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Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

 

American poet and dramatist, who became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems (1922). The title work was a tribute to her selfless and encouraging mother. Millay's unconventional life in Greenwich Village in the 1920s embodied the spirit of the New Woman – sexual freedom, independence, and political activism. Today Millay is largely ignored, but once she was America's most popular poet.

Well, I have lost you; and I lost you fairly
In my own way, and with my full consent.
If I had loved you less or played you slyly
I might have held you a summer more,
But at the cost of words I value highly ...

(from 'Sonnet XLVII', in Fatal Interview, 1931)

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, the daughter of Henry Tolman Millay, a school principal, and Cora Lounella (Buzzelle) Millay. (Millay's middle name derived from the French priest St. Vincent de Paul.) Her father had a weakness for poker playing, and although he deserted his family, Millay kept contact with him. After divorce in 1900, Cora Millay moved with her three daughters, Edna, Norma, and Kathleen, to Camden, into a small house in the poorest part of the town. To support her family she worked as a district nurse and was often away on assignment. Trained to be a singer, she coached town orchestras and wrote out scores for their members. She also encouraged her daughters in their musical and poetic ambitions, and taught Edna to write poetry at the age of five.

"She was small and frail for a twelve-year-old," Edna's teacher at the Elm Street grammar school described her. "Her mane of red hair and enormous gray-green eyes added to the impression of frailty, and her stubborn mouth and chin made her seem austere, almost to the point of grimness." At Camden High School Edna was a promising student. However, after leaving school she remained at home. Her first published poem, 'Forest Trees', appeared in St. Nicholas, an illustrated children's magazine, when she was fourteen.

Her first major poem, 'Renascence,' was published in the anthology The Lyric Year for 1912. It was judged only the fourth-best submitted, but with this work Millay gained an instant fame. The poet lies on her back and looks at the sky, she has a mystic, nearly ecstatic vision of infinity, which comes down and settles over her. "I saw and heard, and knew at last / The How and Why of all things, past, / And present, and forevermore. The Universe, cleft to the core, / Lay open to my probing sense, / That, sickening, I would fain pluck thence / But could not,– nay! needs must suck / At the great would, and could not pluck / My lips away till I had drawn / All venom out. – Ah, fearful pawn: For my omniscience paid I toll / In infinite remorse of soul. "

Millay was forced to work during her school years. When Carolyn B. Dow of the National Training School of the YWCA took her as her protegée, she was able to go to college. After preparatory work at Barnard College, she entered Vassar, receiving her B.A. in 1917. During this period she wrote for Smart Set, Poetry, and other magazines. In Vassar Millay also had affairs with women. 'People fall in love with me," she noted, "and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me.'' Her play, The Princess Marries the Page, was performed by Vassar students in 1917, and in the same year appeared her first collection of poems, Renascence, and Other Poems.

After graduation Millay moved to New York and settled in Greenwich Village, where she associated with many of the prominent artists, writers and political radicals, including the poet Wallace Stevens, the playwright Eugene O'Neil, and the left-wing journalist John Reed, whom she adored for his adventurous spirit. Among her lovers were the novelist and co-editor of the The Masses magazine Floyd Dell, the critic Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, who was editor of Vanity Fair, and the poet Arthur Davison Ficke.

Edmund Wilson, who considered Millay's genius greater than F. Scott Fitzgerald's, portrayed her as the heroine of his novel, I Thought of Daisy (1929). "She was one of those women whose features are not perfect", said Wilson, "but who, excited by the blood of the spirit, becomes almost supernaturally beautiful." Millay had often herself photographed in the nude; the photograps in the Library of Congress are restricted until the year 2010. Her own body Millay described in a poem as "Unexclamatory, / But which, / Were it the fashion to wear no clothes, / Would be as well-dressed as any." Thomas Hardy classed her with the skyscaper as America's great attractions.

Although Millay was unconventional in her personal life, she used traditional verse forms – ballads and sonnets – and her love poems describing her affairs, which become an essential part of her literary production, were not especially erotic. She also exceeded at free verse, starting from Second April (1921), but she never broke with the past like modernists did. In 'Fist Fig' (1920) she wrote: "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!" Under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd she wrote short satirical pieces for magazines.

In Greenwich Village Millay joined the Provincetown Players and two of her plays were performed by the group, Two Slatterns and a King and The Princess Marries the Page. From 1921 to 1923 Millay traveled in Europe on assignment for Vanity Fair. Her articles were published in book form as Distressing Dialogues (1924). While staying in Paris in 1921, she first resided in Hôtel des Saints-Pères, popular with Americans even before the twenties, and then moved toHôtel de l'Intendance (now gone) on rue de L'Universite. The writer Edgar Lee Masters called upon her at her hotel. They dined together, went to the Folies Bergere, visited Louvre, and had an "amorous interlude" according to Masters. However, the brief liaison was unsatisfactory and they remained cordial but distant friends. The Intendance was too expensive for both Millay and her mother, who stayed at Hôtel de Venetia in 1922. It was not very clean, but the humorist Donald Ogden Stewart chose it because Millay had resided there. Also Hemingway took a room in the Venetia for a few days in 1925.

In 1923 Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of Inez Milholland, an early feminist. Boissevain was a Dutch coffee importer 12 years her senior, but he gave up his business, and devoted his full attention to Edna. They traveld in the Far East, and moved in 1925 to a farm in the Berkshires, near Austerlitz, New York. Steepletop, the name of the farm, was Millay's main home for the rest of her life, except when she spent time on an island retreat off the coast of Maine and traveled abroad. In 1928 she went to Paris to meet her lover, the poet George Dillon, who was 14 years her junior. This affair inspired Fatal Interview (1931), a sequence of fifty-two sonnets, which sold 50,000 copies within months.

In 1927 Millay joined protesters who were convinced that the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, accused of armed robbery and murder, were victims of miscarriage of justice. They were executed in August; Millay was arrested in Boston during a protest against their death sentence. Deems Taylor's opera, The King's Henchman, for which Millay wrote the libretto, gained in 1927 at the Metropolitan Opera a huge success. In 1929 she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Millay had made several reading tours from the beginning of her career, but in the early 1930s she started to read poems in her seductive contralto on radio. After a car accident in 1936, she began withdrawing from the public. In 1942 her poem 'The Murder of Lidice,' was beamed by shortwave to in Europe. The Nazis had destroyed the men, women and children of Lidice, a village in Czechoslovakia, after the resistance had assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, a notorious Nazi official. Later Millay said of the ballad, which had been commissioned by the Writers' War Board: "It has some good lines, but not many, and not very good. This piece should be allowed to die along the war which provoked it."

Millay was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1940. Three years later she was awarded the gold medal of the Poetry Society of America. Her last years were sad – she was struggling with a drug addiction and drinking problem. In 1944 she had a nervous breakdown. Her Bohemian life was over; Millay felt that she was losing her sexual energy and beauty and her poems were worthless. Boissevain took her to rehabilitation centers, without much success, and when he died of lung cancer in 1949, it was a hard blow to Millay. She died alone at home, on October 19, 1950, after falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. She had been going to bed with the proof pages of Rolfe Humphries's translation of the Aeneid. Posthumously published collection of poems, Mine the Harvest (1954), was edited by Millay's sister Norma. Millay's poetry supporting the Allied cause in WW II was dismissed as propaganda, which contributed to the decline of her poetic reputation.

Millay's poetical voice was intense and bittersweet, passionate but controlled. Her subject matter varied from meditations of nature to feminist commentaries, from love and death to political protest. Like Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), she was a witty observer of human relationships. "We all wandered in after Miss Millay," Parker once wrote. "We were all being dashing and gallant, declaring that we weren't virgins, whether we were or not." The singing quality of her lyrics can be derived from her natural bravura but also from her interest in music – she began to play the piano at an early age, and for a while had considered a concert career. Her love poems, written in spontaneous style and using colloquial language, seem to record her own experiences: "And if I loved you Wednesday, / Well, what it that to you? / I do not love you Thursday – / So much is true." She read much classical poets, like Catullus, and translated poems from French and Spanish into English for her own pleasure. Millay's translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal challenged the view that the French writer was "turtured and idealistic". In her preface Milay wrote that Baudelaire's "flowers of evil" were "flowers of doubt... flowers of grief... forced on the sterile bought of the mind's unblossomy decay."

For further reading: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times by A. Atkins (1936); The Indigo Bunting: A Memoir of Edna St. Vincent Millay by V. Sheean (1951); Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by M. Gurko (1962); Edna St. Vincent Millay by N.A. Brittin (1967); Edna St. Vincent Millay by James Gray (1967); The Poet and Her Book: A Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay by J. Gould (1969); Millay in Greenwich Village by A. Cheney (1975); Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide by J. Nierman (1977); World Authors 1900-1950, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford (2001); What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Daniel Mark Epstein (2001) 

Selected works:

  • Renascence, and Other Poems, 1917
  • A Few Figs from Thistles: Poems and Four Sonnets, 1920
  • Aria Da Capo, 1920 (play in verse)
  • The Lamp and the Bell, 1921 (play in verse)
  • Second April, 1921
  • Two Slatterns and a King: A Moral Interlude, 1921 (play in verse)
  • The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, 1922 (1st ed; The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems, 1923)
  • Poems, 1923
  • Distressing Dialogues, 1924 (prose, under pseudonym Nancy Boyd)
  • Second April, 1925
  • Three Plays, 1926
  • The King's Henchman: Lyric Drama in Three Acts, Op. 19, 1926 (libretto, music by Deems Taylor, prod. in 1927)
  • The King’s Henchman; a Play in Three Acts, 1927
  • Reflections on the Sacco-Vanzetti Tragedy, 1927
  • Fear, 1927
  • The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems, 1928
  • Edna St. Vicent Millay's Poems Selected for Young People, 1929 (illustrations and decorations by J. Paget-Fredericks)
  • Fatal Interview, 1931
  • The Princess Marries the Page, 1932 (play)
  • Wine from These Grapes, 1934 (with George Dillon)
  • translator: Flowers of Evil, from Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, 1936 (with George Dillon)
  • Conversation at Midnight, 1937 (play)
  • Huntsman, What Quarry?, 1939
  • Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook, 1940
  • "There Are No Islands, Any More"; Lines Written in Passion and in Deep Concern for England, France and My Own Country, 1940
  • Invocation to the Muses, 1941
  • Collected Sonnets, 1941
  • The Murder of Lidice, 1942 (play)
  • Collected Lyrics, 1943
  • Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army, 1944
  • Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1952 (edited by Allan Ross Macdougall)
  • Mine the Harvest, 1954 (edited by N. Millay)
  • Collected Poems, 1956 (edited by Norma Millay)
  • Take Up the Song, 1986 (edited by Ivan Massar)
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems, 1991 (edited by C. Falck)
  • Early Poems, 1998 (edited by Holly Poppe)
  • The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 2001 (edited by Nancy Milford)
  • Selected Poems, 2003 (edited by  J.D. McClatchy)
  • Early Works of Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poetry and Three Plays, 2006 (introduction by Stacy Carson Hubbard)

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