Edna St. Vincent Millay
|Born||February 22, 1892|
Rockland, Maine, US
|Died||October 19, 1950 (aged 58)|
Austerlitz, New York, US
|Pen name||Nancy Boyd|
|Alma mater||Vassar College|
|Notable awards||Pulitzer Prize for Poetry |
Robert Frost Medal
Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 - October 19, 1950) was an American lyrical poet and playwright.
Encouraged to read the classics at home, she was too rebellious to make a success of formal education, but she won poetry prizes from an early age, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, and went on to use verse as a medium for her feminist activism. She also wrote verse-dramas and a highly-praised opera, The King's Henchman. Her novels appeared under the name Nancy Boyd, and she refused lucrative offers to publish them under her own name.
Millay was a prominent social figure of New York City's Greenwich Village just as it was becoming known as a bohemian writer's colony, and she was noted for her uninhibited lifestyle, forming many passing relationships with both men and women. She was also a social and political activist and those relationships included prominent anti-war activists including Floyd Dell, editor of the radical magazine The Masses, and perhaps John Reed. She became a prominent feminist of her time; her poetry and her example, both subversive, inspired a generation of American women.
Her career as a poet was meteoric. In 1923 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize in poetry. She became a performance artist super-star, reading her poetry to rapt audiences across the country. 
A road accident in middle-age left her a partial invalid and morphine-dependent for years. Yet near the end of her life, she wrote some of her greatest poetry.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, to Cora Lounella Buzelle, a nurse, and Henry Tolman Millay, a schoolteacher who would later become a 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 and domestic abuse, but they had already been separated for some years. Henry and Edna kept a letter correspondence for many years, but he never re-entered the family. Cora and her three daughters - Edna (who called herself "Vincent"), Norma Lounella (born 1893), and Kathleen Kalloch (born 1896) - moved from town to town, living in poverty and surviving various illnesses. 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.
Millay entered Vassar College in 1913 when she was 21 years old, later than usual. Her attendance at Vassar became a strain to her due to its strict nature. Before she attended the college Millay had a liberal home life that included smoking, drinking, playing gin rummy, and flirting with men. Vassar, on the other hand, expected its students to be refined and live according to their status as young ladies. She had relationships with many fellow students during her time there and kept scrapbooks including drafts of plays written during the period. While at school, she had several relationships with women, including Edith Wynne Matthison, who would go on to become an actress in silent films.
After her graduation from Vassar in 1917, Millay moved to New York City. She lived in a number of places in Greenwich Village, including a house owned by the Cherry Lane Theatre and 75½ Bedford Street, renowned for being the narrowest in New York City. While in New York City, Millay lived an openly bisexual lifestyle. 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." While establishing her career as a poet, Millay initially worked with the Provincetown Players on Macdougal Street and the Theatre Guild. In 1924 Millay and others founded the Cherry Lane Theater "to continue the staging of experimental drama." Magazine articles under a pseudonym also helped support her early days in the Village. During her stay in Greenwich Village, Millay learned to use her poetry in her feminist activism. She often went into detail about topics others found taboo, such as a wife leaving her husband in the middle of the night.
Counted among Millay's close friends were 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. Millay had a way of wrapping men around her finger, even after she rejected them. Edmund Wilson, for example, spoke of her highly because Millay took his virginity but she rejected his advances and his marriage proposal. However, he remained a loyal friend.
Millay's fame began in 1912 when, at the age of 20, 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, wealthy arts patron 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's 1920 collection A Few Figs From Thistles drew controversy for its 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, after Sara Teasdale (1918) and Margaret Widdemer (1919).
Millay also wrote short stories for the magazine Ainslee's - but she was a canny protector of her identity as a poet and an aesthete, and insisted on publishing this more mass-appeal work under a pseudonym, Nancy Boyd. As her fame grew and she became a household name, the publisher of Ainslee's offered to double her fees if he could use her real name. She refused.
In January 1921, she went to Paris, where she met and befriended the sculptors Thelma Wood and Constantin Brancusi, photographer Man Ray, had affairs with journalists George Slocombe and John Carter, and became pregnant by a man named Daubigny. She secured a marriage license but instead returned to New England where her mother Cora helped induce an abortion with alkanet, as recommended in her old copy of ''Culpeper's Complete Herbal''. Possibly as a result, Millay was frequently ill and weak for much of the next four years.
After experiencing his remarkable attentions to her during her illness, 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 Millay's career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their 26-year marriage. For Millay, one such significant relationship was with the poet George Dillon, a student 14 years her junior, whom she met in 1928 at one of her readings at the University of Chicago. Their relationship inspired the sonnets in the collection Fatal Interview (published 1931).
In 1925, Boissevain and Millay bought Steepletop near Austerlitz, New York, which had once been a 635-acre (257 ha) blueberry farm. They 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. Later, they bought Ragged Island in Casco Bay, Maine, as a summer retreat. Frequently having trouble with the servants they employed, Millay wrote, "The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all."
In the summer of 1936, Millay was riding in a station wagon when the door suddenly swung open, and Millay "was hurled out into the pitch-darkness...and rolled for some distance down a rocky gully" The accident severely damaged nerves in her spine, requiring frequent surgeries and hospitalizations, at least daily doses of morphine. Millay lived the rest of her life in "constant pain". Despite this, she was sufficiently alarmed by the rise of fascism to write against it. During World War I, Millay had been a dedicated and active pacifist; however, in 1940 she advocated for the U.S. to enter the war against the Axis and became an ardent supporter of the war effort. She later worked with Writers' War Board to create propaganda, including poetry. Millay's reputation in poetry circles was damaged by her war work. 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 1942 in The New York Times Magazine, Millay mourned the destruction of the Czechoslovak town of Lidice. Nazi forces had razed Lidice, slaughtered its male inhabitants and scattered its surviving residents in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Millay wrote:
The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice,
Like the murdered body of a little child.
This article would serve as the basis of her 32-page poem, "Murder of Lidice", in 1942 and loosely served as the basis of the 1943 MGM movie Hitler's Madman. Douglas Sirk directed the movie. Harper and Brothers published the poem in 1942.
In 1943, Millay was the sixth person and the second woman to be awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry.
Despite the excellent sales of her books in the 1930s, her declining reputation, constant medical bills, and frequent demands from her mentally-ill sister Kathleen meant that for most of her last years, Millay was in debt to her own publisher. Author Daniel Mark Epstein also concludes from her correspondence that Millay developed a passion for thoroughbred horse-racing, and spent much of her income investing in a racing stable of which she had quietly become an owner.
Although her work and reputation declined during the war years, possibly because of a morphine addiction acquired following her accident, she subsequently sought treatment for it and was successfully rehabilitated, with some of her finest work dating from the post-war period. Boissevain died in 1949 of lung cancer, and Millay lived alone for the last year of her life. Her final collection of poems was published posthumously as the volume "Mine the Harvest". The title sonnet recalls her career:
Those hours when happy hours were my estate, --
Entailed, as proper, for the next in line,
Yet mine the harvest, and the title mine --
Those acres, fertile, and the furrows straight,
From which the lark would rise -- all of my late
Enchantments, still, in brilliant colours, shine,
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 suffered a heart attack following a coronary occlusion. She was 58 years old. She is buried alongside her husband at Steepletop, Austerlitz, New York.
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 the Millay Colony for the Arts on seven acres near the house and barn. After the death of her husband in 1976, Norma continued to run the program until her death in 1986.
At 17, the poet Mary Oliver visited Steepletop and became a close friend of Norma. Later she lived at Steepletop off-and-on 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, to add the land to a nearby state forest preserve. The proceeds of the sale were used by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society to restore the farmhouse and grounds and turn it into a museum. The museum opened to the public in the summer of 2010, and guided tours of Steepletop and Millay's gardens were available from the end of May through the middle of October. Effective November 2018 Steepletop closed to the public due to financial challenges and restoration needs. Fundraising efforts continue as do considerations for the future of this museum house. Parts of the grounds of Steepletop, including the Millay Poetry Trail that leads to her grave, are now open for occasional scheduled events.
Conservation of Millay's birthplace began in 2015 with the purchase of the double-house at 198-200 Broadway, Rockland, Maine. Built in 1891, Henry T. and Cora B. Millay were the first tenants of the north side, where Cora gave birth to her first of three daughters during a February 1892 squall. Identified as the Singhi Double House, the home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019 not as the poet's birthplace, but as a "good example" of the "modest double houses" that made up almost 10% of residences in the largely working-class seaside city between 1837 and the early 1900s. When fully restored by 2023, half the house will be dedicated to honoring Millay's legacy with workshops and classes, while the other half will be rented for income to sustain conservation and programs. A writer-in-residence will be funded by the Ellis Beauregard Foundation and the Millay House Rockland.
Millay lived in nearby Camden, Maine, beginning in 1900, where she is also memorialized. A statue of the poet stands in Harbor Park which shares with Mt. Battie the view of Penobscot Bay that opens "Renascence," the poem that launched Millay's career. Camden Public Library also shares Mt. Battie's view. It has the first couplets of "Renascence" inscribed along the perimeter of a large skylight: "All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood; / I turned and looked another way, / And saw three islands in a bay." The library's Walsh History Center collection contains the scrapbooks created by Millay's high school friend, Corinne Sawyer, as well as photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera.
Nancy Milford published a biography of the poet in 2001, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. Millay's sister, Norma Millay Ellis (then her only living relative), offered Milford access to the poet's papers based on her successful biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda. Milford also edited and wrote an introduction for a collection of Millay's poems called The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Milford wrote that "Millay was the first American figure to rival the personal adulation, frenzy even, of Byron, where the poet in his person was the romantic ideal. It was his life as much as his work that shocked and delighted his audiences. Edna Millay was the only American woman to draw such crowds to her. Her performing self made people feel they had seen the muse alive and just within reach."
Millay has been referenced in popular culture, and her work has been the inspiration for music and drama:
In 1972 the Poem 'Conscientious Objector' by Edna, was put to music by Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) on her album 'Morning Glory'.
In the 1975 The Waltons episode "The Woman", a female poet visiting the college attended by John Boy quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay, reciting "The 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"
In October 2020, Scottish harpist Maeve Gilchrist produced an album entitled The Harpweaver, that owes its origin to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver".
In 2021, Hildegard Publishing released Six Songs on Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972).
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!
from A Few Figs from Thistles (1920)
Millay wrote six verse dramas early in her career, including Two Slatterns and a King and The Lamp and the Bell, a poem written for Vassar College about love between women. She was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera House to write a libretto for an opera composed by Deems Taylor. The result, The King's Henchman, drew on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of Eadgar, King of Wessex, and was described as the most effectively and artistically wrought American opera ever to reach the stage. Within three weeks, her publishers had run through four editions of the book.
"Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare" (1922) is an homage to the geometry of Euclid. "Renascence" and "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" are often considered her finest poems. On her death, The New York Times described her as "an idol of the younger generation during the glorious early days of Greenwich Village [...] One of the greatest American poets of her time." Thomas Hardy said that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Richard Wilbur asserted, "She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century."