Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Edna St. Vincent Millay was a symbol and spokeswoman for women’s sexual liberation, particularly during the Roaring Twenties, and continues to be regarded as a pioneering American feminist.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892. Her parents were divorced in 1900, and her strong-minded mother reared her three girls by working as a practical nurse. Cora Millay encouraged her daughters to be independent individualists like herself and supported any intellectual or artistic interest they displayed. Her mother’s example was the most important influence in Millay’s childhood; it was largely responsible for her uninhibited behavior and the autonomous attitude expressed in her writing.
Millay displayed musical talent at an early age. She took piano lessons for several years and planned on a musical career, but decided in favor of becoming a writer when her poem “Renaissance” was published in Lyric Year in 1912 and received enthusiastic praise. Her musical talent and musical education contributed to her remarkable sense of harmony and rhythm, which were the features of her poetry that made her celebrated during the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was also interested in drama as a young girl; this interest continued throughout her life and led to her writing a total of six dramatic works.
Millay was educated at Vassar College, one of the leading American institutions of higher education for women. She studied Latin, French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and German while continuing to write poetry and to act in amateur theatrical productions. When she was only twenty years old, she was already establishing a reputation as a writer. She experimented with all the literary forms she would work in for the rest of her life. Her first collection of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, was published in the fall of 1917.
The most significant event in Millay’s early life came when she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. The Village was considered by many to be the center of American intellectual and cultural life, and Millay responded to life there with enthusiasm. She met people whose names would become famous in American art and literature, including Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Day, Paul Robeson, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neill, and Edmund Wilson.
For many years, Millay had a hard time surviving financially. Despite these challenges, she was sustained by a zest for life, for nature, for beauty, for love, and for art that was expressed in all of her writing. She supported herself by turning out stories, light verse, and personal articles under the pen name of Nancy Boyd. She also did some professional acting, but received little pay.
The year 1923 was a turning point in her life. That year she became the first woman ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1923, Millay also was married to Eugen Jan Boissevain, a wealthy importer who adored her and was willing to provide her with financial security for the rest of her life.
Edna St. Vincent Millay will always be identified with the rebellious, hedonistic, iconoclastic, crusading, and often self-destructive spirit of the Roaring Twenties, the era when America came of age as a world power and a unique cultural force with its jazz, uninhibited dances, motion pictures, comic strips, bizarre slang, shocking feminine fashions, cheap mass-produced consumer goods, awesome skyscrapers, gaudy automobiles, potent cocktails made from bootleg gin and whiskey, and sometimes shocking plays and novels.
Millay was popular with men because of her beauty, wit, talent, and vivacious spirit. She had many love affairs, even after her marriage to the tolerant Boissevain, and wrote about them candidly in her poetry. She shared the hedonism of the 1920’s, believing that life is a short, essentially meaningless but endlessly fascinating phenomenon that should be lived to the fullest. Her most often-quoted lines are:
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 contrast to the flippant attitude Millay affected in much of her poetry, she was actually a studious and hard-working person. During her lifetime, she turned out an impressive body of work. In addition to her many volumes of poetry, she wrote six plays, including the widely popular Aria da Capo (1919) and the highly...
(The entire section is 1893 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Great fame and wealth were victories Edna St. Vincent Millay won over the hardships, neglect, and poverty of her childhood. The eldest of three daughters born to Henry and Cora Millay, she was named after St. Vincent’s Hospital, where Cora’s brother had just miraculously recovered from unconsciousness after being trapped in the hold of a ship for ten days without food or water. When Vincent, as her family called her, was only eight years old, her father left home, never to pay the five dollars a week in child support ordered after the divorce. That same year the three daughters nearly died of typhoid fever. Forced to eke out a living as a country nurse and a weaver of hair for wigs, Cora was gone for days at a time, leaving Vincent to care for herself and two sisters, Norma and Kathleen.
To relieve the loneliness and drudgery, when their loving mother was home she entertained the children with music and poetry, nurturing the talents that enabled Vincent to escape the domestic duties that deterred many women from independence and success. Millay later recalled the moment she fell in love with poetry. Turning the pages of her mother’s large volume of William Shakespeare’s plays, she was overwhelmed by Romeo’s death speech on Juliet’s beauty.
Such early experiences pointed the way to themes which she later explored in her poems: love and loss, nature and change, life and death, art and beauty, justice, equality, and the predicament of women in American society.
Her literary abilities surfaced in high school in Camden, Maine, where she edited the student newspaper and wrote some poems published in St. Nicholas Magazine. Then in 1911, on a visit to attend her ill father, she began “Renascence,” the poem which would make her famous. She submitted it to a contest sponsored by the New York publisher Mitchell Kennerley. Although she did not win the prize, the poem’s publication in The Lyric Year (1912) attracted the attention of famous poets and literary critics.
Millay was offered a scholarship to Smith College, but she went to Vassar instead because its student body was more diverse, with women from around the world. There she acted in school plays, wrote a drama called The Princess Marries the Page (1932), and earned a bachelor’s degree, though she was barred from the graduation ceremony in 1917 for persistently breaking the college’s rules.
Next she traveled to Greenwich Village, where she joined the Provincetown Players and met Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, editors of a radical...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
From the rugged quarry of her own life Millay hewed verbal gems of wisdom which teach modern youths the hard truths about life and love. She was the spokeswoman of her generation, and her poetry epitomized the new sensibility of the era, yet her voice speaks to all people for all time. Her spirit and her artistic achievement have been compared to the greatest women, and men, who ever wrote, from Sappho to Shakespeare. Among American poets, she ranks with Emily Dickinson, though in some respects they were of different temperaments; Dickinson, poet of the unlived life; Millay, poet of the exact opposite.
Though Millay’s literary talent ripened in youth, it grew ever brighter with age. She became more outspoken as she penetrated more deeply the follies of twentieth century people and nations. Her faith in freedom, personal as well as political, never faltered. She delighted in the vigorous pursuit of happiness and the fearless expression of one’s own individuality. In the face of the rigid conventions of her day, she championed the rights of women to do the same.
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Although Edna St. Vincent Millay is not usually thought of as a New England poet, she was born in Maine and spent the first twenty years of her life there, most of them in Camden, where her mother moved with her three young girls after a divorce in 1900. Millay and her sisters were encouraged to develop their musical and poetic talents and to read widely in the classics and in English and American literature. Millay’s mother supported the family by working as a nurse, and from her example, Millay learned early the independence and self-reliance that were to influence her poetry. She learned to value and trust her personal voice, leading many of her readers to search her poems for the details of her personal life that they were...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Edna St. Vincent Millay was the daughter of Cora Buzzell and Henry Millay. Cora divorced Henry for physical abuse and compulsive gambling when Millay was eight years old. Vincent, as she was called, grew up in Camden, Maine, with her mother and two younger sisters. Because Henry rarely sent them money, Cora had to support them by her meager earnings as a practical nurse and as a maker of women’s hairpieces. After graduating from high school, Millay stayed home and worked in Camden to take care of her sisters. The publication of “Renascence” brought her to the attention of Caroline Dow, dean of the YWCA Training School of New York City, who enabled her to attend Vassar. There she acted in several theatrical productions and...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Despite the intricacies of its rhetoric, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (mihl-AY) speaks directly and intensely of the emotions. Her work both inspired and shocked the generation to whom she first became a symbol of female freedom. Born to a nurse, Cora Lounella, and Henry Tolman, a schoolteacher, Vincent Millay (as she was known to her family) began writing verse in adolescence and won several poetry prizes from St. Nicholas magazine. At the age of nineteen she composed her first mature poem, “Renascence,” which was published in The Lyric Year in 1912 and warmly admired by the poet Arthur Davison Ficke. Millay’s romantic attachment to Ficke subsequently gave rise to some of her best and most tender...
(The entire section is 500 words.)