Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

The theme of individual liberty and the frank acknowledgment of emotion are ever-present in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems. She speaks as clearly for a democracy of persons, in whatever relationship, as Whitman does and with no hint of snobbery or elitism. She values the simple and common in nature; the reader never finds her straining after exotic effects. Millay is a realist in her expectations, and she refuses conventional romantic attitudes—a refusal that often results in the ironic tone of some of her love poems. It is not surprising that she acknowledged her fondness for Andrew Marvell, the poet of “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and “The Nymph’s Reply.”

Millay’s volumes of poetry contain no “major” poems that have entered the canon of literature in the way in which those of Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, or William Butler Yeats have. Her early volume, Renascence, and Other Poems, with its title poem written before she entered Vassar, may hold little interest for contemporary readers, although it was highly praised by Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine. Much of the strength of the other volumes lies in the sustained effect of sonnet sequences and collections of lyrics. There is evidence of growth, however uneven, in Millay’s development as a poet, as her work moves from the devil-may-care irony and unabashed emotion of the early poems to a more considered and mature production.

The one form in which Millay excelled is the sonnet, both Shakespearean and Petrarchan. She has been described as a transitional poet, and this is nowhere better borne out than in her control of a conventional and circumscribed form in which she was equally comfortable with traditional or modern subject matter and attitudes.

“Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare”

“Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare,” published in The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems, is an accomplished classical Petrarchan sonnet written early in Millay’s career. It takes as its subject the holy, dazzling beauty of pure form or idea available only to the Greek mathematician, Euclid, who perceived a pure beauty that has not been matched by the prattling of subsequent generations seeking imitations of beauty clothed in human form. The octave ends with a command to let the geese gabble and hiss (an allusion both to the use of geese as watchdogs in ancient times and to those who mistakenly cry out that they have sighted Beauty). The sestet presents a vivid description of the blinding and terrible light that Euclid bore when he “looked on Beauty bare,” suggesting that lesser men are fortunate that they have not seen Beauty whole, as it would be too much for them to bear. (In the sestet, the word “bare” has become an adjective of personification as well as one carrying its original meaning of “pure,” “unadorned.”) Lesser men are lucky if they have even once heard Beauty’s sandal on a distant rock; those seekers after Beauty who are not Euclids are doubly fortunate to have heard only a distant echo of Beauty’s step, for they could not have borne the blinding intensity of Euclid’s vision.

This sonnet is seemingly simple and straightforward. It is more complex than it first appears, however, for by the poet’s own personification of Beauty (now clothed, in sandals at least), she acknowledges herself to be one of those lesser mortals who followed Euclid. She ironically accepts her own conventional restrictions. Euclid’s vision is of “light anatomized,” not of Beauty in the traditional, personified female form.

Fatal Interview

Fatal Interview, the chronicling of a love affair from inception through intense passion to sad conclusion, represents Millay’s longest sustained sonnet sequence. The book’s title comes from John Donne’s sixteenth elegy in a series about a tragic affair, beginning, “By one first strange and fatal...

(The entire section is 1626 words.)