Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890
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 original Conversation at Midnight (1937), a great many short stories, essays and sketches, and collaborated on Flowers of Evil (1936), an English translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857). She also carried on an extensive correspondence and was always in demand for readings and lectures all over the United States. She frequently complained that importunate strangers made such demands on her time with requests for advice and criticism that they prevented her from turning out even more original work.
Millay was one of the most popular American poets of all time. Critic Louis Untermeyer explained the reason for the success of her poetry as follows: “Plain and rhetorical, traditional in form and unorthodox in spirit, it satisfied the reader’s dual desire for familiarity and surprise.”
Millay received an honorary doctorate from New York University and another from Colby College in 1937, and in 1940 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. After the 1930’s, however, her reputation faded because literary tastes were changing. The Great Depression of the 1930’s, World War II in the 1940’s, and the Cold War which followed all made the cavalier tone of much of the art of the 1920’s seem hopelessly trivial and irrelevant.
Highly influential Modernist critics and poets such as T. S. Eliot were totally out of sympathy with romanticists such as Millay, who wrote personal, lyrical poetry addressed to the general reader. Modernists generally felt that poetry should sound almost like conversation. Hostile critics pointed out that Millay often used unnatural constructions purely for the sake of rhyme or meter. An example can be drawn from the opening lines of one of her most famous poems:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
The natural way of expressing the thought contained in the last three lines might be: “A quiet pain stirs in my heart for forgotten lads who will never turn to me again at midnight with a cry.” This change, however, would destroy the rhyme and meter entirely.
After her husband’s death in 1949, Millay continued living at their rural retreat in upstate New York and went on working in increasing loneliness and solitude until her death of a heart attack on October 19, 1950.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s greatest impact came as a result of her outspoken advocacy of sexual freedom for women. She shocked American by repudiating the so-called “double standard” both in her writings and in her personal life. The double standard, which had existed since time immemorial, was tolerant of men’s sexual experimentation, but expected women to be chaste, monogamous, and virtually asexual. Millay was responsible for challenging social restrictions and prejudices against women’s freedom of self-expression. She ignored the boundaries of conventional subject matter for women writers, and revealed the range of depth of the feminine character.
As a poet, Millay was influenced by the style and subject matter found in works by the English Cavalier poets of the seventeenth century, particularly by Andrew Marvell. Yet sexual freedom was only one part of the total freedom that women of Millay’s generation were demanding. Millay’s flippant, sophisticated poetry—so modern and yet so reminiscent of the Cavaliers—conveyed the implicit message that the subject of sex could be amusing and was not necessarily the fire-and-brimstone affair that had been traditionally made of it. The rigid self-censorship that had always existed in the publishing world began to relax with the evolution of public opinion.
Millay, although never a militant feminist, was in wholehearted sympathy with the women’s rights movement. She belonged to Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, which agitated for woman suffrage and later for an Equal Rights Amendment, but Millay did not participate in demonstrations. Her unique contribution to feminism was in assuming she already possessed the rights other women were fighting to obtain.
Millay was not cut out to be a follower or crusader; when she tried writing propaganda poems during World War II, she was unsuccessful and injured her literary reputation. She will always be remembered as a courageous individualist; she contributed more by her personal example than by marching or passing out leaflets. Writing about her shortly after her death, John Ciardi summarized her career in the following words: “It was not as a craftsman nor as an influence, but as the creator of her own legend that she was most alive for us. Her success was as a figure of passionate living.”
Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1982. An excellent study of Millay full of valuable reference material. Discusses some of her most important works in a scholarly but not overly difficult manner. Part of Twayne’s excellent United States Authors series. Contains many pages of endnotes, a chronology, and an annotated bibliography.
Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village. University: University of Alabama Press, 1975. A psychological biography of Millay focusing on her liberated lifestyle and relationships with men during her days of experimentation with free love in Greenwich Village. Contains a good bibliography of books, articles, and interviews.
Daffron, Carolyn. Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This short biographical and critical study, part of the American Women of Achievement series, was written especially for young readers. Contains many photographs and direct quotations from Millay’s poetry. Daffron does a good job of making younger readers appreciate the political and intellectual climate of Millay’s time.
Gurko, Miriam. Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1962. This biography is addressed to readers of high school age. It does an effective job of bringing Millay to life as a real person—idealistic, contradictory, romantic, rebellious. Analyzes the role she played in the intellectual and cultural life of the early twentieth century. Contains excellent bibliography.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Collected Poems. Edited by Norma Millay. New York: Harper & Bros., 1956. This large volume contains a selection of poems representing Millay’s range of subject matter and technical versatility, drawn from many of her previously published volumes.
Millay, Edna St. Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Edited by Allan Ross Macdougall. New York: Harper & Bros., 1952. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. A generous selection of letters written to Millay’s many friends, acquaintances and admirers from earliest childhood until the last days of her life. Extensively footnoted.
Sheean, Vincent. The Indigo Bunting: A Memoir of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper & Bros., 1951. Written by a personal friend who was himself a noted journalist, biographer, and novelist, this sensitively written memoir focuses on Millay’s life at Steepletop during the 1940’s and her long interest in birds and bird imagery.