Renascence, Edna St. Vincent Millay


Renascence Edna St. Vincent Millay

The following entry presents criticism of Millay's poem Renascence (1912).

The publication, in 1912, of Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence was one of the great literary sensations of the early twentieth century. Critics, who immediately recognized the piece as the work of a highly accomplished poet, were surprised when they discovered that it had been written by a young poet, a woman of twenty. Millay, at her mother's urging, had submitted her poem, originally entitled Renaissance, in a national poetry contest designed to select pieces for an anthology called The Lyric Year. Ferdinand Earle, one of the judges, was delighted with the entry from E. Vince Millay (as she then called herself), persuaded her to change the title to Renascence, and fully expected the poem to win first prize. However, other judges disagreed, and the poem ranked only fourth in the final tally. Nevertheless, when the The Lyric Year was published in November 1912, Renascence received such overwhelming critical acclaim that even the winners felt embarrassed, immediately conceding that the judges had made a mistake. Two of the earliest to write their congratulations, poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, eventually became Millay's close friends. Impressed by Millay, and realizing that the young poet had never gone to college, Caroline Dow, director of the YWCA National Training School in New York, provided the financial support which enabled Millay to attend Vassar College. Already an accomplished poet, and older than her classmates, Millay started a new phase of her life at Vassar, effectively embarking on a career which would later earn her the reputation of one the most interesting literary figures of the early twentieth century.

Major Themes

Written in traditional tetrameter couplets, Renascence describes the poet's dramatic spiritual awakening. The enclosed, childlike perspective of the opening section, “All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood. / Over these things I could not see: / These were the things that bounded me,” soon gives way to a heroic effort to attain new horizons: “And reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed to feel it touch the sky / I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity / Came down and settled over me.” The young narrator subsequently experiences the sheer pressure of existence—“For my omniscience paid I toll, / In infinite remorse of soul. / All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret”—and finds refuge in death, underground: “Into the earth I sank till I / Full six feet under ground did lie / … so gladly dead.” A youthful will to live and the reviving power of nature in the form of “pitying rain,” however, recall the transformed poet, who can now cry, “God, I can push the grass apart / And lay my finger on thy heart!” The heightened spiritual awareness gained by the imaginative experience is shown in the final stanza, which is starkly contrasting in perspective to the first: “The soul can split the sky in two, / And let the face of God shine through.”

In Renascence Millay not only found her poetic voice, but also established the philosophical, intellectual, and spiritual foundations of her entire oeuvre. As critics have pointed out, the principal theme of Millay's poem, death and resurrection, defines every poet's destiny, as he or she struggles to find immortality in the written word. “In Renascence” James Gray has written, “Edna Millay announced the theme to which four more decades of her life were to be spent in the most intense kind of concentration.” Furthermore, critics have also remarked that in the poem Millay describes death and rebirth as a lived, felt experience, not as a philosophical or theological problem. Indeed, as commentators have observed, Millay conveys profound poetic, even mystical, experiences to the reader through her masterful use of suggestive yet simple language and compelling imagery.

While the poet ultimately embraces life passionately, concluding her poem on a resoundingly affirmative and hopeful note, it is also true, as Gray has observed, that Renascence leads the reader into the labyrinth of the poet's inner life, in which the dominant spiritual forces that shape a person's life are never at peace. According to Gray, “Edna Millay presented the inner life of the spirit as always a conflict of powerful forces. The will to live and the will to die are elementally at war in Renascence.

Critical Reception

The earliest critical reactions to Renascence were unreservedly favorable, even enthusiastic. Established writers, including Louis Untermeyer, immediately recognized the poem as an extraordinary accomplishment, a work in which, as Untermeyer put it, the reader finds “descriptive rapture” followed by a “greater revelation.” Early critics also praised Millay's consummate craftsmanship and extraordinary poetic insight. In addition, Carl Van Doren admired the poem's exquisite beauty. In general, commentators recognized Millay's poetic diction as naturally powerful, proceeding from an outstanding intuitive grasp, as Elizabeth Atkins emphasized, of “natural English speech.” However, some writers viewed Millay's diction, which sometimes demonstrates a predilection for archaic turns, as somewhat contrived and artificial.

Several critics have admired Millay's metaphysical courage, remarking that the poet unflinchingly faced the deepest mysteries of the universe and successfully translated her experience into a compelling poetic narrative. Thus, according to Norman A. Brittin, Renascence eloquently conveys “a sense of the immense mystery of the universe.” However, as critics were quick note, Millay's poem is also a deeply personal, introspective work, in which the poet, in her cosmic quest, never loses sight of the inner mysteries of the soul. As critics have shifted their focus from universal human concerns to the particular world views and theories expressed in the poem, commentators have started regarding Renascence as a reflection of the social and psychological pressures that affected the poet's life. Thus, for example, feminist critics have defined the poem as an attempt to break free from a male-dominated poetic discourse and symbolic system. In Suzanne Clark's opinion, Renascence opens, in its impressive flow of rich poetic discourse, as a free, original poetic statement, only to fall into the pre-determined strictures of a male symbolic code. Also writing from a feminist perspective, Cheryl Walker has discussed Millay's acute awareness of her body in Renascence. Despite the poem's vibrant, life-oriented tone, Millay, according to Walker, also experiences her body as fragile and particularly vulnerable in a youth-oriented male-dominated world.

Principal Works

Renascence [published in the anthology The Lyric Year] 1912

Renascence and Other Poems 1917

A Few Figs from Thistles 1920; expanded edition, 1922

Second April 1921

The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver 1922

The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems 1923

The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems 1928

Fatal Interview 1931

Wine from These Grapes 1934

Conversation at Midnight 1937

Huntsman, What Quarry? 1939

Make Bright the Arrows: 1940 Notebook 1940

Collected Sonnets 1941; expanded edition, 1988

Collected Lyrics 1943

Mine the Harvest [edited by Norma Millay] 1954

Collected Poems [edited by Norma Millay] 1956

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems [edited by Colin Falck] 1991

Aria da Capo (play) 1921

The Lamp and the Bell (play) 1921

Two Slatterns and a King (play) 1921

Distressing Dialogues [as Nancy Boyd] (essays) 1924

The King's Henchman (opera libretto) 1927

Flowers of Evil, from the French of Charles Baudelaire [translator; with George Dillon] (poetry) 1936

Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay [edited by Allan Ross Macdougall] (correspondence) 1952


Louis Untermeyer (review date 14 February 1918)

SOURCE: Untermeyer, Louis. “Why a Poet Should Never Be Educated.” In Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by William B. Thesing, pp. 29-32. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.

[In the following review, originally published in the Dial magazine on 14 Februrary, 1918, Untermeyer praises the collection Renascence and Other Poems as an extraordinary work in which the reader finds “a direct and often dramatic power.”]

These three first volumes [First Offering by Samuel Roth; Renascence and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; and First Poems by Edwin Curran], with their curious kinship and even more curious contrasts,...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

Carl Van Doren (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: Van Doren, Carl. “Youth and Wings: Edna St. Vincent Millay.” In Many Minds, pp. 105-19. New York: Knopf, 1924.

[In the following excerpt, Van Doren defines Renascence as “one of the loveliest of American poems.”]

The little renaissance of poetry which there have been a hundred historians to scent and chronicle in the United States during the last decade flushed to a dawn in 1912. In that year was founded a magazine for the sole purpose of helping poems into the world; in that year was published an anthology which meant to become an annual, though, as it happened, another annual by another editor took its place the year following. The real...

(The entire section is 745 words.)

Alfred Kreymborg (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: Kreymborg, Alfred. “Women as Humans, as Lovers, as Artists.” In Our Singing Strength: An Outline of American Poetry (1620-1930), pp. 438-65. New York: Coward-McCann, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Kreymborg praises Millay's exquisite craftsmanship, describing Renascence as a mystical work of prophetic power.]

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

In turning to the group of women, one again endeavors to avoid too arbitrary an alignment and too narrow a range of hypotheses and conclusions. But, in a land where confession and autobiography, especially among women, is of comparatively recent...

(The entire section is 1014 words.)

Elizabeth Atkins (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: Atkins, Elizabeth. “Renascence: Poetry of a Child's Certainties.” In Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times, pp. 1-25. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936.

[In the following essay, Atkins comments on Millay's mastery of poetic diction in Renascence, remarking that the poet never “repudiated her heritage of natural English speech.”]

Last spring the newspapers reported that the manuscripts of all Edna St. Vincent Millay's unpublished poems had just been destroyed in a hotel fire. The report of the catastrophe underscores a fact that is likely to be obscured in a study like my present one, namely, that it is too soon to shut Miss Millay...

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Oscar Cargill (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: Cargill, Oscar. “The New Freedom: Millay.” In Intellectual America: Ideas on the March, pp. 638-39. New York: Macmillan, 1941.

[In the following excerpt, Cargill defines Renascence as an inspired description of a spiritual struggle.]

Fame, which even in America may not necessarily mean rich rewards, had come with Renascence, again kindly greeted by the critics in Miss Millay's first volume, Renascence and Other Poems (1917). Louis Untermeyer pronounced this “possibly the most astonishing performance of this generation.” It is a poem of soaring imagination which instructs us that reality is fixed only by the individual heart; if it...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Miriam Gurko (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Gurko, Miriam. “Renascence.” In Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, pp. 33-42. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1962.

[In the following essay, Gurko discusses the biographical and psychological context of Millay's poem.]

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.

Collected Poems

With the ten dollars...

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Norman A. Brittin (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Brittin, Norman A. ‘“‘All That Once Was I!’” In Edna St. Vincent Millay, pp. 70-92. New York: Twayne, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Brittin praises Renascence as an inspired poem which eloquently conveys “a sense of the immense mystery of the universe.”]

Renascence, the most salient poem in Millay's first volume, conveys with extraordinary freshness and with generally fine technique a sense of the immense mystery of the universe. Like much of her poetry, it is in the tradition of American transcendentalism. “Interim” and “The Suicide” are ambitious pieces of apprentice work that reflect the encounter of late adolescence...

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Suzanne Clark (essay date spring 1986)

SOURCE: Clark, Suzanne. “Jouissance and the Sentimental Daughter: Edna St. Vincent Millay.” North Dakota Quarterly 54, no. 2 (spring 1986): 85-108.

[In the following essay, Clark relies on a variety of feminist and psychoanalytical ideas to define Renascence as a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to forge an authentic feminine poetic statement which would transcend the symbolism of male literary tradition.]

The effect was, at first, to embarrass me: it was a little as if a Shakespearean actor were suddenly, off the stage, to begin expressing private emotions with the intonations of the play.


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Cheryl Walker (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Walker, Cheryl. “Women on the Market: Edna St. Vincent Millay's Body Language.” In Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets, pp. 135-64. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Walker interprets Renascence as emblematic of the poet's awareness of the power and fragility her own body.]

Though born only six years after H. D. (1892 versus 1886), Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to belong to a different era. H. D.'s persona, often an elegant form of Artemis, surely has little in common with the flapper image of early Millay. One gives the impression of timelessness; the other strikes us...

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Christopher Benfey (essay date 5 November 2001)

SOURCE: Benfey, Christopher. “Flawed Perfection.” The New Republic 225, no. 19 (5 November 2001): 39-42.

[In the following excerpt, Benfey describes Renascence as a “claustrophobic” masterpiece.]

Millay's childhood is a story of precocious virtuosity. She excelled at everything, and was always the leading lady in the school play, the class poet (except once, when her classmates, tired of her queenly ways, voted for the class dullard), the star. Music and poetry were her refuge from the daily grind of keeping house in ever more modest rented rooms along the rocky Maine coast. Nancy Milford, in the moving opening section of her painstaking and sympathetic...

(The entire section is 965 words.)

Daniel Mark Epstein (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Epstein, Daniel Mark. “Renascence.” In What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, pp. 49-67. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Epstein describes the emotional and erotic context of Millay's poem.]

In September of 1911 she had written, “There is no time, no distance in my love. It is the supreme element. But it is too great to bear alone and the weight of it is crushing me. … I need your hand to cling to. … Oh, Sweetheart! How long will you leave me alone?”

By January 1912, in the icy grip of winter, she was terrified: “I am frightened. I do not know...

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Further Reading


Cheney, Anne. “A Sense of Glad Awakening: Millay's Childhood and Youth.” In Millay in Greenwich Village, pp. 7-28. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1975.

Discusses Renascence as a literary expression of Millay's intellectual and spiritual struggles.

Dash, Joan. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” In A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married, pp. 127-32. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Describes the publication of Renascence as a pivotal event in Millay's career.

DuBois, Arthur E. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” The Sewanee Review...

(The entire section is 419 words.)