Edna St. Vincent Millay's Life
Robert L. Gale
Millay, Edna, St. Vincent (22 Feb. 1892-19 Oct. 1950), poet, was born in the small town of Rockland, Maine, the daughter of Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher, and Cora Buzzelle. In 1900 Cora Millay divorced her husband for financial irresponsibility and soon thereafter moved to Camden, Maine, with Edna and her sisters. The hardworking mother supported them by nursing--often overnight--and encouraged her daughters to love reading and music and to be independent. Millay attended public high school, where she wrote for and served as editor in chief of the school magazine (1905-1909). She also published several juvenile pieces in the St. Nicholas Magazine (1906-1910). Her first great poem, "Renascence," was published in an anthology called The Lyric Year in 1912. When a Young Women's Christian Association education officer heard Millay read this poem, she helped obtain a scholarship for the talented girl to attend Vassar College.
Millay took preparatory courses for one semester at Barnard College and then entered Vassar in 1913. While there she wrote poetry and plays (published in the Vassar Miscellany), acted, starred in her own play, The Princess Marries the Page, and studied literature and languages. Although she frequently rebelled against rules designed to protect female students, Millay graduated with an A.B. in 1917. That year Millay published Renascence and Other Poems. She moved to New York City, where she acted with the Provincetown Players, lived impecuniously in Greenwich Village, and indulged in love affairs with several men, including the novelist Floyd Dell and, briefly, the married poet Arthur Davison Ficke. She earned a little money by publishing short stories (under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd) and poems in Ainslee's magazine (1918-1921). In 1919 she wrote and directed a one-act, antiwar verse play with a fairy-tale motif titled Aria da Capo, for the Provincetown Players. During this period she also met the critic Edmund Wilson, at that time the managing editor of Vanity Fair, which had published some of her work (1920). Millay won a $100 prize from Poetry: A Magazine of Verse for "The Bean-Stalk" in 1920. She also published her second book of verse, A Few Figs from Thistles (1920; rev. eds., 1921 and 1922), and Aria da Capo (1920), which sold well.
With an agreement to write for Vanity Fair, the hardworking Millay enjoyed a varied sojourn in Europe from 1920 to 1923. In 1921 she published two more plays and a solid collection of poetry, Second April. Meanwhile, she had other love affairs, including a reported relationship with a French violinist that led to an abortion. She encouraged but soon decided not to marry the poet Witter Bynner. After obtaining a $500 advance from Horace Liveright for a novel titled "Hardigut" that was never completed, she sent for her mother, and the two toured France and England; they then returned to New York. In 1923 Millay was honored as the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In that same year she published The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, and after a brief courtship she married the 43-year-old widower Eugen Jan Boissevain; they had no children. He was a burly American importer of Dutch-Irish extraction who was sensitively intelligent, profeminist, and considerate. Millay went on arduous reading tours and sailed around the world with her husband in 1924. The couple bought and occupied "Steepletop," their permanent home on 700 acres of farmland near Austerlitz, New York, during 1925. Shortly thereafter Millay created the stirring libretto for The King's Henchman, Deems Taylor's splendid opera, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 1927 starring the American baritone Lawrence Tibbett. The libretto was published and went through four quick editions, reportedly earning Millay $100 a day for a while.
Later in 1927 Millay became involved in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born anarchists and labor agitators, had been convicted in 1921 of the 1920 murder of two payroll guards in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The verdict was challenged by those who felt that the two were being persecuted for their history as social activists and anarchists. Although questions about their innocence remained, they were executed on 23 August 1927. Millay and many other intellectuals had joined in a sensational protest, in which she personally appealed to Governor Alvan T. Fuller and was arrested and jailed for joining the "death watch." In response, Millay wrote and published "Justice Denied in Massachusetts" (New York Times, 22 Aug. 1927). Her involvement in the protest was evidence of her long-standing sympathy for the socialistic aspects of communism. Despite or perhaps partly because of this notoriety, many honors came to Millay, including her election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1929) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1940). During approximately this same period, however, three deaths severely depressed her. Her close friend, the poet Elinor Wylie, died in 1928, her mother died in 1931, and her estranged father died in 1935.
Given her psychological makeup, Millay had found the ideal husband in Boissevain. He attended to all the household chores, traveled widely with his "Vincent"--often to Florida, the Riviera, and Spain--and cooperated with her intellectual and linguistic interests. He catered to her whims and even condoned her having an occasional lover. One, George Dillon, who was fourteen years her junior and whom she met in 1928 while giving a reading at the University of Chicago, inspired Fatal Interview (1931), a 52-sonnet sequence. In one sonnet she snarls: "Love me no more, now let the god depart, / If love be grown so bitter to your tongue!" Nonetheless, Dillon and Millay collaborated later on translations from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1936). Still later, in a sonnet in Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939), she says, "As God's my judge, I do cry holy, holy, / Upon the name of love however brief." Beginning in 1933, Millay and her husband enjoyed summer retreats on tiny Ragged Island, having bought the 85-acre spot in Casco Bay, Maine. Her other pre-World War II works include The Buck in the Snow (1928), Wine from These Grapes (1934), and Conversation at Midnight (1937); the original, unique manuscript of this dialogue of seven men was burned in a Sanibel Island hotel fire a year earlier.
In Huntsman, What Quarry? Millay had included stirring poems against the brutalities of Fascist Spain, Nazi Germany, and imperialistic Japan. Other events, such as Italy's attacks on Ethiopia and the German-Russian nonaggression treaty, caused the once-pacifist poet to call for preparedness and then to dash off pro-British and pro-French propaganda verse. Most of her poetry of World War II, much of which she collected in Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook (1940), has proved vapid, but a memorable exception is The Murder of Lidice (1942). This long, dramatic verse narrative is based on the depraved German army butchery of an entire Czech village.
In 1944 Millay suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to write for two years. During this time and later, her husband catered to her so selflessly that he depleted his own reserves of strength and died in 1949 of lung cancer followed by surgery and a stroke. Millay, who with her husband had drunk to excess since the 1930s, evidently grew more dependent on alcohol during her brief, inconsolable widowhood. She died sitting at the foot of her staircase, alone, at Steepletop.
Millay is the poetic voice of eternal youth, feminine revolt and liberation, and potent sensitivity and suggestiveness. Her best and most representative themes are bittersweet love, sorrow, the inevitability of change, resignation, death, and ever-abiding nature. One of her very best poems is her early, mystical "Renascence," about spiritual interment and resurrection through the cycles of nature. It smoothly combines naivet� and profundity and modern and archaic diction. In "Afternoon on a Hill" (published in Renascence ) the delicate persona says, "I will touch a hundred flowers / And not pick one." She occasionally takes a snide tone in A Few Figs from Thistles (1920); for example, she begins one sonnet with these lines: "I shall forget you presently, my dear, / So make the most of this, your little day." But the collection also includes "Recuerdo," which memorably describes the dawn that a happy couple sees from a ferryboat: "The sky went wan, and the wind came cold, / And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold."
Second April (1921) contains tender elegies to a Vassar friend who died of influenza in 1918. "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," the technically brilliant title poem of Millay's 1923 collection, dramatizes a mother's love: a woman too poor to provide necessities for her little son weaves clothes for him by magically playing her harp. In the same book "The Spring and the Fall" bitterly contrasts a lover's vernal attention and his autumnal gibes and concludes that "'Tis not love's going hurts my days, / But that it went in little ways." The Buck in the Snow (1928) proved unpopular, perhaps because it features much experimental verse; for example, "The Pigeons" contains one line of twenty-five syllables. Her imagery grows startling, as when in "On First Having Heard the Skylark" the bird's cry is "like a crystal dart."
The bitter philosophical poems in Wine from These Grapes (1934) are well represented by "Apostrophe to Man," in which, seeming to anticipate World War II, Millay exhorts everyone to "expunge yourself, die out, / Homo called sapiens." The mounted huntsman in the terse title poem of Huntsman, What Quarry? is tempted to enjoy "a one-night's bride" but decides instead to go kill the fox. Notable from the posthumous Mine the Harvest (1954) are Millay's delight that "thought unbraids itself" ("Ragged Island"), her conceited disgust with time-consuming visitors--"What chores these churls do put upon the great" ("Cave Canem"), and Christ's warning to His followers, "No shelter will be found / Save in my shadow" ("Jesus to His Disciples").
Millay will always be remembered for her flippant quatrain, which she titled "First Fig" (1920):
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!
She should also be remembered, however, for her "Second Fig" (1920): "Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come see my shining palace built upon the sand!" Her "shining" poetry should never fall out of fashion. Its lyricism, praise of beauty, freedom, and individualism, and technical virtuosity are timeless.
Most of Millay's papers are at the New York Public Library, Yale University, and the Library of Congress. See also Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, ed. Allan Ross Macdougall (1952). Primary and secondary bibliographies are Karl Yost, A Bibliography of the Works of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1937); John J. Patton, "A Comprehensive Bibliography of Criticism of Edna St. Vincent Millay," Serif 5 (Sept. 1968): 10-32; and Judith Nierman, Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide (1977). Biographical studies include Jean Gould, The Poet and Her Book: A Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1969); Joan Dash, A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married (1973); and Anne Chaney, Millay in Greenwich Village (1975). The best critical study is Norman A. Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1967; rev. ed., 1982). Discerning evaluations of Millay's early poetry are in Alfred Kreymborg, Our Singing Strength: An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930) (1929), while generally derogatory comments are in Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (1968; rev. ed., 1984). Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems, ed. Colin Falck (1991), provides a provocative introduction. David Felix, Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals (1965), chronicles the crime, trial, reviews, and executions and concludes that both men were probably guilty. Katherine Anne Porter, The Never-Ending Wrong (1977), describes the actions of the protestors, including Millay and Porter herself, during the Sacco-Vanzetti tragedy. An obituary is in the New York Times, 20 Oct. 1950.
Source: http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-01131.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 16:47:48 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Return to Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American lyrical poet, playwright and feminist. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and was known for her activism and her many love affairs. She used the pseudonym Nancy Boyd for her prose work.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine to Cora Lounella, a nurse, and Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher who would later become superintendent of schools. Her middle name derives from St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, where her uncle's life had been saved just before her birth. The family's house was "between the mountains and the sea where baskets of apples and drying herbs on the porch mingled their scents with those of the neighboring pine woods." In 1904, Cora officially divorced Millay's father for financial irresponsibility, but they had already been separated for some years. Cora and her three daughters, Edna (who called herself "Vincent"), Norma, and Kathleen, moved from town to town, living in poverty. Cora travelled with a trunk full of classic literature, including Shakespeare and Milton, which she read to her children. The family settled in a small house on the property of Cora's aunt in Camden, Maine, where Millay would write the first of the poems that would bring her literary fame.
The three sisters were independent and spoke their minds, which did not always sit well with the authority figures in their lives. Millay's grade school principal, offended by her frank attitudes, refused to call her Vincent. Instead, he called her by any woman's name that started with a V. At Camden High School, Millay began developing her literary talents, starting at the school's literary magazine, The Megunticook. At 14 she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry, and by 15 she had published her poetry in the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas, the Camden Herald, and the high-profile anthology Current Literature. While at school she had several relationships with women, including Edith Wynne Matthison, who would go on to become an actress in silent films. Millay entered Vassar College at 21, later than usual, and had relationships with several fellow students during her time there.
Millay’s fame began in 1912 when she entered her poem “Renascence” in a poetry contest in The Lyric Year. The poem was widely considered the best submission and when it was ultimately awarded fourth place, it created a scandal which brought Millay publicity. The first-place winner Orrick Johns was among those who felt that “Renascence” was the best poem, and stated that “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." A second-prize winner offered Millay his $250 prize money. In the immediate aftermath of the Lyric Year controversy, Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poetry and playing the piano at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Maine, and was so impressed that she offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College. Millay moved to New York City after her graduation in 1917.
Millay lived in a number of places in Greenwich Village, including a house owned by the Cherry Lane Theatre, renowned for being the smallest in New York City. The critic Floyd Dell wrote that the red-haired and beautiful Millay was "a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine." Millay described her life in New York as "very, very poor and very, very merry." Openly bisexual, she counted among her close friends the writers Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Susan Glaspell, as well as Floyd Dell and the critic Edmund Wilson, both of whom proposed marriage to her and were refused.
Her 1920 collection A Few Figs From Thistles drew controversy for its novel exploration of female sexuality and feminism. In 1919 she wrote the anti-war play Aria da Capo which starred her sister Norma Millay at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City. Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver"; she was the third woman to win the poetry prize.
In 1923 she married 43-year-old Eugen Jan Boissevain (1880–1949), the widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage. Millay's most significant such relationship during this time was with the poet George Dillon, who was fourteen years her junior, and for whom she wrote a number of her sonnets.
In 1925, Boissevain and Millay bought Steepletop near Austerlitz, New York, which had been a 635-acre (257 ha) blueberry farm. The couple built a barn (from a Sears Roebuck kit), and then a writing cabin and a tennis court. Millay grew her own vegetables in a small garden. The couple later bought Ragged Island in Casco Bay, Maine, as a summer retreat.
Millay's reputation was damaged by the poetry she wrote about the Allied war effort during World War II. Merle Rubin noted: "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism." In the New York Times Millay mourned the Czechoslovak city of Lidice, the site of a Nazi massacre:
The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice,
Like the murdered body of a little child.
In 1943 Millay was the sixth person and the second woman to be awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. Boissevain died in 1949 of lung cancer, and Millay lived alone for the last year of her life.
Death and Steepletop Legacy
Millay died at her home on October 19, 1950. She had fallen down stairs and was found approximately eight hours after her death. Her physician reported that she had had a heart attack following a coronary occlusion. She was 58 years old.
Millay's sister Norma and her husband, the painter and actor Charles Frederick Ellis, moved to Steepletop after Millay's death. In 1973 they established Millay Colony for the Arts on the seven acres (2.8 ha) around the house and barn. After the death of her husband in 1976, Norma continued to run the program until her death in 1986. The poet Mary Oliver visited Steepletop and became a close friend of Norma. Oliver eventually lived there for seven years and helped to organize Millay's papers.Mary Oliver herself went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, greatly inspired by Millay's work. In 2006, the state of New York paid $1.69 million to acquire 230 acres (0.93 km2) of Steepletop, with the intention to add the land to a nearby state forest preserve. The proceeds of the sale were to be used by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society to restore the farmhouse and grounds and turn it into a museum. Since summer, 2010 the museum has been open to the public. Parts of the grounds of Steepletop, including a Poet's Walk that leads to Millay's grave, are now open to the public year-round. From the final weekend of May through the middle of October each year guided tours of Steepletop and Millay's gardens are available.
Edna St. Vincent Millay's Works:
Renascence, and Other Poems (title poem first published under name E. Vincent Millay in The Lyric Year, 1912; collection includes God's World), M. Kennerley, 1917. reprinted, Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
A Few Figs From Thistles: Poems and Four Sonnets, F. Shay, 1920, second [enlarged] edition published as A Few Figs From Thistles: Poems and Sonnets,F. Shay, 1921.
Second April (poems; includes Spring, Ode to Silence,and The Beanstalk), M. Kennerley, 1921. reprinted, Harper, 1935
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, F. Shay, 1922, reprinted as The Harp-Weaver, in The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems (includes The Concert, Euclid Alone has Looked on Beauty Bare, and Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree), Harper, 1923.
Poems, M. Secker, 1923.
(Under pseudonym Nancy Boyd) Distressing Dialogues, preface by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harper, 1924.
The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems (includes The Buck in the Snow [also see below] and On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven), Harper, 1928.
Fatal Interview (sonnets), Harper, 1931.
Wine from These Grapes (poems; includes Epitaph for the Race of Man and In the Grave No Flower), Harper, 1934.
(Translator with George Dillon; and author of introduction) Charles Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil, Harper, 1936.
Conversation at Midnight (narrative poem), Harper, 1937.
Huntsman, What Quarry? (poems), Harper, 1939.
There Are No Islands, Any More: Lines Written in Passion and in Deep Concern for England, France, and My Own Country, Harper, 1940.
Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook (poems), Harper, 1940.
The Murder of Lidice (poem), Harper, 1942.
Second April [and] The Buck in the Snow, introduction by William Rose Benét, Harper, 1950.
Mine the Harvest (poems), edited by Norma Millay, Harper, 1954.
Take Up the Song, Harper, 1986, reprinted with music by William Albright as Take Up the Song: Soprano Solo, Mixed Chorus, and Piano, Henmar Press, 1994.
Selected Poems/The Centenary Edition, edited by Colin Falck, Harper Perennial, 1992.
(And director) Aria da capo (one-act play in verse; first produced in Greenwich Village, NY, December 5, 1919), M. Kennerley, 1921 (also see below).
The Lamp and the Bell (five-act play; first produced June 18, 1921), F. Shay, 1921 (also see below).
Two Slatterns and a King: A Moral Interlude (play), Stewart Kidd, 1921.
Three Plays (contains Two Slatterns and a King, Aria da capo, and The Lamp and the Bell), Harper, 1926.
(Author of libretto) The King's Henchman (three-act play; first produced in New York, February 17, 1927), Harper, 1927.
The Princess Marries the Page (one-act play), Harper, 1932.
Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Allan Ross Macdougall, Harper, 1952.
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