The Poets Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)


About the Poet

A precocious Jazz Age feminist, social rebel, and popular literary figure, Edna St. Vincent Millay is arguably America's finest sonneteer. She earned a reputation for mastering verse drama and intricate, emotional poetry free of Victorian cant. With fluent, sensuous grace, she contained her passions in traditional poetic forms. Her poems espouse an intimate and, at times, detached knowledge of love, but she long put off suitors who threatened her free-spirited individuality and determination to write. Her mature talent retained a sensitivity and bravado that balance heartbreak with humor.

Millay was born on February 22, 1892, in Rockland, near Maine's Penobscot Bay, a setting for her naturalistic poems as well as such localized sonnets as "I Shall Go Back" and "The Cameo." The eldest and favorite of three girls, "Vincent" grew up in Camden under the loving hand of her mother, who reared three girls alone after her husband's abrupt departure in 1900. Encouraged to study piano and literature, Millay graduated from Camden High. Disliked for intellectual snobbery, she failed to win the post of class poet because spiteful classmates refused to vote for her.

At age 14, Millay published "The Land of Romance" in Current Literature. At age 19, and already the recipient of the Intercollegiate Poetry Society prize, she achieved a rare maturity with "Renascence," chosen from 10,000 entries for the anthology The Lyric Year (1912). The most enduring of her lines, "O world, I cannot hold thee close enough," introduces "God's World," an inventive self-revelation that earned lasting critical acclaim.

Public reception brought Millay a patron, Caroline B. Dow, who heard her read "Renascence" at the Whitehall Inn. Dow paid Millay's college tuition to Vassar, where language study and feminist ferment infused her socialist bent. Energized by a romantic attachment to poet Arthur Davison Ficke, she began a sonnet cycle while completing a degree, which was momentarily threatened when she was suspended for disobedience. In 1917, she published a first volume, Renascence and Other Poems, comprised of lyrics and both Elizabethan and Shakespearian sonnets.

Intent on an acting career, Millay settled in Greenwich Village, New York, where she helped found the Cherry Lane Theater. To earn a living, she served as a personal secretary and freelanced short stories for Ainslee and Metropolitan under the pen name Nancy Boyd. Her dreams of acting faded, but her one-act experimental drama, Aria da Capo, a stylized piece protesting World War I, flourished at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1919. Influenced by Village radicals, she expressed social consciousness, pacifism, and sexual freedom in A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), which showcased euphoric love in "Recuerdo" and a notorious cynicism in "My candle burns at both ends," a wholehearted declaration of the unconventional life.

The release of Second April (1921) cinched Millay's reputation as the leading female poet of the age and the spokeswoman for the independent female, whom she championed for setting personal standards of love and sexuality. She completed two more plays, Two Slatterns and a King (1921) and The Lamp and the Bell (1921).

Millay further substantiated her place in American literature with tour de force sonneteering in The Ballad of the Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1923), which netted her a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first given to a female writer. After her marriage to Dutch-American importer Eugen Jan Boissevain, her health failed. The couple settled in the Berkshires at Steepletop, a secluded 700-acre farm in Austerlitz, New York, in 1925. Collaborating with Deems Taylor, she supplied a blank verse libretto written solely in one-sylable words for the wildly popular The King's Henchman (1927), which the Metropolitan Opera produced on stage and in a popular book form.

Still dedicated to radical issues despite her compromised energies, Millay crusaded for clemency for anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a cause célèbre of the period commemorated in "Justice Denied in Massachusetts" and "Fear," a vehement diatribe published in Outlook. She kept vigil at the Boston Court House the night in 1927 when the pair were executed for payroll robbery and murder, and she dedicated proceeds from The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (1928) to their posthumous defense. Lacking her youthful verve, she battled headaches, visual distortion, and undiagnosed abdominal pain while writing spirited, intensely personal verse laced with contemporary themes, collected in Fatal Interview (1931) and Wine from These Grapes (1934), which features a superb sonnet sequence, Epitaph for the Race of Man. In addition, she honored her friend and colleague, poet Elinor Wylie, with six elegies in Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939).

As the world rushed toward a second global war, Millay issued Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook (1940), There Are No Islands Any More (1940), Collected Sonnets (1941), the Writers' War Board radio play The Murder of Lidice (1942), which details Nazi atrocities, and Collected Lyrics (1943), which influenced the style of poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Intense radical propaganda and political activism weakened her further in 1944, when she published Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army. While in seclusion in the months following her husband's death, she drank heavily. On October 19, 1950, she died of heart failure at the head of the stairs in her home. Steepletop, the country estate where her ashes are interred, was the setting for a private funeral. Her last volume, Mine the Harvest, issued in 1954, contains works from the last decade of her life and features her salute to the sonnet, "I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines."

Chief Works

Edna St. Vincent Millay had been erroneously categorized as just another woman writing about love until feminist critics revived her canon with fresh insights into her stark images and commentary on humanist themes. A sizable portion of her early works displays a hard, intellectual edge and harsher determinism. One of the early sonnets, "Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare" (1923), lauds structure. To demonstrate logic, the text further constrains the fourteen-line Petrarchan form by reducing the number of rhymes from five to four. The rhyme scheme of abbaabbacddccd admits only one feminine foot with "nowhere," which ends on an off beat. The subject is also tightly controlled, focusing on geometry as the only pure beauty.

In contrast, "The Return" (1934), a less idealized study of transience, pictures nature as a constant, a dispassionate entity apart from the romanticism, escapism, religion, and philosophy that humans invest in it. The text develops a lyric approach with four-beat lines rhyming abab. In five quatrains, she again objectifies nature by describing the earth mother receiving dead beings — a man and a lynx — who "Come trailing blood unto her door." Devoid of outward grief, the divine goddess offers shelter, but no pity, because sentiment is inconsistent with nature. The detachment suggests a departure from suffering that writers of the post-World War I era found difficult to achieve.

In 1928, Millay produced "Dirge Without Music," a disturbingly clear-eyed, bittersweet love plaint. The twelfth line offers only a glimpse at the bright-eyed person the poet-speaker has lost. Opening on a petulant, wordy argument for private grief, the poet-speaker stops herself in line 2 with a firmly resigned four-stage pause: "So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind." Battling impermanence all the way to the grave, she bears resentment like an Olympic baton in a prim assertion, "I know. But I do not approve." The final stanza, returned to the previous tight-lipped self-absorption, winds down to repetition of the speaker's earlier disapproval, as though her mind is unable to compromise on the subject of losing a loved one.

After two decades of focusing on technically precise verse, Millay wrote "On Thought in Harness." With its emotional free-style verse in three rhymed stanzas, the poet overturned criticisms that she was a purist rightfully placed among the Edwardian traditionalists. As a testimony to her versatility, the poem is a suitable antithesis to "I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines." With varying line lengths, she demonstrates hesitancy at letting her mind free of an unnatural containment.

The poem's chief delight is a controlling metaphor of the falconer with hooded bird. It is significant that the bird is female, a symbol of inhibited womanhood. A jarring detail in line 9 notes, "Her head stinks of its hood, her feathers reek / Of me, that quake at the thunder." The candor of the poet's introspection produces a remarkable list of commands to the falcon, which she bids to "Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost. / But climb." The departure from stricter metrical forms complements earlier works with deliberate pacing that concludes on a resolute double beat.

A similar urge to flee stifling convention dominates "Wild Swans," an earnest, complex, eight-line stanza rhyming abbccbbc. The reversal of positions, bird with woman, places the poet-speaker indoors and the migrating flock overhead. Again, Millay punches out her determination with a double beat and supportive pause when she calls, "Wild swans, come over the town, come over / The town again, trailing your legs and crying." As does the hood in the previous poem, the house stifles with its implications of dreary domesticity, but the poet blames not housewifery, but her "tiresome heart, forever living and dying." Identification with the wild flight transfers the crying to the speaker, who feels compelled to depart and lock the door behind her.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Summarize the tone and personal values of "I Shall Go Back," "Pity Me Not," "Sonnet xli," and "Sonnet xcv" in light of feminist progress toward political and economic equality in the early 1920s.

2. Contrast the refined protest of Millay's "Justice Denied in Massachusetts" with the more strident outbursts of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement.

3. Analyze the everyday details and psychological realism of Millay's Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree. Account for her sympathy with the mismatched farm couple.

4. Determine the value of literature and music to Millay in the fervid apostrophe "On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven."

5. Discuss how Millay characterizes nature in "The Return."