Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most respected American poets of the 20th century. She was both a poet and a playwright and was well-known for her passionate readings and feminist views. Her diverse body of work included plays, articles, and stories, along with her poems.
She was born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine into a world with rigid expectations for women who were expected to marry, have children, maintain a home, and keep their views to themselves. Millay flaunted every expectation and snubbed every convention and became one of the world’s most influential female poets to write in English. Millay would spend her life using her poetry to define a female aesthetic that espoused liberation, polyamory, and fierce self-definition. She was essentially the embodiment of the ‘New Woman.’
Millay, known to her family and friends as ‘Vincent,’ refused to be defined. She loved both women and men, frequently fell in and out of intense love and somehow maintained multiple relationships at the same time. Her poetic works challenged traditional boundaries and definitions, and controversially asserted that women not only had a right to pleasure but no obligation to fidelity.
Edna Vincent Millay’s mother was a nurse and her father a schoolteacher. Her middle name came from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, where her uncle’s life had been saved just before her birth. Her parents divorced early on and her fiercely independent mother, with her 2 younger sisters, moved from town to town, living in poverty for a time and surviving various illnesses. Millay’s mother always traveled with a truck full of classic literature, such as Shakespeare and Milton, which she read to and had her children read. She also encouraged her daughters to write poems, stories, and songs.
Music was almost as important to Edna St. Vincent Millay as her poetry and throughout her life she delighted in playing and singing songs she had written and practicing classical pieces she had learned in early childhood. She often invited other musicians to join her in a duet, trio, or quartet. She initially hoped to become a concert pianist, but because her teacher insisted her hands were too small, she directed her energies to writing songs and poetry.
Eventually, the family settled in a small house in Camden, Maine where Edna St. Vincent Millay would write the first of the poems that would bring her literary fame. She began developing her literary talents at Camden High school. From the age of 14 she was winning accolades for her poetry and was having her poetry published in a Children’s magazine, the Camden Herald, and others.
In 1912, her mother happened on an announcement of a poetry contest sponsored by ‘The Lyric Year,’ a proposed annual anthology. She entered her poem, ‘Renascence,’ in the contest. It portrays the transformation of a soul and that the dimensions of one’s life are determined by sympathy of heart and elevation of soul.
Her poem was considered by many the best submission (out of 10,000 entries), but when it was ultimately awarded fourth place, it created a scandal which brought Millay publicity. The first place winner felt hers was the best poem and the second prize winner offered her his prize money. Shortly after, a wealthy arts patron was impressed by her talent and offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College.
Edna St. Vincent Millay entered Vassar College after taking preparatory courses at Barnard in the summer of 1913 at the age of 21.
The strict nature of the college made life difficult for her. The expectation was that its students would be refined and live according to their status as young ladies. This was the opposite of the liberal home life she had had that included smoking, drinking, playing gin rummy, and flirting with men.
It was at Vassar that she had relationships with many of her fellow students, including several relationships with women. As expected, she often broke rules and often found herself before the president for disciplinary action more than once.
Millay moved to New York City in 1917 after graduating from Vassar. She became a prominent social figure of New York City’s Greenwich Village at the time when it was becoming known as a bohemian writers' colony. She was well noted for her uninhibited lifestyle.
While living in New York City, Millay lived an openly bisexual lifestyle. During her stay in Greenwich Village, Millay learned to use her poetry in her feminist activism. She often went into detail about usually taboo topics, such as a wife leaving her husband in the middle of the night.
In 1919, she wrote what was considered to be an anti-war play ‘Aria da Capo. ‘ Since its first production it has remained a popular staple of the poetic drama.
She also wrote short stories for the magazine 'Ainslee’s' under the pen name, Nancy Boyd. These stories mainly concerned writers and artists who had adopted the Greenwich Village attitudes of anti-materialism, approval of nude bathing, general flouting of conventions and a Jazz Age spirit of mad gaiety. Her 1920 collection, ‘A Few Figs From Thistles,’ drew controversy for its exploration of female sexuality and feminism.
In 1920, her poems began to appear in 'Vanity Fair,' a magazine with an air of sophistication. An editor made note of the intensity with which she responded to every experience of life. Unfortunately, that intensity seemed to use up her physical resources. As the year went on, she suffered increasing fatigue and fell victim to a number of illnesses. Fortunately, she received an offer from the magazine to go to Europe on a regular salary and write as she pleased under either her own name or as Nancy Boyd, her favorite pen name.
In 1921, Edna St. Vincent Millay went to Paris where she met and befriended sculptors, photographers, and journalists, many of whom she had affairs with.
She also got pregnant but returned to New England where her mother helped her induce an abortion using the herb alkanet. The fact that she was often ill and weak for much of the next four years may have been a result of the abortion.
In 1923, she married Eugen Boissevain, a wealthy Dutch businessman, who had nursed her through her various illnesses. Their marriage was open by consent and they both had other lovers throughout their 26 years of marriage.
Boissevain gave up his own pursuits to manage Millay’s literary career, setting up the readings and public appearances for which Millay grew famous. Bouissevain described himself as a feminist and took on the bulk of the domestic duties as well.
In the same year she was married, at the age of 31, Edna St. Vincent Millay became only the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,’ a haunting story of a poor mother and her son. The poem has so endured that nearly 80 years later, Johnny Cash would recite its chilling lines. It was dedicated to her mother.
In 1925, Millay and Boissevain bought a large former blueberry farm near Austerlitz, NY, approximately 40 miles southeast of Albany, NY. They named it ‘Steepletop.’ On it they built a barn, a writing cabin, and a tennis court. Millay even grew her own vegetables in a small garden. She had wanted to Leave Manhattan because she felt it was too exciting there. Although it gave her lots of things to write about, she felt she needed to go away to write where it would be quiet.
At Steepletop, Millay created a body of work that included not only poetry and prose but a full-scale and very successful operatic libretto, 'The King’s Henchman,’ in 1927.
The life and death, growth and decay of nature served Edna St. Vincent Millay as an organizing principle both in her writing and in her life. Steepletop became her sanctuary. Boissevain considered that his mission in the marriage was to protect her from mundane tasks that would distract her from writing poetry.
In the summer of 1936, she was riding in a station wagon when the door suddenly swung open and she was hurled out and rolled for some distance down a rocky gully. The result was severely damaged nerves in her spine requiring frequent surgeries and hospitalizations, and resulting in neurotic fears, and the need for a daily dose of morphine. She lived the rest of her life as a partial invalid and in constant pain.
Despite her injuries, Millay was alarmed enough by the rise of fascism that she began to write against it. She had been a pacifist in WWI but in 1940 she advocated for the US to enter the war and she became an ardent supporter of the war effort. She worked with Writers’ War Board to create propaganda and poetry. But her reputation in poetry was damaged by her war works because they were considered largely hysterical and vituperative.
Millay wrote the 32 page poem called ‘The Murder of Lidice’ in 1942 about the destruction of the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice by the Nazis. It was used as the basis of the 1943 movie ‘Hitler’s Madman’ and was published by Harper& Brothers in 1942.
Sales of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s books were very good in the 1930s but her declining reputation, constant medical bills, and frequent demands from her mentally-ill sister, Kathleen, meant the she was in debt to her publisher. Unfortunately, she had also developed a passion for thoroughbred horse-racing as well and she ended up spending much of her income investing in a racing stable.
1942- Her husband lost everything because of the war.
1943-Millay was the 6th person and the second woman to be awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American Poetry.
1944–Millay suffered a nervous breakdown, apparently from the strain of composing hastily written pieces against deadlines, and was unable to write for a long time.
1949-Eugen Boissevain died of a stroke following the removal of a lung because of cancer. After his death, Millay suffered greatly, drank recklessly, and had to be hospitalized. She never stopped writing even towards the end of her life when she turned to drinking and became addicted to morphine to soothe her pain. Her last book of poems was written in the year before her death but did not appear until four years after her death.
1950-Edna St. Vincent Millay died of a heart attack at her home on October 19, 1950 at 58 years old. She was buried alongside her husband at Steepletop.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most skillful writers of sonnets in the 20th century, much like her contemporary Robert Frost. They were both able to combine modern attitudes with traditional forms, creating a unique American poetry.
Millay portrayed frankly both hetero and homosexuality and successfully described new kinds of female experience and expression. As a humorist and satirist, she was able to express the postwar feelings of young people with their rebellion against tradition and their mode of freedom symbolized for many women by bobbed hair.
Her poem that included the line ‘My candle burns at both ends’ was taken up as catchphrase of the young people of that era and her poems often reflected on the desire to rebel against the constraints granted to women’s voices in literature and in life. She also was able to set a new and shocking precedent by acknowledging female sexuality as a viable literary subject.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was an extraordinary poet but her work has often been overshadowed by her unconventional reputation. She was called a party girl poet, a sexually adventurous bisexual, and a morphine addict. By the 1960s, the romantic poetry of Millay and the other women poets of her generation was largely ignored.
Eventually, however, the growing spread of feminism revived an interest in her writings and she has once again gained recognition as a highly gifted writer who upheld freedom and individualism, championed radical, idealistic humanist tenets, and held broad sympathies and a deep reverence for life.
Any poetry today can be published online with ease, shared on social media, and read on mobile phones and has thus become increasingly popular with teenagers and millennials. A new generation of female poets has attracted millions of online followers and an increasingly diverse audience.
Poetry can help young people especially, because they are in a age when it is very difficult to articulate how they are feeling, especially with the advent of the Pandemic. The confusion and loneliness is so prevalent. Finding something in a poem that you may be feeling can be a liberating experience. The poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay were the foundation for the wide range of poems written by the women poets of today.
Steepletop is now listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and is now the home of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society.
Steepletop is not currently open to visitors, but occasional events may be held to raise much-needed funds. If you are interested in learning more, please consider following the society on Facebook or check back on their Events page to keep up-to-date on happenings which may interest you.
Please click here for the Poetry Foundation website to peruse the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. You will not be disappointed!