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Edna St. Vincent Millay was a popular poet whose verse captured the rebellious mood of post-World War I youth. She is primarily remembered for her early volumes of poetry, which boldly asserted an independent, nonconformist perspective toward contemporary life rarely expressed by women authors of her time.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poetry and Music at an Early Age
Millay, the first of the three daughters of Cora Buzzelle Millay and Henry Tolman Millay, was born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892. In 1900 Cora Millay divorced her husband, an educator with a fondness for poker, and settled with her girls in Camden, Maine. Millay retained a lifelong devotion and admiration for her mother, who provided for the family by nursing, and who encouraged all her daughters to be self-reliant and to appreciate books and music. In fact, the musical talent of Vincent (as Millay was called by her 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 the basis for her sense of poetic rhythm.
Published as a Teen
It was Millay’s interest in literature that led her to write original poetic compositions while she was still a teenager. At the age of fourteen she had a poem, ”Forest Trees,” published in St. Nicholas magazine, a popular children’s periodical that ultimately printed a number of her juvenile works. At Camden High School she wrote for and eventually became editor of the school magazine. At her graduation in 1909 she recited an original poem, and thereby demonstrated a third side of her early interest in the arts: dramatic performance.
In 1912, at her mother’s urging, Millay submitted a long poem, which she entitled ”Renaissance,” in 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). He persuaded her to change the title to ”Renascence,” and fully expected the poem to win first prize. other judges were not as taken with the poem as Earle, however, 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.
The Vassar Years
Millay was already in her twenties when she entered Vassar College in 1914, after a semester of additional preparation at Barnard College. At Vassar, she was very active in campus life. She published poems and plays in the student newspaper, The Miscellany News, and acted regularly in school dramas, playing the lead in her own drama, The Princess Marries the Page (1932). She also composed lyrics for a marching song for Vassar’s Founder’s Day—a campus holiday that celebrates the founding of the college—in 1915.
Even with all her extracurricular activities, Millay remained devoted to her coursework. Her studies were concentrated on literature, drama, and both classical 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 her 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.
Millay’s years at Vassar, with their feminine collegiality, also had an effect on the poet’s outlook by stimulating and solidifying a healthy regard for the friendship of women and the active feminist principles that were evident in her later poetry. A spirited female independence displayed itself also, particularly in Millay’s bridling at rigid dormitory rules.
Greenwich Village Life
n 1917, not long after her graduation, Millay’s first volume of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, was published. The appearance of this first volume made Millay a presence in the literary world, but brought her no financial reward. Millay returned to New York City, hoping to make a living through acting. She and her sister Norma moved to Greenwich Village, home of the Provincetown Players, a popular acting troupe of the time.
In the Village, spirits were high and free. It was a new kind of intellectual awakening for Millay, quite different from the formalized education she received at Vassar. Women’s rights and free love were an accepted part of the living code, and the determination to experience life to its fullest was heightened by the reality of World War I, with its daily reports of young lives lost. Millay’s independent spirit—and the fact that she was an attractive, slender redhead—made her admirably suited for Village life. The young poet who was so recently surrounded by loving female friendships soon had a line of male suitors vying for her attention.
In 1918 Millay met Arthur Davison Ficke, with whom she had corresponded since his first congratulations on her publication of “Renascence.” Ficke, an accomplished sonneteer, had influenced Millay’s experimentation with the form. Through their correspondence, she had come to think of this married man as her spiritual mentor. While he was in New York on his way to a military posting in France, however, they had an intense three-day affair. The emotional experience found direct expression in love letters and sonnets written to Ficke and indirectly in much of her other work. Though they were to remain lifelong friends, the ardor between them soon cooled.
The whirlwind romances and all-night parties made for an exciting life, but the Village years were also ones of poverty for Millay. 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 very great return, so she began turning out prose, along with some light poetry, under the pseudonym ”Nancy Boyd.”
In 1920 Millay met Edmund Wilson, who would later, unsuccessfully, propose marriage to her. With his influence, Millay began to have most of her work published in Vanity Fair, where Wilson was an editor. This brought much-needed income to the young woman, who was still involved in the exciting but nonpaying world of theater. The Vanity Fair exposure helped launch the poet into the national consciousness and earn popularity she would maintain for many years.
The Peak of Popularity
Millay’s popularity peaked when she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. In addition to an acclaimed piece of work, the prize was also notable because Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry. Her poems of this period were primarily focused on her own emotional life. At the center of the bohemian milieu in Greenwich Village during the 1920s, Millay had become as famous for her hedonistic lifestyle as for her poetry. Her many failed relationships led her to believe that love could not endure, and she became distrustful of human passion. Accordingly, Millay maintained a dichotomy between soul and body that is evident in many of her works. In 1923, despite her antagonistic relationship with love, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, though it is reported that the two had an open relationship in which they each took various lovers.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Millay started to reexamine her poetic priorities and became more interested in social and international political problems.
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 mankind itself, as global tensions escalated toward World War II. These two events—one personal and one universal—dominated the contents of the volume. In 1936, more trouble befell Millay when she 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.
Her popularity was already waning as the 1930s wore on, and her series of wartime propaganda poems, published in such volumes as Conversation at Midnight (1937) and Make Bright the Arrows (1940), further eroded her popularity and put a great strain on her, which resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1944. Her recovery was slow. Several friends died in the 1940s, most notably Arthur Davison Ficke in 1945. Eugen Boissevain, her husband, died in August 1949. Though Millay never recovered emotionally or physically, she continued to write, and was planning another collection when she died of a heart attack on October 19, 1950.
Works in Literary Context
An advocate of individualism and romanticism in her verse, Millay commonly employed rhyme and traditional metrical patterns to convey her nontraditional ideas about the role of women in relationships and society. Millay was one of the most skillful writers of sonnets in the twentieth century and her candid investigations of mental states are credited with helping to herald the confessional school of poetry.
The Voice of Feminism
Millay’s earliest works were often a sassy celebration of feminism and free love that caught the mood of Greenwich Village life in the racy postwar period of the 1920s. Millay favored themes of love, death, and nature during this period. Commentators noted that the arch tone of her second volume of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), reflected the impression that fast life and fleeting loves had made on a young woman always receptive to emotional experiences. The voice of feminism was important in this and other early collections as well, with Millay indicating that women as well as men could be casual in their treatment of sexual love, go on with life when it was over, and look forward to the next affair.
A Political Poet
Beginning in the late 1920s, Millay’s poetry began reflecting her political views, with some of her works directly railing against the political conditions in the world at the time. For example, The Murder of Lidice, a propaganda piece written for the Writers’ War Board in 1942, was a sentimental ballad recounting the German destruction of the Czech village through the story of two village lovers planning to marry on that very day. She brought her intense personal voice to bear on her political poems, but this was considered by critics and readers to harm rather than help these works. As Babette Deutsch wrote, ”when she turns to political themes, the gay impudence of her girlhood, the sensitive curiosity of her more mature work, are lost in the shriek of a helplessly angry woman.”
Works in Critical Context
After an initial period of resounding praise, critical opinion of Millay’s poetry diverged. Later critics most often categorize her as a minor lyric poet who failed to develop beyond her early successes. Detractors termed her writing verbose, pretentious, and artificial, citing Millay’s use of archaic words, traditional structures, and a coy tone that weakened her feminist statements. However, some commentators, such as Edmund Wilson, consider Millay one of the few twentieth-century poets whose stature equals that of great literary figures from the past. Millay’s champions support this contention by pointing to her pervasive wit, lyric skill, and distinguished contribution to the sonnet form.
Renascence, and Other Poems
Millay’s first volume of poetry, Renascence, and Other Poems, was a critical and popular success. A collection of lyrics and sonnets celebrating spiritual rebirth, nature, and beauty, Renascence was praised by Louis Untermeyer for its ”lyrical mastery.” The critic added that Millay ”has made ecstasy articulate and almost tangible.” Harriet Monroe wrote that Millay ”has been lavish with details of experience, of emotion, and her agile and penetrating mind has leapt through spaces of thought rarely traversed by women, or by men either for that matter.”
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, which won Millay the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, contains some of her best-known sonnets. Critics were generally impressed with this collection, noting that many female readers saw this work as an important expression of the new woman. As Harriet Monroe wrote in Poetry magazine, ”How neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Woman.” Harold Lewis Cook wrote that the sonnets in Harp-Weaver ”mark a milestone in the conquest of prejudice and evasion.” Some critics, however, were disappointed that she did not show a marked maturity or any fresh insights. 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.”
- Atkins, Elizabeth. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936.
- Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Twayne, 1967; revised, 1982.
- Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1975.
- Daffon, Carolyn. Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
- Dash, Joan. A Life of One’s Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
- Epstein, Daniel Mark. What My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Holt, 2001.
- Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book A Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.
- Gurko, Miriam. Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Crowell, 1962.
- Margaretta, Winifred and Frances Kirkland. Girls Who Became Writers. New York: Harper, 1933.
- Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2001.
- Shafter, Toby. Edna St. Vincent Millay: America’s Best-Loved Poet. New York: J. Messner, 1957.
- Sheean, Vincent. The Indigo Bunting: A Memoir of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper, 1951.
- White, Hilda. Truth Is My Country: Portraits of Eight New England Authors. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
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