Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine on 22nd February, 1892. Cora St Vincent Millay raised Edna and her three sisters on her own after her husband left the family home. When Edna was twenty her poem, Renascence , was published in The Lyric Year . A wealthy woman named Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poetry and offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College.

In 1917, the year of her graduation, Millay published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. After leaving Vassar she moved to Greenwich Village where she befriended writers such as Floyd Dell, John Reed and Max Eastman. The three men were all involved in the left-wing journal, The Masses, and she joined in their campaign against USA involvement in the First World War.

Millay also joined the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf at the seaport of Provincetown was turned into a theatre. Others who wrote or acted for the group included Floyd Dell, Eugene O'Neill, John Reed, George Gig Cook, Mary Heaton Vorse, Susan Glaspell, Hutchins Hapgood, Neith Boyce and Louise Bryant. Millay was considered a great success as Annabelle in Floyd Dell's The Angel Intrudes. In 1918 Millay directed and took the lead in her own play, The Princess Marries the Page. Later she directed her morality play, Two Slatterns and the King at Provincetown.

In 1920 Millay published a new volume of poems, A Few Figs from Thistles. This created considerable controversy as the poems dealt with issues such as female sexuality and feminism. Her next volume of poems, The Harp Weaver (1923), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The writer, Dorothy Parker wrote: "Like everybody else was then, I was following in the footsteps of Edna St Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.... We were all being dashing and gallant, declaring that we weren't virgins, whether we were or not. Beautiful as she was, Miss Millay did a great deal of harm with her double-burning candles. She made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But, of course, we couldn't."

Floyd Dell recalls how he was attending a party at the home of Dudley Field Malone and Doris Stevens, when he saw Edna meet Eugen Boissevain, the widower of Inez Milholland: "We were all playing charades at Dudley Malone's and Doris Stevens's house. Edna Millay was just back from a year in Europe. Eugene and Edna had the part of two lovers in a delicious farcical invention, at once Rabelaisian and romantic. They acted their parts wonderfully-so remarkably, indeed, that it was apparent to us all that it wasn't just acting. We were having the unusual privilege of seeing a man and a girl fall in love with each other violently and in public, and telling each other so, and doing it very beautifully."

The couple married in 1923. They lived at a farmhouse they named Steepletop, near Austerlitz. Both were believers in free-love and it was agreed they should have an open marriage. Boissevain managed Millay's literary career and this included the highly popular readings of her work. In his autobiography, Homecoming (1933), Floyd Dell commented that he had "never heard poetry read so beautifully".

In 1927 she joined with other radicals such as John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Heywood Broun, William Patterson, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Felix Frankfurter, John Howard Lawson, Freda Kirchway, Floyd Dell, Bertrand Russell, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in the campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The day before the execution Millay was arrested at a demonstration in Boston for "sauntering and loitering" and carrying the placard "If These Men Are Executed, Justice is Dead in Massachusetts".

Later Millay was to write several poems about the the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. The most famous of these was Justice Denied in Massachusetts . Her next volume of poems, The Buck and the Snow (1928) included several others including Hangman's Oak , The Anguish , Wine from These Grapes and To Those Without Pity . Floyd Dell, a long-term friend, said of her: "Edna St. Vincent Millay was a person of such many-sided charm that to know her was to have a tremendous enrichment of one's life, and new horizons... Edna Millay was to become a lover's poet. But with some of her poems she was also to give dignity and sweetness to those passionate friendships between girls in adolescence, where they stand terrified at the bogeys which haunt the realm of grown-up man-and-woman love, and turn back for a while to linger in the enchanted garden of childhood. She had a gift for friendship. People try to draw a distinction between friendship and love; but friendship had for her all the candor and fearlessness of love, as love had for her the gaiety and generosity of friendship."

In 1931 Millay published, Fatal Interview (1931) a volume of 52 sonnets in celebration of a recent love affair. Edmund Wilson claimed the book contained some of the greatest poems of the 20th century. Others were more critical preferring the more political material that had appeared in The Buck and the Snow.

In 1934 Arthur Ficke, asked Edna St. Vincent Millay to write down the "five requisites for the happiness of the human race". She replied: " A job - something at which you must work for a few hours every day; An assurance that you will have at least one meal a day for at least the next week; An opportunity to visit all the countries of the world, to acquaint yourself with the customs and their culture; Freedom in religion, or freedom from all religions, as you prefer; An assurance that no door is closed to you, - that you may climb as high as you can build your ladder."

Millay's next volume of poems, Wine From These Grapes (1934) included the remarkable Conscientious Objector , a poem that expressed her strong views on pacifism. Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939) also dealt with political issues such as the Spanish Civil War and the growth of fascism.

During the Second World War Millay abandoned her pacifists views and wrote patriotic poems such as Not to be Spattered by His Blood (1941), Murder at Lidice (1942) and Poem and Prayer for the volume entitled Invading Army (1944).

Eugen Boissevain died in Boston on 29th August, 1949 of lung cancer. Edna St Vincent Millay was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Steepletop on 19th October 1950.

Primary Sources

(1) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

A girl was needed to play the ingenue part in the first of these plays, The Angel Intrudes. In response to that call, a slender little girl with red-gold hair came to the greenroom over the theatre, and read Annabelle's lines. She looked her frivolous part to perfection, and read the lines so winningly that she was at once engaged - at a salary of nothing at all, that being our artistic custom. She left her name and address as she was departing, and when she was gone we read the name and were puzzled, for it was "Edna Millay". We wondered if it could possibly be Edna St. Vincent Millay, the author of that beautiful and astonishing poem, Renascence, which was just this year published in a volume of her poems, under that title, though it had appeared in The Lyric Year back in 1912 - a prize poetry competition in which, judges being what they are, it had not won the prize.

And indeed it was she. Having just been graduated from Vassar, she had come to New York to seek fame, not as a poet, but as an actress: for who could expect to make a living writing poetry? She had another string to her bow, being a musical composer. She had set some of her own poems to very beautiful music, including her poem, Mariposa...

Early in our acquaintance, during the first rehearsals, I spoke of her astonishingly beautiful poem, Renascence, written at the age of nineteen; and it came out that part of it was written at the age of eighteen. "I don't suppose," she said, "that anyone could tell where the two parts are joined together." I confidently bet I could; and she scornfully bet I couldn't. The next evening I pointed out the two lines which were the end of the earlier and the beginning of the later part. She admitted in surprise that I had succeeded. "Moreover," I said, "these first lines of the second part were written later than all the rest of the poem, and replace some lines by which the two parts were originally joined together" - a longer passage, or a shorter, I forget which I said. Whichever I said, it was really the other way about; but the passage was written at a later time than all the rest of the poem and did replace some earlier lines joining the two parts together. She was greatly astonished, and a little in awe of my uncanny critical powers. I was a little astonished, myself, though I had been quite sure the night before, reading over the poem to myself and "tasting" the mood and style and rhythm of its lines with some alert inward sense, that there were these three temporal divisions in the poem; but it was the first time I had ever set my critical sense so delicate and apparently difficult a task.

I heard Miss Millay read poetry, her own and other poetry; and I had never heard poetry read so beautifully... Her reciting voice had a loveliness that was sometimes heart-breaking poignant. I fell in love with her voice at once; and with her spirit, when I came to know it, so full of indomitable courage. But there was in her something of which one stood in awe - she seemed, as a poet, no mere mortal, but a goddess; and, though one could not but love her, one loved her hopelessly, as a goddess must be loved. Perhaps because she was one's Lost Youth one felt sorry for her and worshipped her at the same time. The lonely, unreach­ able, tragically beautiful, inhuman, remote and divine quality in one who was, at moments, a scared little girl from Maine, and at other moments an austere immortal, was something which drove everybody who knew her to writing poetry in the attempt to express that recognition of her lovely strangeness...

She acted in a number of Provincetown Theatre plays - without pay, of course - and presently got a part in one of the Theatre Guild productions. She had great hopes there, and when she did not get a hoped-for part in the next play, she cried like a heartbroken child. She kept on writing beautiful poetry, and getting it back from the magazines with rejection slips. Later she did hack work for some of the magazines under a pseudonym, to keep the wolf from the door.

Always the teacher whenever I had the slightest excuse, I earnestly discoursed upon Pacifism, Revolution, Soviet Russia, and Psychoanalysis to her. She was very much a revolutionary in all her sympathies, and a whole-hearted Feminist. Inez Milholland had been her heroine in college days; that militant leader of the struggle for women's freedom had been suspended in shocked disapproval from Vassar, but had since then become its pride and boast, as Edna Millay herself was to be, after herself being suspended for some trivial infraction of a silly rule. Once I idly gave to Edna Millay a bronze button which had been left in my room, one of those which were awarded to the women and girls who had suffered arrest and imprisonment during the militant suffrage campaign. Tears came into her eyes. "I would rather have the right to wear this than anything I can think of," she said...

She had a gift for friendship. People try to draw a distinction between friendship and love; but friendship had for her all the candor and fearlessness of love, as love had for her the gaiety and generously of friendship.

(2) Max Eastman wrote about Edna St. Vincent Millay in his book Good Companions.

Millay discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist. He asked her, "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?" She responded, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?"

(3) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a person of such many-sided charm that to know her was to have a tremendous enrichment of one's life, and new horizons. It was something that one would always be glad to remember. At eighteen to twenty she wrote Renascence. Never has the simple beauty of the earth been more poignantly captured in words that in this girl's poem: never I think, in all poetry.

Edna Millay was to become a lover's poet. But with some of her poems she was also to give dignity and sweetness to those passionate friendships between girls in adolescence, where they stand terrified at the bogeys which haunt the realm of grown-up man-and-woman love, and turn back for a while to linger in the enchanted garden of childhood.

She had a gift for friendship. People try to draw a distinction between friendship and love; but friendship had for her all the candor and fearlessness of love, as love had for her the gaiety and generosity of friendship.

(4) Edna St. Vincent Millay, Justice Denied in Massachusetts (1927)

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home

And sit in the sitting-room.

Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under the cloud?

Sour to the fruitful seed

Is the cold earth under this cloud,

Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;

We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting-room.

Not in our day

Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,

Beneficent upon us

Out of the glittering bay,

And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea

Moving the blades of corn

With a peaceful sound.

Forlorn, forlorn,

Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.

And the petals drop to the ground,

Leaving the tree unfruited.

The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted -

We shall not feel it again.

We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead

We have inherited -

Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued -

See now the slug and the mildew plunder.

Evil does not overwhelm

The larkspur and the corn;

We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,

Here in the sitting-room until we die;

At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;

Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,

And this elm,

And a blighted earth to till

With a broken hoe.

(5) Edna St. Vincent Millay, Conscientious Objector (1931)

I shall die, but

that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;

I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.

He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,

business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.

But I will not hold the bridle

while he clinches the girth.

And he may mount by himself:

I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,

I will not tell him which way the fox ran.

With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where

the black boy hides in the swamp.

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;

I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends

nor of my enemies either.

Though he promise me much,

I will not map him the route to any man's door.

Am I a spy in the land of the living,

that I should deliver men to Death?

Brother, the password and the plans of our city

are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

(6) Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sonnet XXVIII (1931)

When we are old and these rejoicing veins

Are frosty channels to a muted stream,

And out of all our burning their remains

No feeblest spark to fire us, even in dream,

This be our solace: that it was not said

When we were young and warm and in our prime,

Upon our couch we lay as lie the dead,

Sleeping away the unreturning time.

O sweet, O heavy-lidded, O my love,

When morning strikes her spear upon the land,

And we must rise and arm us and reprove

The insolent daylight with a steady hand,

Be not discountenanced if the knowing know

We rose from rapture but an hour ago.

(7) In June 1934, the poet, Arthur Ficke, asked Edna St. Vincent Millay to write down the " five requisites for the happiness of the human race."

A job - something at which you must work for a few hours every day; An assurance that you will have at least one meal a day for at least the next week; An opportunity to visit all the countries of the world, to acquaint yourself with the customs and their culture; Freedom in religion, or freedom from all religions, as you prefer; An assurance that no door is closed to you, - that you may climb as high as you can build your ladder.