Edna St. Vincent Millay Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How did World War I affect Edna St. Vincent Millay’s social consciousness?

What was Millay’s attitude toward marriage?

How does Millay use events and images from nature to describe human emotions?

Why did Millay prefer the sonnet and other traditional poetic forms to free verse and other experiments of modernists such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot?

How did Millay contribute to the development of feminism?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111206385-Millay.jpg Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was known during her early career for her verse plays, the most successful being Aria da Capo, first produced in 1919 and published in 1921, followed by The Lamp and the Bell (pr., pb. 1921) and Two Slatterns and a King (pr. 1917), and The Princess Marries the Page (pr. 1917). Her reputation as a writer of verse for the stage was such that she was invited to write the libretto for a Deems Taylor opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. The result of her collaboration with Taylor was a successful presentation of The King’s Henchman (pr., pb. 1927), a variation of the Tristan story. Millay tried to rework the material of the opera libretto into a drama but finally condemned the result as hopelessly contaminated; she was never able to rid it of the influence of the libretto.

Conversation at Midnight and The Murder of Lidice are sometimes classified as plays, the former receiving performance after Millay’s death and the latter being written for wartime radio broadcast after the Nazis destroyed the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice and slaughtered its male inhabitants. The Murder of Lidice cannot be considered as more than hastily written propaganda at best, and Conversation at Midnight suffers if one looks for the conflict and engagement of drama in it. Millay conceded after its completion that it was not really a play but a series of poems with a fixed setting.

In addition to working with dramatic forms, Millay, in the beginning years of her career, wrote topical commentaries for the New York weekly Vanity Fair under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd; they were collected in a 1924 volume as Distressing Dialogues, the title used by the magazine as the pieces appeared. Although these early essays helped to support the young poet, Millay was never willing to have them published under her name. She was, however, proud of her collaboration with George Dillon on The Flowers of Evil (1936), a translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1909), although scholars find more of Millay in the translations than the original may warrant. Millay’s letters have been collected and published.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s meteoric rise as a popular poet seems to have been, in part, a product of her times and the independent style of life that she represented. This fact may account for the later critical dismissal of her work. Millay’s poetry is, in many ways, conventional in its formal aspects, often showing strict attention to rhyme and traditional metrical patterns. Her nineteenth century literary forebears were Alfred, Lord Tennyson and A. E. Housman. She showed no interest in the experimental work being done by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others of her generation. In her strong allegiance to the lyric, to traditional verse forms, and to conventional diction, she guaranteed that she would not take her place in the mainstream of influential twentieth century poets, although she was very much aware of contemporary currents. Once her initial popularity waned, Millay’s work was judged to be something of a sport in a century in which the breaking of forms was thought to be the best representation of the breaking of traditional views of the world.

Ironically, much of Millay’s early popularity came from her image as a rebel and nonconformist—a representative of emancipated Greenwich Village culture, a perfect example of the liberated woman of the 1920’s. This reputation was primarily promoted by the publication of A Few Figs from Thistles, a collection of flippant and audacious poems that seemed a manifesto for the new woman and...

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Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Edna St. Vincent Millay is known primarily for her poetry rather than for her plays. In 1912 at the age of twenty, she entered a poetry contest with “Renascence.” Although her poem only finished fourth, it was included in The Lyric Year, which consisted of the top one hundred poems out of approximately ten thousand submitted. The critical reaction was overwhelming positive, and she came to the attention of the American literary community. She continued to write poetry for the rest of her life, selling her work to magazines and collecting it into books periodically. To earn a living after graduating from college, she wrote short stories and satirical sketches under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd. They were collected into Distressing Dialogues (1924).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Edna St. Vincent Millay is generally considered the leading poet of the Jazz Age, the 1920’s, as F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered that decade’s leading novelist. Her second volume of poems, A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), made her one of the leading spokespersons for her generation. Millay also became recognized as a major feminist for smoking cigarettes in public when this was illegal for women and for advocating sexual freedom.

Millay was the second recipient of the then-new Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver, and eight sonnets that appeared in American Poetry 1922: A Miscellany. These poems were reprinted that year in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems.

Like those of her contemporaries Edgar Lee Masters and Dorothy Parker, Millay’s volumes of poetry were best sellers. She toured the country several times to read her poems to the public. In 1927, The King’s Henchman was the first opera broadcast on nationwide radio, and she herself read her poems eight times on nationwide radio in 1932. In 1938, a poll named her as one of the ten most famous women in the United States.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Brittin has rewritten his 1967 biography of Millay (he uses the name “Vincent,” as her friends and family called her, in the earlier edition), providing more discussion of her prose works and less space to the biography. He brings out her feminist ideas and her relation to the poetic movement of High Modernism. An essential reference. Includes chronology and useful 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.

Drake, William. The First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915-1945. New York: Collier Books, 1987. Drake captures the...

(The entire section is 533 words.)