Millay matured artistically at an early age and devoted her whole life to the conscientious exercise of her literary gift. A supremely lyrical poet, she wrote brief verses charged with feeling. Readers of her poetry find themselves overhearing, as it were, the passionate declarations and confessions of a plain, honest person with whom they can easily identify. Millay found a voice all her own: witty, insightful, straightforward, clear as a whistle, familiar and yet formal. She uses witty rhymes, well modulated assonance and alliteration, and finely crafted phrases with perfect diction. Outspoken in her advocacy of personal individuality and social justice, Millay expressed the post-Victorian morality of the Jazz Age in the traditional vocabulary and verse forms of the former era.
Written when she was nineteen years old, the poem that established her fame, “Renascence,” is a Wordsworthian song of praise to the infinite unseen power in nature and its connection to the human spirit. “The soul can split the sky in two,” she cries, “And let the face of God shine through.” Romantic joy proceeds from freedom; Millay celebrated that credo from the beginning to the end of her career. Ever true to the ideals of high Romanticism, Millay worships the transient yet transcendent beauty of nature. She was season-wise, attuned to the vagaries of nature’s changing forces and forms. Without a specific theology or religion, she worships the eternal made manifest in the temporal realm. “Euclid alone,” she averred, “has looked on Beauty bare.” The poet praises abstract beauty, for while others have delighted in beautiful things aplenty, only the original genius of geometry has reached all the way to the abstract essence of beauty, “nothing, intricately drawn nowhere.” This idealistic Romanticism was, nonetheless, in her renditions, realistic. She could find beauty in the toad or the slimy marsh no less than in sunset or flower.
Her modern wisdom could accommodate impermanence, loss, and change. Conservatives were shocked by her condoning infidelity in love, but it was essential to her philosophy of life. A lover should delight in the happiness of a day, or a month, or a half of a year, without allowing rancor or remorse to spoil the rest of the relationship. The heart must learn what the head knows, that love may not last. It surely cannot outlast the freedom in which it was born, even if the chains are forged by a religious vow of marriage.
Therein lay the conundrum at the core of Millay’s life and literary work. The stance of a libertine is difficult, especially for a woman of that era. How could a woman, no matter how talented, escape from male domination and the inert cultural expectation that women serve as vessels to bear and nurture the ensuing generations? Attempts to live free from the customary constraints were met with ridicule, humiliation, and even assault. So, for a woman who would devote her life to poetry, the predicament was particularly acute. In her life, Millay found a successful solution to this problem in her open marriage with a loving and supportive husband. In her poetry and prose, she demands for a woman the same liberty as a man enjoys to create an independent, radiant identity of one’s own.
Millay’s passion for liberty was artistically united with a passion for order, as her preference for and mastery of traditional forms of poetry attest. Her brief lyrics compress passion to maximum intensity. Especially in the sonnet she found a verse form that can effectively impose order upon turbulent emotion and render it understandable. The sonnet’s fourteen iambic lines give a poet the room to develop a thought, and they lend a regular rhythm to her utterance. As well as any poet, Millay mastered the Shakespearean sonnet with its three cross-rhymed quatrains and a bombastic closing couplet.
Although Millay hit her artistic stride early and found fame in youth, she fell out of favor with literary critics because she was modern without being a modernist. She did, occasionally, experiment with blank verse and free verse, but she did not adhere to the program of modernist contemporaries who rejected traditional poetry and sentimental verse. Her humor, optimism, whimsy, compassion, musicality, and way of revealing herself confounded the principles of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, the New Critics, and other modernists whose preferences shaped the judgment of mid-twentieth century literary critics and anthologists. The New Oxford Book of American Verse (1976) did not include a single one of her poems.
Since that time Millay’s artistic reputation has been revived, and, by more sympathetic academicians and the general public, she is regarded as something of an oasis in the wasteland of modernism. She has been studied as a force that advanced the congeries of various...
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