By Claire Keyes
(Originally published on WOMPO listserv Website circa 2000)
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Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in 1892 and died in Austerlitz, New York in 1950. She was raised by her divorced mother who worked nursing jobs and left “Vincent” (as she wished to be called) to care for her two younger sisters. Millay’s mother had asked her father to leave and he did not play a role in Vincent’s life, except when she achieved fame and he needed financial help. Left in charge of the house and her sisters, Millay still managed to do well in school, though no plans were made for her to attend college. Her mother encouraged her fledgling writing talents and, in 1912, Millay entered her poem “Renascence” in a contest. Though she didn’t win, she gained the recognition of a benefactor who paid her way to Vassar.
Her literary star continued to rise at Vassar and she published poetry, met editors and conducted an energetic love life. Her first book of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, was published in 1917. A Few Figs From Thistles appeared in 1920 and received much attention. She also composed plays for the Provincetown Players, among them Aria da Capo (1919). Petite and physically attractive, Millay championed the casual love affair in her lyrics: “I shall forget you presently my dear,/ So make the most of this, your little day.” She was charmingly outrageous and loved for it. The estimable Thomas Hardy considered her the best thing in the United States after the skyscrapers. Edmund Wilson, the leading literary critic of the time, praised her—and fell in love with her. Even though her poetic stance was considered radical for its time, her poetic forms were generally traditional. The formal aspects of Millay’s verse, especially her sonnets, brought her admiration but she didn’t do much to stretch literary boundaries, except in her subject matter. Millay’s later poetry demonstrates a developed social consciousness.
Published in 1922, The Harp Weaver and Other Poems won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. At the end of 1923, Millay married a Dutch businessman, Eugen Boissevain. He was devoted to her and nursed her through many an illness. In her later years, when she was seriously ill, he helped her get the drugs, including morphine, she needed. Theirs was an open marriage and they had no children. Eugen helped Millay conduct her love affairs and considered her brave and non-conformist. In his first marriage to a feminist who had died, he championed the kind of freedom in marriage that he and Millay also lived. She loved him and respected him.
Millay’s adult years were characterized by fame and amatory adventure, the admiration of many and the devotion of a loving, extraordinary man. Her illnesses and drug addiction, however, brought her misery and pain. Sadly, her husband died a year before she did. A recluse in her last years of life, she continued to write poetry; in her solitude she composed some of her strongest lyrics.
Entering a doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in the mid-70s, I knew that I wanted to specialize in American Women Poets. I was familiar with Dickinson and with contemporary poets: Levertov, Plath, Sexton, Bishop and Rich. I ended up writing my dissertation on Rich. David Porter, the Dickinson scholar and my advisor, directed me to get a sense of a literary tradition for women poets, so I dug in and gained some knowledge of Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley and any others I could locate. Aside from Dickinson, I couldn’t work up much interest in the 19th century women poets and I confess that I didn’t care much for (though I tried) Marianne Moore or H. D. in the early 20th century. Then I reread the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, particularly her “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” and I knew I had found a true precursor to the women poets who had shaped my consciousness.
Where Millay differs from poets like Levertov and Rich is that she’s consistently formal in her structures. She can write an elegant iambic pentameter line and build the requisite rhyme scheme for a sonnet-and still give us her own fresh voice. That voice is clearly the voice of a 20th century woman, insistently female, emotionally aware and intelligent. In the “Ungrafted Tree” sonnet sequence, the estranged wife of a dying man comes home to nurse him. She loves him no longer, but feels a sense of duty: “She gave her husband of her body’s strength,/ thinking of men, what helpless things they were . . . .” Writing these sonnets in the 1920s, Millay took for granted that a woman’s experience was subject matter for poetry at a time when male experience was considered the “universal” experience. Others had done the same, but perhaps none so consistently, honestly and directly. The poems are works of the imagination as well; Millay was neither married at the time nor living in rural isolation. Even so, she depicts her protagonist’s psychological journey to acceptance of her husband as an individual and as distinct from herself. In the last poem, the wife views her husband laid out by the undertaker and sees him “for once, not hers, unclassified.”
More recently, I have written a close analysis of Millay’s “Ragged Island,” a descriptive poem that expresses her deep connection to the Maine island in Casco Bay where she and her husband summered for many years. She paints a vivid seascape for her readers in a poem of chiseled clarity and formal devices. Nothing clutters the aspect of “Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach.” Millay stresses the importance of observing well in order for the island’s full effect to occur. The woman who wrote “Ragged Island” was not the darling of the New York literary world whose “candle burn[ed] at both ends.” Millay was aging and her speaker sheds worldly concerns such as achievement or ambition and instead seeks spiritual union. “Ragged Island” was published posthumously in 1954.
Millay is prized—when she gets recognized at all these days-for being the prototypical “modern girl”- –the Bridget Jones of Greenwich Village. She had lovers both male and female. When she married, she chose a man who, like herself, did not believe in marriage as “possession” of the other. She developed a drug habit and died alone after falling down a flight of stairs. Yet she could write daunting, courageous moving poems and deserves to be remembered as one of our foremothers.