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 entire section is 1890 words.)