Edna St. Vincent Millay

Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Who is the most amazing diva you can think of? Aretha? Cher? J-Lo? Imagine all that attitude and more in a slender, pale, red-haired dynamo only 5’1″ tall. Furthermore, picture this beauty on stage in a jeweled velveteen gown with long medieval sleeves. Depression-era audiences saved for months to see the greatest poet of their time…a skilled actress whose performances did not disappoint. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. One of the most prosperous poets in history. A lover who confounded men and women alike: Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Lost childhood

This sophisticated bohemian began life as a country girl. Born into a poor family in Rockland, Maine, Edna saw her mother divorce her gambler father when Edna was eight years old. A single parent, her mother, Cora, worked as a private nurse out of town, leaving Edna to raise two sisters, Kathleen and Norma. Today, we would call Edna an abused child — baking bread, shopping on a deficit, filling a coal stove and cleaning house under her mother’s stern reprimands.

And yet Cora encouraged her children’s creativity. Edna’s first love was music, especially the piano. However, her small fingers couldn’t stretch far enough across the keys to support a professional career, so she turned to writing. With Cora’s support, Edna’s poems were published in children’s and school journals.

Secret incantation

When Edna graduated high school, Cora expected her to continue housekeeping. To keep her own hopes alive, Edna created a nightly ritual where, envisioning an imaginary lover, she lit a candle and vowed undying love. Biographer Daniel Mark Epstein aptly calls this “casting a spell.” Within a year, she would know amazing success as a young poet, and just about everyone she met, male and female, would fall in love with her.

Her ticket out of Maine was a mystical poem, “Renascence,” a finalist in a highly publicized contest for The Lyric Year. When Edna read her work at a local inn, a wealthy matron, Caroline Dow, offered to send her to Vassar College. Dow set her up in New York City to take preparatory classes at Barnard. With a new wardrobe and country-girl-in-the-big-city excitement, Edna charmed famous poets anxious to meet the author of “Renascence.”

At Vassar, Edna pursued female liaisons and a serious acting career which attracted attention off- campus. An older student, she shuttled between Manhattan — where she seduced male poets and publishers — and Vassar, which she called “this hellhole.” As she flaunted Vassar’s curfews, the college grew less tolerant and graduated her only under pressure from the college community.

Star on and off stage

In 1917, Edna settled in Greenwich Village and joined the Provincetown Players where she met Eugene O’Neill and Floyd Dell, an editor at The Masses. Edna and Dell were lovers at the time The Masses was on trial for Russian sympathies. When the two walked into court late one day looking disheveled, Edna announced to Dell with typical aplomb, “Who cares if everyone knows we’re sleeping together?”

Successful in several literary genres, Edna traveled to Europe as a 1921 Vanity Fair correspondent under a pseudonym. She also wrote plays such as The Princess Marries the Page; Aria da Capo, a chamber verse drama she directed; and The Lamp and The Bell, commissioned by Vassar. In 1927, she wrote a critically acclaimed libretto, The King’s Henchman, which made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

Her third book, The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. That year she married Dutch businessman Eugen Jan Boissevain who eventually quit his importing business to manage her substantial poetry career. To appreciate the enormity of her success, consider her income: In 1928 alone, she made $15,000 in royalties, or $200,000 today. Thousands flocked to hear her read in town halls and universities across America.

Giddyap

Edna and her husband purchased a farm, Steepletop, in Austerlitz, New York, in 1925. Despite the windfall her poetic career provided, Edna pressured her publisher for advances. According to Epstein, she secretly owned a thoroughbred racehorse and horse farm in Maryland. Income went toward horse racing and farm upkeep. Able to name the Triple Crown winners through history, Edna recited them to warm up before readings.

Her famous ability to memorize would come in handy: During a 1936 stroll along a Florida beach with her husband, Edna glanced back at their hotel to see it in flames — consuming her Conversation at Midnight manuscript. Painfully she recreated the complex verse drama from memory. While the book may seem dated today, it’s fascinating as a pre-WWII examination of
communism.

The Boissevains’ open marriage accommodated Edna’s long-term relationship with the younger Pulitzer Prize-winning poet George Dillon. This affair inspired her 1931 book of sonnets, Fatal Interview, and 1936 translation with Dillon of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. Neither publication received glowing reviews. Furthermore, Make Bright the Arrows, her 1940 book of patriotic poems, turned off critics, peers and friends.

Last years

Edna’s work suffered, much in part to physical problems including alcoholism and morphine addiction. Still, in times of crisis, the nation turned to her. She responded to the growing WWII chaos with poems read over the radio by Paul Muni and Ronald Colman. Despite her fame, Epstein observes, the Modernists had already “buried” Edna:

Soon Eliot, Pound, and their followers would see to it that poems not bristling with paradox, irony, ambiguity, and allusion would not be called poems anymore. All versifying that appealed to an audience as large as Millay’s would be regarded, prima facie, as sentimental fodder for the dull-witted and unenlightened. [That audience] went into hiding with their battered, gilt-edged volumes of Tennyson, Longfellow and Millay…. (Epstein, p. xv)

Ironically, Edna reflects this awareness in a poem she wrote and read for the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1941. In “Invocation to the Muses,” she says, “If I address thee in archaic style — /Words obsolete, words obsolescent,” later repeating, “archaic, or obsolescent at least.” This feels like a terribly self-conscious public admission, “This is the way I write.” It was her last public reading. She died as dramatically as she lived, tumbling down her staircase at Steeletop on October 19, 1950.

Why read Millay?

To grasp Edna’s poetry, understand that her first love was music, second acting and ever-constant pursuit — erotic love. Epstein calls Edna a “dramatic lyricist.” Her themes are dramatic, lines musical and subject fueled by love. Today, we might send Edna to Sex Addicts Anonymous. In the early part of the century, she took a carnivorous approach — then likened to male behavior — to sexual liaisons.

At first, Edna’s poetry served as the manifesto for a generation of “new women,” flappers who could drink, smoke and make love, then reject, whomever they wanted — burning their candles at “both ends” per her famous

First Fig

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!

Unfortunately for many stricken with the poet, the following expresses Edna’s attitude toward love:

Thursday

And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday —

So much is true.

And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday,— yes — but what
Is that to me?

And here’s more of her callous or so-called “male” attitude:

V.

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again —
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man — who happened to be you —
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud — I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place —
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful concern on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

If you hear a clock ticking, it’s Edna’s time-limit on relationships:

IV.

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,—
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

Poetry outside the lens

Edna often approaches her work by considering what is missing from the scene. This device creates a contrast which heightens her image or thought. In her sonnet, “I know I am but summer to your heart,” other seasons, or relationships, satisfy her lover. In “What lips my lips have kissed,” a tree cannot recall the birds that have rested there. The reader is asked to look outside the poem’s landscape.

Here a hawk never enters this wintry scene and yet it holds the whole poem together. Again, notice the negative words which open both the first and second stanzas:

The Snow Storm

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.
The wing adroiter than a sail
Must lean away from such a gale,
Abandoning its straight intent,
Or else expose tough ligament
And tender flesh to what before
Mean dampened feathers, nothing more.

Forceless upon our backs there fall
Infrequent flakes hexagonal,
Devised in many a curious style
To charm our safety for a while,
Where close to earth like mice we go
Under the horizontal snow.

By associating snow with the hawk, Edna mines additional meaning when she compares humans to mice. Is the snow really “infrequent”, “curious” and “charming”? As mice, we are its prey. Her sympathies are with the hawk’s “tender flesh” and “dampened feathers.”

Aural genius

Reading Edna’s work aloud is one way to appreciate the music and even the slightly antiquated vocabulary. You can see her love of Gerard Manley Hopkins in:

God’s World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this,
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,— Lord, do I fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,— let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

And yet Edna can spin out condensed, neat poems such as “Ebb”:

I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge

Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.

Her high art is in her sonnets, which have the authoritative feel of Shakespeare or Donne:

I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year;
And you must welcome from another part
Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.
No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell
Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;
And I have loved you all too long and well
To carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.
Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,
I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,
That you may hail anew the bird and rose
When I come back to you, as summer comes.
Else will you seek, at some not distant time,
Even your summer in another clime.

And in this sonnet, her love of Shelley and Keats is apparent:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
For unremembered lads that no gain
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Obsession with death

Edna’s first adult poem, “Renascence,” is the narrative of a person buried alive. Many of her poems anticipate or reference death. In fact, some Poems for Young People seem absurd when you think about reading them to a child: “Lament” begins with “Listen, children:/Your father is dead”, while “IV” in this volume considers suicide:

I know a hundred ways to die.
I’ve often thought I’d try one:
Lie down beneath a motor truck
Some day when standing by one.

Or throw myself from off a bridge —
Except such things must be
So hard upon the scavengers
And men that clean the sea.

I know some poison I could drink.
I’ve often thought I’d taste it.
But mother bought it for the sink,
And drinking it would waste it.

New England imprint

Edna’s poetry often taps into the rich natural environment of her New England childhood. To read her work, you almost need a naturalist’s guide to the northeast — such are the references to mullein, eel-grass and hepaticas. In “Exiled,” she proclaims, “I have a need to hold and handle/Shells and anchors and ships again!” In a later untitled poem, she recalls her youthful enthusiasm for pre-dawn climbs up Mount Megunticook:

The path up the mountain is stony and in places steep,
And here it is really dark — wonderful, wonderful,
Wonderful — the smell of bark
And rotten leaves and dew! And nobody awake
In all the world but you! —
Who lie on a high cliff until your elbows ache,
To see the sun come up Penobscot Bay.

We see Edna’s soul can be refreshed only by a field of wild flowers:

Weeds

White with daisies and red with sorrel
And empty, empty under the sky! —
Life is a quest and love a quarrel —
Here is a place for me to lie.

Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
Cursed by farmers thriftily.

But here, unhated for an hour,
The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
Like flowers that bear an honest name.

And here a while, where no wind brings
The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things,
The blood too bright, the brow accurst.

Lessons from a master

To a modern eye, Edna’s poetry has a sentimental, even hysterical, character foreign to the clean and concise poetry of the late century — a quality Epstein describes as “ecstasy”:

Like many poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay had an ecstatic nature given to the transports of delight, terror, melancholy, driven by the music in her to make poetry in the throes of those passions….She would never be content with the quieter, subtler consolations of philosophy and spiritual love, the stoical disciplines that guide less restless souls toward peace. (Epstein, pp. 93-94)

However, Edna has a lot to teach us today in the way of music, rhyme and vocabulary. Her downside can be singsong work and a need to be self-consciously clever or profound. And yet, more often than not, she hits the mark. As a poet, I’ve felt challenged to describe the night sky in Vermont on visits there. In a few lines, that New England girl manages to capture it all:

In Vermont — and the stars so clear,
Seen through the dustless atmosphere,
That stars ahead both blazed and glowed
Only a foot above the road.

Edna St. Vincent Millay Time Line

1892 Born February 22 in Rockland, Maine

1900 Father leaves; family moves to Rockport, Maine

1904 Family moves to Camden, Maine

1912 Edna meets Caroline Dow, who will fund college tuition

1913 Edna attends Barnard to prep for Vassar
The Lyric Year publishes “Renascence”
Edna goes to Vassar

1917 Edna writes and stars in The Princess Marries the Page
Edna lives in Greenwich Village, joins Provincetown Players
Poetry publishes three poems
Renascence and Other Poems, first book, published

1918 Edna supports Floyd Dell, an editor of The Masses in trial
Mother moves in with Edna and her two sisters in the Village

1919 Aria da Capo, a chamber verse-drama, which Edna directs, opens

1920 Second April, second book, completed

1921 A Few Figs From Thistles published
The Lamp and the Bell, a play commissioned by Vassar
Edna goes to Europe to write for Vanity Fair under pseudonym Nancy Boyd

1923 The Harp Weaver and Other Poems wins Pulitzer Prize
Edna marries Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch importer

1925 Edna and Eugen purchase Steeletop in Austerlitz, New York

1927 The King’s Henchman, libretto debuts at the Metropolitan Opera

1928 Buck in Snow

1929 Poems Selected for Young People

1931 Fatal Interview, sonnets inspired by love affair with poet George Dillon

1934 Wine From These Grapes

1936 Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire translated by Edna and George Dillon
Conversation at Midnight manuscript burns in Florida hotel fire; Edna reconstructs from memory
Edna falls out of moving car, beginning years of hospitalizations

1937 Conversation at Midnight, a political drama in verse

1939 Huntsman, What Quarry?

1940 Make Bright the Arrows, patriotic and universally panned poems, response to Wave of the Future by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

1941 Final public reading, poem “Invocation to the Muses,” at Carnegie Hall

1942 October 19, Paul Muni reads “Murder at Lidice” on NBC Radio; poem decries Nazi leveling of Czech town

1944 June 6, Ronald Colman reads “Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army” on NBC Radio

1949 Eugen dies suddenly after lung surgery

1950 Edna takes nightly tranquilizer, falls down stairs and dies at Steepletop on October 19

1954 Mine the Harvest, final collection, published

Bibliography

Epstein, Daniel Mark. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Collected Poems. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Conversation at Midnight. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Poems Selected for Young People. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Nancy Milford, ed. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Mitford, Nancy. Savage Beauty. New York: Random House, 2001.

Poetry Speaks. Paschen, Elise and Rebeckah Preson Mosby, eds. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2001.