Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on this day in 1892 in Rockland, Maine.
“Boys don’t like me anyway because I won’t let them kiss me. It’s just like this: let boys kiss you and they’ll like you but you won’t … But I’d be almost willing to be engaged if I thought it would keep me from being lonesome … if I was engaged I would be going to the play tonight instead of sitting humped up on the steps in a drizzle that keeps my pencil point sticky. I’d be going out paddling tomorrow instead of practicing the Beethoven Funeral March Sonata. And I’d like to have something to do besides write in an old book. I’d like to have something happen to give me a jolt, something that would rattle my teeth and shake my hairpins out.” — Edna St. Vincent Millay, journal entry, 1911
Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of those rare poets who was a celebrity in her own era. A Pulitzer-Prize winner (the third woman to win in the poetry category) there was something about her – and her persona – that packed audiences into halls to hear her read, and it went beyond the novelty of her sex. She had worked as an actress, and she used this training in her consciously theatrical poetry readings. She created a persona. A Poet Persona. She was not in tune with her own time, and the Modernist onslaught on “old forms”. The Modernists were busy ripping themselves away from 19th century influences. A seismic shift. Then you read Millay’s stuff and you can’t believe she was a contemporary of Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. You would believe she was a contemporary of Charlotte Bronte.
Her preferred “form” was the deceptively simple (until you try to write one) and formally rigorous sonnet.
She was one of the most popular writers of her day. More often than not she is now treated as a footnote, particularly in the big anthologies of 20th century poetry. Her star shrank to a more manageable size, when compared with the blazing fireball suns of Eliot, Stein, Williams, etc. Strange how that happens.
More after the jump.
I read Nancy Milford’s excellent biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay) and found Millay to be self-absorbed and narcissistic. I didn’t like her very much. Lock up your husbands and boyfriends (and wives and girlfriends, for that matter) when Edna’s around. I felt a kind of awe reading about how fearlessly she lived by her own rules. There was convention. And then there was Edna. Free love. Nobody was “taken”. The sexual revolution of the 60s had nothing on her. Harold Bloom called her the “Byron of her day”, an appropriate analogy. She was an unapologetic siren.
Millay’s gift of verse was recognized from the moment she started writing as a teenager (similar to Sylvia Plath’s trajectory. Plath was published in national magazines when she was still in high school.) Millay never suffered in obscurity. Powerful people read her early on and went out of their way to help her, introduce her to the right people, open doors.
This is my favorite of Millays sonnets.
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, — so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
I love her sonnet to Elinor Wylie, another fascinating complicated artist (see my post on her here).
To Elinor Wylie
(In answer to a question about her)
Oh, she was beautiful in every part! —
The auburn hair that bound the subtle brain;
The lovely mouth cut clear by wit and pain,
Uttering oaths and nonsense, uttering art
In casual speech and curving at the smart
On startled ears of excellence too plain
For early morning! — Obit. Death from strain;
The soaring mind outstripped the tethered heart.
Yet here was one who had no need to die
To be remembered. Every word she said,
The lively malice of the hazel eye
Scanning the thumb-nail close — oh, dazzling dead,
How like a comet through the darkening sky
You raced! … would your return were heralded.
When you read the details of Millay’s life, her aching lovelorn poems seem even more poignant. This is interesting because she was not a particularly poignant person. If you only read her poetry, you would think she was the most sentimental person on the planet, yearning for one great lost love, when in fact she was a ruthless siren (lol). And so her persona was deliberately crafted, a theatrical act of CONJURING as opposed to an authentic expression of a personal truth. She stood out since old forms (despite their obvious staying power) were in disfavor. The amount of feeling she was able to get into those rigid numerically perfect lines is incredible.
I do want to mention how – unlike so many of her contemporaries – she recognized the threat of fascism in real time, and supported the American war effort (despite her lifelong pacifism). She got shit for her involvement in the war effort, because … elite literary circles are often made up of assholes who BENEFIT from liberal democracy and yet still manage to HATE it. Merle Rubin, the book critic for the LA Times, cracked, “She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism.” TYPICAL.
In 1936, she fell out of a moving car, damaging her spine. She never went a day without pain after that and became addicted to morphine. She died after falling down the stairs (her body wasn’t discovered for eight hours).
Millay no longer stands as a giant of 20th century poetry. However, many of the more important poets don’t have her fanbase. It’s not good or bad, just a fact. This is not “either/or.” When compared to the giants, she barely registers. But her love poems still speak to us, and her cries of pain or ecstasy still sound true. Some things are eternal.
I pray if you love me, bear my joy
A little while, or let me weep your tears;
I, too, have seen the quavering Fate destroy
Your destiny’s bright spinning — the dull shears
Meeting not neatly, chewing at the thread, —
Nor can you well be less aware how fine
How staunch as wire, and how unwarranted
Endures the golden fortune that is mine.
I pray you for this day at least, my dear,
Fare by my side, that journey in the sun;
Else must I turn me from the blossoming year
And walk in grief the way that you have gone.
Let us go forth together to the spring:
Love must be this, if it be anything.
Dorothy Parker, Paris Review interview:
“Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.”
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
She studied for a short time at Barnard College, then attended Vassar College, where as a young poet she baited the college authorities. When she dared the president to expel her, he explained that he didn’t want a “banished Shelley on my doorstep,” and she is supposed to have replied, “On those terms, I think I can continue to live in this hell hole.”
Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty:
In October 1934, Edna Millay read at Yale. A young graduate student, Richard Sewell, who forty years later would become the biographer of Emily Dickinson, never forgot the impression she made that night. Walking to the center of Woolsey Hall, wrapped in a long black velvet cloak, her bright hair shining, she “stood before us,” he remembered, “like a daffodil.” Looking at her wrist, she told the audience that the poems she was about to read were from her new book, Wine From These Grapes, “which is coming off the press just about now.” That night she read with the zeal of a young Jeremiah, her words burning the air as she closed her reading with a sonnet from ‘The Epitaph for the Race of Man’. Tickets for her readings were wildly sought whether she was in Oklahoma City or Chicago, where the hall seating 1,600 was sold out and even with standees an extra hall had to be taken for the overflow of another 800 who listened to her over amplifiers.”
Elizabeth Hardwick, “Anderson, Millay, and Crane In Their Letters”, 1953:
This world of nicknames, old jokes, little gifts flying through the mails is startlingly passionate. With friends too there is very often the same extraordinarily intimate style, the same devotion, fidelity, acceptance–and all the while we know Edna Millay was becoming more remote from everyone … and at last horribly alone in the country, cold, without even a telephone, dying miserably after a sleepless night. How is it possible with all this fraternal, familial feeling that the frantic, orphaned creature of the later years came into being? And how is it possible to begin with that this jolly, loving daughter and sister was in her most famous period in such violent result? Edna Millay seems to have had a wretched life, much more so than those persons whose earliest days were marked by a blighting, ambiguous relation to their families and later somewhat toward everyone. There is not anywhere a sadder story than this–the aching existence of this woman who loved and was loved by her family and friends, who, flaming youth and all, married only once and then, to all appearances, wisely. Even Emily Dickinson appears on happier ground in her upstairs bedroom.
Hart Crane, letter to a friend and fan of Millay:
She really has genius in a limited sense, and is much better than Sara Teasdale, Marguerite Wilsinson, Lady Speyer, etc., to mention a few drops in the bucket of feminine lushness that forms a kind of milky way in the poetic firmament of the time (likewise all times)–indeed I think she is every bit as good as Elizabeth Browning…I can only say I do not greatly care for Mme. Browning…With her equipment Edna Millay is bound to succeed to the appreciative applause of a fairly large audience. And for you, who I rather suppose have not gone into this branch of literature with as much enthusiasm as myself, she is a creditable heroine.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1949, on a planned satire of T.S. Eliot
Nothing coarse, obscene, as there sometimes is in the work of Auden and Pound, and nothing so silly as the childish horsing around of Eliot, when he is trying to be funny. He has no sense of humor, and so he is not a true Englishman. There is, I think, in these poems of mine against Eliot nothing which could be considered abusive; they are merely murderous.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
Here the diction is not archaic, but the slightly elevated tone, the movement of the syntax, and the use of the Shakespearean sonnet form place the poem in a tradition that goes back to the Victorian era and even the English Renaissance. The aesthetic distance is great between Millay’s poetry–personal in expression, traditional in form and technique–and the contemporary modernist innovations of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot.
Lena Dunbar, neighbor of the Millay family:
For instance, they had shades at their window and nothing else. I don’t think they cared much. Well, once they stenciled apple blossoms, painted that pattern down the sides of the window. Or, for instance, they had a couple of plum trees in their backyard, and they never waited for the plums to ripen, but would pick them green, put them in vinegar, and call them ‘mock olives.’ Well, no one else did that sort of thing in Camden, don’t you see?
Edward J. Wheeler, editor of “Current Literature”, on Edna’s poem ‘The Land of Romance’ – written when she was 14:
“The poem seems to us to be phenomenal.”
Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
In 1923, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry went not to The Waste Land but to two books and a sonnet sequence by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first woman to win the prize. Living in the then-bohemian Greenwich Village from 1917 to 1921, Millay wrote in fixed forms such as the sonnet and in diction close to the Romantics, but her poems capture “modern” sensibilities in that they mock prudence, encdorse ephemeral love, and flout conventional femininity.
Cora Millay on the birth of her first daughter, on George Washington’s birthday:
“We have named the little one Edna Vincent Millay. Don’t you think that is pretty? … the Vincent is for the ‘St. Vincent’ Hospital, the one that cared so well for our darling brother. Nell would have called it ‘Vincent’ if it had been a boy.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay on her first job as an actress in a traveling stock company:
“– oh, this was life! It was more than life, — it was art. I might pretend to myself [at home] as much and as long as I liked, — until the deep-vibrant note I had discovered in my voice … out-Hedda-ed Nazimova — yet was my native village unthrilled and unconvinced; I was asked to serve ice-cream at church socials, and the grocer-boy called me by name …”
Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, April 26th, 1962:
I think it would be a good idea to have mimeographed copies of the poems you speak of, to hand out…In general [the Brazilians] know Frost and Millay and E. Dickinson–Pound, Cummings–And Eliot, well.–He has been a great influence on some of them, like Vinicius de Moraes, in his early books (The “Black Orpheus” poet). (D. Thomas–yes–but they don’t really understand him.) Wallace Stevens, vaguely, and Marianne not at all–at least until I got here, and I certainly have done very little propagandizing.
Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:
Love poetry of the twentieth century is the most varied and sexually explicit since classical antiquity…Edna St. Vincent Millay is the first woman poet to claim a man’s sexual freedom: her sassy, cynical lyrics of Jazz Age promiscuity with anonymous men are balanced by melancholy love poems to women.
Elizabeth Hardwick, “Anderson, Millay, and Crane In Their Letters”, 1953:
She was sensible, moral, steadfast, a kind of prodigy–among her circle hardly anyone except Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop even rose to the second-rate. Not nearly enough was asked of her and she had no time to prepare herself for solitude–until it was too late. It is a tribute, a terrible one, to her possibilities and hopes that she was unable to enjoy the comforts of a strong, public position and split in two. Very few critics can find in Edna Millay’s poetry the power and greatness Wilson finds.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
Millay was seen in the 1920s and 1930s as a central figure of her generation, and though her reputation was greatly diminished by the time of her death, poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were still wrestling with her shadow in the 1950s.
Ferdinand Earle, 1912:
“The most astonishingly beautiful and original poem in The Lyric Year, the poem most arresting in its vision, the poem most like a wonderful Pre-Raphael painting, is surely Renascence by Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay. To me it almost unthinkable that a girl of twenty could conceive such a work and execute it with such vigor and tenderness … And it is with no small pride that I give it my first vote for the prizes.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“Please give me some good advice in your next letter. I promise not to follow it. ”
Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu, — farewell! — the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.
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