The Courage That My Mother Had
The Courage That My Mother Had
Edna St. Vincent Millay 1949
“The Courage That My Mother Had” is included in the collection Mine the Harvest, which was published in 1949. The poems in this volume were written in Millay’s later years, and they tend to reflect the mature sensibility of a woman who has experienced her share of hardship. Indeed, one might read “The Courage That My Mother Had” as Millay’s autobiographical response to her mother’s death. In this poem, Millay expresses her admiration for her mother’s courage and yearns for her fortitude. She also carefully chooses small details to allude to other aspects of her mother’s personality. Although her tone is wistful, the speaker is not embittered. She acknowledges the belief that material possessions can be handed down but such virtues as courage cannot. Using simple diction, the speaker laments the fact that she lacks courage as she faces the heartache of having lost her mother.
Millay was born in 1892, in Rockland, Maine, to Cora Buzzelle Millay and Henry Tolman Millay. Inspired by her mother, who raised her following her parents’ divorce, Millay became an independent child who freely explored her interest in music (for which she displayed a considerable aptitude), theater, and both the reading and writing of literature. Much of this pursuit took the form of writing poetry, and, by the time she was a teenager, Millay had already published poetry in the noted children’s magazine St. Nicholas. At the age of nineteen Millay wrote what is considered her first major poem, “Renascence.” The work was enthusiastically received, and, in part, earned Millay a scholarship to Vassar College. While it was obvious that she possessed a talent for verse, Millay’s time at Vassar refined her natural skills and provided her with a significant source of culture and scholarly acumen, including much of the feminist and political sensibilities that surfaced in her later work. While studying at Vassar, Millay continued to write. She regularly published her poems and plays in the school quarterly, and even composed the lyrics for a Founder’s Day song.
Following her graduation, Millay took up residence in the New York borough of Greenwich Village, a noted haven for people of artistic sensibilities as well as a center for issues of women’s rights and free love—both of which Millay espoused. While making a nominal living, she busied herself with writing poetry and acting with the Province town Players theater troupe. She also developed a taste for fast living, keeping a busy social calendar, and becoming romantically involved with several notable men of letters, including poet Arthur Davison Ficke and literary critic Edmund Wilson. By the early 1920s, however, this lifestyle caught up with Millay, and she was beset with nervous exhaustion and ill health. Seeking better climates, she sailed for Europe, where she remained for two years. Her income during this time came primarily from the writing of articles under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd.
Upon her return to New York in 1923, Millay met businessman Eugen Boissevain at a party; the two were married later that year. While his practical business skills freed Millay from day-to-day financial details, Boissevain was also the poet’s ideological and spiritual partner, as he respected both her artistic pursuits and her feminist concerns. In addition to these advances in her personal life, Millay’s career was on the rise: she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 and was granted an honorary degree from Tufts University in 1925. Her increased public profile gave Millay a platform to voice her social conscience, and she regularly engaged in protests, including a campaign against the conviction and death sentence leveled against political radicals Sacco and Vanzetti.
Millay’s writing throughout the late 1920s and 1930s reflected her political views, with many works taking the form of outright protest. This is particularly evident in her railings against the atrocities
of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. Despite her attempts to maintain an active schedule, however, Millay’s health was quickly deteriorating. She had been in precarious shape since an auto accident in 1936, and the pressures of maintaining her artistic and social concerns, combined with the troubled climate during World War II, precipitated a nervous breakdown in 1944. Her recovery was slowed by a number of personal setbacks, the most significant being the death of Boissevain in 1945. Although her emotional and physical powers were appreciably depleted, Millay continued to write. She was in the midst of compiling a poetry collection when she was struck by a fatal heart attack; she died at her home in Austerlitz. New York, on October 19, 1950.
The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried:
Now granite in a granite hill.
The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear:
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.
Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!—
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.
In these lines, the speaker uses plain statement to introduce the subject of the poem—her mother’s courage, which has gone somewhere with the mother. It is not clear to the reader initially why the speaker’s mother is missing, nor where she has gone, but the colon after the word “still” indicates that some sort of explanation will follow.
Here, the speaker uses a metaphor to describe her mother’s bravery. By likening her mother’s courage to a rock in line 3, the narrator shows how strong, enduring, and unshakable that courage was. The tone is one of admiration, respect, and pride. The reference to New England suggests that her mother was from this area; her character was chiseled from her environment, like granite from a quarry.
In the fourth line of this stanza, the speaker uses granite as a metaphor to emphasize her mother’s strength as well as to hint at her mother’s death. Granite sometimes implies “endurance” or “steadfastness,” and it also refers to the rock commonly used to build monuments and headstones. In line 4, the narrator is saying that her mother has died, and that she has taken her courage with her to the grave. The repetition in line 4 is meant to remind the reader of the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Figuratively, her mother’s courage has returned to the place from which it originated. The reader can assume that, in actuality, the mother now rests in a New England hillside cemetery.
The second stanza of the poem focuses on a different aspect of the mother’s personality. Although the speaker is addressing an emotional subject—her mother’s death—the tone is not sentimental. Rather, the diction remains simple and straightforward. In lines 5-6, the speaker uses the small detail of the mother’s brooch to illustrate another facet of her mother’s personality. In some regard, it might even be said that the brooch is symbolic of some of her mother’s characteristics. Indeed, the speaker’s mother may have been courageous, but the fact that she wore a golden brooch shows that she appreciated finery, too. The brooch might allude to the fact that the narrator’s mother had a good sense of style, or that she was, like the brooch, feminine and beautiful, in addition to being steadfast and brave. The image of the golden brooch serves as a contrast to the image of rock, of granite.
These lines contain a paradox. Although the brooch is the speaker’s most valued possession, she indicates that she could part with it if she had to. The words “no thing” emphasize the fact that the speaker is aware that the brooch is still just an object, a thing. She treasures it for what it is: an object that reflects her mother’s personality. She loves it because it is a connection to and a tangible reminder of her mother. At the same time, the speaker could part with the piece of jewelry because it is merely a possession, however symbolic. It is not something from which she can truly take comfort, or which can make her a stronger person. Instead of being useful, the brooch is merely decorative. Millay could be implying that one’s internal attributes are more valuable than one’s ornamental possessions.
In the final stanza, the speaker’s tone changes to wistful. She is not bitter, yet she yearns for her mother’s courage. The speaker seems to recognize that while one may admire virtues in others, one cannot necessarily adopt those virtues for him or herself. She deeply grieves the loss of that trait which she so admires.
Not only does she admire her mother’s strength, but the daughter needs that strength now more than ever. Her mother is buried, and, as is implied, she is at rest. However, the speaker is still living, and she needs a guiding tool to help her through her loss. The speaker implies that it is unjust that her mother should have taken her courage with her to the grave, since she no longer needs it, while the daughter needs it more than ever. In wishing for her mother’s courage, the speaker may, on some level be yearning for her mother’s presence to help her through her grief, although, ironically, her mother is the source of that grief. In the final stanza, line 11 repeats the simile which compares the mother’s courage to a rock. This repetition serves to emphasize a final time the mother’s bravery in comparison with her daughter’s lack of bravery. The speaker ends the poem with a quiet statement , one which acknowledges how difficult it is to face her mother’s death.
“The Courage That My Mother Had” is Millay’s elegy to her mother. It is a somber commemoration. Much of the poem’s tension arises from two contrasting elements: the vividness with which the poet remembers her mother, and an awareness of her death that is present from the beginning of the poem until its end. The mother is described in the past tense, implying that she is now dead; however, some of the details suggest she is still alive—at least for the poet. For example, her courage “went with her,” but it “is with her still.” The juxtaposition of real death and imagined life produces a poignant sense of loss which grows over the course of the poem’s three stanzas. The sense of loss is all the greater because the death of the mother is only hinted at in the first two stanzas. She is “granite in a granite hill”; she “left behind” a brooch. It is not until the final stanza, when the poet mentions “the thing she took into the grave,” that death is confronted directly.
In the first two stanzas, the poet recalls her mother in a remarkably economical portrait. In two lines the poet suggests the complexity of her mother’s character, which comprised both “rock from New England quarried” and “the golden brooch” she wore. The first metaphor describes the mother’s courage. This is her most remarkable characteristic, emphasized by being mentioned both in the poem’s first line and in its concluding thought. The metaphor also associates the mother with a specific location and culture, evoking the steadfast, proverbial strength New Englanders are reputed to possess. In the second descriptive line, the brooch reveals a very different aspect of the mother’s character, a soft, feminine side. One can almost see an old photograph of the mother in her best dress.
The brooch recalls both the living mother and the fact of her death; it was the living mother who wore the piece, but the poet would not have it if her mother had not passed away. The paradox is underlined in the last lines of the second stanza. “I have no thing I treasure more,” she writes, “yet, it is something I could spare.” She values the brooch because it is a link to her mother, but she would
Topics for Further Study
- In her poem, Millay uses stone to represent her mother’s courage. Think of a person you know. Make a list of objects that represent their good and bad qualities.
- What emotions does Millay express in the poem “The Courage That My Mother Had?” How does she express them?
- Imagine the setting in which the poet may have written this poem. What does she see around her? How do the various elements in the landscape of her home contribute to the mood of the poem?
gladly do without the jewelry to have her mother back with her.
Strength and Weakness
The moment she recalls her mother, the poet is intensely aware of her own weakness. As readers, we do not know why she feels this way. She only says at the very end that her mother no longer needs the courage she had, while the poet does. The mother’s courage is compared to “granite,” to “rock.” Rock, particularly granite, is strong and long-lasting—it can resist harsh forces for centuries. Granite, however, is not only strong, it is lifeless. Like the stone to which the mother is compared, she now lies buried in the granite hillside from which she sprung.
When the poet speaks of her mother, she implicitly does so as her mother’s child. Speaking from the perspective of a child, the poet sees her mother as the personification of strength, even limitless strength. “The courage that my mother had / Went with her and is with her still.” Even in death she has not lost her courage. As children often do, the poet feels weak, helpless, and afraid, and she admits her fear. She needs her mother’s courage. But instead her mother left her only the golden brooch, something pretty, delicate, perhaps a little old-fashioned. The brooch conjures up all those characteristics that are not strong. On the contrary, they are qualities stereotypically associated with femininity and helplessness—precisely the qualities that will not help the poet in her present state. The poet feels herself doubly weak: she is a child who needs protection, and at the same time she is a woman who fears she has inherited from her courageous mother only those characteristics associated with weakness.
“The Courage That My Mother Had” consists of three quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Within each quatrain, the final words of the first and third lines rhyme, as do the final words of the second and fourth lines.
Although the meter of the poem varies in places, each line tends to be arranged in iambic tetrameter. “Iambic” refers to segments in a poem called iambs, units of two syllables where the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. “Tetrameter” indicates that there are four such segments, or feet, to each line—“tetra” meaning “four.”
The following line illustrates the poem’s iambic tetrameter construction:
The gold / en brooch / my mother / er wore.
The poem’s rhythm lends “The Courage That My Mother Had” a song-like quality when it is read aloud. When you are reading the poem, you will also notice that each stanza contains a complete thought. The stanzas are linked together thematically, but each addresses a slightly different sentiment.
In 1949, the year Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “The Courage That My Mother Had,” a number of difficulties in her life—personal loss, doubt regarding her artistic ability, and bouts of depression—reached a crisis point. This preceded the short, final creative period in her life, and shortly thereafter she passed away. Millay had enjoyed success unparalleled by almost any other American poet in history: critics praised her work and, at the same time, her work was read by a large popular audience. She wrote continually, but as events accelerated toward war in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Millay became increasingly involved in getting the United States to support the European Allies in their fight against Hitler. Once America did go to war, she put her pen almost exclusively in the service of the war effort. Between 1940 and 1945 she gave up all writing except “propaganda poetry.” Millay never considered this work part of her “real” poetic output. Its purpose was to rouse the nation against an enemy that—Millay was deeply convinced—was a threat to freedom and could be defeated only on the battlefield. These poems were usually “occasional” pieces; that is, they were written in response to a specific event or at the request of an individual or group. They were written quickly; Millay rarely had the time to lavish that she gave to her other poetry.
In her eyes these poems constituted a disposable product meant to serve certain limited, temporary purposes, after which she hoped they would be forgotten. Millay did not want to see this work published in “permanent” form, as if it were part of her collected work. Her publisher released it in book form anyway. Critics reviewed Make Bright the Arrows harshly. The bad reviews came at a time when Millay, exhausted by her war work and unhappy about neglecting her “real” poetry, was recovering from a serious nervous breakdown she had in summer 1944. She had to be hospitalized for several months as a result and had still not fully recovered when the war finally ended the following spring. In all, the war period was catastrophic for Millay: both her sister and her best friend passed away; her reputation as a poet was seriously impaired; and the war itself had confirmed her most pessimistic intuitions about man’s true nature.
She and her husband Eugene moved to upstate New York. There Millay confronted an even worse affliction—she found she was no longer able to write poetry. Whether this was a result of her depression or the cause of her next bout with it is moot. As a consequence, though, America’s most popular, most visible poet became a virtual recluse. Eugene became her shelter from the hostile world. Visitors could see Millay only if Eugene allowed them to. According to some biographers, his over-protection contributed more to her problems than it helped. When she was around Eugene, Millay became infantile and passive. However, reports from the couple’s friends indicate that Millay seemed willingly to adopt the role of the young child in her relationship with her husband.
Compare & Contrast
- 1949: The Soviet Union explodes its first atomic weapon, becoming the first nation after the United States to possess the bomb. The confrontation between the USA and the USSR, soon to be known as the Cold War, will escalate very quickly after this event and determine the nature of international politics for the next forty years.
Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia is too concerned with its domestic problems to pose much of a threat to U.S. security. Unlimited nuclear war no longer seems likely. However, the threat of nuclear blackmail or nuclear terrorism is posed by smaller nations with extremist governments, such as North Korea or Iraq.
- 1949: The United States and the nations of Western Europe form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance intended to prevent Soviet aggression.
Today: Western Europe is working toward the formation of the European Union (EU). Eventually, the EU is meant to create a single political and economic unit that will include much of Europe, abolishing most internal trade barriers, establishing uniform regulatory standards, creating a European parliament, and establishing a single European currency. An important purpose of the EU is to comprise an economic bloc to help the nations of Europe compete with the United States and Japan.
- 1949: Jack Kerouac, an unknown, unpublished writer, begins his novel On The Road. Although it will take nearly seven years to get it published, the book will become a sort of countercultural bible to the disaffected youth of the 1950s. Kerouac, like other so-called Beat writers, rejected many of his times’ mainstream values and standards—social as well as literary.
Today: Works of Beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, are arguably the most influential literature of the twentieth century. The worldwide effects of their work extend across traditional genres like fiction and poetry, through popular culture like music, film and video, into the realm of personal lifestyle.
- 1949: The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) are founded. The confrontation of the two Germanies mirrors that of their patron states, the USA and USSR.
1989: Against all expectations, the Berlin Wall falls. Within eight months, East and West Germany form a single economic unit; within eleven months, amid much euphoria, they have reunited politically.
Today: The cost of rebuilding the infrastructure of the eastern part of the country brings Germany economic problems it has not known since the 1950s. These problems are exacerbated by animosities between East and West Germans, many of which result from prejudices developed during the Cold War.
In 1949, just as she was beginning to recover her creative powers and write new poetry, Eugene went into the hospital suddenly and died following surgery. Millay was shattered by the new blow. Most of her last poems, including “The Courage That My Mother Had,” were composed following the death of her husband. Calling on that courage, Millay might have had in mind how her own mother had also suddenly found herself without a husband. But Millay’s mother was not widowed; she freely left her husband, who was an alcoholic and a playboy. What is more, she took this step with three small children to support at the turn of the century, a time when society was far less forgiving of women who lived life on their own terms.
Critics are divided on the issue of the merit of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry. Those who favor her poetry praise it for its depth of human understanding, its clarity, its music, and its form. For instance, in an essay in Poetry, Harriet Monroe suggests that Millay may be the most talented poet since Sappho. Of Millay’s work she writes, “Always one feels the poet’s complete and unabashed sincerity. She says neither the expected thing nor the ‘daring’ thing, but she says the incisive true thing as she has discovered it and feels it.” Others are not so generous, claiming that Millay’s work is lacking in substance or that it is girlish, artificial, and coy. One such critic, Winfield Townley Scott, writes in Poetry that the biggest offense you could make today would be to compare a young female poet to Millay. “No one can sound so profound as Miss Millay at her falsest,” he claims. Perhaps a third critic, Sister M. Madeleva, offers a more moderate evaluation of Millay’s poetry. In her essay “Where Are You Going, My Pretty Maid?” she writes, “Her weakness lies in her strength—she is versatile. She adapts herself too easily to the forms and moods of the day. She can be mystical, epigrammatic, flippant, serious, dramatic. She can be neat and sweet and beautiful, and she usually is.… Beauty, technic, poise she has.”
Although critics disagree on the worth of Millay’s work, they are quick to acknowledge the popularity of her poems, especially her earlier ones. They also agree that her poems are usually formal—although some readers take issue with her variations on form—and that they examine themes of love, nature, and death. Millay’s poems also explore concepts of sexual love, a theme that previously had been largely excluded from poetry written by women. “The Courage That My Mother Had,” demonstrates that Millay’s sensibility may have matured but that she is still concerned with the themes of her earlier verse. In his book Edna St. Vincent Millay, author James Gray puts it another way: “The world, which she had held no closer at the beginning of her life than she did at the end, gave her as much of pain as it did pleasure. Love, beauty, and life itself had all to be endured as well as enjoyed.” “The Courage That My Mother Had” depicts some of that pain, as well as a glimpse of what Hildegarde Flanner calls Millay’s “deceptively artless ability to set down the naked fact unfortified.”
David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County, as well as the faculty advisor and co-founder of the creative writing periodical of Oakton Community College. In the following essay, Kelly provides biographical and historical information regarding Millay and her mother, in analyzing what Millay had meant by “courage.”
The landscape of literary fashion changes its aspect continuously. Right now, Edna St. Vincent Millay is treated as a dim and distant light that is barely visible and hardly thought worth examining. When her work is discussed, critics bring out its obviousness and the formality that tends to make it seem just a bit heavy-handed, given the simplicity of her subject matter. Contemporary readers often consider Millay’s writings as the quaint expressions of a naive person who lived in a simpler time. To some degree, the lack of awed respect accorded to this poet should be considered her personal responsibility or shortcoming, since anyone can name writers of true greatness whose works continue to take readers’ breath away, centuries after they have walked the earth. On the other hand, we cannot hold Millay accountable for doing her job all too well. She sought to examine simple truths that are common to all human experiences, and, if her work sometimes seems trite, it might be just a testimony to how common her subjects really are. The job of artists in all fields is to make difficult feats look easy; the curse of the artist is being taken for granted when the difficult looks too easy. The question of whether Millay’s insights are too obvious to deserve our attention or not can hardly be handled well, since “obviousness” is so subjective: who is to say whether a poem should provide a revelation to five, five thousand, or five million readers in order to be thought worthwhile? In some poems, though, most notably “The Courage That My Mother Had,” we can see that Millay herself understood and anticipated the attitudes that would be held toward her works by some contemporary critics who are unable to appreciate the familiar and the integrity it takes to stick with matters close to home.
It is simply a function of their place in the world that young people tend to see their parents as timid and naive. After all, once the greatest problems of the day pass by they are nothing but static history lessons to subsequent generations. If we only understand someone’s challenges in the abstract, then how likely are we to acknowledge the suffering those challenges have caused? It seems that this lack of empathy is at the root of many criticisms of Millay’s works, and, only slightly ironically, it also appears to be the core mechanism that makes “The Courage That My Mother Had” work. In the poem, the speaker does not acknowledge that she had previously underestimated her mother’s strength of character, but the clues are there to make us realize that she only recently came to see her mother as courageous. This is implied by the air of desperation in this poem. After all, when does one dwell upon something they haven’t got, or upon the subject of courage at all, except when faced with a true need for it? The poem leaves us with the impression that this is someone who did not realize when her mother was alive that she was observing the courage that she herself would someday need.
Throughout her lifetime, Millay would appear to all who observed her to be quite courageous enough, seeming hardly the type who would find herself unable to face the sedate life of her later years. She wrote this poem when she was in her fifties and had lived a life of adventure and fame that steered a path wide of the safety of common behavior. She was famous for her poetry almost immediately after graduating from college. In her twenties—on her own for the first time—she took up the free-thinking, artistic life in New York’s Greenwich Village, which was just then rising as a center of the counterculture, much as San Francisco was to become in the 1960s and Seattle in the 1990s. In Greenwich Village, she attended all-night parties, had affairs with a number of men, and became a member of the Provincetown Players, a theatrical troupe that pushed the limits of free expression. After a few years of the wild life, Millay gave her image of herself in her 1920 poem “First Fig” as a candle burning at both ends, that “will not last the night” but still “gives a lovely light.” Unlike people who take up opposition to social norms as their mission in life and, therefore, end up living by just another set of norms, Millay was independent enough to walk away from the fast-paced life when it began affecting her health. She sailed to Europe for a little more than a year in the early 1920s, and on her return, rather than going back to the Village (which grew in her absence to a Prohibition social center for out-of-towners and artistic wanna-bes), she went back to Maine to live with her mother. When she married, it was not to another artist, but to a financier. Rather than settling down to a sedate life of a luxury, though, she became
What Do I Read Next?
- The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay depict Millay’s life from her own point of view, in letters to family, friends, and the leading literary figures of her time.
- Edmund Wilson, among America’s foremost critics during the first half of the twentieth century, was also one of Millay’s friends. He described the literary scene in which she flourished in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.
- H. L. Mencken offers a very different take on the twenties and thirties in his Prejudices. His incisive language and biting humor are entertaining and insightful.
more vocal than ever in her writings against war, repression, and political injustices of all kinds.
To the outside observer, then, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s life shows no sign of her being too timid to do what she felt was appropriate, regardless of pressures from social (or antisocial) forces. The need for courage in her later years must then stem from finer, more sublime challenges in her life than the global political movements that the poet stood up to in her lifetime. We do not know as much about her mother, Cora Millay, as we do about Edna, for the simple reason that the mother was not famous and was not one to record her activities on paper. Still, we know more about her than we do about the parents of most writers because the bond between the two was so tight. Normalcy seems to be the most amazing thing about Cora Millay’s life, given her circumstances. She divorced her husband at the end of the nineteenth century, when Edna was seven and her other girls were six and three. Life was not easy at that time for a woman raising children alone, both for the obvious financial reasons and because the social stigma attached to divorce was considerably worse than it is today. Because of this, many women remained in horrible domestic situations, especially when young children were involved. By all accounts, the
“The job of artists in all fields is to make difficult feats look easy; the curse of the artist is being taken for granted when the difficult looks too easy.”
Millays’ marriage, though it had its problems, was not abominable, as indicated by the fact that Cora and Henry Millay remained friends after they separated. The worst aspect seems to have been Henry’s compulsive gambling, which depleted the household funds. A woman with less courage than Cora Millay might have been able to equivocate or make up excuses for accepting her bad luck in order to avoid taking action. Cora, however, took a job as a practical nurse and accepted sole responsibility for her daughters.
One of the reasons for the poem’s continuing popularity is its praise for domestic life. This praise is all the more convincing and valuable because it comes from someone who has lived a life generally considered more desirable than mere stability. The age-old tension between fame and worldly gain on the one hand and respect for the household on the other is addressed here by someone who has lived one life but admires the other. The fact that the author is not writing in support of her own way of life gives the values espoused in the poem an extra glow of sincerity. The wistful longing to be, like her mother, a rock, and the speaker’s weak, half-hearted interest in the “treasured” golden brooch, all point to a belittling of social success. Millay’s life was certainly more than a search for baubles of gold, but for the purposes of this poem that is how her life is represented. Regardless of what the poet accomplished in her life, the poem tells us that her mother had what was really important: in the case of Cora Millay, that was courage.
This brings up a final question: does the poet’s focus on courage come from a need that she feels in her own life (as it seems to be, recognizing the desperation in her tone discussed above) or is courage just the word that she uses to capture the essence of her departed mother? As much is made here of the fact that the mother is gone as is made of the mother’s courage, indicating that her departure holds the same weight with the writer as courage does. Since Edna St. Vincent Millay showed no particular sign of cowardice in her own life, courage might not have been the thing that she needed most, but it would be important to her if she needed a legacy, or some form of connection, from her mother. There will never be any way to answer a question like this, because there is no way of knowing just how fearful or courageous any person feels inside; outside appearances are almost always deceptive in this regard. The important point is that, regardless of the depth of feeling that inspired this poem, the piece that has resulted has found a place in the hearts of millions of readers, bringing together something familiar in the mix of courage, motherhood, and death.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Gray gives a general overview of Millay’s style, pointing out that in many ways she adhered to tradition, but that her “temperament” helped create a unique poetic voice and an artist who reflected American culture.
For the two decades of [Edna St. Vincent Millay’s] ever-rising popularity—the twenties and thirties of the century—she seemed to personify the spirit of the time: Its exuberance, its defiance of convention, its determination to discover and to declare a sharply defined identity.
But to remember her only as the nymph of Greenwich Village, exulting playfully in freedom, would be to turn away from nearly all that was of genuine importance to the experience which she put herself to exquisite pain to communicate. Seen whole she emerges out of myth not a gay figure but as a tragic one; not as a precocious perennial schoolgirl but as an artist born mature and burdened with a scrupulous sense of responsibility toward her gift; not as a changeling child of mysticism but as a creature whose essential desire was to find identity with the balanced order of nature; not as a woman merely but as a creator who inevitably contained within her persona masculine as well as feminine attributes.
The theme of all her poetry is the search for the integrity of the individual spirit, The campaign to conquer and control this realm of experience is conducted always in terms of positive and rigorous conflict—the duel with death, the duel with love, the duel of mind pitted against heart, the duel with “The spiteful and the stingy and the rude” who would steal away possession of beauty.…
[Q]uiet reverence for vitality under discipline is the distinguishing quality of her poetry. At its best it is characterized by a kind or orderly surrender to ecstasy.…
It is often said of the major figures of the arts that each seems to create a universe all his own and to measure its vast dimensions with untransferable techniques.…
No such gigantic stature can be claimed for a poet like Edna Millay. Her theme was too personal, too intimate to herself to fill out the dimensions of a supernatural realm of imagination. Indeed it might be said that her unique effort was to perform the miracle of creation in reverse. A universe already made pressed its weight on the sensibility, the aptitude for awareness, of one individual.…
An account of the running battle between life and death claimed first place among the poet’s preoccupations through her writing career. The effectiveness of the report is heightened by an awareness, sometimes bitter and sometimes merely rueful, that now one side commands ascendancy over will and now the other.…
As she grew older the tone of her quarrel with death tended to become more subdued.…
[V]ariations of tone in her report on the duel of life against death lend the best and most original of her personal qualities to the development of an old, familiar theme. The parallel may be suggested that, just as a mother must have faith in her child lacking any evidence to justify it, so the believer in life must show a similar courageous unreasonableness. Edna Millay is perhaps at her best when she casts her vote of No Confidence in death.…
From first to last, through every phase of her development, Edna Millay continued to be intensely herself and no other. Whether her theme was death, love, beauty, or the refreshing impulse of the will to live she spoke always with an accent that was unique to her. Of language she made a homespun garment to clothe her passions and her faith.
That she was able to create effects of striking originality is discovered to be only the more remarkable when a characteristic poem is examined closely and its thought is found to wear “something old” and “something borrowed” from the left-over
“An account of the running battle between life and death claimed first place among the poet’s preoccupations through her writing career.”
wardrobe of tradition. Edna Millay was a product as much of the nineteenth century as of the twentieth. The influence of tradition moved her a little backward in time. A too great reverence for her early instruction—not only at her mother’s knee but also at Keats’s—probably accounts for all the “O’s” and “Ah’s,” the “would I were’s,” the “hast’s,” the “art’s,” the “wert’s,” the “’Tis’s.” It must account also for the inversions of normal word order which sometimes impede the plunge of her hardihood in thought.
Even in more important matters of vocabulary, imagery, and symbolism her impulse toward expression was governed by convention.…
Because she absorbed tradition deeply into herself she seems able to revitalize its language with the warmth of her own temper. Her words become fertile from the nourishment which, as woman, she communicated to them as if by an umbilical link.
Simplicity, spontaneity, the seeming absence of calculation combine to produce her best efforts.…
More often than with either definitely declared voice she speaks as a detached observer of natural sights and sound. The souvenirs of experience are shared with a reader in language that seems entirely casual; it has been borrowed for the moment from more studied performers in the realm of poetry simply to convey a passing impression.… More typical of the poet’s method is the device of catching a symbolic significance, some warning of the threat against survival, in an image that seems to be, all at once, spontaneous, startling, and inescapably true.…
An important element in the highly personal tone of all her poetry is the wit that flashes through not merely the exercises in light vein but her most
“Of language she made a homespun garment to clothe her passions and her faith.”
serious reflections as well. The epigram was for her an entirely spontaneous form of expression and its unexpected sparkle of insight often illuminates even the darkest moments of the sonnets.…
Edna Millay’s wit was never petty. She was generous toward all her adversaries except mediocrity, war, and death. As in fashioning an epigram she revealed her most fastidious respect both for truth and for elegance. In the later poems her wit is so unobtrusive, so modest, that it might be missed entirely by a reader hoping to find a showy attribute identified by a capital letter. But it is always subtly present, embedded in a theme, as is the wit of Henry James. The tight-packed phrase, the unexpected revelation of how opposites of impulse may be found to blend, the sudden illumination of an ambiguity—these are the veins of wisdom through which wit runs in the sonnets.…
Throughout her life Edna Millay’s chief concern was to canalize creative energy into the production of poems that bespoke her innermost awarenesses. In her last years this concentration became so intense that almost all her other interests were severely excluded.…
Edna St. Vincent Millay has been praised extravagantly as the greatest woman poet since Sappho. She has also been dismissed with lofty forbearance as a renegade from the contemporary movement in poetry and sometimes been treated almost as a traitor because she never broke defiantly with the past. But both eulogy and denigration seem to hang upon her figure like whimsical investitures. Neither costume suits the occasion when her enduring presence rises up before us to bespeak a mind that has not lost its vigor. Her talent shrugs off these irrelevances—still staunch, still self-reliant, and still self-fulfilled. What we hear is a voice urging upon us the will to survive, uttering its sentiments with the grace and gravity of an intense and highly personal awareness. The fervor has not been dissipated from her words nor has the lucidity faded from her patterning of them into idea and conviction. In its most ardent moments the performance shows the same familiar spontaneity, disciplined into elegance without loss of power. It should be enough to call this talent unique among those that have appeared in our time. Rejecting comparison and eluding classification, an artist who has spoken so clearly and so persuasively seem tacitly to remind us that is really no acute need to try to grade achievement according to an established formula or to consider austerely, precisely, what place may be accorded to her in the hierarchy of genius.
But acceptance of this gift as a natural phenomenon need not preclude the effort to discover its significance as a manifestation of the creative impulse in America. That she was peculiarly a product of our native way of life critics and the general public alike recognized when she first appeared. In the nymph of Greenwich Village phase she appeared to be the very embodiment of a characteristic and widespread spirit, roused by the circumstances of the time. As she grew older her temper was affected by other circumstances just as the temper of the country and the century was affected by new crises and new obligations. The tragic quality of the human experience became, for Edna St. Vincent Millay, ever more and more evident. It should not be suggested that the miseries of war, of depression, and again of war chastened her, mellowed her, or performed any of the improving operations which disaster is often said to perform on the docile. Her fundamental outlook did not change; she would seem to have been born with her special insights clear before her eyes. But her temperament was enriched and her intelligence was spurred to an ever more alert display of will by the pressure of many threats. Without any loss of wit, the early frivolity dropped away leaving her nature fully revealed as champion, even at a moment when calamities multiplied, of faith in “the shining animal’s” ability to be reborn.
So, in the end, she was more surely the embodiment of the American outlook than she had been in the beginning. Indeed she enclosed the ethos of these United States in the twentieth century within the variety of her temperament. Even the contradictions and unresolved conflicts that tormented her were the same ones that have confused our culture. The granite of New England was in her and so was the flexibility of bohemia. She was American in her recklessness and in her reserves; in her mixture of audacity and decorous formality; in her devotion to learning and in her determination to put it to creative use; in her impulse toward rebellion, corrected and controlled by her respect for tradition; in her will to carry the battle to the enemy even when she knew the adversary to be the invincible one, death. The blend in her intelligence of traits derived from many sources of American vitality conveys the striking impression that she contained within herself important aspects of our native genius, alerted to a fine intensity of insight.
It is this absorbing—and, surely, durable—interest that claims for her a permanent place in the history of American poetry. She belongs to an impressive company of artists who came to maturity and found their voices during the second quarter of this century. Many of these have undertaken to explore the darkest caves of the secret mind of man and they have developed new poetic forms in which to record their experiences. Among them the figure of Edna St. Vincent Millay is conspicuous because she stands alone and in a blaze of light. It is impossible not to understand what she has to say, impossible not to be moved by the simple, direct, eloquent statements of her convictions. The world, which she had held no closer at the beginning of her life than she did at the end, gave her as much of pain as it did pleasure. Love, beauty, and life itself had all to be endured as well as enjoyed. But the human experience had meaning for her. The round of the seasons still kept to its pledge of rebirth and renewal. From that faith she drew the strength to impart dignity and beauty—as she said of Baudelaire’s achievement—to even the most cruel phases of the adventure of our time.
Source: Edna St. Vincent Millay, University of Minnesota Press, 1967, 48 p.
Flanner, Hildegarde, “Two Poets: Jeffers and Millay,” in The New Republic, Vol. 89, No. 1156, January 27, 1937, pp. 155-67.
Gray, James, in his Edna St. Vincent Millay, University of Minnesota Press, 1967, 48 p.
Madeleva, Sister M., “Where Are You Going, My Pretty Maid?,” in her Chaucer’s Nuns and Other Essays, D. Appleton and Company, 1925, pp. 143-58.
Monroe, Harriet, “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” in Poetry, Vol. XXIV, No. 5, August, 1924, pp. 260-67.
Scott, Winfield Townley, “Millay Collected,” in Poetry, Vol. LXIII, No. VI, March, 1944, pp. 334-42.
Britten, Norman A., Edna St. Vincent Millay, revised edition, Boston: Twayne, 1982.
An overview of Millay’s life and work, including her prose and drama.
Dash, Joan, A Life of One’s Own, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
A short look at Millay’s life and her relationship with her husband.
Gould, Jean, The Poet and her Book, New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1969.
The standard biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Gray, James, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.
A booklet that assesses Millay’s life and works in a very accessible style.
Van Doren, Carl, Many Minds, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.
An assessment of Millay written at the height of her powers and popularity.