Edna's talent, helped her attend Vassar College.

Following her graduation in 1917, Millay settled in New York's Greenwich Village and began to support herself by writing. Her impact was immediate with her first volume, Renascence (1917). She also wrote short stories under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd. A Few Figs from Thistles appeared in 1920. In 1921 she issued Second April and three short plays, one of which, Aria da Capo, is a delicate but effective satire on war.

In 1923 Millay published The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and married Eugen Jan Boissevain, and affluent Dutchman. In 1925 they bought a farm near Austerlitz, N.Y. Millay participated in the defense of the alleged anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1925 she was commissioned to write an opera with composer Deems Taylor; The King's Henchman (1927) was the most successful American opera to that time. That year, after the final sentencing of Sacco and Vanzetti, she wrote "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," a poem, and also contributed to Fear, a pamphlet on the case.

Millay issued Buck in the Snow (1928), Fatal Interview (1931), and Wine from These Grapes (1934). She tried a dramatic dialogue on the state of the world in Conversation at Midnight (1937), but the subject was beyond her grasp. She returned to the lyric mode in Huntsman, What Quarry (1939). Carelessly expressed outrage at fascism detracted from Make Bright the Arrows (1940); The Murder of Lidice (1942) was a sincere but somewhat strident response to the Nazis' obliteration of a Czechoslovakian town. She was losing her audience; Collected Sonnets (1941) and Collected Lyrics (1943) did not win it back.

Millay's last years were dogged by illness and loss. Friends died, and her husband's income disappeared when the Nazis invaded Holland. In 1944 a nervous breakdown hospitalized her for several months. Her husband died in 1949; on Oct. 19, 1950, she followed him. Some of her last verse appeared posthumously in Mine the Harvest (1954).

Miss Millay's virtues were in her poems speaking frankly about sex, the liberated woman, and social justice. Though she wrote in traditional forms, her subject matter, her mixed tone of insouciance, disillusionment, courage, and intensity and her lyric gifts were highly appreciated in her time.

Further Reading

A. R. Macdougall edited the Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1952). Biographies include Miriam Gurko, Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1962), and Jean Gould, The Poet and Her Book (1969). Other studies are Elizabeth Atkins, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times (1937); Vincent Sheean, The Indigo Bunting (1951); and Norman A. Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1967). Van Wyck Brooks, in New England: Indian Summer (1940), discusses Miss Millay's place in literary history; and Edmund Wilson, in Shores of Light (1952), retains his youthful personal affection for her and his high opinion of her literary merit. □

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Millay, Edna St. Vincent

Edna St. Vincent Millay (mĬlā´), 1892–1950, American poet, b. Rockland, Maine, grad. Vassar College, 1917. One of the most popular poets of her era, Millay was admired as much for the bohemian freedom of her youthful lifestyle as for her verse. During the early 1920s she lived in Greenwich Village, New York City, and wrote satiric sketches for Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd. Among her friends were Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop.

Renascence, her first volume of poetry, appeared in 1917 and was praised for its freshness and vitality. It was followed by A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), Second April (1921), and The Ballad of the Harp Weaver (1922; Pulitzer Prize). She also was a member of the Provincetown Players, a group that produced several of her verse dramas, including Aria da Capo (1920) and Two Slatterns and a King (1921).

In 1923 she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer, and moved to "Steepletop," a farm near Austerlitz, N.Y. Although her socially conscious later poetry is generally considered inferior to her early work, it exhibits her absolute mastery of the sonnet form. Among her later volumes are Fatal Interview (1931), a superb sonnet cycle; Conversation at Midnight (1937); and Make Bright the Arrows (1940). She also wrote the libretto for Deems Taylor's opera The King's Henchman (1927) and, with George Dillon, she translated Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil (1936). Eugen Boissevain died in the autumn of 1949, and Millay died less than a year later. In 1976, "Steepletop" opened as an arts colony.

See her collected poems, ed. by N. Millay (1956); her letters, ed. by A. R. Macdougal (1952); biographies by J. Gould (1969), D. M. Epstein (2001), and N. Milford (2001); study by N. A. Brittin (rev. ed. 1982).

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Millay, Edna St Vincent

Millay, Edna St Vincent (1892–1950) US poet. She wrote Renascence (1917), A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), Second April (1921) and The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1923), which won a Pulitzer Prize. She was active in progressive political and social causes.

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