Millay, Edna St. Vincent (1892–1950)
Millay, Edna St. Vincent (1892–1950)
Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, seen as exemplary of the "modern woman," whose work captured the spirit of the post-World War I generation. Name variations: (pseudonym) Nancy Boyd. Born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892; died of a heart attack at Steepletop on October 19, 1950; first of the three daughters of Cora (Buzzelle) Millay (a nurse) and Henry Tolman Millay (a schoolteacher); sister of Norma Millay; graduated from Vassar, 1917; married Eugen Boissevain (a businessman), on July 18, 1923 (died August 1949).
Renascence and Other Poems (NY: Kennerley, 1917); A Few Figs from Thistles (NY: Shay, 1920); Aria da Capo, Chapbook (NY: Kennerley, 1920); Second April (NY: Kennerley, 1921); The Lamp and the Bell (NY: Shay, 1921); Two Slatterns and a King (Cincinnati: Kidd, 1921); The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (NY: Shay, 1922); The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (NY: Harper, 1923); Poems (London: Secker, 1923); Renascence (NY: Anderson Galleries, 1924); (as Nancy Boyd) Distressing Dialogues (NY: Harper, 1924); Three Plays (NY: Harper, 1926); (score) The King's Henchman (libretto by Millay and music by Deems Taylor, Birmingham, U.K.: Fischer, 1926); The King's Henchman: A Play in Three Acts (NY: Harper, 1927); Fear (NY: Sacco-Vanzetti National League, 1927); The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (NY: Harper, 1928); Edna St. Vincent Millay's Poems Selected for Young People (NY: Harper, 1929); Fatal Interview, Sonnets (NY: Harper, 1931); The Princess Marries the Page: A Play in One Act (NY: Harper, 1932); Wine from These Grapes (NY: Harper, 1934); Vacation Song (Hanover, NH: Baker Library Press, 1936); Conversation at Midnight (NY: Harper, 1937); Huntsman, What Quarry? (NY: Harper; 1939); "There Are No Islands Any More" (NY: Harper, 1940); Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook (NY: Harper, 1940); Collected Sonnets (NY: Harper, 1941); The Murder of Lidice (NY: Harper, 1942); Collected Lyrics (NY: Harper, 1943); Second April and The Buck in the Snow (NY: Harper, 1950); (edited by Norma Millay) Mine the Harvest (NY: Harper, 1954); (edited by N. Millay) Collected Poems (NY: Harper, 1956).
Despite a writing career that spanned nearly four decades, and a canon that ranges from lyrics to verse plays and political commentary, Edna St. Vincent Millay is probably best known for her early works, particularly "Renascence" (1912), A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and Second April (1921). "Renascence"—a 214-line poem revealing a mystical view of the universe, God, and death—caused a sensation as the work of a 20-year-old woman. A Few Figs from Thistles, a celebration of feminism and free love, caught the mood of Greenwich Village life in the racy postwar period of the 1920s. Second April further explored the already favorite Millay themes of death, love, and nature. Millay's admirers also commend Aria da Capo (1920), a verse play on the foolishness of war, and she is seen as among the most skilled of sonnet writers, especially with "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare" (1923) and the sequences "Epitaph for the Race of Man" (1934) and "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" (1923).
Although critical opinion of Millay's work waned after her successes in the 1920s and 1930s, her later, more politicized, writings remained largely popular with the reading public. "For most of this century," writes John Timberman Newcomb, "Edna St. Vincent Millay was among the most widely-known and read of all American literary figures. Yet at the peak of her popular reputation there began an intensive effort in certain critical circles to marginalize Millay's poetry, which by the time of her death in 1950 had succeeded in destroying much of her critical reputation." After several decades, scholars and literary critics began to reexamine Millay's later work, prompting new discussions on the intersections between artistic, social, and political forms of expression.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892, the first of three daughters of Cora Buzzelle Millay and Henry Tolman Millay. In 1900, Cora Millay divorced her husband, an educator with a fondness for poker playing, and settled with her girls in Camden, Maine, providing for the family by nursing. Millay would retain a lifelong devotion to her mother, who encouraged in all her daughters self-reliance and a love for music and books. The musical talent of Vincent (as Millay was known in the family) was so obvious that a local teacher gave her piano lessons, hoping to prepare her for a musical career. After a few years, the plan was abandoned, but music remained a source of pleasure, a subject for poetry, and undoubtedly the basis for her unfailing sense of poetic rhythm.
Millay's early interest in literature became dominant and, augmented by her responsiveness to nature, soon found expression in original compositions. When she was 14, her poem "Forest Trees" was published in St. Nicholas magazine, a popular children's periodical that printed
a number of her juvenile works. At Camden High School, she wrote for and eventually became editor of the school magazine. She recited an original poem at her graduation (1909), showing a third side of her early interest in the arts: dramatic performance.
In 1912, at her mother's urging, Millay submitted a long poem entitled "Renaissance" to a contest designed to select pieces for an anthology called The Lyric Year. Ferdinand Earle, one of the judges, was delighted with the entry from E. Vincent Millay (as she then called herself), and he persuaded her to change the title to "Renascence." Earle fully expected the poem to win first prize, but other judges were not in agreement, and the poem ranked only fourth in the final tally. Nevertheless, when The Lyric Year was published in November 1912, "Renascence" received immediate critical acclaim. Two of the earliest to write their congratulations, poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, became Millay's close friends.
Written in traditional tetrameter couplets, "Renascence" chronicles the poet's spiritual and emotional development. The enclosed, childlike perspective of the opening, "All I could see from where I stood/ Was three long mountains and a wood," soon gives way to the persistence of the inquiring mind: "And reaching up my hand to try,/ I screamed to feel it touch the sky." Feeling the pressures of a sympathetic response to all humanity, the young narrator is driven to death underground, but her will to live and the reviving power of nature in the image of rain recall the transformed individual, who can now cry, "God, I can push the grass apart/ And lay my finger on thy heart!" The heightened spiritual awareness gained by the imaginative experience is shown in the final stanza, which starkly contrasts in perspective to the first: "The soul can split the sky in two,/ And let the face of God shine through." Many critics were impressed by the poem's youthful freshness, its strong emotional impact, and, in the words of Harriet Monroe , its "sense of infinity."
Caroline B. Dow of the National Training School of the YWCA heard Millay read "Renascence" in Camden and helped her secure a scholarship to Vassar. Millay was already in her 20s when she attended Barnard College for a semester to prepare for entrance exams to the all female Vassar where she was to be very much involved in campus life as well as her studies. She published poems and plays in the Vassar Miscellany; acted regularly in school dramas, playing the lead in her own The Princess Marries the Page (published in 1932); and composed lyrics for a 1915 Founder's Day marching song. Her studies were concentrated on literature, drama, and both classic and modern languages. Critical biographer Norman Brittin notes, "Her education reinforced the influence of the classics upon her and insured that she would be a learned poet, one more like a Milton, Shelley, or Tennyson than a Whitman or Vachel Lindsay." Indeed, though Millay's poetry would always be termed "American" in flavor, her images and allusions were often based on the classics, while her rhythms and sentiments were forever inviting comparison to established poets from John Donne to A.E. Housman.
The Vassar years also had an effect on Millay's outlook, either stimulating or solidifying the active feminist principles that were evident in her later poetry. She displayed a strong independence, particularly apparent in her bridling at rigid dormitory rules, and shared her affections with women. She wrote to British actress Wynne Matthison : "You wrote me a beautiful letter,—I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was.—I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love."
Not long after her graduation, Millay's first volume of poetry Renascence and Other Poems was published by Mitchell Kennerley (1917). In addition to the title poem, it included 22 others, many of which had been published earlier in periodicals. Critics again responded warmly to "Renascence." The last six poems in the volume are sonnets, and though these are not considered remarkable they gave indications of the uniquely "feminine perspective" that was to elicit praise. The appearance of this volume made Millay a presence in the literary world but brought her no financial rewards. Hoping to make a living through acting, Millay returned to New York City. Both she and her sister Norma Millay settled in Greenwich Village, home of the Provincetown Players, which Edna joined. Women's rights and free love were accepted parts of the living code in the Village, and the reality of World War I, with its daily records of young lives lost, heightened the determination to experience life to the fullest. Millay's independent nature was suited to this atmosphere, and she was to become notorious for her bohemian lifestyle. The attractive redhead with green eyes and diminutive build (at five feet tall), who had been involved in intense female relationships at Vassar, soon had a line of male suitors vying for her attention. Max Eastman recounted a story about Millay in Great Companions which, if accurate, offers a glimpse into the poet's view of her own sexuality. Eastman describes Millay at a cocktail party talking to a psychologist about her recurring headaches. When the psychologist asked, "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?" Millay reportedly responded, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?" Floyd Dell was the first of the male lovers Millay was to have in the Village.
In 1918, she finally met Arthur Davison Ficke, with whom she had corresponded since his first congratulations on the publication of "Renascence." Ficke, an accomplished sonneteer, had obviously influenced her experimentation with the form, and through their correspondence she had come to think of the married man as her spiritual mentor. While he was in New York on his way to a military posting in France, they had an intense three-day affair. The experience found direct expression in love letters and sonnets written to Ficke (such as "Into the golden vessel of great song") and featured indirectly in much of her other work. Although the ardor cooled, they remained lifelong friends.
Meanwhile, Millay lived in poverty, noting that the writers in the Village were "very, very poor and very, very merry." She made no money from her acting and had to work hard to sell a few poems. One of her chief sources of revenue at this time was Ainslee's, a magazine with no literary pretensions. Since she was paid by the line, poetry did not bring a great return, so she began turning out prose, along with some light poetry, under the pseudonym of Nancy Boyd. These pieces were later collected in Distressing Dialogues by "Nancy Boyd" (1924), with a coy preface by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In 1920, Millay met Vanity Fair editor Edmund Wilson, whose later marriage proposal she would turn down. (He described her as "a spokesman for the human spirit … with an intoxicating effect on people.") With his influence, she began to have most of her work published in Vanity Fair, earning much-needed capital and receiving the exposure which gave rise to the popularity the poet was to maintain for many years. She also continued her acting, writing, and directing work in the theater.
Millay's second volume of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles, was published by Frank Shay in 1920. The arch tone of this collection did not please reviewers. It did, however, clearly reflect the impression that the fast life and fleeting loves had made on her. The feelings may have been shallow, as seen in lines from "To the Not Impossible Him"—
The fabric of my faithful love
No power shall dim or ravel
Whilst I stay here,—but oh, my dear,
If I should ever travel!
—but the saucy kick at convention seen in this poem and others, such as the "First Fig" with its memorable "My candle burns at both ends," appealed to the postwar generation. Here too was the voice of feminism: women as well as men
could be casual in their treatment of sexual love, go on with life when the affair was over, and look forward to the next involvement. With these ideas, Millay became a speaker for a younger generation who identified with her defiance of convention. In the public eye, her significance was embodied not only in her poetry, but also in her persona which readers endowed with a symbolic status: that of the independent woman who had sovereignty over all aspects of her own existence. Writing much later in his Lives of the Poets (1961), Louis Untermeyer put forth a reason for the popularity of her poetry during this period: "Plain and rhetorical, traditional in form and unorthodox in spirit, it satisfied the reader's dual desire for familiarity and surprise."
Millay finished Aria da Capo, a one-act verse play, for the 1919–20 Provincetown Players season, and it proved to be the outstanding success of the year for them. Starkly dramatic in its concept and construction, the play delivers a powerful statement about the folly of war and the callous disregard for human life. The year brought the additional reward of a $100 prize from Poetry magazine for "The Bean-Stalk," which was to appear in Millay's next published collection, Second April (1921). Overwork and an active life, however, also brought illness and nervous exhaustion. But at the beginning of 1921, she was able to sail for Europe, thanks to Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, who paid her a regular wage for pieces she would send from abroad. In her two years away, Nancy Boyd articles comprised Millay's chief bread-and-butter writing.
The appearance of Second April in 1921 brought poetry similar to that in earlier Millay collections. The juvenile piece "Journey" celebrates nature ("The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake"), and the clear, childlike spirit is also joyfully exercised in the prizewinning "The Bean-Stalk":
Ho, Giant! This is I!
I have built me a bean-stalk into your sky!
La,—but it's lovely, up so high!
In the same collection, the image of "The Blue-Flag in the Bog" elevates nature as the only thing that makes heaven bearable to a child destroyed by a holocaust.
Even in the familiar themes, a sense of disenchantment is pervasive in the volume. "Spring" asks, "To what purpose, April, do you return again?/ Beauty is not enough." Through skillful use of concrete objects, "Lament" gives a poignant sense of a family's loss at the death of a father:
There'll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco.
A more personal record of loss, the sequence "Memorial to D.C.," for Vassar friend Dorothy Coleman , culminates in a precise image: "Once the ivory box is broken,/ Beats the golden bird no more." Norman Brittin saw Millay's disenchantment with New York City especially in "Ode to Silence," a technically accomplished poem on the search for peace which contained the classical allusions and poetic diction admired by some readers and deplored by others. Perhaps the most highly praised qualities of the collection were the maturing outlook of the poet who cries out for continued life through his work in "The Poet and His Book" and the deft musicality of such lines as "Suns that shine by night,/ Mountains made from valleys" from this poem and "There will be rose and rhododendron/ When you are dead and under ground" from "Elegy Before Death."
Early in 1921, at the beginning of her stay in Europe, Millay finished the five-act verse play The Lamp and the Bell commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Vassar's Alumnae Association, and the play was published by Shay in the same year. The germ of its story is the Grimm brothers' tale "Snow White and Rose Red," but the play is fleshed out as an Elizabethan drama. In addition to the two main characters, Bianca (Snow White) and the robust Beatrice (Rose Red), who become sisters when their parents marry, the play features a multitude of characters that provided a suitable number of parts for the alumnae extravaganza. The story of Bianca and Beatrice's friendship explores the themes of female love and feminism, and it has been speculated that only for such an occasion could the poet feel unconstrained enough to play with these ideas so freely.
Though more-recent commentators, such as Brittin, have disliked the stereotypes and contrivances—and Millay herself thought the play would surely suffer in obvious comparison to Elizabethan works—Mark Van Doren, writing in 1921, found the drama delightful, predicting it would be "best remembered as a delicate riot of gay asides and impeccable metaphors, Elizabethan to the bottom yet not in the least derivative; it bubbles pure poetry."
Another verse play, Two Slatterns and a King, was published in the same year. This work, in regular four-foot couplets, was both written and produced at Vassar, and it is considered an easily dismissed farce. Borrowing again from fairy tales, Millay used the theme of the king seeking a suitable bride. He desires the tidiest woman in the kingdom, but, because of an odd series of accidents, he mistakenly chooses Slut instead of Tidy.
Millay's European travels took her to France, England, Albania, Italy, Austria, and Hungary. These were undoubtedly years of adventure and discovery, but they were also lonely ones for the poet. Both of her younger sisters married, and Arthur Davison Ficke, whose marriage was breaking up, had already formed a close relationship with Gladys Brown . Millay accepted a long-distance marriage proposal from poet Witter Bynner, Ficke's closest friend, though there is some question about the seriousness of the offer. After a short period of time, both agreed that the match would not work. By the spring of 1922, Millay was able to bring her mother to Europe, boosting the spirits of both women. Despite her ill health and concentration on the Nancy Boyd pieces, Millay did publish some poetry that year, including a pamphlet of her poem The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.
The spring of 1923 found Millay back in New York. She was paired at a party with Eugen Boissevain (whom she had met at previous Village gatherings) as lovers in a game of charades. Boissevain was a 43-year-old businessman and widower. Though the two had shown no interest in each other before, a strong attraction developed on that single night, and they were married on July 18, 1923. Immediately after the wedding, Boissevain took Millay to the hospital for intestinal surgery. This caring was to be a trademark of their marriage, as he relieved her of the burden of everyday details. Boissevain was also an ardent feminist and had a high regard for the significance of Millay's writing. Their marriage has been described as open and unconventional, but not much is known about Millay's personal life following their union.
The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems was prepared during her convalescence and was published in 1923 by Harper and Brothers, with whom Millay was to form a lasting business association. While Millay suffered at the hands of some critics (John Gould Fletcher summarily dismissed the title poem as "the unforgettable rhythm of Mother Goose, the verbal utterance of a primer—all used to deal out an idea which is wishy-washy to the point of intellectual feebleness"), others saw far more in the work and it earned Millay the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her the first woman to be so honored. The Harp-Weaver includes some of Millay's most well-known sonnets. The 17-part series, "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree," gives a revealing picture of a woman returning to her estranged husband only to ease his death. The woman's memories and actions are sharply focused, and the poems are filled with detailed pictures of homely New England farm life.
By far Millay's best-known sonnet is that which begins "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare." The poet had already received praise for her search for beauty in nature and in people, but here she transcends the simply personal, elevating beauty through the mathematical conceit. Mere mortals must forego the sight of beauty and hope at most for the sound of the feminized ideal: "Fortunate they/ Who, though once only and then but far away,/ Have heard her massive sandal set on stone." Oscar Cargill testified to the sonnet's continuing power when he wrote in 1941 that this was a work one could return to and find something fresh.
The years that followed were busy ones. Millay did a Midwestern reading tour in 1924 and found to her disappointment that audiences knew only the poems from A Few Figs from Thistles. In the same year, showing an increasing public involvement in social issues, she read her poem "The Pioneer" at a National Women's Party celebration in Washington, D.C., to mark the anniversary of the Seneca Falls Equal Rights meeting (this sonnet was later dedicated to feminist Inez Milholland [Inez M. Boissevain ], her husband's first wife). Shortly after, Millay and her husband set out on a lengthy tour which took them to the Orient, India, and France. Upon returning, they purchased a rambling old farm, which they named Steepletop, in Austerlitz, New York. This retreat from the city would be their home for the rest of their lives. The first academic recognition of Millay's poetry came in 1925 when Tufts University granted her an honorary Litt.D., the first of many she would receive.
In 1926, Millay combined her three major talents—poetry, drama, and music—in the libretto for The King's Henchman, an opera by Deems Taylor. The story recounts the tragic undoing of a 10th-century liegeman who betrays his lord's trust by marrying the woman he was sent to bring to the king, were she found acceptable. Performed by the Metropolitan Opera, the work was well received.
Increasingly drawn to social protest, Millay wrote to withdraw her name from the League of American Penwomen in 1927 because they had expelled poet Elinor Wylie , who had broken the rules of convention by living with a married man. John Newcomb has attributed the politicization of Millay's work which began during this period to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists, were found guilty of a robbery and murder which occurred near Boston at a shoe factory. Widely believed to be innocent, the two were sentenced to death, and many felt that their status as foreigners and anarchists had led to their convictions. Millay was among the numerous American writers who rallied on their behalf, and on August 10, 1927, two days before the scheduled executions, she was arrested with Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, Lola Ridge , Mike Gold, John Dos Passos, and others for picketing the Boston State House. Thanks to worldwide protests, the execution date was pushed back to August 24. Elizabeth Majerus notes that Millay was "unique" among writers on the left who lent their voices to protests against the executions because she was able to "use her prominence as a poet to gain publicity and some measure of influence regarding the case." Two days prior to the executions, she met in person with Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller to appeal for clemency on Sacco and Vanzetti's behalf. A letter to Fuller from Millay followed in which she urged him to look again at his conscience.
On August 22, Millay's unrhymed poem "Justice Denied in Massachusetts" ran in The New York Times. "In this context," writes New-comb, "surrounded by worldwide protests and the preparations for the executions, 'Justice Denied' functioned quite literally as news, as its title, modelled on a screaming newspaper headline, acknowledged." The efforts of Millay and others were to no avail, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 24, 1927. Newcomb regards Millay's disillusionment as having "triggered a fundamental and permanent shift in the tone of her poetry, in which an aesthetic of 'mature' bitterness superseded one of 'immature' beauty." Majerus sees the turning point as one which inspired her "to break down the boundary between political critique and serious poetry in her work. … [R]ather than protecting her reputation as a poet from her political commitments, from this point in her career she used that reputation to speak out about the political matters that concerned her." In the years to come, many in the critical establishment would express great displeasure with Millay's choice to mix political ideas with lyrical artistry.
"Justice Denied in Massachusetts" was included in her collection The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems, which was published in 1928 to mixed reviews. Though deploring the somber tone, Untermeyer was pleased by the experimentation with line, such as in the final stanza of "The Anguish":
The anguish of the world is on my tongue;
My bowl is filled to the brim with it; there is more than I can eat.
Happy are the toothless old and the toothless young,
That cannot rend this meat.
Insisting that death, especially senseless death, must be fought against, and that comfort and sense have to be found in life, the poet found them characteristically in nature and in the sublime order of music, expressed with her customary deft handling of form. Writing in the January–March 1930 issue of Sewanee Review, Edd Winfield Parks noted an emerging philosophy and considered the work a benchmark, predicting that the poet could not keep up the lyric intensity with the passing years.
Millay's next collection, published in 1931, was a bold undertaking. Fatal Interview, which takes its title from a Donne line, is a sequence of 52 sonnets telling the story of a love affair. Recent evidence has indicated that an affair Millay had at this time with George Dillon, the much younger man with whom she was to translate Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, was the inspiration for this tale of love won and lost. The sustained theme and the blending of classicism and sensibility gave a more reflective and universal quality to the work than in other Millay love poems, a quality which did not please all contemporary readers. Many missed the strong, purely personal note; others believed, with Allen Tate, that Millay had failed to probe the symbols she used as a frame. But whether they saw the collection as a rejuvenation of the sonnet form or as a clever exercise in its manipulation, reviewers praised her technical performance.
By the time Wine from These Grapes appeared in 1934, Millay had suffered the death of her mother and was experiencing increasing anxiety over the fate of humankind as global tensions escalated. These two events—one personal and one universal—dominated the contents of the volume, and a more objective viewpoint in Millay's treatment of death is apparent. Not only was the poet mature in years, but she also had traveled extensively. In the controlled, predominantly Petrarchan sonnet sequence "Epitaph for the Race of Man," she achieved a sharp picture of the history of living things, the best in man's nature, and the unexplainable certainty of his self-destruction. The style is rhetorical and contains some highly elaborated conceits, such as her comparison of man to a split diamond "set in brass on the swart thumb of Doom."
Reviewers such as Percy Hutchison and Harold Lewis Cook praised the sequence, many considering it one of her best. In "Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies," Millay, always attuned to the child's perspective, successfully captures the child's voice in free verse. The use of cataloguing and extended line conveys the impatience of children dealing with adults who pay no attention to the important things: "To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,/ who neither listen nor speak."
Millay spent 1935 working, both in New York with George Dillon and in Paris, on the translation of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, which was published in 1936. The chief feature of the translation was the retaining of Baudelaire's hexameter line. In 1936, her controversial Conversation at Midnight (1937), the most experimental of Millay's efforts, was underway. When the first copy was destroyed in a hotel fire while the poet was vacationing in Florida, the work had to be completely redone. More than 100 pages long and written in play form, Conversation at Midnight concerns the after-dinner conversation of several acquaintances at the New York home of the independently wealthy Ricardo. The host is a liberal agnostic, and his guests include a stockbroker, a painter, a writer of short stories, a poet who is also a communist, a Roman Catholic priest, and a young advertiser. The opinions of these guests vary as much as their ages and professions. Although talk begins innocuously enough with the subject of hunting, it wanders inevitably to women and eventually to contemporary social issues, eliciting verbal attacks which very nearly lead to blows after the priest has left. At the end, Ricardo pours them all a final drink, and they leave. Millay used a variety of poetic forms in the delivery. At times the characters speak in sonnets, and in the humorous discussion of women their accents are those of Ogden Nash. While John Gilland Brunini, William Plomer, and John Peale Bishop were dismayed by the odd mix of line and rhythms and disappointed by the inconclusiveness of the argument, Peter Monro Jack and Basil Davenport applauded this distinctive break from her usual style, hailing the work as a faithful portrayal of the troubled period.
In 1936, Millay suffered a back injury in an automobile accident. Added to her already frail health, it was to hamper her work for years. Her next collection of poetry, Huntsman, What Quarry?, did not appear until 1939, and it contained six elegiac poems to her friend Elinor Wylie. Robert Francis, recommending the collection as representative of the essential Millay, pointed to the dramatic quality of the poems—"the poet appearing in one part after another, effective in each"—as the key to success with readers. He missed, however, a consistent poetic vision.
In the 1940s, the atrocities of Hitler's Germany forced Millay to take a different position from her former pacifism, and she put her talent to work for the war effort. Opinions abound on both the justification and quality of works like her Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook, which prompted some to see Millay as "prostituting" her talent for the sake of politics. Others, however, have expressed dramatically different views, including appreciation for, in Majerus' words, Millay "putting her reputation as a serious poet to work for the cause of justice." The Murder of Lidice, a propaganda piece written by Millay for the Writers' War Board in 1942, recounts the German destruction of the Czech village through the story of two village lovers planning to marry on that very day.
The strain of these years resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1944, and recovery was slow for Millay. Several friends died in the 1940s, most notably Arthur Davison Ficke in 1945. Eugen Boissevain, her mainstay, died in August 1949. Though Millay never recovered emotionally or physically, she continued to write, planning another collection. Still at work, she died of a heart attack at Steepletop on October 19, 1950.
Mine the Harvest was published posthumously in 1954 and includes Millay's last poems as well as unpublished ones from earlier in her career. The volume shows a close observation of nature and a reflective cast, of the individual looking for an affirmation of life and the strength to endure one's declining years. Millay's old spirit also breaks into the collection. "How innocent we lie among/ The righteous!" shows her approval of taking love where it can be found, and her poetic philosophy is put forth in the sonnet "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines."
Millay's poetry continues to attract young readers who find their feelings matched in her words. Brittin, in his revised Edna St. Vincent Millay, blames modernist editors of anthologies for much of the neglect of the poet in the 1950s and 1960s. Newcomb comments that surveys of the criticism of Millay's work through the 1930s yield only one consensus: "that of her enormous renown." While it is possible that some critics had trouble taking her later, more politicized, work seriously because of her status as a woman writer, it is equally possible that the critical establishment, which was accustomed to the lyric poetry of her younger years, had certain expectations of Millay's work which did not include her expression of a social and political consciousness. Nierman's 1977 bibliography of criticism and Brittin's 1982 revision, along with other recent publications, give testimony to an increased interest in Millay's work, which may lead to the much-needed consideration of the mature work of one of the 20th century's most prominent lyrical voices.
Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. NY: Twayne, 1967, revised 1982.
Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village. University of Alabama Press, 1975.
Majerus, Elizabeth. "Multiply Marginal: The Forgotten Careers of Edna St. Vincent Millay." Copyright 1999.
Newcomb, John Timberman. "The Woman as Political Poet: Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Mid-century Canon," in Criticism. Vol. 37, no. 2. Spring 1995, p. 261–264.
Nierman, Judith. Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977.
Yost, Karl. A Bibliography of the Works of Edna St. Vincent Millay. NY: Harper, 1937.
Freely adapted from Paula L. Hart , University of British Columbia, for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Peter Quartermain, University of British Columbia. Gale Research, 1986, pp. 264–276.