Best known for her poetic chronicles of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, Millay's work opened a range of new subject matter to women authors. Her writings also helped popularize a new, more liberated way of life for women in the 1920s and 1930s. Though Millay's content was considered radical for its time, the style of most of her poetry is formal, employing traditional meter and rhyme schemes. She has frequently been deemed one of the most accomplished sonneteers of the twentieth century. Several critics have asserted that Millay's devotion to traditional forms, combined with her move to more philosophical and political subjects in her later verse prompted her work to fall from favor in the mid-twentieth century, but increasing attention has been focused on her poetry in recent decades, particularly by feminist critics.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine. At the age of eight, her parents divorced. Millay and her two sisters remained with their mother who encouraged Millay's artistic inclinations. Millay began composing verse during her childhood, and several of her poems appeared in the children's magazine St. Nicholas. She was first noted as a poet at age twenty when her poem "Renascence" was published in the anthology The Lyric Year. With a scholarship obtained partly through the notoriety she gained from the poem, Millay attended Vassar College, where she studied literature and theater and created a stir by rebelling against the school's code of conduct. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Millay lived in Greenwich Village, where she continued to write and worked as an actress. During this period, she gained a reputation as a free-spirited and rebellious social figure whose poetry reflected her celebration of love and life. Her image and verse proved extremely popular, and by the early 1920s she was among the best-known female poets in the world.
In 1923, following a psychological collapse and a two-year sojourn in Europe, Millay published The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. That same year she married Eugen Boissevain, and the couple bought a farmstead in Austerlitz, New York, where they lived the rest of their lives. Beginning in the late 1920s, Millay became increasingly involved in political issues, initially campaigning against social injustices and later warning of the growing militarism of Nazi Germany, both of which were addressed in her poetry. In 1944 Millay suffered a second psychological breakdown, and stopped writing for several years. Her final volume, Mine the Harvest, was completed shortly prior to her death following a fall down the stairs at her home in 1950. The work was published posthumously in 1954.
Millay's first entrance into the literary world occurred in 1912 with the poem "Renascence," an exploration of spirituality as revealed in nature. The poem's tetrameter couplets signaled Millay's devotion to traditional poetic forms, which she maintained throughout most of her career. With A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) and Second April (1921), both published in the wake of World War I, Millay emerged as the poetic spokesperson of the Jazz Age. Her brash, flippant, and witty poems from this period evoke women who live and love freely, valuing passion and adventure over long-term relationships. The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, published in 1923, continued to focus on similar themes. One of the most noted is the untitled sonnet that begins "I, being born a woman and distressed," wherein the female speaker dismisses her lover after an impromptu coupling. The volume also considers other topics, such as the sequence "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" which features the story of a woman who returns to care for her estranged husband before he dies.
With The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems, published in 1928, Millay began addressing political issues in her poetry. The volume includes "Justice Denied in Massachusetts"—her consideration of the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder during the Red Scare of the 1920s—a conviction that has been controversial over the years. Millay's sonnet sequence "Epitaph for the Race of Man" contains a similar historical and political focus, tracing human history and warning of impending disaster. In two collections published during the 1930s, Fatal Interview (1931) and Conversation at Midnight (1937), Millay undertook additional new innovations in her poetic voice. Fatal Interview, a collection of fifty-two sonnets, drew on the traditions of love poetry and classical myth but used them to present a narrative of a love affair from the female point of view. Conversation at Midnight took another approach, and is voiced by a group of male characters who discuss a range of contemporary issues at a late-night gathering.
Critical reaction to Millay's works has widely varied. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, her poetry was generally praised for its lyricism, wit, and engaging representation of the postwar period. By the 1930s, however, her literary stature had begun to decline. Some critics denounced her allegiance to traditional poetic forms, finding them outdated in comparison with the more experimental approaches of modernist poets. Another criticism leveled at Millay's work was that her earlier, popular writings failed to address serious issues. Critics who faulted her later poetry that focuses on political, social, and philosophical topics believed her personal works more emotionally moving and appealing. Some commentators have averred that collections such as The Buck in the Snow (1940), are less successful than Millay's earlier personal verse, and the latter works have been viewed by some as an indication of her declining talents. World War II-era works such as Make Bright the Arrows (1940) were commonly criticized as being propaganda more than poetry. In the decades following her death, Millay was often relegated to the role of a minor lyric poet studied for her Jazz Age lifestyle rather than the artistic works she produced.
More recently, however, Millay's work has received critical accolades, especially from feminist critics. Her poetic redefinition of women's roles has elicited praise. Some of this attention has been directed at her early portraits of liberated women, and Fatal Interview has been lauded as a revolutionary reconfiguration of lyric love poetry to include a female perspective. The charge that Millay's verse is intellectually superficial has also been challenged. Some critics have suggested that even the poet's more exuberant works include images of vulnerability, suffering, and victimization. Some commentators have claimed that Millay was a victim of sexual and political bias on the part of mid-century critics who dismissed her work in favor of modern poets who were male and relatively apolitical. Though Millay's poetry has yet to reclaim the widespread acceptance it once enjoyed, her writings are assuming a larger role in debates involving the literary canon.