Bookish Birthdays: Edna St. Vincent Millay

22nd Feb 2013

Bookish Birthdays: Edna St. Vincent Millay
‘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!’

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on February 22, 1892, in Rockland, Maine. Her mother, Cora Buzzelle, was a nurse, and Millay took her middle name from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, where her uncle’s life had been saved shortly before her birth.

She was known as ‘Vincent’ and had two younger sisters. Her father, Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher, left the family home early on. Cora finally divorced him in 1904. She worked long hours to support her daughters, encouraging them to read classical literature, and to be outspoken and independent.

After several years of uncertainty, the Millays settled in Camden, Maine. In 1912, Vincent’s first great poem, ‘Renascence’, was published in a major anthology. On hearing Vincent read her poetry, YWCA education officer Caroline B. Dow offered to pay for her college tuition.

After graduating from Vassar in 1917, Millay published her first collection. She moved to New York and discovered the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village, where she supported herself by writing for Vanity Fair.

She also wrote several verse dramas, staged at the Provincetown Playhouse, now considered ‘the birthplace of modern American theatre.’

Her second poetry collection, A Few Figs From Thistles (1920), made waves with its frank depiction of female sexuality. The Harp Weaver was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Millay was a romantic, and her poetic style was traditional – but her life was defiantly modern...That year, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, and they bought a 635 acre farm, Steepletop, near Austerlitz, New York, transforming it into a creative idyll. A successful importer, Boissevain was also pro-feminist, and fully supportive of his wife’s career.

In 1927, Millay became involved in the Sacco-Venzetti Case, in which two Italian anarchists were executed for two murders during a robbery in Massachusetts. The evidence was shaky, and many believed the convictions were politically motivated.

This international scandal became the subject of one of Millay’s most powerful poems, ‘Justice Denied in Massachusetts’, published in The Buck in the Snow (1928.)

During the 1930s, she published further collections, and collaborated with poet George Dillon.

Millay’s 1939 collection, Huntsman, What Quarry?, revealed her grave anxieties about the rise of fascism in Europe. Renouncing her former pacifism in 1940, she wrote verse praising the British and French resistance.

Many critics felt that the wartime Millay had lost her radical edge, though her narrative poem, The Murder of Lidice (1942), is now considered among her finest works.

‘The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice,
Like the murdered body of a little child,
Innocent, happy, surprised at play.’

In 1944, Millay suffered a nervous breakdown, and was unable to write for two years, during which time she was cared for by her husband. Boissevain died of lung cancer in 1949, and a bereft Millay drank heavily for the last year of her life. She died of a heart attack on October 19, 1950, after falling downstairs.

Her sister, Norma Millay Ellis, founded the Millay Colony for the Arts in 1973, where, among others, the poet Mary Oliver resided for many years. In 2010, a public museum was opened, and Millay’s legacy has also inspired the singer-songwriter, St. Vincent.

Because of her romantic themes, Millay is too often excluded from the (mostly male) Modernist canon. Her style may have been traditional – she was renowned for her sonnets – but the content, like her life, was defiantly modern.

Millay’s Collected Poems (and numerous selections) are still in print, and her letters and plays have been published. A number of her recorded readings can be heard on YouTube. She is the subject of several literary biographies, including Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty, and Daniel Mark Epstein’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.

Tara Hanks