Edna St. Vincent Millay: Passion’s Poetess
By Tara Mae
Edna St. Vincent Millay enjoyed the position of being a popular poet during her lifetime. Millay’s ability to convey modernist themes through traditional forms, such as sonnets, enabled her to speak to and of the new world while remaining rooted in the old. As a woman of the 20th century, she was outspoken and unrepentant about her opinions on love, life, and liberty. Raised in a matriarchal household, Millay’s experiences, especially in New York, permitted her to access the tantalizing freedom of artistic expression, as she strove to be unencumbered by a patriarchal society.
Some of Millay’s struggles came from the conflict of reconciling the opportunities afforded by her “unconventional” upbringing with the restrictions imposed on young women’s expected behavior in public. Born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine, Millay’s parents were Cora Lounella Buzelle, a nurse, and Henry Tolman Millay, a schoolteacher. Millay’s middle name was a tribute by Cora to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, where her brother’s life had been saved by its dedicated staff. As a child, Millay insisted on being called Vincent, a demand that caused strife between her and at least one teacher.
When Millay was eight, Cora divorced Henry, reportedly due to his gambling and inability to support a family. She then moved with Millay and her two younger sisters, Norma and Kathleen, to Camden, Maine. Lacking proper funds, Cora worked tirelessly to support her daughters. Because she was a visiting nurse, Cora often had to leave the girls to fend for themselves, relying on them to be self-sufficient. Money was always scarce, but access to creative pursuits was plentiful: Millay, Norma, and Kathleen took music lessons and had a robust library. Millay contemplated becoming a concert pianist, but chose to pursue her writing.
Cora provided a well-rounded education, introducing her children to the works of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. Millay’s writing frequently incorporated classic forms as it encompassed contemporary concepts. Independent and outspoken in an era when children (and women) were expected to be seen and not heard, Millay refused to conform. Offended by her self-assured attitude, her grade school principal refused to call her Vincent, deigning to address her by any girl’s name that started with the letter “V.”
Although she graduated in 1909, her family did not have the money at the time to send her to school. As a young teenager, Millay had poetry published in St. Nicholas children’s magazine and in high school she submitted poetry to the literary magazine and served as its editor. Further opportunities and their potential monetary benefits were discovered by Cora, who saw an advertisement for a poetry contest. The winning selections would be published in an anthology, The Lyric Year.
Millay’s submission, “Renacence” was a long form poem that consisted of traditional couplets. Initially entitled “Renaissance,” she changed the name at the suggestion of one of the contestant’s judges, Ferdinand Earle, who recognized Milay’s prowess with a pen and posited that she would win first place. Millay won fourth. Published in the collection, her poem garnered positive attention, with critics lauding her as a bright new talent.
She first came to New York to go to Barnard College, then transferred to Vassar College and attended on scholarship. Studying languages and literature, Millay learned about literary history, knowledge that benefitted her throughout her career. She published poems and plays, also starring as the lead in her play The Princess Marries the Page. Even as she thrived, Millay again felt constrained by the rigid social norms enforced by the school. Her home life had been permissive, tolerating smoking, drinking, playing cards, flirting with boys. Vassar was not nearly as lax, wanting its students to behave as proper young ladies. Still, Millay cultivated a social life, enjoying several friendships and relationships with women.
Moving to New York City after graduating in 1917, Millay settled in Greenwich Village and published her first book of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems. Millay fully embraced the social scene, immersing herself in the artistic culture. She was well-known for her dramatic readings and recitations. Living with Norma, she eked out a living by publishing her writing and working as an actress as well as occasional playwright and director with the Provincetown Players, an experimental theater troupe.
Finally able to enjoy the independence she had sampled growing up, Millay immersed herself in all the neighborhood had to offer. This atmosphere influenced her writing. She began composing short stories and experimenting with different styles of poetry, frequently employing brevity as a way of punctuating the underscored impact of her words, such as in “First Fig,” from her second volume of poetry A Few Figs from Thistles, published in 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 sight!” The poem alludes to her merry escapades New York City, while acknowledging her awareness that these good times, which she is enjoying on her own terms, are unsustainable. The book was somewhat controversial, given Millay’s explorations of feminism and female sexuality.
Unlike other writers, T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings among them, Millay did not abandon standard forms for free form poetry. Instead, evocative language and passionate ideas were encased in established patterns of meter and rhyme. This gives her poetry a singular power, allowing her sometimes bold, sometimes subtle, but always deftly vibrant language to render these parameters tools of emphasis and pointed meaning. Millay’s writing style reflected her lifestyle: expressing free thought within more conventional constraints.
Using her pen to promote feminism and other causes, Millay was increasingly socially active. Frank in her beliefs, she opposed American involvement in World War I, but fervently supported the country’s intervention in World War II. The unapologetic way she lived her life was in itself a femnist act. Her work explored topics that were still considered unseemingly, like a woman’s sexual desire and empowerment.
On the advice of W. Adolphe Roberts, the editor of the pulp magazine Ainslee’s, Millay began crafting short stories under the nom de plume Nancy Boyd. These tales were geared to the magazine reading audience, and explored the salacious elements of the Greenwich Village environment: the disregard for convention and the determinedly carefree nature of the Jazz Age. Her female protagonists grapple with the choice of pursuing love and marriage or cultivating a career. Millay enjoyed love affairs and eventually married, but remained fully committed to her career.
Her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain was the widower of famed suffragist Inez Milholland. Boissevain nurtured and encouraged both Millay and her work. They each took lovers outside their nearly 30 year relationship, but remained committed to each other. Marrying in 1923, they moved upstate in 1925 to a rundown, sprawling farm near Austerlitz. Steepletop, as Millay dubbed it, would be their home for the rest of their lives.
Having won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, only the third woman to claim such an honor, Millay continued to expand the dimensions of her oeuvre. She composed a libretto for an opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and composed by Deems Taylor, who she had met on a trip to Paris. Four years were spent writing, restoring Steepletop, and settling into married life. Millay did not relinquish the courage of her convictions.
On August 22, 1927, she was one of many people arrested for picketing at the Boston State House in protest of the pending executions of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Convicted of murder, they were put to death the next day. Millay later cited this incident as a catalyst for centering her social conscience and explored her resulting political disillusionment in the article “Fear” for Outlook magazine and The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems, another anthology.
1936 provided life-altering trials. Millay lost the existing manuscript of her book Conversations at Midnight to a hotel fire in Florida. While recreating the work from memory, Millay was badly injured in a car accident when the door of her station wagon flew open and she was flung from the car. The pain from the injuries she sustained to her back and arm became frequent, if not constant, companions, leading to a morphine addiction.
She suffered a period of diminishing returns with her work, contending with her mentally-ill sister Kathleen, her own medical woes, and a nervous breakdown in 1944 that left her unable to write for a period. Millay resumed writing, but Boissevain’s death in 1949 sent her into a tailspin of too much drinking, and she was hospitalized. Back at Steepletop, she completed a book of poems. Mine the Harvest was posthumously published.
On October 19, 1950, Millay was found dead. She had apparently suffered a heart attack and fallen down a flight of stairs. Millay is buried next to Boissevain at Steepletop. Male modernist poets dominated aspects of popular culture during the 1960s, but the rise of the feminist movement revitalized interest in Millay and her writing. Comfortable in her own skin, open about the joys of spiritual and physical engagement, Millay was both a product of her upbringing and a force unto herself. Her writing is at once expansive and intimate, exposing the audience to the world as she encounters it and offering the promise of untapped possibilities.