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by Bamber Gascoigne

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. Many people regarded her as the most daring woman of her time. 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, a nurse. (Millay's middle name derived from the French priest St. Vincent de Paul.) Her father had a weakness for poker playing, and although Cora threw him out of their home, Millay kept contact with him. After divorce, 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 four or five – Cora had once dreamed of being a writer herself.

"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." (Poetics of the Body: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Chin, and Marilyn Hacker by Catherine Cucinella, 2010, p. 42) 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. A year later her pieces, in which she often used the initial "E" instead of Edna, were published in various magazines.

Her first major poem, 'Renascence,' was published in the anthology The Lyric Yearfor 1912. It was judged only the fourth-best submitted in a national poetry competitiom, but with this work Millay gained an instant fame. Noteworthy, the three participants who were placed ahead of her, thought that Millay's work was superior to theirs.

In 'Renascence' 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; she broke all the rules there was to break but was a top grade student. 'People fall in love with me," she noted, "and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me.'' (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, 2001, p. 126) 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. Plagued with headaches, Millay drank a lot to ease the pain. Moreover, she was addicted to morphine.

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. However, her first poetry collection, A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) stirred some controversy due to its eroticism. 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!" Dorothy Parker said, "She did a great deal of harm with ther double-burning candles. She made poetry seem so easy that we thought we could all do it. But of course we couldn't." (Writing under the Influence: Alcohol and the Works of 13 American Authors by Aubrey Malone, 2018, p. 38) 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. Floyd Dell, who directed The Angel Interludes – Millay auditioned for a role in the play – became her lover. Dell tried to get her to go to psychoanalysis for her "Saphic tendencies."

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, who died in 1916. Boissevain was a prosperous Dutch coffee importer 12 years her senior, but he gave up his business, and devoted his full attention to Edna. Boissevain did not mind being referred to as "Mr. Edna St. Vincent Millay." They traveled in the Far East, and moved in 1925 to a 600-acre 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. Millay's sexual appetite was so large and a well-known fact, that Hemingway classified her in 'The Lady Poets With Foot Notes' (1924) as a nymphomanic.

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. Her mother died in 1931, she never really recovered from this loss. Usually Millay had champagne for breakfast, gin fizzes for lunch, martinis in the afternoon, wine with dinner, and brandy nightcaps. (Writing under the Influence: Alcohol and the Works of 13 American Authors by Aubrey Malone, 2018, p. 40)

Following a car accident in 1936, in which Millay was flung out of Boissevain's car, ending  up on the road, she began withdrawing from the public. As a result of her injuries, she found it difficult to use a typewriter and eat with a knife and fork. Besides having morphine three grains s day, she took codeine and Nembutal, but denied her addiction. 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. 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, who lost most of his wealth in the war, took her to rehabilitation centers and paid her medical bills. When he died of lung cancer in 1949, it was a hard blow to Millay. She had another nervous breakdown. At hospital Millay was permitted a liter and a half of wine per day, but visitors brought more bottles to her.

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); 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); Poetics of the Body: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Chin, and Marilyn Hacker by Catherine Cucinella (2010); Staging Modern American Life: Popular Culture in the Experimental Theatre of Millay, Cummings, and Dos Passos by Thomas Fahy (2011); A Girl Called Vincent: the Life of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay by Krystyna Poray Goddu (2016); 'Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950),' in Writing under the Influence: Alcohol and the Works of 13 American Authors by Aubrey Malone (2018) 

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)
  • Early Poem, 2008 (republication of Renascence and Other Poems, 1917; A Few Figs from Thistles: Poems and Sonnets, 1922; and Second April, 1921)
  • Poems, 2010 (selections)
  • Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 2016 (an annotated edition; edited by Timothy F. Jackson; with an introduction by Holly Peppe)

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