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About Edna St. Vincent Millay


millay.gif (20549 bytes)Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was born in Rockland, Maine. Her parents, Cora Lounella, a nurse, and Henry Tolman Millay, a schoolteacher, divorced when she was about eight; "Vincent" stayed with her mother. In 1917 she graduated from Vassar, published Renascence and Other Poems (the title piece had won her recognition in 1912), and took the lead in her own play The Princess Marries the Page (published in 1932). She played in it again and directed it for the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village in 1918. [Provincetown also produced two of Millay’s other plays,] Aria da Capo and Two Slatterns and a King. Meanwhile she earned her living with pseudonymous magazine sketches [published under the name Nancy Boyd and] collected in Distressing Dialogues in 1924. With the frank and cynical love poetry of A Few Figs From Thistles in 1920 [containing "First Fig," one of Millay’s most well known and widely quoted poems], and Second April in 1921, Edna St. Vincent Millay was hailed as the voice of her generation, embodiment of the New Woman. After two years in Europe as a correspondent for Vanity Fair, she married Eugene Jan Boissevain in 1923; [Millay had earlier] devoted a sonnet to the memory of his first wife, her suffragist idol Inez Milholland. [In 1923 she also] became the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, for Ballad of the Harp Weaver. At the height of her popularity she joined a writer’s crusade to stay the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927; she commemorated their end in five poems, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts", "Hangman’s Oak", "The Anguish", "To Those Without Pity", and "Wine from These Grapes" (collected in The Buck in the Snow in 1928). After more volumes of lyrics came a joint translation [with George Dillon] of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal in 1936; Conversation at Midnight, a dramatic verse colloquoy showing her increasing political awareness, in 1937; and Huntsman, What Quarry? in 1939 (which included six elegiac poems to her close friend Elinor Wylie, who died in 1928). [With the approach and onset of World War II, Millay became increasingly alarmed at the rise of fascism in Europe, and participated in a number of public forums promoting US preparedness and involvement. She also published] Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook in 1940, which consisted of "poems for a world at war." [Millay wrote] The Murder of Lidice, her 1942 radio play, at the request of the Writer’s War Board. Collected Lyrics, Collected Sonnets, and Collected Poems appeared in 1939, 1941, and 1956. Millay’s letters (located at Vassar and elsewhere) were published in 1952, [edited by her close friend Allan Ross MacDougal. Millay died at her home, Steepletop, in Austerlitz, New York in October, 1950.]

From The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. Virginia Blain, Isobel Grundy, and Patricia Clements, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

 Ann Douglas

Floyd Dell in Love in Greenwich Village (1923)… writes about Edna St. Vincent Millay as "It" in the Village; so does Edmund Wilson in his extraordinary and just homage, "Edna St. Vincent Millay" (1952), included in The Shores of Light.

We still await a full and up-to-date biography of Millay; although sometimes inaccurate and virtually silent on her bisexuality and alcoholism, Miriam Gurko, Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1962) and Norman Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1967) are useful. The memoirs by two of her friends, Vincent Sheehan, The Indigo Bunting (1952), and Max Eastman, Great Companions: Critical Memoirs of Some Famous Friends (1959) are candid and insightful.

From Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995.

 Edmund Wilson

…I had found, when I had come into contact with the formidable strength of character that lay behind [Millay’s] attractiveness and brilliance, something as different as possible from the legend of her Greenwich Village reputation, something austere and even grim. She… had grown up in small Maine towns. I heard her speak of her father only once. He and her mother had not lived together since the children were quite small, and her mother, who had studied to be a singer, supported them by district nursing.… They were poor; the mother was away all day, and the three girls were thrown much on themselves. To Edna, her sisters and her poetry and her music must have been almost the whole of life.… By her precocious and remarkable poem, Renascence, written when she was hardly nineteen, she had attracted… the attention of Miss Caroline B. Dow, the New York head of the National Training School of the YWCA, who raised the money to send [Millay] to college. She did not graduate, therefore, till she was twenty-five, when she at last emerged into the freedom of a world where her genius and beauty were soon to make her famous, to bring all sorts of people about her, with an intellect and a character that had been developed in solitude and under the discipline of hard conditions.… It was this tough intellectual side combined with her feminine attraction that [later, in Greenwich Village] made her such an attraction, and persuaded so many men that they had found their ideal mate. She was quite free from the blue-stocking’s showing-off, but she did have a rather schoolmarmish side – which wrapped [Vincent] Sheean’s knuckles when he put out a cigarette in his coffee cup.

Edmund Wilson, "Epilogue, 1952: Edna St. Vincent Millay," in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the 1920s and 1930s. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1952.

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