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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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Millay, Edna St. Vincent

MILLAY, Edna St. Vincent

Born 22 February 1892, Rockland, Maine; died 19 October 1950, Steepletop, New York

Also wrote under: Nancy Boyd

Daughter of Henry and Cora Buzzelle Millay; married Eugen Boissevain, 1923

Edna St. Vincent Millay was the oldest of three daughters. Her father, a schoolteacher and school superintendent, left the household when Millay was seven. Her mother supported the family by working as a practical nurse and did her utmost to encourage all three girls to develop their creative talents. Millay first received recognition as a poet when her long poem "Renascence" was selected in 1912 for inclusion in The Lyric Year. However, "Renascence" narrowly missed receiving one of the three prizes awarded for the best poems in the volume. Publication of the anthology brought forth a storm of protest. Readers maintained that Millay's youthful statement of despair, rebirth, and affirmation was the strongest in the book. Her success brought her to the attention of Caroline Dow, who made it possible for the poet to attend Vassar College. In 1917, soon after graduation, Millay moved to Greenwich Village, where she quickly became a legend.

Several images of Millay during this period emerge: the serious artist living on limited funds; the bohemian, careless of health and propriety; the passionate woman involved in brief, intoxicating love affairs. During her Village years, Millay published Renascence, and Other Poems (1917, reprinted several times, most recently in 1994) and A Few Figs from Thistles (1920). The latter, with its famous "candle" quatrain (beginning "My candle burns at both ends; / It shall not last the night") and flippant love poems, captured the imaginations of the "emancipated" youth of the early 1920s. At the same time, Millay finished the poems that would appear in Second April (1921), and wrote and directed a pacifist verse play, Aria da Capo (1920).

In 1922 Millay received the Pulitzer Prize for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (reprinted 1983), an expanded edition of Figs with eight new sonnets. The following year, she married a Dutch businessman, Eugen Boissevain, whose first wife had been Inez Milholland, the famous suffragist, who died in 1916. Millay, who had admired Milholland at college, dedicated to her a sonnet honoring the women's rights movement.

Eventually, Boissevain gave up his coffee business to manage Millay's highly successful poetry-reading tours and to superintend Steepletop, their farm in upstate New York. Their marriage lasted 27 years, until Boissevain's death in 1949. During these years, Millay produced several books of poems—The Buck in the Snow (1918), Fatal Interview (1931), Wine from These Grapes (1934)—that are more subdued and more contemplative in tone than her earlier work.

In 1927 Millay became active in the movement to save Sacco and Vanzetti. She signed petitions, demonstrated, and, in a futile interview, tried to persuade the governor of Massachusetts to grant clemency. Her involvement in this case is reflected in several poems, most notably "Justice Denied in Massachusetts." Growing increasingly concerned about the spread of fascism throughout Europe and the start of World War II, Millay renounced her former pacifism in the late 1930s. In a series of political poems, she argued for American military preparedness and aid to France and England. Unfortunately, these poems are quite poor, relying on jangling rhythms and trite language. Collected in Make Bright the Arrows (1940), they drew a barrage of adverse criticism.

Millay is particularly interesting because, at a time when modern poetry was abandoning traditional forms, she chose to write ballads, lyrics, and sonnets. Though Millay's later work is somewhat more experimental, she usually stayed within familiar structures, adapting them to her own use. Millay's strongest poems work precisely because of the balance maintained between the emotional intensity of her subjects and the disciplined craftsmanship of her forms. As Floyd Dell said, "She learned the molds first, into which she poured her emotions while hot."

Many of her first poems ("Renascence," "God's World") reveal innocence and youthful exuberance. In "Recuerdo," the young lovers, after riding "back and forth all night on the ferry," impulsively give bags of fruit and "all our money but our subway fares" to an old woman newspaper seller. Other early verses, however, exhibit a mocking, skeptical attitude toward life and love. In many of the poems from A Few Figs from Thistles, Millay creates a bold, unconventional woman persona who is frankly attracted to men and who initiates and terminates love affairs at will. In Sonnet XI, for instance, she tells her lover, "I shall forget you presently, my dear,/ So make the most of this, your little day." The poem ends with the forthright statement "Whether or not we find what we are seeking/ Is idle, biologically speaking." In another poem, the persona glories in being a "wicked girl" and declares, "If I can't be sorry, why,/ I might as well be glad."

A more serious note appears in Second April (1921). The skepticism remains, but the lightness is gone. In "Spring," Millay states that "Life in itself/Is nothing" and compares the month of April to "an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." The love poems in this book are somber. "Sonnet XIX," for example, begins, "And you as well must die, beloved dust/ And all your beauty stand you in no stead."

Throughout all of Millay's poetry runs the message that life is short and love ephemeral. Human relationships, however sweet, cannot last; the theme of death constantly recurs. The early "Passer Mortuus Est" begins, "Death devours all lovely things," and the late "Epitaph for the Race of Man" mourns, "Earth, unhappy planet, born to die." Millay has been criticized for writing only of herself and her love affairs, but many of her poems reflect wider concerns. Her love poems, however, far from being sentimental effusions, are central to her vision of life's brevity and impermanence.

The recipient of much acclaim in the 1920s, Millay is less popular today. Feminist readers tend to dismiss her work as old fashioned and conventional. This is unfortunate because she, though no structural innovator, is in many ways close to the feminist-oriented poets of the 1970s. Certainly Millay's use of highly personal material, her fresh, forthright language, and her creation of strong female personae anticipate modern women's poetry. Millay's finest poems, moreover, ensure her position as an important American woman poet.

Other Works:

The Lamp and the Bell (1921). Two Slatterns and a King (1921). Distressing Dialogues (1924). The King's Henchman (1927, 1965). Poems Selected for Young People (1929, 1979). The Princess Marries the Page (1932). Conversation at Midnight (1937). Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939). Collected Sonnets (1941, 1988). Invocation to the Muses (1941). The Murder of Lidice (1942, 1978). Collected Lyrics (1943, 1981). Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army (1944). Mine the Harvest (1954). Collected Poems (1956, 1999). Thanksgiving 1950 (1966). Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1972). On Thought in Harness (1981). Sonnets & a Few Poems (1982). Take Up the Song: Poems (1986). What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (1989). The Rebirth (1892-1950: An Appreciation (1992). Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition (1992). Forceless Upon Our Backs There Fall (1992). Grace from Simple Stone (1992). Early Poems (1999).

Bibliography:

Andrews, B., No Wider Than the Heart: A Play in Two Acts, Based on the Life and Work of the Poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1994). Atkins, E., Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times (1936). August, B. T., The Poetic Use of Womanhood in Five Modern American Poets: Moore, Millay, Rukeyser, Levertov, and Plath (dissertation 1995). Beisch, J. S., "Edna Who? The Critical (Mis)fortunes of a Woman Poet in Decline" (thesis 1991). Bogan, L., Achievements in American Poetry (1951). Britten, N. A., Edna St. Vincent Millay (1982). Bukovinsky, J., ed., Women of Words: A Personal Introduction to Thirty-Five Important Writers (1994). Cheney, A., Millay in the Village (1975). Daffron, C., Edna St. Vincent Millay (1989). Dash, J., A Life of One's Own (1973). Dell, F., Homecoming: An Autobiography (1933). Dinkins, E. V., "Night's Sister: Voices of Desire in the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay" (dissertation 1995). Fleeger, C., "Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Study in Her Centennial Year" (thesis 1993). Freedman, D. P., ed., Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal (1995). Gilbert, S. and S. Gubar, Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (1978). Gould, J., The Poet and Her Book (1969). Gray, J., Edna St. Vincent Millay (1967). Gurko, M., Restless Spirit (1962). Mattson, F. J., Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892-1950 (1991). Minot, W. S., Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Critical Revaluation (dissertation 1995). Moore, J. V., "Selving, Sexuality, and Sestinas: The Poetics of Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marilyn Hacker" (thesis 1996). Nierman, J., Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide (1977). Patton, J. J., Edna St. Vincent Millay as a Verse Dramatist (dissertation 1995). Perkins, C. N., 100 Authors Who Shaped World History (1996). Rosta, P., The Magazine that Taught Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Millay How to Write (1985). Sheean, V., The Indigo Bunting (1951). The Shores of Light (1952). Wilson, E., I Thought of Daisy (1929).

Reference works:

CP. NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Commentary (June 1992). Criticism (1995). Genre (1998). Iowa Review (Fall 1992). Style (1995). Twentieth Century Literature (Spring 1986).

—ENID DAME,

UPDATED BY SYDONIE BENET

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Millay, Edna St. Vincent

MILLAY, Edna St. Vincent

MILLAY, Edna St. Vincent (b. 22 February 1892; d. 18 October 1950), poet.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, born to Cora and Henry Millay in Rockland, Maine, was the oldest of three daughters (her sisters were Norma and Kathleen). Her father was sent away by her mother when she was eight. Her mother went to work as a nurse to support herself and her girls, who, left on their own, developed both the independence and the strong mutual bonds that would characterize their relationships in the future. Millay, called not Edna but "Vincent," earned early notice as a poet with childhood successes, including publications in St. Nicholas children's magazine.

Her first great triumph, the long poem Renascence, elicited much comment when it appeared in the 1912 Lyric Year. Critic Jessie Rittenhouse thought the poem "the freshest, most distinctive in the book" (Milford, p. 76). At age twenty, Millay was a girl who wrote like a man, "a brawny male," Arthur Davidson Ficke joked. Impressed by her talent, her mentor Caroline B. Dow sent Millay to Vassar College.

During the Vassar years, Millay participated widely in theatrical and literary life, developing a performative style that would later structure her poetry and her readings as she became both the most well-known female poet and the representative "new woman" of the 1920s. She edited the Vassar Miscellany Monthly, which published some poems she had written earlier, such as "The Suicide" and "Interim." The years at Vassar were marked by strong female friendships and also by a legacy of strong poems about women, such as the "Memorial to D. C." that prefigured a later six-poem sequence written for Elinor Wylie.

At Vassar, she had a long and intense relationship with Elaine Ralli. Both of Millay's recent biographers, Nancy Milford and Daniel Epstein, portray her as involved in a number of lesbian relationships, perhaps beginning with her sisters. The very icon of free love, Millay had many sexual encounters with both male and female partners—some of them quite transitory, and all within the framework of a capacity to arouse passionate attachments that sometimes created bitterness and grief.

As the culture of the moderns developed in Greenwich Village, Millay was in the middle of it, wildly popular, involved with the Provincetown Players, writing plays, and reciting poems that college students knew by heart long before they were published. With a memorable presence, she attracted serious attention from a number of admirers, male and female, some of whom found it hard to get over her. Critic and lover Edmund Wilson was one of those. After Millay died, Wilson's 1952 "Epilogue" in his The Shores of Light called her an "exceptional being." "One never forgot the things she noticed, for she charged them with her own intense feeling" (p. 745). He thought her perhaps more interested in the poetic emotion her affairs aroused than in the individuals.

Millay was especially well-known for her intense poetry about love, often defiant love, like the entire volume titled A Few Figs from Thistles (1920). She reversed the expectations of female poets in many respects. Sometimes she played with the gender of her persona, speaking in a voice that would have seemed masculine to her readers, addressing a lover as "she." Even the casual flippancy of "First Fig" was decidedly unfeminine: "My candle burns at both ends; /It will not last the night;/But ah my foes and oh my friends/It gives a lovely light!" (Millay, p. 19). In perfectly formed sonnets, she theatricalized identity.

Millay's politics were progressive. She supported feminists and wrote a commemorative sonnet (Numberlxvii) on behalf of equal rights for women. She demonstrated against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, protesting to the governor in a personal letter that he ought to stay the execution, and then wrote not only a protest poem, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," and sonnets dedicated to them, but also an essay, "Fear," accusing readers of fearing anarchists when they ought rather to fear injustice. She helped make the United States tour of Emma Goldman possible in the thirties.

Perhaps in part because of her immense popularity, Millay came under attack. John Crowe Ransom's "The Poet as Woman" (1937) implied that her femininity had undermined her critical faculties. As a Poundian "make it new" aesthetic came to prevail, her very success in renewing the formal musicality of the sonnet tradition worked against her. Married to Eugen Jan Boissevain, she wrote from their farm at Steepletop, New York. But her extraordinary ability to make poetic language call attention to the experiences of everyday life and the drama of plants, birds, hills, and seasons shared little with the difficult poetics of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Wallace Stevens. Furthermore, like others who made gender identity and sexuality central to their stylistic work, Millay lost credibility with modernist and Cold War critics who demanded more universality.

Nonetheless, there is now renewed interest in Millay, and two major biographies appeared in 2001. Her incorporation of both musicality and drama into poetic style and her mastery of form make her one of the chief lyric poets of the twentieth century.

Bibliography

Clark, Suzanne. "Jouissance and the Sentimental Daughter: Edna St. Vincent Millay." In Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

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

Freedman, Diane, ed. Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

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

Millay, Edna St.Vincent. The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Edited by Allan Ross Macdougall. New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1952.

——. Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition. Edited by Colin Falck. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Ransom, John Crowe. "The Poet as Woman." Southern Review 2 (Spring 1937): 784.

Wilson, Edmund."Epilogue, 1952: Edna St.Vincent Millay. "In The Shores of Light. New York: Random House, 1952.

Suzanne Clark

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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)

Poet and dramatist

"Millay is the poetic voice of eternal youth, feminine revolt and liberation, and sensitivity and suggestiveness."

Robert L. Gale, author of ‘‘Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Life.’’

Recognized as one of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, Edna St. Vincent Millay was an especially famous and popular cultural figure during the Roaring Twenties. Her work was widely admired by critics as well as a varied audience. Millay became a kind of spokesperson for the post-World War I generation of young people, especially women, who were expressing their rebellion against tradition and their insistence on freedom of thought and behavior. In her days as a young poet in New York's Greenwich Village artistic community, she embodied the new, sexually liberated woman of the period.

A budding talent

Edna St.Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, but spent most of her childhood living with her mother, Cora Buzzelle Millay, and two sisters in the nearby town of Camden. Millay was fondly called "Vincent" by her family and friends because her parents had planned to name their son Vincent. When they instead had a girl, they gave her the middle name of Vincent. The inability of Millay's father, Henry Tolman Millay, to act responsibly and support his family led to her parents' divorce


when she was eight, and she rarely saw her father after that. Millay's strong-willed, independent mother worked as a visiting nurse, often leaving her daughters to fend for themselves and encouraging them to be self-reliant. She also nurtured their love of literature and music by making sure, despite the family's poverty, that they always had access to books and music lessons.

From her earliest years, Millay excelled at both music (she once thought of becoming a concert pianist) and writing. Through her mother's influence she was exposed to the work of such well-regarded poets as William Shakespeare (1564–1616), John Milton (1608–1674), and William Wordsworth (1770–1850), as well as novels by nineteenth-century authors Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and George Eliot (1819–1880). In her early teens Millay had some poems published in the St. Nicholas children's magazine. In high school, she contributed poems to the school's magazine and also served as its editor.

Millay graduated in 1909, but the struggling family had no money to send her to college. The launching of her literary career came about through her mother, who spotted an advertisement for a poetry contest. The winning works would be published in an anthology to be called The Lyric Year. Millay submitted a long poem titled "Renaissance," which was written in traditional couplet form (two-line stanzas, in which the last words in each line rhyme) and infused with a mystical sense of appreciation for the imagination.

One of the contest's judges, Ferdinand Earle, immediately recognized Millay as a major talent and began corresponding with her (it was he who suggested that she change the poem's title to "Renascence"), predicting that she would win first prize. As it turned out, the rest of the judges disagreed and gave Millay the fourth prize. Still, when the poem appeared in The Lyric Year in November 1912, Millay attracted a great deal of attention, with critics hailing her as a poet destined for greatness.

One of Millay's new admirers was Caroline B. Dow, director of the YWCA's (Young Women's Christian Association) National Training School. She helped Millay get a scholarship to Vassar College, a prestigious women's school in Poughkeepsie, New York. After spending a semester of preparation at New York City's Barnard College, Millay entered Vassar in the fall of 1913. She studied literature and languages and published poems and plays in the campus publications. She also played the lead in a play she had written, The Princess Marries the Page (not published until 1932). During her college years, Millay made several strong friendships with her fellow students and received a solid grounding in literary history that would serve her well, although, as a young woman already in her early twenties, she disliked Vassar's strict rules.

The Bohemian life in New York City

Millay's first poetry volume, Renascence and Other Poems, appeared in 1917, soon after Millay's graduation from Vassar. It includes six sonnets (a poem with fourteen lines, often of ten syllables each, and employing a regular rhyme scheme), a poetic form that Millay would use often throughout her career. The book and the poetry readings she gave established Millay's reputation in the literary world but did not bring her much money. She moved to New York City, where she lived in a small apartment with her sister Norma and made a meager living through her work as an actress (and sometimes a playwright and director) with the Provincetown Players, an experimental theater group.

Millay became involved with a community of young artists and writers living in the city's Bohemian (socially unconventional) neighborhood of Greenwich Village. They projected a new, modern perspective with their belief in nonconformity (refusal to go along with society's expectations), equality between men and women, and free love. Millay began a series of love affairs, the first one with journalist and playwright Floyd Dell (1887–1969), who was an editor of the socialist publication (the belief in a political and economic system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community as a whole, rather than by individuals) The Masses.

In 1918 Millay met Arthur Davison Ficke (1883–1945), a poet with whom she had corresponded for several years. Ficke stopped in New York to visit Millay on his way to military service in France (the United States had just entered World War I, a conflict that began in Europe in 1914 when Great Britain, France, and Italy opposed Germany's aggression). The two had an intense, three-day affair that Millay would write about in several of her best-known poems. Although the romance eventually ended, Millay and Ficke remained friends for the rest of their lives.

To support herself, Millay began selling short stories to the popular magazine Ainslee's, writing under the name Nancy Boyd. These were tales populated by characters from her own life: young writers and artists who lived unconventional, nonconformist lives in Greenwich Village. In 1920 Millay met

Modernist Poet T.S. Eliot

Unlike Edna St.Vincent Millay, T.S.Eliot wrote in a distinctly modern style, creating poetry that was not easily grasped by a wide audience. Nevertheless, both his poems and his literary criticism had a profound influence on the development of twentieth-century literature.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888. Educated at Harvard University and England's Oxford University, Eliot studied literature and philosophy and edited the Harvard literary magazine, the Advocate. After earning his PhD at Oxford, he settled in London, where he first worked as a teacher at a boy's school and then took a position at a bank.

It was at this time that Eliot also began to write both poetry and literary criticism, publishing his work in a number of journals and magazines. In 1917 his acclaimed poetry collection Prufrock and Other Observations was published. Like most of Eliot's work the poems in this work feature a blend of formal and informal speech, a use of both symbolism and realistic detail, and vivid metaphors.

As the 1920s began Eliot suffered from a nervous breakdown brought on by the combined pressures of a failed marriage and exhausting work and creative demands. While recovering, he wrote the book-length poem for which he is most famous, The Waste Land (1922). Highly unconventional and innovative, it is one of the most celebrated and controversial works of twentieth-century literature. Divided into five parts, The Waste Land is made up of seemingly random, disconnected images. It is narrated by several very different voices and includes both everyday and lyrical language, including many quotes from other writers. The poem's main theme is the disillusionment and spiritual emptiness of the post-World War I period.

In 1925 Eliot became an editor at the London publishing firm of Faber and Faber. From 1922 until 1939 he also served as editor of the distinguished literary journal Criterion, in which appeared the work of such important modern writers as Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust.

By 1927 Eliot became a British citizen. He also joined the Anglican Church, and his strong commitment to spiritual and religious values is evident in such volumes as The Journey of the Magi (1927) and Ash Wednesday (1930). During the 1930s he spent periods of varying length in the United States, teaching and lecturing at several universities, and he published several books describing his ideas on literature and critical thought.

Eliot also began writing plays in verse, which were generally well-received by both critics and audiences. The best known of these are probably Murder in the Cathedral (1936) and The Cocktail Party.

Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He died in 1965.

Edmund Wilson (1895–1972), who would one day become a famous literary critic and who was so taken with the vibrant young poet that he asked her to marry him; she declined. Wilson was then serving as editor of the sophisticated magazine Vanity Fair, and he began publishing Millay's poems in its pages. This brought her not only more income but also a wider audience.

Millay's second poetry volume, A Few Figs from Thistles, appeared in 1920. These poems are marked by a breezy, carefree tone that, despite the disapproval of some critics, accurately reflected the rebellious mood and freedom-seeking lifestyle of a daring, feminist-minded young woman of the 1920s. Perhaps most representative of this perspective is the often-quoted "First Fig," which is probably Millay's most famous poem: "My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/It gives a lovely light."

Despite the unconventional voice and content found in her poetry, Millay differed in one significant way from some of the other significant poets of the period. Unlike modernists T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) and e.e. cummings (1894–1962), Millay usually employed not free verse but traditional forms that incorporated set patterns of rhyme and meter. In fact, she was said to straddle two centuries, in that her poems often looked and sounded like those of the nineteenth century, while their themes and sentiments were drawn from the twentieth.

Hard work, and time in Europe

One of Millay's favorite achievements was a one-act play in verse, Aria da Capo, that was produced by the Provincetown Players during their 1919–20 season. Millay's next volume of poetry, Second April (1921), contains the same childlike spirit and appreciation for nature found in her previous work, along with a new sense of disenchantment and loss. Particularly moving were the sonnets written in honor of Millay's Vassar classmate and friend Dorothy Coleman, who had died in the influenza epidemic that gripped the world in 1918. Another notable poem in this collection is "The Bean-Stalk," based on the fairy tale of Jack and the beanstalk, for which Millay had earlier won an one-hundred-dollar award from the well-respected Poetry magazine.

Overworked and exhausted, Millay was still able to set off on a two-year trip through Europe in early 1921. Vanity Fair agreed to pay her a regular salary in exchange for articles, written under the name Nancy Boyd, that she was to send back to the United States. Soon after her arrival in Europe, Millay finished a five-act verse play called The Lamp and the Bell, which would be performed at the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Vassar College's alumnae association. Based loosely on the fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red, this work highlighted the value of strong friendships between women.

During her time in Europe, Millay traveled to France, England, Albania, Italy, Austria, and Hungary. Her mother joined her in the spring of 1922, thus relieving the loneliness she had been feeling and boosting her spirits. Returning to the United States in the spring of 1923, Millay met Eugen Boissevain, a handsome, vigorous, Dutch-born businessman. By April, the two were married. Soon after the wedding, Boissevain drove Millay to a hospital for intestinal surgery, thus beginning a pattern of devotion that would last until his death more than twenty years later. Boissevain appreciated his wife's talent and took care of all her practical needs and arrangements. He also allowed Millay the sexual freedom she desired.

Later in 1923 Millay's The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems was published, earning for Millay that year's Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The title poem tells the story of a woman who weaves a set of princely clothes for her young son and then dies. This tale of motherly affection and sacrifice was seen as a tribute to Millay's own mother, who had given her daughters the gift of culture, despite difficult circumstances. This volume also includes Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree, in which a woman separated from her unloved husband returns to nurse him as he dies. These poems feature many strikingly realistic images of life on a New England farm.

A famous figure

In 1924 Millay went on a poetry-reading tour of the Midwest, where she was enthusiastically received by large audiences. Then she and her husband began a period of travel abroad that took them to Asia, India, and France. After their return, Boissevain bought a 700-acre (280-hectare) farm near Austerlitz, New York. This home, which they named Steepletop, would provide a welcome refuge for Millay until the end of her life.


Millay's interest in and talent for music and drama as well as poetry came together in her next project: writing the libretto (lyrics) for the opera The King's Henchman, with music by Deems Taylor (1885–1966). Performed by the Metropolitan Opera in 1927, this work received mixed reviews from the critics but was a hit with audiences.

Later in 1927 Millay's concern for social issues led to her involvement in protests arranged in support of Nicola Sacco (1891–1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888–1927). They were Italian immigrants who had been convicted of murder, on rather flimsy evidence, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Millay was arrested for picketing a government building in Boston, Massachusetts, and made an unsuccessful plea to the state's governor to halt the execution. The Sacco and Vanzetti case inspired a poem, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," that appeared in her next poetry collection, The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (1928).

Millay continued to tour, impressing audiences with both her striking appearance—which featured flaming red hair, a slim figure, and elegant clothes—and her effective delivery of her poetry. Her next book, Fatal Interview (1931), contained fifty-two sonnets that chronicled a love affair from a distinctly feminine point of view. The poems were inspired by Millay's relationship with George Dillon, a young poet she had met while giving a reading at the University of Chicago. Later, Millay would collaborate with Dillon on a translation of French poet Charles Baudelaire's (1821–1867) Flowers of Evil.

Achievements and challenges

The poems collected in Wine from These Grapes (1934) show not only Millay's personal grief over her mother's death but also her concerns about global affairs. For example, in the grimly toned "Epitaph for the Race of Man," she claimed it was both a tribute and a challenge to humanity to save itself from destruction.

In 1936 Millay was writing an experimental work called Conversation at Midnight when her manuscript was lost in a hotel fire while she was vacationing in Florida. Backhome in New York, she painstakingly recreated the book from memory. These poems comprise an after-dinner conversation between seven men from very different economic and ideological backgrounds. Millay used a variety of poetic forms to convey their reflections on contemporary concerns and uncertainties.

It was during this period that, already in poor health, due partly to her heavy drinking and smoking, Millay was injured in a car accident that resulted in chronic pain and a dependence on addictive, painkilling drugs. Her next collection did not appear until 1939. Huntsman, What Quarry? included poems on lost love, death, nature, and the contrast between male and female perspectives on the world.

Long a pacifist (someone who believes that conflicts should be resolved through peaceful means, not through violence or war), Millay felt her outlook profoundly changed by the outbreak of World War II (1939–45) and the revelations of Nazi atrocities against Jews. She began writing poetry in support of the Allies' war effort (the nations, including the United States, that fought against Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan). Most critics, as well as Millay herself, in later years, consider these poems, published in Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook, pure propaganda (written to promote a particular cause) and not worthy of her talent.

In general, the 1940s were difficult for Millay. She was hospitalized in 1944 for a nervous breakdown brought on at least in part by her addiction to alcohol and drugs, and she lost several close friends (including Arthur Ficke) to death. In 1949 Boissevain died after surgery for lung cancer. Devastated, Millay insisted on returning alone to Steepletop. She spent a year there, continuing to write until her death from a heart attack in 1950.

In 1954 a final volume titled Mine the Harvest was published. It includes poems that are both sensitive and intellectual, and that affirm life while acknowledging the fact of physical decline. In a tribute to Millay that appears on the Modern American Poetry web site, Robert L. Gale summed up her appeal to her own and later generations of readers: "Millay is the poetic voice of eternal youth, feminist revolt and liberation, and potent sensitivity and suggestiveness."

For More Information

Books

Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

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

Freedman, Diane P. Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.

Gurko, Miriam. Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1962.

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

Nierman, Judith. Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977.

Web Sites

"Edna St. Vincent Millay." The Academy of American Poets. Available online at http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/160. Accessed on June 28,2005.

Gale, Robert L. "Edna St. Vincent Millay's Life." Modern America Poetry. Available online at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/millay/millay_life.htm. Accessed on June 28, 2005.

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