Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1176
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 ...
(The entire section contains 41717 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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, furnish a variety of themes. They offer material for several essays: on “What Constitutes Rapture”; on “The Desire of the Moth for the Star”; on “The Growing Tendency among Certain Publishers to Ask One Dollar and Fifty Cents for Seventy Pages of Verse”; on “A Bill for the Conservation of Conservative Poetry”; on “Life, Literature, and the Last Analysis”; on “Why a Poet Should Never be Educated.” One cannot deal with all these fascinating considerations, but I hope to suggest the crippling effect the college usually has on the embryonic poet; how imagination is slurred over and form is magnified; how rhapsody is tuned down to rhetoric and regularity; how poetry, in short, emerges not as an experiment, a record of varied days, meditations, and adventures, but as an orderly procession of standard thoughts, a codified treatise, a course in pattern-making. Take these three books, for instance. Mr. Roth has been brought up at a university, and its formal stamp is over all his pages. Miss Millay wrote two of the most fresh and beautiful lyrics which contemporary American poetry can boast—before she went to Vassar. Since that time she has produced nothing that has more than a trace of her initial spontaneous quality; her subsequent poems strain to make up in intellectual concepts what they have lost in naïveté. …
It is impossible to tell how far the universities are (from a literary point of view) responsible for so many sudden blossomings and so many early deaths. But everyone can name at least half a dozen examples. Was it not less precocity than the hot-house atmosphere of Harvard which made John Hall Wheelock bloom too quickly—a forced growth that almost sapped him for a sturdier flowering? And, at the other extreme, (to change the metaphor) was it not the universities that almost succeeded in extinguishing Robert Frost's guarded flame with their damp disapproval? Perhaps it was not so much disapproval that they exhibited as, what was worse, a ponderous indifference to what did not conform to the curriculum of prescribed beauty. It was this placid unconcern which made Frost realize that these halls of learning (he attended and left two of them) were built not to prepare the future but to perpetuate the past. The list of ruined or rejected originators might be extended to the back cover of this magazine; every reader might add his own quota. But catalogues are tiresome and unsatisfactory as evidence. I shall return to my trio and particularize.
Turning to the second volume is like opening a window in a musty class-room. Here is air and motion, sunlight and the reflection of cloud-driven skies—even though the shadows are sometimes seen upon charted walls. For the greater part, these pages vibrate with an untutored sincerity, a direct and often dramatic power that few of our most expert craftsmen can equal. Turn, for instance, to the opening poem that begins like a child's thoughtless rhyme or a scrap of nonsense verse:
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.
An almost inconsequential opening, but as the poem proceeds, one with a haunting and cumulative effect. “Over these things I could not see / These were the things that bounded me,” it goes on. And then without ever losing the simplicity of the couplets, it begins to mount. There is an exquisite idyllic passage beginning:
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear, Whispering to me I could hear; I felt the rain's cool finger-tips Brushed tenderly across my lips, Laid gently on my sealéd sight, And all at once the heavy night Fell from my eyes and I could see— A drenched and dripping apple-tree, A last long line of silver rain,
and suddenly, beneath the descriptive rapture, one is confronted with a greater revelation. It is as if a child playing about the room had, in the midst of prattling, uttered some shining and terrific truth. This remarkable poem is, in parts, a trifle repetitious, but what it repeats is said so poignantly that one thinks of scarcely any lesser poet than Blake when one begins the ascending climax:
I know the path that tells Thy way Through the cool eve of every day; God, I can push the grass apart And lay my finger on Thy heart!
Or witness the first of the unnamed sonnets, that has a similar mixture of world sadness and a painful hunger for beauty, a hunger so great that no delight is great enough to give her peace:
Thou art not lovelier than lilacs—no Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair Than small white single poppies—I can bear Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though From left to right, not knowing where to go, I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear So has it been with mist—with moonlight so.
Elsewhere (as in “The Suicide”) the tone is more sophisticated. The results of reading begin to show. In “Interim” we see the intrusion of foreign accents; echoes of other dramatic monologues disturb us as the poem wanders off into periods of reflection and rhetoric. And there are pages where all that was fresh and native to this young poet seems to have turned to mere prettiness and imitation. “Ashes of Life” might have been written by Sara Teasdale in a weak moment; “The Little Ghost” lisps sweetly after Margaret Widdemer. After the preceding exhibits such lapses are doubly distressing. The inclusion of these merely pleasant pieces is all the more surprising when one notes the inexplicable omission of “Journey” from this volume—a youthful poem, but sharpened and illuminated with a succession of original touches. Here is a part of it:
Cat-birds call Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry, Drawing the twilight close about their throats; Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees Pause in their dance and break the ring for me … Round-faced roses, pink and petulant, Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
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 poetical event of 1912, however, was the appearance in The Lyric Year, tentative anthology, of the first outstanding poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Who that then had any taste of which he can now be proud but remembers the discovery, among the numerous failures and very innumerous successes which made up the volume, of Renascence, by a girl of twenty whose name none but her friends and a lucky critic or two had heard? After wading through tens and dozens of rhetorical strophes and moral stanzas, it was like suddenly finding wings to come upon these lines:
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.
The diction was so plain, the arrangement so obvious, that the magic of the opening seemed a mystery; and yet the lift and turn of these verses were magical, as if a lark had taken to the air out of a dreary patch of stubble.
Nor did the poem falter as it went on. If it had the movement of a bird's flight, so had it the ease of a bird's song. The poet of this lucid voice had gone through a radiant experience. She had, she said with mystical directness, felt that she could touch the horizon, and found that she could touch the sky. Then infinity had settled down upon her till she could hear
The ticking of Eternity.
The universe pressed close and crushed her, oppressing her with omniscience and omnisentience; all sin, all remorse, all suffering, all punishment, all pity poured into her, torturing her. The weight drove her into the cool earth, where she lay buried, but happy, under the falling rain.
The rain, I said, is kind to come And speak to me in my new home. I would I were alive again To kiss the fingers of the rain, To drink into my eyes the shine Of every slanting silver line.
Suddenly came over her the terrible memory of the “multi-colored, multiform, beloved” beauty she had lost by this comfortable death. She burst into a prayer so potent that the responding rain, gathering in a black wave, opened the earth above her and set her free.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I And hailed the earth with such a cry As is not heard save from a man Who has been dead, and lives again. About the trees my arms I wound; Like one gone mad I hugged the ground; I raised my quivering arms on high; I laughed and laughed into the sky.
Whereupon, somewhat quaintly, she moralized her experience with the pride of youth finally arrived at full stature in the world.
The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That cannot keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
Renascence, one of the loveliest of American poems, was an adventure, not an allegory, but it sounds almost allegorical because of the way it interpreted and distilled the temper which, after a long drought, was coming into American verse. Youth was discovering a new world, or thought it was. It had taken upon itself burdens of speculation, of responsibility, and had sunk under the weight. Now, on fire with beauty, it returned to joy and song.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
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 origin, a separate study of a varied group has a definite interest in supplying data concerning a sex about which most American males are heartily ignorant. The average male poet can see but one side and just a little of the other side of the greatest human relation. We have to consult women for the other side—for the most part equally egocentric. Some women have other interests besides love and sex—notably Elinor Wylie, and in her we discern how deeply independent the feminine is. Each of the poets under discussion is an artist. Though practically all have gone to tradition for their poetic models, models once created by men, and none are as original as Emily Dickinson, the best members of the group have infused the old forms with personality. Compared with the conservative men of the period, the women are better craftsmen. This is due to the narrower range they set themselves. They are essentially lyric poets, confined to mastering the shorter forms.
The first name that comes to mind is Edna St. Vincent Millay's. Though she is the youngest poet of the group, she was the first to win fame and popularity: in her nineteenth year. Renascence should have won The Lyric Year contest of 1912; as it was, Miss Millay derived great benefit from the attacks the judges received for selecting Johns' “Second Avenue.” 1912 was the opening year of the national renascence, and this girl made her début with a prophetic poem. Renascence is remarkable for its blending of naïveté and insight, its identification of the body and soul with the rounds of the earth, its mystical rapture, and most of all, for the absolute ease of its craftsmanship. The language has a slightly archaic tinge, partly reminiscent of Irish and Elizabethan balladry. In this girl from Maine, the old bards and harpists have found a modern voice: any one who has heard the three Millay sisters chant old ballads will know where the family came from. Edna Millay's first book was published in 1917. In addition to the title poem, it contains the famous “God's World,” the delicate “Afternoon On A Hill,” “Sorrow,” and “Kin To Sorrow,” “When The Year Grows Old,” and the first of the sonnet groups in which some man is sent to the devil. All the ingredients are here: the love of life and beauty, the ecstatic pain, the identification with mankind and Nature, the devotion to grief, the faithless lover, the beginning of flippancy, and the ever-perfect technique. Miss Millay will develop her art along these strings.
“God's World” is akin to Renascence, and closes on the Elizabethan cadence:
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
In her will to embrace the universe, she suffered the accompanying agonies—as in Renascence:
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. Mine was the weight Of every brooded wrong, the hate That stood behind each envious thrust, Mine every greed, mine every lust.
Paganism is blended with the Christian conscience: an echo of Emily Dickinson's Transcendentalism. Miss Millay has made sorrow an attractive being; part of her popularity is due to the love most readers have for sorrow. And when she does not feel sorrow, she can assume the rôle like an accomplished mime, thanks to her experience as an actress and dramatist. She is also an excellent comedienne, and can shift the masks of tragedy and comedy with a subtle sleight of hand, leaving her audience in tears either way. Even when she announces, “I will be the gladdest thing under the sun,” we cannot be sure this adventure will end in joy. Sorrow is made the more attractive because it wears the things common people wear:
All my thoughts are slow and brown: Standing up or sitting down Little matters, or what gown Or what shoes I wear.
Miss Millay's exquisite hand transmutes commonplace things to shining spirits. Commonplace is dropped into after a rapturous flight and sharp disappointment: “Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike.” In the early sonnets, the form over which she is the supreme mistress after Mrs. Browning, a modern note comes to light: here is a girl, a woman, who does not kneel to her lover. It is curious too that the romance is usually described in the act of passing. The poet rehearses its momentary embraces, descends to grief, and rapidly rises to pride, scorn and noble elegies. She does not “stand stricken” long. Wit comes into her head and drives the fellow out of her heart, drives him, alas too often, with the utmost flippancy. In the fifth sonnet, riding in the subway and reading a neighbor's newspaper, she asks herself what would follow if she read that her lover “had happened to be killed.”
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place— I should but watch the station lights rush by With a more careful interest on my face, Or raise my eyes and read with greater care Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
This is all very well occasionally. One loves the wit in the woman; it is infinitely preferable to the sighing, dying ladies of Poe's era. And one admires its independence of spirit, of judgment, of action.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7050
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 within the covers of any book. What the quality and nature of her future writing will be, no one knows. Even she herself can have no more than an inkling of her future inspirations, and I shall not commit the absurdity of a prophecy.
Edna St. Vincent Millay is now in her early forties—an age at which a minor poet is usually dead, whether he realizes it or not, and an age at which a major poet is usually discovering how complexly alive he is. At that age Chaucer was probably beginning the formal plan for his Canterbury Tales; Spenser was in the midst of his Faerie Queene; Milton was hoping for leisure to compose Paradise Lost; Goethe was perhaps seeing, far in the future, the completion of the first part of his Faust. The forties, for major poets, usually correspond to late summer. If Miss Millay nowadays is foretelling not her harvest month but dead midwinter, perhaps that is her way of wishing herself good luck, remembering how even Shakespeare bemoaned his stripped boughs that shook against the cold before he had written many of the plays that make him Shakespeare. Miss Millay's own attitude toward her age is her own affair, but with unappeased vitality as visible as fire within her, it would be unwise for literary historians to carry her too precipitately into the cellar of the house of fame.
And yet the world seems to have lived a dozen life-times since the St. Nicholas magazine for children first printed a poem signed “E. St. Vincent Millay.” Indeed, returning to those days is like pushing a weed-choked gate
Into some long-forgot, enchanted, strange Sweet garden of a thousand years ago.
Perhaps every human being feels a certain superiority to all who are older or younger than himself, all who are, therefore, unable to see the world under that peculiar perspective of time which to one's own eyes seems patently to be truth sub specie aeternitatis. Still I insist that an especial vision accrues to folk born in the early 1890's, who in the sensitive years of their late adolescence were hurled into the churning chaos from 1914 onward, after growing up in a world steady as a millpond—that so slightly mechanized world at the turn of the century, free from premonition of terrestrial dangers and cosmic uncertainties. Perhaps that world was just a silly room, as Edith Sitwell describes it, with a ceiling of tinsel stars and a badly painted ancestral portrait of God. But it was a fine, safe world for children, and plenty big enough to allow for twenty years of uncramped growth.
About the time when other children of America were learning that Vincent (so she was called) was a poet, the presidency of the United States was passing from the Rough-riding and Trust-busting national hero with the Big Stick to a portly Santa Claus oddly interested in a world peace court, although everyone knew that wars were the romantic prerogative of earlier generations. Our times were too civilized and too tame for them. When one's father talked of civilization in general, he might mention tiny sores like tainted money and Negro lynchings and famine in India and suffering among coal miners. But all these things were very far away from a child in Rockport, Maine. Farther away still, but in practically complete control, was God. The reins had not yet tangled in his frantic hands,1 for Vincent or for anybody else.
Closer at hand was an asylum, where practically every child was taken once to look at the “crazy” people. Friendly and sociable enough they were with a little girl, but still they were supposed to be fascinatingly and utterly different from ordinary people, who understood just how everything really was. Also on the fringe of life were a few events of intense excitement, as when somebody's house burned down and the children had to sleep the rest of the night at a neighbor's, or when the incredible circus came to town with its painted wagons,
Colored wagons creaking with wonder.
Very close at hand was a hard, hinged school bench every day until four o'clock and humdrum teachers who patiently presented gray pebbles of information: dates, and rules for grammar, and problems in wallpapering, and the news that James Whitcomb Riley and Rudyard Kipling were the greatest living poets. After four o'clock there was home with one's little sisters, who played dominoes and spun tops and blew soap bubbles and gradually learned to sew and to iron the starched tucks and ruffles of the layers on layers of clothing they wore. And there was, of course, the cat, not a long-haired lazy darling lolling in an arm-chair, but a family servant, trim and precise, who knew her place around the back door and had a decent pride in getting rid of mice and keeping her white bib clean. Later the cat died.
Outdoors one helped to plant and weed radishes and onions and lettuce and marigolds and zinnias, patting with one's hands that black dirt that has an unforgettable feel different from anything else in the world. One played house under a tree with drooping branches, and one crawled among brambles, gathering plums in one's skirt. And one went with a small friend to deliver milk in a tin pail, at five cents a quart. Probably the friend was allowed to save the nickels for a college education, as all parents knew that thirst for higher learning was the noblest ambition of American youth.
And at least once during one's childhood, despite the code of sheltered innocence, there was a nameless horror, something that outraged the entire community and that a little girl must not know, but that in the middle of the night made her scream her way out of infinitely black and empty nightmares such as children of the 1930's, who clamber into bed replete with spinach and gangster movies, seem to know nothing of.
All this if one were almost any little girl. If one were a little girl with a boy's name and sharply cornered green witch eyes and red hair, all this was true with a thousand-fold intensity. Queen Elizabeth had had red hair, and so had a notorious murderess or two; chances for glory or the gallows were about even. But whether for honor or dishonor, red-haired girl-children were different. Everyone knew it in those days, even teachers, who allowed for noisier explosions of temper from them. Also a girl whose mother would call her by a boy's name naturally had more leeway out of doors than other children. She could play outside her own yard, could, in fact, bring home sandburs on her legs from the whole countryside, could run far, far along the beach, could play out in the rain—sometimes after dark, even.
And if this daily life in Rockport and Camden, Maine, was tame, close at hand was something that was not tame, something with a look that answered the infinite sky, something that beat with the pulse of eternity, a pulse like anger and desire and agony and bliss.2 Poets who grow up inland, knowing a sharply divided land and air, may choose between cloddy realism and airy idealism, but a poet who grows beside the ocean learns the meaning of rising on ecstasy without leaving tangible, sustaining reality. The Platonic picture of the sensuous world as a body restlessly molded by ideality seems to such a one only the most obvious truth. I cannot conceive of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry without the ocean tide “that treads the shifting shore,” or without the powerful winds of the Maine seacoast, with Matinicus in the distance, that island where the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut, While from the Rock the warning whistle cried, And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut.
Perhaps those tides, with a restlessness as of conscious life in them, gave her the animistic attitude toward nature that is still so evident in her poetry. Toward the human race her poetry holds no maternal gentleness, but to everything out of doors—a mullein weed, a blue flag in a fire-seared bog, a single tree with its leaves fluttering against the city traffic, a little hill “that sits at home so many hundred years”—she has always given passionate mothering. The world is alive to her in a far simpler, less metaphysical way than it was to Wordsworth; her feeling toward it is such unreasoned child's tenderness as that of St. Francis, who was gentle with the stones on which he walked and the water with which he washed himself.
Yet for half of each year her outdoor world was stern, and her home was poverty-stricken enough to keep her aware of that sternness just beyond the windowpane. In Maine winters the storms that make the world a “whirling whiteness uniform” give poor families keen awareness that tight roofs and steady fires are the greatest of blessings. No child growing up in rooms apparently warmed by a tiny heat regulator on the wall can possibly develop Millay's feeling for fire. Fire is always Promethean in her poetry, something loved and lovely, coaxed into being with one's own breath, and by it one's sight and hearing and one's very bones are “warmed by all the wonders of the earth.” And the economy of her poetry, its way of stripping life to its essentials, may be due partly to her early life being so stripped, in a home that meant chiefly a rooftree and a stove and house plants and meals where the equivalent of “milk and tarts and honey and white bread all in one day” represented a glorious rare extravagance.
As for her first reading, Mother Goose had sunk into her heart early enough and deep enough to save her from the anemic pulse of verse made on the principle that a foot must be an iamb or a trochee, a dactyl or an anapest. Probably a few ballads had underscored this sense for freedom of pause and accent and had taught her once and for always that true poems are made to fit a tune in one's head, and not a visual or arithmetical pattern. Some audiences, hearing Miss Millay read her poetry aloud, imagine that it is the remarkable timbre of her voice that gives it most of its music. But it is foolproof. I have heard it read by the completely unpoetic, and it never quite loses its intensely individual pause and flow.
The fairy tales she read were not the exotic ones. Among the little sons and daughters of university professors, I have found a tendency to parade fondness for the fairy tales and legends of Oscar Wilde and Lafcadio Hearn, but to enjoy only furtively, with a conscious condescension, the old homely ones. But the tales that color Millay's poetry are those threadbare old democrats, Jack and the Beanstalk, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Snowwhite and the Dwarfs, and the Sleeping Beauty.
From Mother Goose and fairy tales, she turned immediately to Shakespeare. But though she had read all the plays of Shakespeare before she was nine years old, she seems to have escaped the misfortune of precocity. At fourteen she was still contributing verse to St. Nicholas, and it was still a child's poetry—not so lovely as some of little Hilda Conkling's poetry of a dozen years later (no doubt the editors would have refused it if it had been such an unstraitened utterance), but clear and musical and right, and in Edna St. Vincent Millay's own voice, albeit in a small and childish treble. She listens to the silken rustle of the grass, searches for the world of romance out in the fields with her little sister, and prays with touching simplicity that nature may lend her calm “until I have more calmness of my own.” It is good to have childhood last a long time. I have seen children of ten sniffing and sneering at what they should be laying to their roots as manure against the coming years. Everyone's genuine standards of beauty come from the shapes and sounds and colors and textures that his curious senses touched with most delight before he knew sophistication. Wagner, Baudelaire—many artists have testified that genius is childhood recovered at will. Those who are in a hurry to abandon childhood have too thin a soil for poetry to flourish in. They spend their later years worrying whether they have the proper taste in sunsets and garden flowers and breakfast foods.
At fifteen, however, Vincent seems to have felt that childhood was definitely ending; and, aware that a period of uncertainty was upon her, she wrote a farewell—or au revoir—to poetry. More consistent than so many older poets who insist upon the world's hearing that they have resolved to hold their tongues, she did not send it to St. Nicholas, and it now sees the light of print for the first time:
Let me not shout into the world's great ear Ere I have something for the world to hear; Then let my message like an arrow dart, And pierce a way into the world's great heart.
She went on with her high-school studies and waited, with what patience she possessed, for the fire from heaven to fall. Eventually she reached graduation; and every young person feels a great faith that that event will mark an end and a beginning. But still nothing happened outwardly, and there ensued those days of frustration when the world—the glamorous, real world—seems to be everywhere except within the circle of horizon of which one is the center, and it seems of tragic importance to reach it before one is completely grown. And then one day there came the terrifying and ecstatic hour when she knew that the time had come, that there was no use in waiting to get away, that, prisoner in an ordinary Maine town though she still was, she was no longer a child; she was older than Chatterton ever became, older than Bryant when he wrote Thanatopsis; almost as old as Milton when he wrote On the Morning of Christ's Nativity or Keats when he wrote On First Looking into Chapman's Homer. There was no evading the issue; she must find out whether she too was a poet.
And so Renascence was made. The spring gushed and failed and gushed again, but at the third flowing the poem became complete, with a beginning and a middle and an end. A fair copy was made and sent to the judges of the Lyric Year contest for 1912. Now that the poem had proved to her own satisfaction what spiritual company she belonged in, she figured that it might as well be earning five hundred dollars for her, too. She certainly needed it. Or perhaps, since she was so very young, she needed even more the assurance that the poem was truly as astonishing as it seemed to her.
It is, of course, poetry's scandal of the century that Renascence did not win the Lyric Year prize. Its very length, one would suppose, would have saved it from being overlooked, would have shown it shimmering and rippling like a lake in the desert of conscientious verses surrounding it. But, after all, the poem was not what the judges were looking for, and nothing blinds like a single-minded search. They were instructed to give the prize to a poem revealing the time spirit, and the young Edna St. Vincent Millay was the time spirit of 1798, or of 1590, or of 1380, rather than of 1912. Their ears were cocked for novelty, and these limpid octosyllabic couplets were no more novel than Chaucer's Book of Blanche the Duchess or Milton's poems to joy and pensiveness, or Coleridge's Christabel. As for the subject, what was it but Chaucer's Springtide and Milton's Mirth, with a dash of Wordsworth's burden of the mystery? All it amounted to was that an unknown young girl (though by Milton yclept Euphrosyne) was cast down by loathed Melancholy as she considered human suffering, and then leaped up more ecstatic than ever as she felt the wonder of April. So the judges argued, perhaps. However they argued, one should be slow about scorning them, remembering, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Besides, one of the three did vote for Renascence. Mr. Ferdinand Pinney Earle is probably still glowing with pride.
Nor was the poem wholly without competition. It is the fashion to shrug at those years when Irving Babbitt, taking up the mantle of Lessing, had in his New Laocoön supposedly settled all poetic problems for another two hundred years, and when public taste, liking its art at the same time dashing and slick, was acclaiming Sargent as its greatest painter, Kipling as its greatest poet, and Pinero as its greatest dramatist. And it is true that some of the best living poets were silent just then. In England A. E. Housman had not spoken since the Shropshire Lad, long before, and George Santayana had turned away from poetry; but Walter de la Mare was singing a silvery trickling song, and Thomas Hardy (who was later to say that America had just two great works of art to its credit: recessive architecture and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay) had recently completed his tremendous poetic drama, The Dynasts. In America Edwin Arlington Robinson was keeping silence. Theodore Roosevelt, years before, had discovered him and characteristically had tried to “push” him. But Robinson, refusing to be a perambulator, had gone back to his shabby New York bedroom, and in 1912 was presumably sitting there, wondering “where he was going, that man against the sky.” Another poet had been silent so long that most people had forgotten her existence: Lizette Woodworth Reese, a gray little schoolteacher in Baltimore, who after writing a perennially appealing sonnet in her youth had apparently dried up in the classroom. Yet she was to burst into bloom again, in her sixties and seventies, in verses unexpected and freshly lovely as hawthorn blossoms in November.
But though none of these poets contributed to the Lyric Year, almost everyone else of any importance did, and there are more than a score of very respectable literary names in the volume. Sara Teasdale has a lyric there, and if it is less poetic than Renascence it is only because a sudden fluttering gauze of spring rain, gone in a breath, is less than the gust and gleam and freshness of all April. Poetry gained something when Sara Teasdale saw bright April shake out her rain-drenched hair. For the rest, the volume is filled with apostrophes to the emasculated Victorian Pan who haunted minor poetry books so long, and with appreciations of Robert Browning (it was his centenary) and with meditations on abstract beauty and on social injustice. It is all honest-enough stuff in intention, but Matthew Arnold would have shaken his head over it with the sigh, “'Tis well, 'tis eloquent, but 'tis not true.”
Yet the table of contents, as I have said, is very respectable. Among the contributors were a few survivors of the London fin de siècle. Most notably there was Richard Le Gallienne, still weaving his golden filigree. And there was Bliss Carman, that forerunner of the Boy Scout, to whose marching feet all color was fluttering flag. And then there was Professor George Woodberry, with knees creaking a little in his obeisances to a sedentary marble goddess, but with a passionate sincerity in his austere adoration of intellectual beauty that would redeem paler and stiffer stanzas. In the same tradition there were a few poets who had been protégés of George Santayana at Harvard, and who were now trying to grow up to him, though they were still rather wobbly on their poetic legs. Also there was Edwin Markham, who, after his voice had reverberated boldly in The Man with the Hoe, was spending the rest of his life trying to strike a ringing note again. And of course some future prose writers were, in accordance with tradition, forming their style with the warming-up exercises of verse; John Erskine, Ludwig Lewisohn, Donne Byrne are in the volume. And, what was of most importance, there was the flock of young poets who were soon to be appearing in the magazine Poetry, which Harriet Monroe was launching this year, and with it, she hoped, a renaissance of poetry in America. There were Vachel Lindsay, Louis Untermeyer, William Rose Benét, Joyce Kilmer, Arthur Davison Ficke, John Hall Wheelock, Witter Bynner, and half a hundred others, all panting with impatience to put twentieth-century America on the poetic map.
Oh, yes, and there was also included in the book the forgotten man, the man-who-took-the-prize. Developing later into a person of charming humor, who looked at his baby and
laughed like a lord To see a human being that was not yet bored,
Orrick Johns is probably properly ashamed of carrying off the prize, though one can scarcely contend that it was his fault. His Second Avenue attempts to “express” New York City and to make human greed despise itself. It is just the sort of heavily admonitory verse that Miss Millay herself would probably be turning out by the ton if she did not happen to be a poet. But it does not touch the outermost fringe of poetry.
The girl up in Maine who failed to win the prize knew next to nothing of all these people and of the state of art in America. She was living in another world (scarcely less young than ancient Lesbos) wherein poetry was still a direct and innocent thing. It meant to her, quite simply, playing noble chords and melodies, and trying to fit her passionate apprehensions of life to the sounds of her instrument, regardless of all literary fashions. And yet, since she was studying music at the piano rather than the lyre, she could not be wholly unswayed by literary tradition. In the music of Mozart and Bach and Beethoven, she inevitably heard the measures of past poetry. For, in spite of having spent most of her years in an American public school, she had discovered a few great books, and they had become a part of her.
Chiefly, there was the Aeneid. The great rock of offense or of triumph in the inflexible high-school course of the day was Vergil. To untutored young minds that intensely civilized man in complex Roman society stood for almost the beginning of the world, and his serenely sad hexameters, heavy with the tears of things, seemed dampened only by the dews of the world's dawn. Many a young person read him with a touch of that marvel which William Ellery Leonard recalls:
There in the homestead at Hilton I sat by the window with Vergil: Under the morning star, words like woods to explore. Tityre, tu patulae. … O eery quest in the silence! Magic of dawn on the earth, magic of dawn in the boy! Thrilling from letter to letter, and every word an enchantment: Silvestrem tenui … even ere meaning was known. … Then, as the words became phrases and phrases grew into verses, (Change as subtle and vast, even as cell into flower!) … There, with the mist on the meadow, I sat by the window with Vergil, Sat with the soul of the dead, living again in my own.
There is evidence that Vergil sank as deeply into Edna St. Vincent Millay's young heart. Indeed, she felt him from a long way off, and read all of Caesar's Gallic Wars by herself during the summer when she was fourteen, in order that she might take up Cicero's orations the next fall and so reach Vergil's Aeneid the sooner. And to this day, if Vergil does not haunt her poetry in bodily form as he does Dante's, he is there nonetheless, touching the metaphor, teaching the grave, far vision, swaying the music.3
For the rest, in the high-school English courses she, who before she was twelve years old had read almost all of Tennyson and Milton and much of Elizabethan poetry, was “taught” Tennyson's Elaine and Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso and also Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and a little Shakespeare. It was a narrow well of water, but undefiled. And perhaps it is just as well that she did not receive much encouragement to read extensively. At the same age Floyd Dell was nervously gulping everything that had been said and thought in the world, and was thrown into a literary colic that killed the poet in him. It is of decidedly doubtful benefit to a very young person of great sensitiveness to read fast and widely.
Of these poets that she knew, Coleridge touched Renascence more than the others. John Livingston Lowes, who in The Road to Xanadu has so uncannily traced the subterranean course of almost every word in The Ancient Mariner back to its source in Coleridge's encyclopedic reading, must enjoy seeing bits of The Ancient Mariner itself glimmering through the stream of this poetry of a later century. Of course it would not be enjoyable or interesting at all save for the fact that Renascence, like The Ancient Mariner, is pure poetry, original as all pure poetry must be. It is transparent brook water from Helicon, flowing over the brown stones of the author's reading. True, one or two stones stand above the surface of the stream:
A sound as of some joyous elf Singing sweet songs to please himself,
A little child, a limber elf, Singing, dancing to itself.
This stone is only splashed a bit about the base by the wave of her thought. But by a subtle transmutation another line becomes wholly her own. Coleridge's
The rain poured down from one black cloud
And the big rain in one black wave Fell from the sky.
The blackness of the waterspout belongs to Coleridge, but that “big” lies between Millay and Shakespeare. In another instance she changes something that is fine in Coleridge into something finer. The mariner is haunted by the stare of the dead sailors, for, he says,
The look with which they looked at me Had never passed away.
That look passed into Millay's poetry with a difference. In her vision of universal human woe, she sees a man dying of hunger on the other side of the world, and she says,
He moved his eyes and looked at me.
Few poets since Homer have succeeded in writing with such simple literalness as that, as she tells in three words the gruesomeness of seeing a last conscious muscular effort (so weak and slight!) after life seemed to have ebbed beyond the possibility of any further sign.
The other influences are farther under the wave. Millay's supernatural experience of being weighed into her grave by a horrible compression of the universe is very different, superficially, from Coleridge's supernatural voyage with his ancient mariner, but both poets have the experience of seeing their whole world become putrescent. For Coleridge “the very deep did rot”; for Millay's probing sense,
The universe, cleft to the core Lay open,
though its disease sickened her. The suffering of each is given in terms of weight. Coleridge's mariner says,
The sky and the sea and the sea and the sky Lay like a load on my weary eye.
It is the sky that weighs on Millay, too, but how much heavier it is! It is the universe itself, focused upon her unenduring consciousness.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity Pressed down upon the finite me!
But in the end both victims are released from their ordeal and return to the sweet pastoral air of an April countryside. To the mariner it is fragrant “like a meadow-gale in spring.” To Millay it is “a miracle of orchard breath.” And both poets close their poems with a moral admonition. Millay's is characteristically far more muscular than that of the fat and lethargic Coleridge, who thinks it quite enough for men to sit still and love all things both great and small. But to the young, eager, untried girl, it seems that people ought to do something:
The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That cannot keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat, the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
In spite of all these parallels, I doubt that Coleridge was in her mind for an instant, from the beginning to the end of the making of Renascence. He could not have been, or she could never have skirted the edge of servile imitation so surely, like a sleepwalker gliding lightly along the edge of a precipice.
The seventeenth century seems at this time not to have sunk so deeply into her feelings as the nineteenth, though there is one apparently accidental resemblance to Andrew Marvell in Renascence. Although she read none of Marvell's poetry until her freshman year at college, still his
The grave's a fine and private place
is half-echoed in her
A grave is such a quiet place!
And in spite of her eager reading and re-reading of Shakespeare ever since infancy, his touch, if it is on the poem at all, is very slight. Her expression “All sin was of my sinning” recalls Shylock's turn of phrase in “No tears but of my shedding.” And in Richard III, Clarence's terrible nightmare of drowning, and yet being unable to free his soul, smothered within his panting hulk
That almost burst to belch it in the sea,
may have been transmuted into Millay's image,
My anguished spirit, like a bird, Beating against my lips I heard; Yet lay the weight so close about There was no room for it without.
Perhaps the most significant touch of all upon the poem was Sappho's. No young girl who aspires to poetic genius refrains long from looking up the fragments of Sappho, and Sappho's line, “I do not think to touch the sky with my two arms,”
Pαύην δ' οὐ δοκίμωμ' ὀράνω δύsι πάχεsι
must have suggested Millay's nightmare of actually touching the sky. Did she also know Baudelaire's
Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle?
I doubt it, though she was affected by the music of Baudelaire later on. I think it was stories of medieval torture by a weight slowly descending from the ceiling that, blending with the memory of Sappho's sentence, grew in her mind into those lines that describe the sky mercilessly descending upon her, in the beginning so unaware of her impending doom that she expresses her first consciousness of its nearness with a childish, slangy flippancy:
The sky, I thought, is not so grand; I 'most could touch it with my hand!
But then the realization of the horror comes all at once:
And reaching up my hand to try, I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
Down, down, down it pressed her, till she had sunk six feet underground,
And sank no more—there is no weight Can follow here, however great.
In this list of influences—Sappho, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats—we have, so far as I can see, all her literary sources, no more, no fewer than enter into any powerfully original poem. One other sort of influence I feel in the poem, however, and that is a musical one. Can anyone read Renascence without feeling that the music of Haydn, with its clear beat of one-two-three-four, is behind the verse, like a light, steady wind blowing it onward? Even the single crash of Haydn's Surprise Symphony is there, startling without breaking the rhythm. Perhaps I am only fancying that influence, but Edna St. Vincent Millay was very fond of Haydn in those days. The poem is even divided into movements of varying emotional tempo, like a Haydn piano concerto.
The philosophy of the poem, when one analyzes it, is a rather intimidating blend of Berkeleyan idealism and Jamesian pragmatism. Both philosophies were very much in the air at the time, and a young girl could easily have imbibed them without reading a word of either James or Berkeley. I should be very much surprised, in fact, to learn that she had read them at that age. Renascence holds a good philosophy; but of course it might have held good philosophy without being of any worth at all as a poem.
The secret of the poetic power of Renascence is not its philosophy but its language—a truism as obvious as that musical power is a matter of notes, though a surprising number of people feel it is belittling to think that a poem's magic is “just a matter of words.” Despite what a few reviewers have said, Millay's great secret is that she never, at any stage of her growth, has repudiated her heritage of natural English speech. Yet in a public school the pressure upon her to do so must have been terrific. Little girls in her grade-school days were taught that it was a mark of refinement to say “large” rather than “big,” “strong,” rather than “stout,” “beautiful” rather than “pretty,” “happy” rather than “glad,” “thin” rather than “lean.” The list was endless, and the idea seemed to be that everything that a child said naturally was vulgar. Adjectives ending in y especially were taboo. How the small Vincent must have had to fight to keep her “mouthy,” “skinny,” “throaty,” “bony,” “fussy,” “rooty”! And her natural turn of a phrase: “to take my mind up,” or “hush with your knocking,” or “he heard me my Latin,” or “his face went pale”—all were quite, quite uneducated, according to the notions of teachers in the early 1900's. (Edna St. Vincent Millay talks like the farmer wife who was my mother. And such a time as her college-bred daughters had with her, trying to break her of talking like a poet!)
Robert Frost is the only other living American poet who has that essential thing—a speech rooted in his earliest life and intertwined with all his natural instincts. But Frost, unlike Millay, lost confidence in that speech as he grew up, possibly because the idioms of his Californian and New England homes jangled together in his mind. His first poetry (which he was writing at the time Renascence was being made) is in the stiffest of poetic dictions. Awkwardly, slowly, but at last triumphantly he has worked his way back into his natural speech idiom, until today every sentence that he publishes has the signature “Robert Frost” woven through it like a rune. But most other poets nowadays lack that most essential thing. Some of them painstakingly preserve a shoddy and intrusive dialect of their childhood as a means of securing an individual style. And some of them weave a picturesque slang idiom for themselves (like Sandburg's) or an ironically intellectualistic one (like Marianne Moore's) or a God-knows-what one (like Ezra Pound's), but they never find a speech that stretches, running or sitting, like their own skin. A sudden new thought to express, a strange emotion, and pop! A seam has burst, and a patch from a different vocabulary has to be inserted. But most of them have learned to sit without squirming in one corner of the universe, murmuring of what comes easily within their artificial range of words.
Edna St. Vincent Millay has no such problems. The words she spoke at three and the ones she learned at thirty all grow together in her heart, equally her children, beloved members of one family, and so they can live together in one course of thought. Her mother talked a natural Shakespearian and Chaucerian English, a folk speech, and so Vincent, almost as soon as she learned to read, moved into the vast vocabulary and ample phrase of Shakespeare with no sense at all of moving out of her own speech.
An instance of the flexibility and unity of her speech is in the change from the first movement of Renascence to the second. The first movement, in which there is scarcely a word which is not a child's monosyllable, reaches its climax and its sudden chilling turn of mood in
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
Then the second movement, with its grave ponderability of mood, changes to a heavier, more abstract vocabulary:
I screamed—and lo!—Infinity Came down and settled over me … And pressing of the undefined The definition on my mind. …
Then, finally, with the joyous relief of the third movement, simplicity returns, and continues to the childwise expressiveness of the close:
And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
Cave in, by the way, was not considered a possible expression for poetry until Millay used it. But before long one found it in the poetry of the sophisticated Dial magazine, and then it was in vogue. A good many of her words and expressions have such a later history. An amusing example of other poets' suggestibility followed her use of the word “creaking” in Renascence. Poetry had been well oiled for centuries; if it had creaked at all before Renascence, it had done so in some literal and prosaic connection. But the child Vincent had apparently attended the circus on a windy day and had been impressed by the incessant straining and tugging of the great tent overhead. Therefore, in Renascence, Millay imagines
The creaking of the tented sky.
The word seems to me to be used with its literal meaning. But in 1917, when the poem was reprinted, “synaesthesia,” or the description of one sense in terms of the others, was very much under discussion in sophisticated circles, and this “creak,” by persons who knew little of open-air circuses, was praised as an example of transposition into auditory terms of a visual impression. The next creak I heard, though I was probably deaf to a few, was in Aldous Huxley's Leda, wherein the swan had a “creaking flight.” Since the swan was Zeus, there is no earthly reason why it should have been rheumatic; the word seems to have some relation to the creaking sky from which the swan was descending. Soon afterward, in Soles Occidere, Huxley had Truth creaking, though I admit that he here gave it intellectual legs to account for its condition. Then in 1924 Edith Sitwell, synaesthesiast extraordinary, described “creaking light.” Since then poetry has creaked on and on; the last instance I have noticed is Stephen Spender's “creaking of dusty day” in 1934.
But the influence of Renascence on other poetry has not been confined to imitation of its diction and metaphors. The whole framework of it, as an allegory in octosyllabic couplets giving a poet's world-vision of grief and his eventual reconcilement with the universe, has been imitated a good deal. Its most comely poetic offspring are Elder Olson's Thus Revealed, Mary Ogilvie's For This Have Poets Died, Mabel Simpson's Prayer, and George Dillon's Anatomy of Death, with its
Then from the solid home of breath, The world of dust that wished me death, The granite ridges risen in greed, I retched and panted to be freed, And it may be I died indeed. … Yet April comes, and here am I.
But the strongest of its offspring, I think, is Joseph Auslander's An Eye, a poem in which, after struggling with the paradox of the world's cruelty and its pastoral beauty, Auslander wins a “desperate peace” in the conclusion,
You have stared into your heart And found your brother's counterpart: For every stain upon his head You shall bleed as he has bled, And the dead shall bury the dead.
This poem, indeed, has inherited from its young poetic mother a strain of bleak courage which was not apparent in her features for some years to come.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was eighteen years old when she used this expression in her poem Interim.
Edna St. Vincent Millay first became acquainted with the ocean when she was eight years old, for then her parents moved from the inland town of Union, Maine, to Rockport, on the seacoast.
Before Edna St. Vincent Millay entered Vassar as a Freshman she had read not only Vergil but Ovid and Catullus. At Vassar she continued her study with always increasing enthusiasm, and learned many Latin poems by heart. Her husband reports that her love of Latin poetry remains undiminished. He says, “I have noticed that whenever she is very much distressed over something, she will either sit down at the piano and play Bach or Beethoven, or take up a book of Latin poetry. This winter after she had finished eight months of hard work on the Baudelaire translations, she said, ‘Now I will have an absolute rest from all this,’ and proceeded to reread almost all of Vergil. For years she has not travelled anywhere without a book of Latin poetry in her suitcase; this goes in as automatically as her tooth brush. In the hotel fire, a month ago, which burned up not only her manuscripts, but many precious things, only one thing was lost for which she mourns: a tiny, scrubby, little leather-bound edition, published in the sixteenth century, of the poems of Catullus, Propertius, and Tibullus. This book was always on the night table beside her bed.” (Letter to the author, June 15, 1936.)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580
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 quails or wilts, the bounds of life contract accordingly—even the sky threatens to fall on him whose soul is flat. Despite its “counting-out rime” beginning, it has the quality of high seriousness which we associate only with the best poetry, and nowhere else with the work of a woman poet. The sheer power of expansion of the most meaningless setting, described in the prosiest language “three long mountains and a wood,” into all the experiences which the dreaming mind may seek is one of the most adroitly managed things in modern verse. Only one who had imagined great events and had fought against the bitter monotony of village surroundings could so graphically describe the sky descending or the horizon closing in like a rubber band. How true psychologically are the lines—
I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity Came down and settled over me. …
With this hysterical release comes the quieting realization that her thwarted individual desire is a universal thing wherever genius is confined and trapped. The language at once becomes warmer, the phrases more romantic, the imagery suggestive of Coleridge:
A man was starving in Capri; He moved his eyes and looked at me; I felt his gaze, I heard his moan, And knew his hunger as my own. …
Yet it is necessary that the soul perish and rot before it achieves rebirth. Most effective are the lines in which the poet describes the overpowered spirit settling into the earth and then crying in the rain for regeneration. More convincing is this than Henley's “Invictus” of the last resources of the spirit and the will. Since the prayer to God to live is a sign of the will to do so, the grave is washed away by the rain, and the soul is restored to its former surroundings, fortified, however, by the knowledge of its own strength. While Renascence is totally at variance with the spirit of much of Miss Millay's poetry, it is based upon a truth which her own struggle for recognition illustrates, and demonstrates for us again that the best poetry is a reworking of the poet's experience, and not a synthesis of what others have written or said.
Though Renascence is the star poem in the volume which houses it, there is other verse of merit in the same book. “God's World” is a companion piece, in which the poet finds in autumnal beauty a glory and such a passion “as stretcheth me apart.” This, we fancy, is the genuine Millay, though long since forgotten. Slighter, but still with its background of Maine reality, is the picture of the old woman who does not like the winter cold in “When the Year Grows Old.” This poem suggests how much Miss Millay derived from the ballads which were the delight of her childhood.
I cannot but remember When the year grows old— October—November— How she disliked the cold!
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2396
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.
With the ten dollars that Vincent had won for her graduation poem, she took a trip to Massachusetts in the summer of 1909 to visit her mother's family. Mr. Millay contributed an additional two dollars. In a long letter to Norma and Kathleen, she mentions seeing two musical comedies and describes a visit to an amusement park where she took her first ride on a roller coaster. This letter and others of the same period show that she has already developed an eye for concrete details, an alert ear for sounds, and a sense of quick imagery. “The phosphorus was dazzling: there were spots of it as big as saltines.”
When she returned to Camden, there was little for her to do, now that she had graduated from high school. It probably never occurred to her to go on to college—college was not in the pattern for poor young girls living in little Maine towns. She had taken shorthand and typing in high school and spent a summer vacation, when she was fifteen, working as a typist in a lawyer's office. After graduation she worked occasionally as a part-time typist for some of the summer tourists. With her mother still away nursing most of the time she kept house for her sisters, who were now in high school themselves. She practiced the piano and wrote poetry, but by now the possibility of becoming a professional musician had dimmed; and during the year following her graduation, she had passed the age limit of the St. Nicholas League, leaving her with no market for her poems.
In those days she had not yet achieved the sustained periods of beauty that would make such a memorable impression upon those who saw her. To the townspeople, she was “a little redhead” who, like so many adolescent girls, at times looked quite plain, at other times, lovely.
She seems to have had no interest in boys, nor they in her. Her sisters, on the other hand, were very popular. Boys flocked to the Millay household but the attraction was Norma and Kathleen, not Vincent. A large part of her social life centered around the girls' clubs to which she belonged—groups like The Genethod, the S. A. T., and the Huckleberry Finners. This last club consisted of a group of girls who read aloud to each other from Huckleberry Finn and other books by Mark Twain. After each reading, refreshments were served. The Genethod held their meetings in the parlor of the chapel; they sang, played games, and toasted marshmallows over an open fire. Two of the girls served as hostesses. The S. A. T., standing for Saturday Afternoon Tea, consisted of about six members who took a walk each Saturday afternoon, winding up the excursion with tea served at one of the member's homes.
Vincent took an active part in all these festivities, but this kind of life was quite obviously not enough for a girl of her temperament and talents. Though she was known in town as a bright and lively girl, in whom “the spirit of happiness … brightly burned,” there were times now when she grew dispirited and restless. She would go off alone to climb Mt. Battie or Megunticook, or to spend hours looking out over the sea. The limitations of life in Camden must have begun to close in upon her. Both she and her mother must have wondered what was to come next and where it was to come from.
Something of how she felt may have been expressed in a long poem she began to write during this period. She was eighteen when she first started Renascence. Though a poet's work cannot be taken literally as a direct account of his own life, nevertheless it often contains reflections of his experiences and moods, and there are overtones in Renascence of Vincent's life at the time of its writing. She had come to a kind of claustrophobic dead-end: there seemed to be nothing on her horizon, nothing in her life but the mountains and sea of Camden. Beautiful though they were, they were boundaries beyond which she could not penetrate.
In the poem she says that no matter where she looked, she came
Back to where I'd started from; And all I saw 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.
Everything seems to be hemming her in. Not only the mountains, but the sky, all space, all time, the universe itself with all its sorrows and evils seem to press down upon her until she longs for the relief of death.
She imagines herself dead but the sound of the rain pattering on the roof of her grave makes her remember how sparkling and fragrant the earth will be after the rain. She feels an aching longing to be and remain alive—a longing which will never leave her. The rain turns into a storm, and in a violent, thunderous crash of release she finds herself alive and above the earth once more. She hugs the trees and ground, recognizing and accepting with delight the living world. This to her is life's ultimate good, and perhaps its final purpose:
God, I can push the grass apart And lay my finger on Thy heart!
Her world breaks out of its stifling limitations. It is wide and rich for those who have the breadth of vision or depth of soul to see it. The last lines are filled with the confidence and affirmation that flowed beneath even her most despairing moods:
The world stands out on either side No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,— No higher than the soul is high. The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
Renascence would have been a tremendous achievement for a poet of any age. For a young girl it was phenomenal. One reader was to call it “part birdsong, part essay in philosophy.” It is the overture to all her later work, embodying what were to become her principal themes and techniques. It expresses her feelings about death and her joy at being alive. It is a lyrical rhapsody on nature. At the same time, it reveals her early awareness of suffering and injustice. Her language is simple and concrete, making the dramatic climaxes of the rhymed couplets seem all the more startling.
She worked on the poem for a long time. It was still not quite complete in the early spring of 1912 when her father, who was living in Kingman, Maine, became seriously ill. He had pneumonia, complicated by asthma and a bad heart; and she went to help care for him, taking along the unfinished poem.
While Vincent was in Kingman, Mrs. Millay, who was on a case, noticed one night while watching beside her sleeping patient, a magazine that had been thrown into the wastebasket. Picking it up, she leafed through the pages. A notice caught her eye, and she read it through with mounting interest. It was an announcement of a forthcoming book of poetry, The Lyric Year, an anthology which would contain the hundred best poems written in the United States during the year. Three prizes, one of five hundred dollars and two of two hundred and fifty dollars each, were to be offered for the best contributions. Poets were invited to send in their work, not only for the prizes, but also for inclusion in the anthology.
“Now maybe there's a chance for Vincent,” thought Mrs. Millay. She wrote her daughter about the competition, urging her to come home at once and submit some of her work. Vincent returned to Camden, finished Renascence, and sent it, along with several other poems, to The Lyric Year.
She was wild with hope. When she told her friend, Abbie Huston Evans, about it, she cried, “Oh, Abbie, wouldn't it be wonderful if I should get in that book!”
Abbie, looking at the excited young girl and aware of her capacity for being hurt, thought, “You poor child.” If Vincent failed in this the letdown would be painful. Yet here she was, one young girl among the thousands of poets entering the contest. The possibility of being accepted for the book, let alone of receiving a prize, seemed infinitely remote.
The first announcement of The Lyric Year had appeared in 1911. Since there were so few outlets for the work of American poets, the news stirred great enthusiasm. Manuscripts piled up in the office of the publisher, Mitchell Kennerley. By the time the deadline came around in 1912, ten thousand poems had been received.
Among the judges of the contest was Ferdinand Earle, the editor of the publication. One weekend Earle, assisted by a friend, Professor Donner, was plowing his way through a heap of the manuscripts. Donner, after reading one of them, laughed and tossed it into a wastebasket containing the verse that was to be discarded.
“What's so amusing?” asked Earle. Donner leaned over the wastebasket, picked up the manuscript he had just thrown into it, and read:
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.
Bursting into laughter again, he tossed the pages back into the wastebasket. But Earle's ear had been caught by something. “Hey! That sounds good!” he protested. Donner reached into the basket once more and continued to read aloud from another section of the poem:
The world stands out on either side No wider than the heart is wide;
“It doesn't sound so bad after all!” he remarked, and went back to the beginning to read it straight through, aloud, not once but twice. To Earle, after all the “insipid and drivelling nonsense” he had been wading through, it seemed like a revelation. He wrote at once to the poet, addressing her as “E. St. Vincent Millay, Esq., Dear Sir,” saying he rated her poem so highly that it would undoubtedly receive the first prize of five hundred dollars.
Vincent had been out picking blueberries when the letter arrived. When she returned from the pasture with her pail full, her mother was waiting on the doorstep, holding the letter in her hand. Vincent opened and read it. To the Millays, who could not even imagine what a hundred dollars in one lump would look like, it seemed like the gold at the foot of the rainbow. To Mrs. Millay it was the answer to all her hopes and ambitions; to Vincent it was the beginning of everything she had hardly dared dream about.
She rushed to tell Abbie the news. Jumping up and down, she cried, “Oh, think, Abbie, I'm going to be in that book!”
She was to be in the book, all right, but unfortunately Ferdinand Earle had been premature about the prize. He had practically promised it to Mr. E. Vincent Millay before the other two judges of the contest had had a chance to consider the entry. When they did, they disagreed with him. Yes, it was a fine poem, but no, it was not the best. It was not even, in their opinion, one of the three best and hence would not receive even one of the lesser prizes. It was given fourth place.
Vincent was bitterly disappointed. To have had the fantastic sum of five hundred dollars so nearly in her hands and then have it evaporate, was almost too much to bear. Still, it was very good to have been accepted at all, and in the meantime, before its actual publication, Renascence achieved another kind of victory for its composer.
In the summer of 1912 Norma had taken a job as waitress in the Whitehall Inn, a big resort hotel. Every summer a ball was given for the waitresses, who were daughters of the local gentry. Norma invited Vincent to attend as her guest but Vincent, shy about such matters, refused. Norma insisted and, in the end, won. Vincent went to the party. Toward the end of the evening Norma won another victory. The girls had all been called upon to display their talents. Some, including Norma, sang; others performed on the piano. At Norma's coaxing, Vincent played the piano, including in her repertoire some songs of her own composition. And finally, a small, slight, shy figure, speaking in a low and musical voice, she recited her poem, Renascence.
In the audience was one of the summer visitors to Camden, Miss Caroline B. Dow, head of the National Training School of the Young Women's Christian Association in New York City. She was deeply impressed with the poem and with the poet herself. Until late that night, Miss Dow talked with Vincent. When she learned that Vincent had already graduated from high school and was doing little more than marking time, she urged her to go on to college. She herself, she promised, would do all she could to get the necessary financial assistance.
The world was at last beginning to open out. Perhaps the impact of Renascence after its appearance in The Lyric Year might have taken her out into the world even if Caroline Dow hadn't “discovered” her. But the particular path opened by Miss Dow provided an immediate entry into a fresh social experience and a new intellectual climate.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2159
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 with problems of death, duty, and world-design. Aspects of the poet's genius later to be much more fully demonstrated are revealed in other poems of the book: the intense, observant worshiper of beauty, and the girl who, in sonnets and brief lyrics, catches the nuances of feminine loves and sorrows.
Renascence, ([Collected Poems], 3-13) a substantial work (214 lines) in tetrameter couplets, falls into four sections. The introductory section (lines 1-28) emphasizes the limitations of the environment and the desire to reach out to freedom. But for the as yet undeveloped soul, the sky itself is “not so grand,” only an arm-length above: “And reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed to feel it touch the sky.” The great identification-experience of the second section (lines 29-102) is then developed, from the pressing down of Infinity upon the poet and the holding of a glass before her “shrinking sight” “Until it seemed I must behold / Immensity made manifold,” through the consequent awareness of the workings of the Universe and the suffering of all the world's pain and sin, to the capitulation, death, and sinking into the grave of the “tortured soul.” In the third section (lines 103-80), with the falling of rain upon the grave, the poet gradually feels again a longing for life and beauty that is finally voiced in the vehement prayer “O God, I cried, give me new birth, / And put me back upon the earth!” The grave is washed away by a torrent of rain, the senses are restored, and the poet is reborn: “I breathed my soul back into me.” The fourth and last division (lines 181-214), like the first, is short; it expresses exultant joy in earthly beauty, and even deeper rapture in the new knowledge of God, and the conclusion that the experience justifies: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide; / Above the world is stretched the sky,— / No higher than the soul is high.”
Renascence opens with simple, little-girl language; then, as Louis Untermeyer wrote: “mystery becomes articulate. It is as if a child playing … had, in the midst of prattling, uttered some shining and terrible truth.”1 The terrifying vastness of the universe and the awesome complexity of individual forms issuing from the divine energy—“Immensity made manifold”—are represented in the second part with stimulating, specific words, as in “And brought unmuffled to my ears / The gossiping of friendly spheres, / The creaking of the tented sky, / The ticking of eternity.” Such specific terms and metaphors that they imply brought praise of the poem for its remarkable freshness. The imagined situation of the finite human being taking on the omniscience of God is extremely striking. No doubt many people have toyed with this idea: “I saw and heard, and knew at last / The How and Why of all things, past, / And present, and forevermore.” But to render the experience with anything like justice in some fifty lines is a large undertaking, and the poet met the challenge.
The reader is made aware of the evil of “the Universe, cleft to the core,” through the metaphor of the “great wound” (which evidently is to be imagined as a gash inflicted after a deadly snake bite)—“… and could not pluck / My lips away till I had drawn / All venom out.” Then follows “infinite remorse of soul.” Though the poem contains many examples of effective run-on lines, the enjambment is especially fine in the succeeding passage, the stresses falling on the key words:
All sin was of my sinning, all Atoning mine, and mine the gall Of all regret. Mine was the weight Of every brooded wrong, the hate That stood behind each envious thrust, Mine every greed, mine every lust.
The passing from the “all” to the “every” is particularly intense, as expressed in examples of death by fire, of starvation, of shipwreck—when “A thousand screams the heavens smote; / And every scream tore through my throat.” Then the poem returns to the general: hurt and death create compassion; but in fact it is the blended elements of godhead, omnisentience plus love, justice, and pity: “All suffering mine, and mine its rod; / Mine, pity like the pity of God—” that prove too much for the “finite Me.” For how can one—especially when young, at the threshold of adult years—face such a world? Better to die than to participate in a world so poisoned with suffering and sin. At last the “anguished spirit” is free; the poet sinks into the earth and enjoys the peace of death.
Then upon the silent, lonely grave there falls the “pitying rain”: “I lay and heard each pattering hoof / Upon my lowly, thatchèd roof. …” And the poet develops greater love for the “friendly sound” of the rain—indeed, for all the “multi-colored, multi-form, / Belovèd beauty” of earth. All through this section the poet uses alliteration boldly and varies the iambic foot with great vigor and success, especially in relation to run-on lines:
To drink into my eyes the shine Of every slanting silver line, To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze From drenched and dripping apple-trees … Until the world with answering mirth Shakes joyously, and each round drop Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
After the prayer—“And let the heavy rain, down-poured / In one big torrent, set me free—” the answer comes in terms of several implied metaphors: the “rush / Of herald wings,” “the vibrant string / Of my ascending prayer,” “the startled storm-clouds reared on high”—until at the tremendous climax, the feeling heightened with heavy alliteration, spondaic feet, and assonance, “… the big rain in one black wave / Fell from the sky and struck my grave.”
After this crashing crescendo and a dramatic pause, the poem resumes pianissimo—“I know not how such things can be,”—explaining how the senses of smell, hearing, and feeling return; and then, climactically, comes the sense of sight:
And all at once the heavy night Fell from my eyes and I could see! A drenched and dripping apple-tree, A last long line of silver rain, A sky grown clear and blue again.
The enjambment preceding fell gives the word a great force at just the right place; just right, too, are the three lines that follow: each contains a separate observation going from small to large, and each has its distinctive alliteration. With beauty and sweetness, “a miracle / Of orchard-breath,” the soul returns.
The joy that follows is emphasized with dramatic inversion: “Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I / And hailed the earth with such a cry / As is not heard save from a man / Who has been dead, and lives again.” The Lazarus-ecstasy is quickly modulated to adoration and confidence; the soul reborn is also re-formed, or transformed:
O God, I cried, no dark disguise Can e'er hereafter hide from me Thy radiant identity! Thou canst not move across the grass But my quick eyes will see Thee pass. … … God, I can push the grass apart And lay my finger on Thy heart!
The experience has been apocalyptic. In spite of dark disguises (the evil shot through the world), God is everywhere. The poet's feeling of renewed certainty resembles that of Adam, who, “recall'd / To life prolong'd,” was assured by Michael of God's omnipresence: “and of his presence many a signe / Still following thee” (Paradise Lost, XI, 330-31, 351-52). The poet concludes from her experience that life is not to be estimated in terms of material environment: the dimensions of one's life are commensurate with heart-breadth (sympathy) and soul-height (spiritual elevation).
Although the poem is in the transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Whitman, the simplicity and mysticism of Renascence made readers think of Blake and Coleridge. Early in his correspondence with Millay, Ficke made inquiries concerning her knowledge of these poets. Though she had read Coleridge, she denied that Renascence was written in imitation of “The Ancient Mariner”—“And I never even heard of William Blake. (Should I admit it, I wonder?)” She vigorously asserted her independence: “As to the line you speak of—‘Did you get it from a book?’ indeed! I'll slap your face. I never get anything from a book. I see things with my own eyes, just as if they were the first eyes that ever saw, and then I set about to tell, as best I can, just what I see.”
Harriet Monroe praised Renascence highly: “The surprise of youth over the universe, the emotion of youth at encountering inexplicable infinities—that is expressed in this poem, and it is a big thing to express. Moreover, it is expressed with a certain triumphant joy, the very mood of exultant youth; and the poet gets a certain freshness into a measure often stilted.”2 Since the danger of sing-song monotony in iambic tetrameter couplets is notorious, Millay took a considerable risk in using the measure; she invited comparison, for example, with Milton's “L'Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” Marvell, and Emerson. Her work, sensitively varied in rhythm, in enjambment, and in the placing of the caesura, endures the comparison very well.
If Renascence owes anything to the example of other poets, they are probably Marvell and Browning. When at Barnard, Millay wrote to Ficke: “You didn't know that Andrew Marvel [sic] is an old love of mine and that his Coy Mistress is one of my favorites.” Line 116 of Renascence, “A grave is such a quiet place,” inevitably reminds one of Marvell's “The grave's a fine and private place”; and there is something of Marvell's metaphysical tone in lines 29-44. Browning's “Easter-Day” also recounts an apocalyptic experience; the speaker becomes aware of the world on the verge of Judgment-Day—
… the utmost walls Of time, about to tumble in And end the world—
and he boldly chooses the world—
It was so beautiful, so near Thy world. … Nor did I refuse To look above the transient boon Of time; but it was hard so soon As in a short life, to give up Such beauty: I could put the cup Undrained of half its fulness, by; But to renounce it utterly, —That was too hard!
The feeling resembles that in Renascence; Browning's poem differs from Millay's in having a debate between the human speaker and God, who scornfully allows him all the opulence of earth and “its shows.” The speaker finally rejects earth, hoping to reach “the Better Land!” “Then did the Form expand, expand— / I knew Him through the dread disguise …” (XXXII). The phrasing is reminiscent of Millay's “dark disguise.” Browning's poem is also written in tetrameter couplets, and there are some similarities in versification, particularly in Section XV of “Easter-Day.” Both poems use iambic tetrameter with a good deal of repetition, alliteration, and enjambment.3 But Renascence is not set up in terms of a contrast between earth and some “Better Land.” The basic difference in these poems is that between Victorian orthodoxy and transcendentalist pantheism.
In a few places where Millay's diction falls to triteness, she attempts to set things right by crying out with strained vehemence. Some padding and strain are especially noticeable in lines 49-55, with “would fain pluck … nay! … Ah, fearful pawn: … paid I toll. …” She is also betrayed by the self-elf rhyme into the fatuousness of lines 161-62: “A sound as of some joyous elf / Singing sweet songs to please himself.” Another weakness is what Edward Davison called the “girlish pretty-pretty-ness” of “I 'most could touch it with my hand!” But these are few and minor blemishes in a fine poem which with sense impressions of extraordinary precision (“The creaking of the tented sky, / The ticking of Eternity”); with high metaphorical voltage (“each pattering hoof” of the rain); and with a beautiful matching of sound and sense, communicates reverberantly to the imagination a tremendous yet subtle experience. Untermeyer called it “possibly the most astonishing performance of this generation”; Floyd Dell found it “comparable in its power and vision to ‘The Hound of Heaven’”; and Davison said: “No girl of her age has ever written a better poem.”4
The New Era in American Poetry (New York, 1919), p. 272.
“First Books of Verse,” Poetry, XIII (December, 1918), 167.
Donald Smalley, “Millay's ‘Renascence’ and Browning's ‘Easter Day,’” Bulletin of the Maine Library Association, III (February, 1942), 10-12.
Untermeyer, American Poetry Since 1900 (New York, 1923), p. 214; Dell, The Literary Spotlight, p. 86; Davison, “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” English Journal, XVI (1927), pp. 675-76.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10669
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.
—Edmund Wilson, I Thought of Daisy1
The poems have an intimacy which makes the reader recoil, even if he is susceptible to this flirtation. What is worse, it is the intimacy of the actress and (off-stage) the femme fatale. All this has been said before, and it is said best in the poems. The center of her experience is love, but it is the most desperately middleclass love poetry one can imagine, with neither rough-and-tumble nor courtliness nor high sacrifice. But it rings so true—that makes it worse—and it is so well said, with all its horrid mannerisms; it is such a parody of the great love poets that one is dissolved in tears.
—Karl Shapiro, Review2
Long ago, when I was mooning and dreaming through the pigtail period, I used to think how fine it would be to be the greatest woman poet since Sappho. The audacity of youth—of near-childhood—would have scorned any lower goal. …
… Always one feels the poet's complete and unabashed sincerity. She says neither the expected thing nor the “daring” thing, but she says the incisive true thing as she has discovered it and feels it.
—Harriet Monroe, “Comment: Edna St. Vincent Millay”3
Are there no grown-up pleasures in the texts of Edna St. Vincent Millay? Can we only resist as we read her, more firmly than she resists in the drama of her theatrical poetry, an embarrassing, seductive—annihilating—identification, an imaginary coalescence with the poet, or Art, or the Other? Or as she is mastered by the mastery of form, submitting deliciously to be consumed by the convention, the language of poetic traditions, do we too abandon ourselves to the clever, childish play? If so, if we become thus unself-conscious, there are moments then of public exposure, where the spectacle is penetrated by a refusal (which may itself be phallic, patriarchal, perhaps a revised Puritanism) demanding that such play at least be new, productive, intellectual—profitable. We wish above all not to be embarrassed—not to be “sentimental.”
Like the rebellious Jo in Little Women, Millay does not escape the sentimental plot.4 Millay's boyish posturing as “Vincent” scarcely disguises her girlish allegiances to a world governed by women, especially the mother, and her mastery of traditional male literary forms at the historical moment of modernism serves only to put her into a tradition which has lost its cultural endorsement, now become the genteel codes of women writing for women. Ransom says Millay is “the best of the poets who are ‘popular’ and loved by Circles, Leagues, Lyceums, and Round Tables,” and Delmore Schwartz echoes the horror of such fame: “The late John Wheelwright remarked that Miss Millay had sold free love to the women's clubs.”5
The contradictory concept of the Mother we have inherited from the nineteenth century at once gives woman intolerable power (from her symbiotic relationship with the child) and a secondary, almost obliterated place in the power structure of the culture, as represented, importantly, by Freud's handling of the Oedipal narration. Monique Plaza, among others, argues that Freud's Oedipal drama must be seen in the context of the history of Motherhood.6 For the story of growing up according to Freud does not set forth a clear sequence for women to advance to maturity. Teresa de Lauretis gives us a version of the tale which underlines its difficulties: The girl must accept sacrifice, a lack of power, passivity; growing up means becoming the sacrificial mother.7
Millay's poetry is caught up in these issues. For her (passive?) repetition of conventional literary forms, the former gestures of power, is somehow feminine and slavish. When the modern father abandons his rituals, religions, perhaps the departure of the father leaves the structure to be maintained by the mother; the pain then of submitting to a love sonnet is the pain of the powerless, of repeating an ideological surrender to that which gives no power: except over the child. As Sara Ruddick says in her essay on “Maternal Thinking,” “Central to our experience of our mothers and our mothering is a poignant conjunction of power and powerlessness.”8
Millay's poetry frequently seems to lure us into an easy, symbiotic merging, an identification. This identification may be usefully seen (as Teresa de Lauretis suggests) in terms of a narrative rather than the specular image. Freud conceived of masculinity and femininity in the narrative development of the Oedipal drama, and only secondarily in visual terms.9 The reader, like the spectator of the cinema, may take up the position of the subject constructed by the drama. For a female subject, however, as for a female spectator, this position is crossed by contradiction.
One of the problems for readers of Millay is that there is a constant obtrusive slippage about the position of the subject, a slippage which threatens to violate modernist conventions of literariness. Do we see the “I” of Millay's poems as linguistic, objectified, dramatized? A persona? Or as a self, a subject, a proper (historical) person? The poet? The object of fame? Millay? Of course all of these questions are bound up in various ways with the question of gender too: is the subject of the poem male or female, masculine or feminine? Millay's refusal to be “consistent” either in developing some universal perspective, an attitude, or even a metapoetic (about which modernist critics of Millay complained) may force her reader to abandon differences, to take up the position of the spectator at the drama of character. Then Millay's poetry becomes a gesture of definition enacted at the margins of identity, and the self she does and does not define—does and does not seduce us into taking as the subject of poetry—is the character of the Woman as Poet. That is, her poetry wishes us to see reborn or recreated before our eyes, an “I” which is Edna St. Vincent Millay, Poetess. One question is, then, whether this conjuring of voice in the stead of “writing” makes Millay's poetry an unpleasant and mere recital of all-too-public sentiment. Geoffrey Hartman says, “writing simplified into image of voice is no danger: it merely reinstates the Greek desire for visibility.”10
But visibility—a place among the poet's statues in the literary hall of fame—was precisely what Millay, “greatest woman poet since Sappho,” needed to accomplish. Harriet Monroe's unusually gushy accolade only underscores the great gap between “Greek desire,” Sappho, and any modern poetic tradition for women. As Susan Gubar has recently suggested, the influence of Sappho on modernist women shows their need for precursors, some kind of literary ancestry, a “fantastic collaboration” with a missing past.11
How does one grow up to be a woman and a poet? What kind of transformation or conversion is required? What is the female version of the plot? The famous poem which won Millay a place as “poet” with her first publication (perhaps too soon) is a liminal narrative of rebirth, Renascence.12 It is a poem of adolescence, but it is also a narrative which announces the major issues of Millay's future poetry, the issues of separation and identity. In Renascence, a terrible encounter with overwhelming natural intimacy buries the speaker in a womb/tomb, and the rebirth of the subject involves an escape from an engulfing, undefined female body, as from the immersion (underground) in nature. We may read this plot again and again in Millay's poetry, for it involves her historical encounter with the contradiction of the woman as poet. The particularity of the poem's speaker is overwhelmed by the scene of poetry. The feminine figure of the cultural Imagination looms threateningly over the girlish hyperbole, transforming the childish excesses, the imitations and the mimes, into the oracular musings of a Goddess, Lover of Art, Poetess.13 What appears in this poem as a private encounter with the transcendental turns out to represent public events, the same capture by an ideology which equated Woman/Other/Nature/Poetry and sometimes God which was Millay's fate from the moment of that poem's publication in the 1912 Lyric Year, with its attendant “discovery” of her, and the publicity's ensuing creation of her image as the American Poetess. Millay's great success with this poem, making the rest of her career seem an anticlimax, came in part because the poem fit the hopes of middle-class readers. But can a woman poet afford to reject precursors when her struggle is all toward entering the lineage of poets?
What is left over from Renascence once we have acknowledged the familiar (frequently anthologized) comforts of what appears to be a feminized version of Emersonian resurrections? There is, perhaps, a difference, something besides the threats and reassurances of inspiring verse. The Oedipal struggle of child and parent is translated into several registers—the self and mother nature, the sinner and God, the poet and romantic precursors—and at every level the seductions of identification contend against successful separation. The difference of Renascence as it enters literary history is a failure to become fully “different” or reborn.
The plot of Renascence engages the speaker of the poem in a death and rebirth which may be read in Oedipal terms, as a crisis in the relationship of a child to a maternal principle.
However, the daughter/poet of Renascence cannot simply solve the problem of identity by separating from the other. The reciprocity of speaker and world is both threatening and necessary, an enclosure of the senses, immediate. The circular boundary of the horizon is also a temporal return “Back to where I'd started from,” to a womb-like enclosure. Distance between self and the world collapses—“things seemed so small,” even the distance to the sky, “I see the top:” and “reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed, to feel it touch the sky.”
Critical to Millay's struggle in Renascence is an ambiguity about the gender of the Other. She undergoes what seems at first to be a Leda-like rape by the Infinite: “I screamed, and—lo!—infinity / Came down and settled over me.” But in the middle, the overwhelming is an imaginary identification with an Other which rather than violently establishing difference, enforces sameness, a joining to an Other (a mOther?) which at once defines her and forces her knowledge of a universal poisonous (or poisoned?) wound. The encounter suggests the mirror stage in its visual mode of identification:
And, pressing of the Undefined The definition on my mind, Held up before my eyes a glass Through which my shrinking sight did pass …
The Universe is “cleft to the core,” not phallic, and the “Undefined” is like the great female body of the Mother. The self's return is not to the breast, however, but to a “great wound” she must suck (the vagina? the place of the female “castration”?):
The Universe, cleft to the core, Lay open to my probing sense, That, sickening, I would fain pluck thence But could not,—nay! but needs must suck At the great wound, and could not pluck My lips away till I had drawn All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn: For my omniscience paid I toll In infinite remorse of soul.
The sucking at the wound is an identifying with pain—self as suffering and compassion, a universal sympathy: “All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret.” The other side of the sentimental promise appears here—the reminder that the pleasures of the ecstatic and the abject are akin, perhaps even incestuous. The speaker's omniscience is the opposite of a differentiated and mediated selfhood. It is an “Atoning” or “At-one-ing” which makes castration the universal principal. There is no “masculine,” or “symbolic” order, no limit, no finite, no mediation.
The look of the other constructs a self with a wound, a lack: it is the recognition scene of the sentimental.
A man was starving in Capri; He moved his eyes and looked at me; I felt his gaze, I heard his moan, And knew his hunger as my own.
This scene of sympathetic identification has a long literary history, and in particular a strong connection with women's literature, because it is the very type of the Sentimental moment. It has the chief characteristics described, for example, by R. F. Brissenden in his work on the sentimental novel.14 The encounter resembles the sympathetic pause of the sentimental traveler to be found even in Wordsworth, but it is an emotional witnessing which the modernists rejected. And we ourselves, postmodern readers, perhaps feminists, feel uneasy about this familiar scene. The site of recognition, where lack appears, is also the site of what Ransom calls “the limitation of Miss Millay … her lack of intellectual interest, or masculinity.” This lack is not just “feminine” for him, but connected to the sentimental:
I used a conventional symbol, which I hope was not objectionable, when I phrased this lack of hers: deficiency in masculinity. It is true that some male poets are about as deficient; not necessarily that they are undeveloped intellectually, but that they conceive poetry as a sentimental or feminine exercise. Not deficient in it are some female poets, I suppose, like Miss Marianne Moore.15
But in Renascence, the speaker rejects the encounter with suffering and lack, and Millay thought she was rebelling against the sentimental with her entire career. Her efforts to escape the confinement of the feminine all seem to entail her abject return. This maternal moment of omniscience brings contact with the horrible, the abject, the wounded, the suffering. Why would anyone want to have anything to do with the Infinite (or any other Other) after such an experience? Indeed, in Millay's story, the weight of it at last crushes her down into the grave, exactly where she longed to be. However, Millay's “death” (like her rebirth) does not involve rejecting the earth, passivity, or Mother. It is only then (her soul having fled), that she receives the kinds of motherly attention a child might wish for:
Deep in the earth I rested now. Cool is its hand upon the brow And soft its breast beneath the head Of one who is so gladly dead.
This retreat to the womb/tomb is what makes sound and life desirable again. “A grave is such a quiet place”—and, as the calling up of Marvell's line reminds us, also a place where none embrace. It is a retreat from desire itself, a withdrawal into aphanisis.16 Again, the plot is from one angle familiar enough—death reminds us how good it is to be alive (and when it is too late we will desire): “I would I were alive again / To kiss the fingers of the rain.” The “solution” to the death of desire here appears to be a recognition of loss—and a reawakening to the desire for life. The speaker turns from a horror of being touched to embracing the world, from an identification with all suffering and all lack to a—what? An acceptance of suffering? Or the recognition of what is missing, the wounding—to an assumption of lack? The turn and rebirth of Millay's poem may dramatize a questionable difference. The abject and the ecstatic seem here to be close, two versions of the same marginal relationship to the world, to the Other. The poem excludes figuration as it allegorizes the process of birth/rebirth on the analogy of mother/Nature. The earth does not provide the poet with a text of objects, but rather remains the intimate Other, and separation from this other remains the unresolved issue. For it is the regret, the sense of loss—a desire to return to the past which we might call sentimental, (or “love”)—which motivates the rebirth of this poem, a rebirth as return.
O, multi-coloured, multi-form, Belovèd beauty over me, That I shall never, never see Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold, That I shall never more behold!—
The reader must become as a child to return to this ecstasy—the pleasures of this text—they come from loss of the familiar, and not from the indefinite teasing of desire. At the moment of absence comes the subject's movement—not to control absence by the “fort-da” of symbolicity, but to return to the “belovèd beauty” of the past, of childhood. The “reborn” subject avoids death by submitting to a “God” who is the earth. It is the acquiescence to a mastering ideology, a decisive abjection—schizo-salvation (“like one gone mad”):
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I And hailed the earth with such a cry As is not heard save from a man Who has been dead, and lives again. About the trees my arms I wound; Like one gone mad I hugged the ground; I raised my quivering arms on high; I laughed and laughed into the sky; Till at my throat a strangling sob Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb Sent instant tears into my eyes: O God, I cried, no dark disguise Can e'er hereafter hide from me Thy radiant identity!
Is this jouissance? Of the writer? Of the reader? If Jacques Lacan had read it, would it seem like the statue of St. Teresa, would it seem obvious that she is “coming”?17 But no—Lacan finds no female ecstasy in language. Is it impossible for the poetess to act as the statue of herself, portraying for us the event of her own (female) ecstasy? If so, then to whom does the ecstasy belong? To a subject now fixed in the male position? To any “man / Who has been dead, and lives again”? To no one, because it is not material, not in the writing (or reading)? To everyone, because, as Julia Kristeva argues, literature is the signifier of the abject?18 For this poem would make its subject the signifier of literature (a poet).
Kristeva argues that there is an intimate relationship of jouissance to the abject, that “jouissance alone causes the abject to exist as such.” But in Renascence, ecstasy follows upon a release from the “compassion” that identifies the poet with all sin and suffering, that is, upon a release from the abject, as “all,” or object of knowledge, to immersion. Kristeva writes:
… as in jouissance where the object of desire, known as object a in Lacan's terminology, bursts with the shattered mirror where the ego gives up its image in order to contemplate itself in the Other, there is nothing either objective or objectal to the abject. It is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that Other, having become alter ego, drops so that “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.19
Whose existence is forfeited in Renascence? The reader? The maternal enclosure of all? The female poet become male speaker?
In contemporary literature, the sinning word itself lures us into the jouissance of abjection, its sublimation, as the sacred once did. Kristeva writes:
At that level of downfall in subject and object, the abject is the equivalent of death. And writing, which allows one to recover, is equal to a resurrection. The writer, then, finds himself marked out for identification with Christ, if only in order for him, too, to be rejected, ab-jected.20
But in Millay's poem, the abjection from without, not within, points to a structure more archaic than the resurrection of the word. The body of Millay's poem is not a sort of “carnal remainder.” In Renascence, the remainder is a reminder, an excess, the round, not flat soul. Her word, that is, refuses to sin, re-presents the speaker as the one who repeats dramatically within bounds, within the codes, the one who masters—and is mastered by—the identity of the conventional.
Edmund Wilson, in his “Epilogue, 1952: Edna St. Vincent Millay,” says that Renascence sets forth the terms of Millay's life, portraying the experience of “claustrophobia” from which she frequently suffered.21 This eternal return of the sensation of enclosure which appears as the opening of the poem may also be connected to her fame as a “poetess,” as a member of the tradition, ably reciting and repeating the forms of literature. If Millay appears to be torn between a loss of self to an archaic maternal principle and a loss of self to an identification with the literary fathers and a male tradition, it is perhaps because she maintains herself on the borders of literature, in the position of the extra one, the child, the girl, at the limits of inside / outside where she is that which exceeds the experience, that which is more than the (circular and repetitive) plot.
Associated with the turn and return of the poet's rebirth is a transformation both of poet and God to masculine positions. As she comes to life again, she sounds a cry like a man, “a man / Who has been dead, and lives again.” And the final lines of the poem may almost be read to declare that a masculine soul is required to keep from further scenes of obliteration—distance and difference and the pronouns “he” and “him” must be maintained:
But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by
With this hardness “The soul can split the sky in two, / And let the face of God shine through.”
The issue of her gender as poet defines the staging of Millay's work from this beginning. The speaker of Renascence is reborn into the likeness of the poet's soul, one who is not flat—but it is a likeness only. The reader remembers her past. She remains a border character, a girl who writes like a man. Perhaps as a joke, Arthur Davison Ficke wrote in his letter to Ferdinande Earle praising the poem: “No sweet young thing of twenty ever ended a poem precisely where this one ends: it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that.”22 Millay wrote to Ficke:
Mr. Earle has acquainted me with your wild surmises. Gentlemen: I must convince you of your error; my reputation is at stake. I simply will not be a “brawny male.” Not that I have an aversion to brawny males; au contraire, au contraire. But I cling to my femininity!
Is it that you consider brain and brawn so inseparable?—I have thought otherwise. Still, that is all a matter of personal opinion. But, gentlemen: when a woman insists that she is twenty, you must not, must not call her forty-five. That is more than wicked; it is indiscreet.
Mr. Ficke, you are a lawyer. I am very much afraid of lawyers. Spare me, kind sir! Take into consideration my youth—for I am indeed but twenty—and my fragility—for “I do protest I am a maid”—and—sleuth me no sleuths!
Seriously: I thank you also for the compliment you have unwittingly given me. For tho I do not yet aspire to be forty-five and brawny, if my verse so represents me, I am more gratified than I can say.23
Like the poem, the letter shows a doubleness about the gender of the poet. There are the pleasures of girlish cleverness and wit—a real mastery of a certain coquettish use of language, which nevertheless might also be called a clinging to femininity. This cleverness, this mastery, this clinging characterizes Millay in all of the letters she writes in her life—one could argue, as Sandra Perlmutter has, that she never ceases to be this Girl in her poetry as well.24 There is also the desire to be in the position of mastery with respect to poetry—that is, to be male. The “compliment” for which she thanks Ficke and Bynner, for which she is “more gratified than I can say,” is not that her verse represents her as forty-five and brawny, of course; we must make the substitution of the omitted term and read: “For tho I do not yet aspire to be male …”25 In this question of gender and identification, then, let us hesitate, withdraw, and look around again at the rebirth (from what womb?) at issue here. What does it mean for Ficke and Bynner to say she writes like a man? What does it mean to say she writes like a woman? One way of reading Renascence, and the traditional poetics adopted by Millay, would be to say she has tried to deny the place of the woman, or escape it, and to write from the place of the man, of the male subject. (If so, according to Ransom and the other modernist critics, she failed to be sufficiently masculine.) What relationships to the “phallic mother” are implicated here? The omniscient (motherly) Infinite in Millay's poem generates several complexities of gender. Jane Gallop offers a convenient summary of the differing positions of male and female implied by the Lacanian view of the subject's relationship to language:
Woman is … the figuration of phallic “lack”; she is a hole. By these mean and extreme phallic proportions, the whole is to man as man is to the hole.
… The “whole” in relation to which man is lacking has its basis in what in Freudian terms is called the “phallic mother.” The “whole” is the pre-Oedipal mother, apparently Omnipotent and omniscient, until the “discovery of her castration.” the discovery that she is not a “whole,” but a “hole.” So the woman (phallic mother) is to the man what the man is to the (castrated) woman. It is not that men and women are simply unequal, but they occupy the same position in different harmonic ratios, at different moments. The effect is a staggering of position.26
That is to say, the “phallic mother” or figure of omniscience and the castrated woman or figure of lack represent the opposite poles of male positioning.
The representation of “Infinity: the Undefined” in Renascence as an overwhelming experience of closeness, a loss of differentiation, a merging suggests the figure of the “phallic mother.” But in this poem the trauma arises from the self's identification—as if she encounters the mother at the moment of realizing her castration, her wound—rather than narcissistic plenitude; the self as whole is also the self experienced as the universe “cleft to the core.” If the way out is the death of the self, or the ego, does that mean that the way out for the subject of this poem may be read as escaping from identification with the mother? In the conclusion of the poem, the subject seems safely to enter into the literary codes of the symbolic, taking the place of the male subject. It does not matter that we think of the imagery of nature as god in connection with the yearning for the phallic mother—the subject no longer has a relationship with the transcendental of identification or merging, but now occupies the male position with respect to the “whole,” which is now whole, a “radiant identity.” The rebirth of the subject rescues her from not the threat of castration or wounding, but a total identification with lack. Kristeva has argued that women cannot escape or refuse the symbolic, even though women's writing thereby is made subject to a phallocentric culture, precisely because women are otherwise (in their writing as in their psyches) made vulnerable to such identification with the mother.27
But the stance described in the concluding lines of Renascence has some rather curious features if we are going to read it as an accession to the symbolic, to successful (and male identified) poet-hood. In it, Millay returns to the opening difficulty—the relationship between subject (now “soul”) and a world which presses in on it.
The world stands out on either side No wider than the heart is wide; Above the word is stretched the sky,— No higher than the soul is high. The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
This precarious ending can be read from different positions. From the point of view of the male subject of the symbolic, who desires (but can never fully have) a return to the plenitude of the phallic mother, soul contact with the Other is a longed-for goal. The closing offers an “inspiring” version of the liberal reassurance that the “free” individual (as soul) has control over its relationship with the world—that it is up to the individual soul to get what it desires. Thus it seems to promise imaginary fulfillment in rather predictable ways which, moreover, would be pleasing to the ideology of the moment. But we know that the particular subject of this poem is interested in gaining differentiation or distance from a mOther world which always threatens to again press in and become overwhelming. The poem closes with the warning to “he whose soul is flat” (but if “he” is a “he” would he need it?) that he will suffer the same fate that the subject of the poem has just recounted—“the sky / Will cave in on him by and by.” What is a “flat” soul? Is it the soul in a state of aphanisis? That is, is it a soul not satisfactorily desiring, not phallic?28 Is there an identification with an Other for a girl which is not the mOther? Of course—it is the imaginary identification with the non-flat soul, the phallic soul, subject of the symbolic, which is, of course, male. There is a contradiction in the story. The subject of this poem undergoes a double narrative. The feminine rebirth reverses the direction of the Oedipal progression, beginning with the wounded woman (the hole), and proceeding toward a phallic relationship with the whole (that is, desiring it). But the power relations move in the usual Oedipal order—from the “Infinite” to the individual “soul”—from the powers of the Other to the desiring subject.
The poem does not encourage us to notice heterogeneity and contradiction. It is possible to read Renascence as a vision of the overwhelming horrors of a total identification with the Other, and a resolution that the principle of differentiation must be maintained, resisting a collapse, even though with great difficulty. But this would be a partisan translation of an earlier code, of Renascence as the transcendentalist reassertion of faith after an encounter with evil, its message the credo of liberal individualism. Nevertheless—in any event—what we are recording is a formal and thematic turn toward insertion of the subject (and poem) into a conventional social order. The pleasures of the text then are the pleasures of security, of being disturbed in our reading, having our expectations upset, but feeling that everything has turned out all right in the end—what the poem seems to say fits in with what would be expected. These are the pleasures of ideological confirmation.
We can still argue that Millay's poem is far too identified with the dominant ideology to be more than repetition of the same, imitative, the submission of the daughter to the father in order to get out of being overwhelmed by her mother. We can note the kinds of pleasures that seem to be offered here and disdain them. It is perhaps easy for us, in fact, to refuse to be the subject which the poem thus addresses, because these are no longer the kinds of ploys which might seduce us. Readers of Millay in 1912 could still hear masculine resonance to the Emersonian or Whitmanian “I” constructed by certain key phrases and moments of Renascence. The daughter puts on the fathers' garb, their vocabulary, their form—she dresses for success in a version of American transcendentalism which connects the codes of rebirth from Christianity to a Romantic idealizing of nature and the optimistic assertions of a liberal individualism:
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I And hailed the earth with such a cry As is not heard save from a man Who has been dead, and lives again.
The climactic reencounter of poet/subject with nature is rewritten in terms which equate nature with both Christian God and with the more archaic (and motherly) “heart”: “God, I can push the grass apart / And lay my finger on Thy heart!” Conventional reading protects the reader from the implications of the poet's place, the uncertainty of the ending.
If the reader, however, takes the final section of the poem as asserting the potency of the individual soul, the rebirth of the speaker is threatened by the natural, outside world. The poem has an ending, with a paean to a familiar optimism, but only as long as it is decoded according to a Romantic faith in the powers of the individual soul:
The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
In a gesture of daughterly obedience, the poet takes on the codes of the fathers (or the Father): it is the responsibility of the individual heart and soul to keep the world at its proper distance. In this final section, the “I” of the poem disappears and the code speaks (it is the place of the moral lesson). But the terms in which the code is presented suggest a reading besides the inspirational optimism which the poem allows. We can see the daughterly dilemma: an obedient and duplicitous “rebirth” into the manhood of the free subject, the strong soul, the “individual,” defends the poet against a collapse of boundaries, but also makes impossible the very inventiveness which the role demands. The poetess acts the part of the free subject—but the narrative line of the poem suggests the drama of a different plot.
In Renascence, then, it is the plot itself which is bound. There is a split between a free subject and a narrative enslaved to return. As the warning of the final two lines intimates, the rebirth of the speaker has not changed the position of the subject—that is, surrounded by a world, an outside, which threatens to “cave in” on “he whose soul is flat.” The split is not within the subject, but between inside and outside, at the boundary of self and “sky.” The borders of internal and external do not reliably maintain difference, but are permeable, penetrable. The incestuous moment of recognition leads the poet not to separate from the maternal Infinite, but to take on the abject (“All sin was of my sinning …”). Thus the Renascence of this poem involves a ritual of return, finally to the same boundedness.
The writing appears to be male not only because it exploits the formal traditions of English lyric poetry, but also because the drama of the self with which it is invested reinforces the myth of male superiority at two levels, seeming to inscribe the figure of the rebellious female into her “proper” place. She would rather die than identify with the suffering of the powerful martyr-mother (to recapitulate the plot as it appears in Renascence), but her rebirth as a free self requires that she masquerade as a man in the old lyric forms of “individual” selfhood—she cannot take an active, inventive part in the speaking, for the terms of her entry into the subject of lyric poetry require a daughterly submission to the role.
The feelings of a lyric poet in the romantic tradition are read as “originally” private—they are reported in (expressed by) her poem. Lyric emotion, in this convention, is personal, and the private becomes public as the reader “shares” the experience of the poet, looking over her shoulder as it were, identifying with the speaker's drama, enacting as readers the gesture of the sentimental traveler who pauses to sympathize. The pleasures are vicarious; we feel someone else's feelings, frequently the painful ones of loss or failed love. Only the assumption of original privacy keeps the poet and the reader safely contained in separate categories, as individuals, and allows Ransom to hold Millay guilty of causing his distress in the role of sentimental reader.
Perhaps one reason sentimental literature seemed quickly so very unacceptable has to do with the threat it poses to this reader/writer relationship. In the sentimental tradition, the “personal” quickly became a clear matter of convention—the tears, the joys, the sacrifices, and reconciliations all as predictable as they continue to be in the “soaps” and the Harlequin romances. This overt conventionality erodes the carefully maintained barriers between public and private emotions as between high and mass art. But when Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, modernism was getting desperate to make those barriers work—excluding “feelings” and “the private” (or autobiographical) and “intentionality” from a poetry that could only be “original,” could only “make it new,” by strictly delimiting the constituting difference of the poetic text. The New Critics had a considerable amount of interest in devaluing Millay, fixing her position as a minor poet. Thus Allen Tate asserts: “Neither Byron nor Miss Millay is of the first order of poets. They are distinguished examples of the second order …” And more:
Miss Millay's success with stock symbolism is precariously won. I have said that she is not an intellect but a sensibility: if she were capable of a profound analysis of her imagery she might not use it.29
Recently several theorists—importantly Stanley Aronowitz and Fredric Jameson—have argued that the valuing of the intellect, of theory, and of “high” art overlooks the extent to which even the avantgarde participates in the commodification of art, and that the repeated demands for intellectual originality create a kind of consumerism which is like any other fashion.30 And, furthermore, Aronowitz argues, the practices even of mass culture contain the possibility for critique of dominant ideology as well as conventionally reproducing it. Middle class culture may yet be interesting. Tania Modleski has called our attention to the importance of this critique for women's cultural productions in her Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women.31 The critique of the modernist ideal of “serious” art is also important for a poet like Millay who has been abandoned to the other order of poetry—that of “sensibility” rather than the intellect, as Tate would have it.
When a woman writes poetry, her failure to escape the order of “sensibility” may make us uncomfortable to the extent that it seems she should be writing more masculine forms—that is, to the extent that the poetry seems to aspire to the first, powerful, order of language. But the passive female position in narrative will be defined by the Oedipal plot wherever it occurs within a cultural situation which articulates meaning according to such a mythology. If the Freudian Oedipal myth can be taken as a version of the cultural sense of value and purpose—with the woman as object of desire—the same story will appear repeated everywhere. The open narrative is closed by the figure of a woman. Teresa de Lauretis writes of desire in the narrative of films, arguing that “woman properly represents the fulfillment of the narrative promise (made as we know, to the little boy), and that representation works to support the male status of the mythical subject.”32
The figure of the woman—Millay, poetess—stands behind her poems, provoking a doubleness, a kind of oscillation between an ostensibly male speaker and the image of the female poet, like the doubleness of her nickname, “Vincent,” and the very feminine—girlish—figure she presented. There is a gap between sign and meaning, form and (female) content, that theatricalizes lyric poetry and turns conventional intimacy into indeterminacy. The parodic element persists to the end of Renascence, without, however, undermining conventional pleasures of the text. The reason for the poem's resistance to closure has little to do with modernist versions of irony. The plot is asserted at the same time that it is undone, not as a function of textuality alone, but of context, the extra-literary fact: the poet is a woman. At the same time that Millay's spectator is made perhaps all too comfortable by the predictable directions of the drama, the poem has managed to suggest that contradictory elements co-exist in the way the subject may be heard, that the female author may identify both with male and female positions, that female readers might do the same. Behind the pleasures of submitting to mastery—mastery of form as of ideology—Millay's spectators might discover a reminder of other pleasures as well, the supplementary pleasure masquerading as mere cleverness or wit, the pleasure of the other which shows itself in rebellious duplicities, the pleasure of the masquerade.
Pleasure for this poet seems to lie in cross-dressing. But how long can one sustain the boyishness of adolescent girlhood as an acceptable persona? Perlmutter's detailed characterization of Millay's Girl, the “unflappable flapper whose sophistication has taken her beyond libertinage and rebellion toward an epicurean balance of urbanity and lyricism,”33 leads her to conclude that the poetry is not serious enough:
Capable of moving readers and hearers, the skillful, charming verse through which the Girl had life was even so too dependent on implied gesture to be taken seriously as meant speech.
Millay has, that is, developed a poetry of persona, which is simply too theatrical: “It is all so staged, so visible, so temporary. …”34 What we can already see, however, in the story outlined by Renascence is the maternal shape of the maturity Millay must keep on avoiding.35
Millay's theatricality enacts the “Greek desire” for visibility. But as the place of the subject is made problematic, so is the structure of desire and the nature of jouissance. The question of feminine sexuality, the phallic function, and jouissance has notoriously been taken up by Lacan in Encore where he argues that the subject of desire is masculine. The woman is “excluded by the nature of things which is the nature of words.” The side of the woman is not all. That is,
… when any speaking being whatever lines up under the banner of women it is by being constituted as not all that they are placed within the phallic function. It is this that defines the … the what?—the woman precisely, except that The woman can only be written with The crossed through. There is no such thing as The woman, where the definite article stands for the universal. There is no such thing as The woman since of her essence … she is not all. …
There is woman only as excluded by the nature of things which is the nature of words, and it has to be said that if there is one thing they themselves are complaining about enough at the moment, it is well and truly that. …
It none the less remains that if she is excluded by the nature of things, it is precisely that in being not all, she has, in relation to what the phallic function designates of jouissance, a supplementary jouissance.36
What does a girl like Millay have to do with a man like Lacan? Especially when what she seems to wish is to escape the feminine and mimic the phallic function (or assume it)? Or, on the other hand, when she seems at times not to grow up to adult sexuality at all:
The sky, I thought, is not so grand; I 'most could touch it with my hand!
This regression, this cuteness approaching baby talk—can we even give Millay credit for a mastering of mimicry when she allows herself this “'most”?
We might ask, taking these words up again, what does this absence, this elision of “al-” lead us to? Instead of showing her adolescent, “almost”—that is close, nearly at the edge of a boundary (or maturity)—this elision give us “I” as the excess, “most,” that which is—if childish, nonetheless—over all. A few lines earlier there appears a rather superfluous “after all.” This is the time “after all”—the post-all experience. The plot may be summarized: “After all I become the excess of all.” It is a belatedness, but a narcissistic version.
The earlier moment of the abject in Millay's poem is not written—rather, it is narrated in a totalizing style which achieves a paranoid reversal of the abject—it is the all which is repugnant, not the “I,” whose separateness has been lost to the engulfing All:
All sin was of my sinning, all Atoning mine, and mine the gall Of all regret. Mine was the weight Of every brooded wrong, the hate That stood behind each envious thrust, Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while, for every grief, Each suffering, I craved relief With individual desire; Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire About a thousand people crawl; Perished with each,—then mourned for all!
It is the all which causes her fall, reversal of religious and literary versions of abjection. The important question of the subject's relationship to “all” is thus revealed with all as an absence, disguised or hidden, before the masquerade of abjection, when “All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret.” What remains after all, most of all, is the girl who must speak, a “'most” whose place at the borders of dependency, of master/slave or parent/child relations, depends on keeping the all elided and asserting the one (child, woman) who remains.
Since Millay practices no subversions against the linguistic forms of the fathers, she offers no challenge against the phallocentrism embedded in those forms, except by the small incongruity of her girlish figure, whose person says the same thing with a difference. In Woman and the Demon, Nina Auerbach argues that the potent female figure of the nineteenth century loses power in the hands of twentieth century modernism in part because it depends on the valuing of character which modernism rejected.37 But Millay's poetry is the play of a character, the girl become poet-prodigy, loving daughter, little woman. Millay in her person, that is, represents and reenacts the drama of female selfhood with each presentation of each poem—her signature sets the stage for a reprise of the plot never to grow up, to escape the confines of the old images, the models of maternal sacrifice. Carolyn Heilbrun has argued for the pervasive influence of Alcott's “Jo” who
may have been the single female model continuously available after 1868 to girls dreaming beyond the confines of a constricted family destiny to the possibility of autonomy and experience initiated by one's self.38
Like Heilbrun's, Millay's plot sees freedom in terms of the liberal ideal, the individual, trying to separate herself from the mother's self-sacrifice without rejecting the mother, either in the person like Jo's “Marmie,” or the myth, like Millay's world. If the great theme of Millay's poetry—love—marks her as a female poet, her great ambivalence about the dependency relationships created by love marks her daughterly character, marks her as the daughter of a strong mother.
Millay's own family history is like a rewriting of Little Women—the absent father, the supportive and hard-working sisters, the loving and much-loved mother who exacted loyalty and high aspirations from her daughters. Thus “Vincent” writes to her sister, Norma, from the Ritz Hotel in Budapest of her decision to bring the mother to Europe:
Bless you forever and ever for your letter. If ever a girl needed a letter, I was that girl, and yours was that letter. You see, it put some things straight in my mind that had been a little cluttered before. Your telling me that mother had been sick, and all that,—you know—made me realize that nothing in the world is important beside getting mother over here with me. At least, of course the Russian famine is important, and a few other things like that, but nothing in my life, at least, is important in comparison to this thing. A possible marriage, for instance, is not important beside it. Anybody can get married. it happens all the time. But not everybody, after the life we have had, can bring her mother to Europe.39
A slightly earlier letter to her mother shows Millay conscious of how loving (or sentimental?) her correspondence with her family sounds:
You do write the sweetest and the most wonderful letters! They are so lovely that very often I read parts of them aloud to people, just as literature. It was delicious what you told me about the turtle …
P.S.—Do you suppose, when you & I are dead, dear, they will publish the Love Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay & her Mother?
P.P.S. I am sending you a poem I just wrote.—Show it to the girls, too, darling.—V.40
More importantly, perhaps, this letter to her mother shows how thoroughly interwoven were the literary and family relationships for Millay. Thus Elizabeth Hardwick in her “Review” of Millay's Letters exclaims that they sound like something out of Little Women, even the letters to other poets, to publishers (grown-up occasions, that is).41
“Vincent” grows up, writes, loves and lives as a character invented by Edna St. Vincent Millay to fit the circumstances, a character soon legendary, soon providing a model herself for the young flappers of the twenties who eagerly followed her Bohemian life style and repeated the defiant lines from A Few Figs from Thistles. The New Yorker reported in 1927:
… her public cohered quickly in 1919 when the boys got back from France. Crowds of them came—boys fresh from the wars, hungrily fierce about love and as trivial as you please and the young women of the day became fierce and trivial, too. It is not an easy way of life for women—not always. The young women needed a poet. Edna Millay became that one, hardly aware of it herself, at first.
Not until 1925 did the author of the love sonnets decide to print them all. But in 1921 I stumbled on a tableful of American strangers in Paris who knew the lot, producing them in scrawled versions from pocketbooks or from memory. Millay couplets had floated by word of mouth for years through colleges.42
This is the era when poetry—serious poetry—divorced itself from character to become impersonal, when all serious writing was also seriously objectified, alienated, aloof in its literariness from context. Millay, more than any other poet, male or female, represented the opposite extreme, a merging of public and private identities, of self, subject, and persona, a failure to establish by irony or invention any distance between her writing and the ritualized declamations of mass ceremony, mass selfhood. Millay's poetess was, as Elizabeth Perlmutter puts it, “plucking an ancient lyre.” Her achievement was a “hybridized diction we must ruefully call ‘poetic’”:
That is, starting with her earliest verses, Millay's style was a resplendent pastiche of Sapphic simplicity, Catullan urbanity, homeless Chaucerian idiom, uprooted Shakespearean grammar, Cavalier sparkle, Wordsworthian magnanimity, Keatsian sensuousness, and Housmanian melancholy. …43
Indeed, the slavishly “poetic” reminiscence called up by Millay's style has had a similar effect on many of her readers, prompting them to feel obligated as part of a Millay reading to call out the resemblances and possible influences they recognize. It is as if the figure of the girl prompts her audience to join in the game, as if something about her attention to the sounds of the lyric code theatricalizes the lyric tradition—the convention, that is, of identifying “poetry” with the canonical inheritance exemplified by the rhymed forms of elegy, sonnet, or even ballad. Millay's lifelong habit of committing great poetry to memory and declaiming it for her friends hints of the recitation, the actress—and this was frequently her way of composing her own work as well, having it in her memory before she ever committed any of it to paper.
Millay, then—Vincent—however heterogeneous her text, however multiple the sounds of the voices she conjures from the (masculine) lyric past, gives us repeatedly only the singleness of Millay, girl poet, figure of the female “individual,” character, chief protagonist in a drama of relationship, female voice marking the imposture of her boyish speakers and male pronouns, speaking in the female body which is the subject of her work. The reader of Millay is not likely to find writerly pleasures in her text, called so frequently from play back to the spectacle of personality. Millay's work addresses the reader, instead, as spectator—as a male or female subject who may be called upon to identify with her, to take a role in her drama, to enjoy the masquerade.
That is, the pleasures of Millay's poetry may have much to do with the processes of identification, theatricality, and the cultural construction of the gendered subject—pleasures we are growing used to talking about in studies of the cinema, but which (thus attached to “mass culture” and its political unconscious) we reject as a “proper” reaction to poetry. The reader of modern poetry does not want to be soothed or persuaded into unconscious gender identifications—modern poetry and the avant-garde writing which encourages an active reader also, precisely, disrupt the unknowing assumptions we hold about the subject, especially the assumption of “character” that there is a single individual with whom we can identify, a single plot which will give us happy or unhappy endings. A single, that is, Oedipal plot. But this discomfort about the subject's identifications, this playing double with the singleness of plot, takes another—supplementary—form in Millay.
One of the pleasures of Millay's poetry, then, is a pleasure we could call “unpoetic,” a pleasure that seduces the otherwise serious reader. It comes out of her repetition of conventions, beloved but old-fashioned and “sentimental” (the maternal matrix). And it comes out of the way the dramatic story incarnates a female Other, a feminine voice of lyric poetry (the Muse?). Since the codes whereby Millay's work accomplishes this process are not inscribed within the boundaries of the poetic text, but in the context in which her poetry appeared (that is, they are not all “poetic”), the spectator of her work is seduced by her extra-poetic “'most,” by that dramatic supplement which give us the romantic spectacle: the mere-slip-of-a-girl-poet heroically playing those weighty antique lyres. It is this figure who protests charmingly: “I simply will not be a ‘brawny male.’ Not that I have an aversion to brawny males; au contraire, au contraire. But I cling to my femininity!” The spectator is seduced by the difference: the writing appears to be competently masculine, but not all—the writer is someone's daughter at the same time, 'most a woman.
Edmund Wilson, I Thought of Daisy (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929) 64. This description is of Rita, Wilson's version of Millay in the novel.
Karl Shapiro, “Review: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Collected Poems,” Prairie Schooner, 31 (Spring 1957): 13.
Poetry, 24 (August 1924): 260-66, esp. 260. Harriet Monroe's uncritical endorsement suggests the power of Millay's work to generate the fantasy of becoming a poet. Later Monroe retreats in the face of criticism, still defending Millay's ability, but confessing “a certain sense of frustration, of disappointment” in her review of the love sonnets in Fatal Interview, finding there “an emotional reservation as seductive and remote as a cloister.” “Advance or Retreat,” Poetry 38 (July 1931) 216-21.
And Judith Fetterley has recently written about a story by Louisa May Alcott which suggests the possibility of a radicalism behind the masks of the Little Women, and the theatricality of the roles: “Impersonating ‘Little Women’: The Radicalism of Alcott's Behind a Mask,” Women's Studies 10 (1983): 1-14.
Ransom, “The Poet as Woman,” Southern Review. 2 (Spring 1937): 783-804, esp. 783; Delmore Schwartz, “The Poetry of Millay,” The Nation 157 (December 18, 1943): 735-36. Only recently have scholars begun to seriously question the assumptions behind such snide judgments against the women's clubs and the “genteel codes” associated with them. Sheryl O'Donnell is responsible for persuading me that an analysis of such materials uncovers multiple, complex, and unexamined aspects of women's writing—see “Letters from Nice Girls: Genteel Codes in Women's Writings,” Proceedings of GITAP, University of North Dakota, 1983. For an examination of the problems and prejudices faced by women writers in the twenties, see Paul Lauter, “Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon: A Case Study from the Twenties,” Feminist Studies 9, 3 (Fall 1983): 435-92.
“The Mother/The Same: Hatred of the Mother in Psychoanalysis,” Feminist Issues (Spring 1982): 75-99.
“Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) 131-32.
“Freud's story of femininity, as we know, is the story of the journey of the female child across the dangerous terrain of the Oedipus complex. Leaving home, she enters the phallic stage where she comes face to face with castration, engages in the uneven battle with penis envy, and remains forever scarred by the narcissistic wound, forever bleeding. But she goes on, and the worst is still to come. No longer a ‘little man,’ bereft of weapon or magical gift, the female child enters the liminal stage in which her transformation into woman will take place; but only if she successfully negotiates the crossing, haunted by the Scylla and Charybdis of object change and erotogenic zone change, into passivity. If she survives, her reward is motherhood.”
Sara Ruddick, “Maternal Thinking,” Feminist Studies 6, 2 (Summer 1980): 342-67, esp. 343.
De Lauretis, 143.
Saving the Text (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) xxii.
“Sapphistries,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 10, 1 (Autumn 1984): 43-62, esp. 47.
“Renascence” and other of Millay's poems are quoted from the Collected Poems: Edna St. Vincent Millay, ed. Norma Millay (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).
The figure of the muse generated by female poets is as wonderful and terrible, as helpful and threatening—as ambivalent—as the figure of the mother. See, for example, Mary Kirk Deshazer's study: “The Woman Poet and Her Muse: Sources and Images of Female Creativity in the Poetry of H. D., Louise Bogan, May Sarton, and Adrienne Rich.” Unpublished dissertation, University of Oregon, June 1982.
Virtue in Distress (Macmillan, 1974).
See Lauretis re femininity:
“Desire itself, then, is in question. If desire is the question which generates both narrative and narrativity as Oedipal drama, that question is an open one, seeking a closure that is only promised, not guaranteed. For Oedipal desire requires in its object—or in its subject when female, as in Freud's little girl—an identification with the feminine position.” pp. 133-34.
See Jacques Lacan, “God and the Jouissance of the Woman,” Feminine Sexuality, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (New York: W. W. Norton/Pantheon, 1982) 147.
Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 5.
The Shores of Light (New York: Vintage, 1952) 744-93.
The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, ed. Allan Ross Macdougall (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1952) 18.
“A Doll's Heart: The Girl in the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Bogan,” Twentieth Century Literature 23, 2 (May 1977): 157-79.
Later, when she has a brief but intense affair with Ficke, she writes a sonnet which “was written both about you & myself—we were both like that”:
I only know that every hour with you Is torture to me, and that I would be From your too poignant lovelinesses free! Rainbows, green flame, sharp diamonds, the fierce blue Of shimmering ice-bergs, and to be shot through With lightning or a sword incessantly— Such things have beauty, doubtless; but to me Mist, shadow, silence—these are lovely too. There is no shelter in you anywhere; Rhythmic, intolerable, your burning rays Trample upon me, withering my breath; I will be gone, and rid of you, I swear: To stand upon the peaks of Love always Proves but that part of Love whose name is Death.
Neither male nor female, Ficke nor Millay, is clearly the speaker. From Norman A. Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1967) 40.
The Daughter's Seduction (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982) 22.
The omniscience that threatens Millay's speaker does not allow her separation, difference, or distance—but that does not equate it with the Kristevan “semiotic.” The difference that precedes the paternal order of language is at issue. As Jane Gallop helps us see, the Lacanian and Kristevan versions of the maternal “imaginary” or “semiotic” are in conflict: “The incompatibility of Lacanian and Kristevan theories, the difficulty in thinking a relation between the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘semiotic,’ ought to be attended to as a locus of conflict between two maternals—one conservative, the other dissident—as a way of keeping the position of the mother ‘both double and foreign.’ …” (125) “Renascence” seems a poem of the “imaginary” in the sense of presenting an image which resists disruption. But that's not all.
We would expect a description of a “soul” which is in an “imaginary” or narcissistic illusion of identification with the Other to be described as “full” or “total.” Could a “flat” soul be one without desire, but also the one which does not enter into the kind of identification which we have just seen as so very traumatic? Then isn't a “flat” or even an escaped soul precisely what women want? But in this poem, the underground woman is out of touch with reality.
Allen Tate, “Miss Millay's Sonnets: A Review of Fatal Interview,” New Republic (May 6, 1931): 335-36. See also, in this vein, Cleanth Brooks, “Edna Millay's Maturity,” Southwest Review 20 (January 1935), Book Review Section pp. 1-5. He says, for example: “Miss Millay fails at major poetry—that is, at poetry which makes major predictions about life. Her distinction lies in a poetry of narrower limits and on a lower plane.” p. 4.
Stanley Aronowitz, The Crisis in Historical Materialism (South Hadley, Mass.: J. F. Bergin, 1981); Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (1979): 130-48.
Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1982).
This is not to say that Millay does not write about a mother figure; she most assuredly does. For example, in “The Harp Weaver” the magic gifts of the mother are used to clothe her child, and she sacrifices her life for him (not her), weaving all through the frozen night. “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” gives us an unyielding and grim portrayal of the woman's sacrificial part. Walter Minot argues that these sonnets demonstrate the “psychic price that she, as a woman, had to pay” and that it was “too high a penalty.” “Millay's ‘Ungrafted Tree’: The Problem of the Artist as Woman,” New England Quarterly 48 (June 1975): 260-69, esp. 268. Millay's domestic imagery and its part in the tradition of women's poetry is discussed by Jeanine Dobbs, “Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Tradition of Domestic Poetry,” Journal of Women's Studies in Literature 1 (Spring, 1979): 89-106.
Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1982).
“Louisa May Alcott: The Influence of Little Women,” Women, the Arts, and the 1920's in Paris and New York, ed. Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Books, 1982) 21.
“Anderson, Millay, and Crane in Their Letters,” Partisan Review, 20 (November-December 1953): 690-96.
Griffin Barry, “Vincent,” The New Yorker (Feb. 12, 1927): 25-27, esp. 26.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6411
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 as dated. This may be due to the fact that whereas H. D. toys with the endless displacements necessary to representations of Desire, Millay wishes above all to present herself as Desire incarnate. Her most recognizable mode is demonstrative rather than restrained.
For examples of the demonstrative mode we need only turn to Millay's early letters, in which she sounds at moments eerily like the voice of Emily Dickinson. Writing to Edith Wynne Matthison in 1917, Millay exhibits her manifest hunger for attachment. Having showered Matthison with professions of devotion (“love me, please; I love you”), she insists: “I am not a tentative person. Whatever I do, I give my whole self up to it.” One wonders what Matthison thought of sentiments like: “enormity does not frighten me; it is only among tremendous things that I feel happy and at ease; I would not say this, perhaps, except that, as I told you, I do not trouble to lie to you.”1 The echoes of Emily Dickinson in this are also both prominent and troubling.
For the earlier poet would voice such feelings only in her letters. Her poems were far more calculating and coy. Edna St. Vincent Millay, on the other hand, staked her reputation on just such dramatic announcements. She was seemingly unaffected by the social forces of repression which resulted in Dickinson's reluctance, for instance, to use the word leg in any of her more than 1,700 poems. Whereas Emily Dickinson was given to explore the realm of sexuality by writing of snakes, bees, and boats mooring, Edna Millay refused such circumspection, announcing: “I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex, / Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat.”2
It is tempting to a feminist to feel that Millay's stance is much healthier, less tormented by internalized prohibitions against explorations of physical experience. And, indeed, in Edna Millay's poems we can find not only arms and legs but chins, ears, tongues, shoulders, and bellies; in fact, a full panoply of references to the body.
However, the career of Edna St. Vincent Millay does not seem to justify the temptation to celebrate such “liberation.” The projection of her earliest persona as a creature of appetite made her famous but ephemeral. A brief survey of responses to Millay's self-presentation suggests that her demonstrative persona had only limited viability. If it inspired a number of romantic tributes in the early years to Millay as “a New England Nun; a chorus girl on holiday; the Botticelli Venus” or “a sensitive spirit on a romantic pilgrimage through an over-sophisticated civilization”3—by the late 1930s her public was becoming less enthusiastic about what seemed to be an adolescence prolonged into middle age.
In 1939 Louise Bogan wrote a mixed review of Huntsman, What Quarry, asking whether or not a woman poet “as she grows older” shouldn't give up posturing. “Is it not possible for a woman to come to terms with herself, if not with the world; to withdraw more and more, as time goes on, her own personality from her productions; to stop childish fears of death and eschew charming rebellions against facts?” Bogan surely had herself in mind as much as Millay but after 1940 others were also inclined to grumble. In 1957 Bette Richart categorized Millay's persona as “a haunting and persuasive portrait of neurosis.” Maureen Howard, in Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York (1982), comments that Millay's “spirit of the modern with its promiscuity and smart cynicism now seems dated.”4
Though some critics like Jane Stanbrough, Nancy Milford, and Walter Minot have attempted to provide new and sympathetic views, a more typical response to Millay in the period since World War II is Elizabeth Perlmutter Frank's. Frank plays Millay off against Louise Bogan, focusing on the maturity of Bogan at the expense of Millay, who remained “the fragile girl.” Frank is charmed neither by Millay's mood swings nor by her physicality. “Indeed, Millay's Girl was essentially a theatrical persona, a medium for the expression of sudden shifts in tone and implied bodily gestures.”5
To be fair to Millay, however, we must recognize that her work represents a genuine breakthrough for the nightingale poets because it makes the female body more than a set of implied gestures. Though in the end Millay's exploitation of the body betrayed her, it is possible to understand this failure less as a result of personal weakness than as the consequence of women's continuing commodification, as bodies “on the market.”
In the following sections of this chapter, I will consider Millay's body language both as a genuine departure from women's poetry of the past and as an unconscious recuperation of oppressive patriarchal attitudes. In order to understand both why she was once so popular and why late-twentieth-century women have been so uncomfortable with her, we must see Millay's poetry as a point of intersection at which culture, psyche, and gender come together in significant ways. Millay's work may indeed strike us as dated compared to H. D.'s. But from another point of view, it remains topical for its exploitation and critique of the ideology of sexual liberation, which we now see as far from simply “liberating.”
In her day the bright side of Millay's body-consciousness was more evident in her self-presentation. She expressed a confidence in her physical presence also reflected in the privately circulated self-portrait Allan Macdougall published in his selection of Millay's letters:
Hair which she still devoutly trusts is red. Colorless eyes, employing A childish wonder To which they have no statistic Title. A large mouth, Lascivious, Aceticized [sic] by blasphemies. A long throat, Which will someday Be strangled. Thin arms, In the summer-time leopard With freckles. A small body, Unexclamatory, But which, Were it the fashion to wear no clothes, Would be as well-dressed As any.(6)
([Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay], 99-100)
Given the problems of alienation from their flesh that Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, and H. D. all struggled with, Millay's positive body-consciousness at first seems a cause for celebration.7
However, there are two peculiar aspects to this self-portrait. One is the imagined violence, the throat which will one day “be strangled.” Though Millay undoubtedly intended this as self-irony, when placed beside her other fantasies of enduring similar acts of violence, this element comes to seem significant, a dark indication of the vulnerability of women under patriarchy which links her to Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and H. D.8
The other peculiarity is more subtle but equally significant. There is something almost clinical about Millay's description, as though her body were part of a department store inventory. One disturbing implication of Millay's body language is that it often suggests that women are “on the market,” objects to be scrutinized in what Luce Irigaray calls “a scopic economy” where the value that is attached to women's bodies is prescribed by the male gaze.9
How should we interpret these contradictions in terms of Millay's individual experience and psyche? One prominent feature of biographical accounts of Millay's life is the poet's vacillation between “good girl” and “bad girl” identities. When she was at Vassar, for instance, she almost did not graduate with her class because she broke the rules concerning “overnights” away from the college. However, instead of taking a stand against the rules themselves, she resorted to tears and pleas, getting others to insist upon her reinstatement and eventually winning the college over through “girlish” charm.
Similarly, as a single woman living a bohemian life in Greenwich Village, Millay became the epitome of sophisticated independence. Nevertheless, her letters to her mother and sister are often written in baby talk. As soon as she could, she brought them to New York to live with her and her frequently passionate declarations of love to her mother led the poet to speculate that in future someone might publish The Love Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay & Her Mother (L, 120). Clearly she had great dependency needs that kept her iconoclastic energies within certain bounds.
Nevertheless, Edna St. Vincent Millay thought of herself as a fighter and a feminist. She is the single poet in this group who was politically engaged: a friend to the conscientious objector during World War I, vitally involved with the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, an outspoken advocate of women's rights, and defender of Elinor Wylie against the snubs of the League of American Penwomen. She fought with her editors, she argued with her friends, she offended her public, and she certainly was not a submissive wife. Yet, temperamental to an extreme, she was also generous and loyal, and she would have been horrified to hear that for all her courage and feistiness, her life text and her work nevertheless illustrate John Berger's remark that “to be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.”10
Yet this is surely one way of explaining the bad girl/good girl syndrome. Millay actually wanted desperately to please the public and this meant, in a significant way, pleasing a masculine-centered culture enthralled with the white female body as tabloid image. Even poets got their pictures in the papers and became “stars.” Edna St. Vincent Millay enjoyed this kind of notoriety at one level. Yet her psychological history suggests hidden conflicts that took a serious toll upon her health.
From her thirties until her death at the age of fifty-eight (1950), Millay was plagued with physical complaints: intestinal problems, severe headaches like Wylie's that lasted for months, bursitis, and nerve disorders, among others. Some of these were diagnosed as psychosomatic and certainly in the 1940s she appeared to fit the definition of the hysteric whose body becomes the theater of deformed or frustrated desire. Her lesbian connections, her stable marriage, her many affairs: none of these was able to relieve the suffering for which she adamantly refused to seek psychological treatment except when hospitalized for nervous collapse.11
In spite of her health problems, Millay continued to promote her public presence for more than twenty years, going on reading tours which boosted the sales of her books and expanded her readership. Her reading presence was notorious: clad in a long red velvet dress or diaphanous veils, she purposefully projected a sense of being the poet in the flesh, of the flesh; the poet whose flesh was somehow the very material of her material.
The fact that Millay is a particularly good illustration of the way that women tend to become objectified in androcentric American culture should not blind us to the fact that her popularity also reflected a genuine loosening of restrictions on female behavior. Unlike her nineteenth-century sisters, she could and did travel alone, control her own money, smoke and drink without apology, attend lesbian and interracial parties, and sleep with a number of partners; and none of these facts about her reduced her popularity. In fact, such publicity contributed to her allure.
From another point of view, however, this “liberation” meant the loss of some earlier supports in forming a stable identity. In this way Edna Millay had to confront a new set of confusing choices. By examining some of the cultural components of these choices, we can see the way Millay's treatment of the body in her poetry emerges out of a context which affected many other women of her time and ours.
T. J. Jackson Lears has suggested that the emergence of a market-oriented economy in America went hand in hand with a destabilized conception of the self. Though the older ethic had been repressive in some ways, the newer one was confusing, tending to produce a self without stable outlines, manipulated to suit the expectations of others and the needs of the moment. As a result the modern person might end up with nothing more vital to sustain him or her than “a set of social masks.”12
Though this destabilization affected both men and women, women were the targets of a particular kind of socioeconomic engineering which encouraged them to participate in “making a spectacle of” themselves. Mary Ryan has noted that the habits of consumption inculcated by the advertising media strengthened sexual stereotypes and reinforced images of women “not only as lovers, mothers, and housewives, but as narcissists and masochists as well.” As we have already seen in the chapter on Sara Teasdale, popular culture of this period elevated romantic love to a position of increased importance in the lives of women. Ryan claims that in both advertising and psychological theory, “narcissism merged with masochism” as women were encouraged to think of themselves as sex objects whose bodies needed constant modification in order to protect their value on the market. In this way “love's body” became a commodity of particular importance in an economic realm where a great variety of new products were competing for female attention: for example, cosmetics, deodorants, and cleansers. Ryan concludes: “Female sexuality once again led to work and anxiety rather than the simple pleasures of the body.”13
An interesting poem to consider in light of these factors is Millay's sonnet “Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!” (1923).
Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word! Give back my book and take my kiss instead. Was it my enemy or my friend I heard, “What a big book for such a little head!” Come, I will show you now my newest hat, And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink! Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that. I never again shall tell you what I think. I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly; You will not catch me reading any more: I shall be called a wife to pattern by; And some day when you knock and push the door, Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy, I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.
(CP [Collected Poems], 591)
This poem sets up an opposition between mind and body in which the speaker, “sweet and crafty, soft and sly,” is willing to appear to adopt a conventionally “feminine” persona, substituting for intellectual exchanges sexual signals of devotion: “Give back my book and take my kiss instead.”
Reassuring her patronizing husband with images of herself as a well-trained consumer engaging in the conventional rituals of consumption certified by his gaze—“you may watch me purse my mouth and prink”—this speaker is actually plotting revenge. Her revenge involves a particular kind of duplicity in which she will appear to be “a wife to pattern by,” that is, a visible spectacle of female submission and consumerism. Only at the end does she reveal what she has decided to do. Typically, her revenge involves no open confrontation but instead a devious escape: “I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.”
In this poem Millay gives us an insight into the way many women conceived of the requirements of their social role. Without the stabilizing components of an older model of social identity based on family, geography, age group, and marital connection, the newer woman often had to make her body her main resource. This involved establishing a different relationship with things. Instead of regarding them as tools or even as background effects against which to appear to greatest advantage, women came instead to see themselves as things, commodities on the market. Rachel Bowlby sums up the effect of consumer culture on women in the modern era.
Seducer and seduced, possessor and possessed of one another, women and commodities flaunt their images at one another in an amorous regard which both extends and reinforces the classical picture of the young girl gazing into the mirror in love with herself. The private, solipsistic fascination of the lady at home in her boudoir, … moves out into the worldly, public allure of publicité, the outside world of advertising.14
Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that a woman like Edna Millay should conceive of her poetic role as including spectacle and publicity. As early as the publication of Second April (1921), she was inclined to take a hardheaded view of success. In a letter from this period, she confessed: “I think, personally, [the critics] are giving it more than it deserves. But I am glad, as long as I myself am not taken in, that it is selling, and pleasing, and that I shall not be in disfavor at the time of the appearance of my next book” (L, 129). Even the use of the word “appearance” has a suggestive ambiguity here.
At the end of her life Millay was still talking about literary spectacle, using the imagery of currying and braiding her poems, “for the Fair (to say nothing of the Market)” (L, 361). Her outrage in 1950 that the American Cancer Society was refusing to exploit modern methods of advertising is very revealing, as it shows the extent to which Millay herself saw the use of such methods as expedient.15
Given the particular features of modern culture outlined above, and given Millay's particular susceptibility to the temptations of participating in a capitalistic literary marketplace, elements of her persona that have previously perplexed readers now become more comprehensible. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a poet of the body who presented the text and her own flesh as mirroring one another. However, since a female body in her culture was an unstable commodity whose value was certain to diminish in time and whose connection to mind and spirit was at best undefined and at worst dismissed, Millay's success at exploiting her body-consciousness in her early work provided no stable persona for the poet but simply involved her in a drama of consumption. Seen from this angle, her vacillation between spirited self-dramatizing and dispirited lament, her lack of any one consistent image of self, makes a good deal of sense. She was not simply neurotic or immature; she was confused by mixed cultural voices which invited her to reveal herself in certain ways and then grew tired of the very vision of flapper femininity they had solicited. Examining her career reminds us that too often the nightingale poets who begin in gladness, come in the end (as Wordsworth said) to despondency and madness.
Renascence is probably Millay's best-known and best-loved serious poem. Its publishing history is often rehearsed in Millay scholarship: the fact that she submitted it at her mother's urging to a contest volume called The Lyric Year, her twenty-year-old hopes prematurely raised by Ferdinand Earle, one of the judges; her subsequent failure to win one of the three prizes, but the enormous outpouring of praise for the poem and her instant rise to prominence in literary circles; all of this before she had done her four years of college at Vassar, financed in part through the attention this poem received.
Typically missed in readings of the poem is the way Renascence mythologizes female creativity in terms of an assault upon the body.16 For “Renascence” is a deeply strange and disturbing work which, in its capacity to allegorize a certain version of women's experience, can come to seem not only powerful but uncanny.
In the course of the plot of Renascence, the first-person speaker begins by experiencing herself and her world as bounded. “All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood” (CP, 3). She then aspires to touch the sky, for which she is brutally punished. She suffers the sins of all, the torments of guilt, tortures unbearable in her body; she craves death, dies, but mourns the loss of beauty and the pleasures of the senses. Having been chastened, she is returned to life where, like Emily Dickinson in “Behind me dips eternity,” she experiences herself as “the term between” who must keep coded sets of binary oppositions carefully separated: “East and West will pinch the heart / That cannot keep them pushed apart” (CP, 13).
The ending of the poem is moralistic and dutiful, the speaker reciting her lesson: “he whose soul is flat—the sky / Will cave in on him by and by.” This seems an eerie rejoinder to Dickinson's open-ended conclusion, where the female soul is left with “Midnight to the North of Her— / And Midnight to the South of Her— / And Maelstrom—in the Sky” (P, 721). It is as though Millay, refusing the destabilizing vision of the earlier poet, has opted for life at the expense of her original courageous ambitions.
And does the poem make its conclusion seem appropriate? Are we left to agree that the speaker's initial longings and terrifying experiences have been satisfactorily resolved in the concluding implication that her soul was previously inadequate, her innocence (like Eve's) the ground of her guilt?
In the end the poem comes to seem “uncanny” in a Freudian sense of combining the familiar and the strange within the circle of fear. In his essay on “The ‘Uncanny,’” Freud says: “It may be true that the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfills this condition.”17 Part of the continuing appeal of this poem—an appeal to which even an adolescent Audre Lorde succumbed in the forties—is its ability to suggest two familiar elements of our history: the connection between the female body and feminine creativity and the capacity of patriarchy both to injure the aspiring female and then to insist upon repression of the memory of injury as payment for entry into the realm of the empyrean.
In a real way the events of this poem take place in the speaker's body. When she reaches up to touch the sky in a metaphorical attempt to satisfy her ambition, her self-assertion is greeted by initial success. But this success is soon met with physical opposition.
I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity Came down and settled over me; Forced back my scream into my chest; Bent back my arm upon my breast; And, pressing of the Undefined The definition on my mind, Held up before my eyes a glass
Her punishment for indulging her desire is a kind of rape where Desire is literally forced back into her body and the speaker learns the Law by first passing through a mirror stage and then encountering Logos: Immensity is “made manifold,” unity is dismembered, and the Law (here named “Infinity”) “whispered to me a word whose sound / Deafened the air for worlds around” (CP, 5). (We are never told what this word is if not the Word, Logos itself.)
Familiar in many accounts of creative women is the sense of frustration that governs the initial struggle in the poem. Though the speaker is never precisely denominated female, she has (like Michelet's sorceress) a woman's craving. Craving for what? For everything.18 Like the Sorceress she also takes all of life into her body and experiences no distinction between herself and the world about her. But Millay's vision is fundamentally disturbing because the “dream” is both painful and graphic:
I saw and heard, and knew at last The How and Why of all things, past, And present, and forevermore. The Universe, cleft to the core, Lay open to my probing sense, That, sickening, I would fain pluck thence But could not,—nay! but needs must suck At the great wound, and could not pluck My lips away till I had drawn All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn:
For my omniscience paid I toll In infinite remorse of soul
The “great wound” is suggestive of multiple interpretations. It reminds us of Susan Gubar's statement that women experience the influx of creativity as a wounding. Like H. D. in The Gift, the speaker is herself wounded, but in the process of learning the limits of her subjectivity, she must also externalize the wound. This will help her return to “health” but at the expense of certain kinds of knowledge. She is allowed to learn about the world but she must forget the rape which ushered in this knowledge. Like Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, in which sucking imagery is also prominent, this poetic vision equates the access to knowledge with rape, desire with guilt, and release with renewed repression.
Yet, unlike Lizzie's in “Goblin Market,” there is something strangely liberating about this speaker's experience. She has entered a liminal realm in which the division between herself and the powerful forces at work in the world is momentarily suspended: “All suffering mine, and mine its rod; / Mine, pity like the pity of God” (CP, 7). Her body is no longer hers but becomes the theater for reenacting the sufferings of humanity, a demonic festival in which the marginal are given voice: “A thousand screams the heavens smote; / And every scream tore through my throat” (CP, 7). This scene, drenched as it is with female significance, invites us to turn to French feminism for an analysis of comparable mythic images of the feminine.
In The Newly-Born Woman, Catherine Clément describes this kind of experience as a “return to the disordered Imaginary before the mirror stage.”19 In this statement Clément is appropriating the terms of Jacques Lacan in distinguishing between the Real and the Imaginary. For Lacan, the child leaves the realm of the Imaginary and enters the mirror stage when it becomes preoccupied with its own image in the mirror. “This represents, for the child, usually for the first time, the image of itself as a unified controllable body; it is an image which will govern [his/her] relations with other children, turning them frequently into games of master and slave, actor and spectator.”20 Lacan sees subsequent experience for both sexes as governed by the Law of the Father, bounded by the Symbolic or linguistic, and darkened by the inability to adjust the world to Desire.
While the speaker in Millay's poem enters the world of her fantasy through the mirror, in Lacanian terms her journey seems to be leading her back toward the pre-oedipal Imaginary rather than forward into the Law. (Though it is never possible in Lacan to leave the Symbolic realm entirely once one has passed over, elements of the Imaginary remain available in dream and some irrational states.) How is this return to the Imaginary coded feminine in Millay's poem?
In the first place, though the speaker is herself a victim of violence, she also seems to cross a dangerous boundary where aggression and seduction constantly change places. This is the realm of the sorceress familiar from our analysis of Elinor Wylie's poems. Because of the aggression flying free in this realm, Clément finds the sorceress in paradox: there is “hell and pleasure at the same time, suffering and a tacit paradise that is secret, hidden in a little implicit smile through even the most intense pain” (NW, 34).
In the second place, in a manner recognizably female, Desire appears alienated and reformed in the image of another's demand. Thus, what started out as a lament over inadequate opportunities (“All I could see from where I stood / Was three long mountains and a wood”) becomes a recognition of the seemingly more legitimate demands of others.
A man was starving in Capri; He moved his eyes and looked at me; I felt his gaze, I heard his moan, And knew his hunger as my own.
In the end, what Clément calls “sorcerous repression” takes over and the speaker returns, through the intervention of Logos, to the Symbolic realm governed by the Law of the Father. She who had longed to touch the sky now acknowledges that the sky belongs to a power she cannot share: “O God, I cried, no dark disguise / Can e'er hereafter hide from me / Thy radiant identity.” A world of binary oppositions has been explicitly brought back into play, and the speaker becomes a self because she is no longer like God. She is simply the intermediary term that allows phallogocentrism to assert itself:
The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
As in “The Suicide,” also from Millay's first book, a life of a sort is purchased through repression of the anger associated with the memory of injury. In each of these poems, one feels the interference of the male gaze causing the speaker to revise her original demand for recognition of what is not only a lack but, especially in “The Suicide,” a form of abuse: “Thou hast mocked me, starved me, beat my body sore” (CP, 25).
As a poet, Millay was flamboyant, exuberant, sinewy, rebellious, wry. But only in places. In truth, Millay was not really subversive. She never worked out a large conception of women's place in American culture, women's oppression under patriarchy, or even the dynamics of male-female relations. H. D. was much more analytical about these issues, but even Louise Bogan was more consistent in her evaluation of the relative merits of the sexes. Therefore, we are likely to be disappointed in Millay if we want from consciously feminist poetry more than the beginnings of feminist consciousness, if we want subtlety and range of application capable of revising our categories.
What one does find in Millay again and again is evidence of the difficulty women have in thinking outside those pernicious limits. Unlike some of the less “feminist” but more acute poets, Millay fought against the new ways of thinking about the psyche that were introduced with psychoanalysis. Only in her last book does she begin to acknowledge the existence of the unconscious and suggest the possibility that a deeper analysis of the psyche might be valuable.
If we are fair, however, it seems to me that we must understand Millay as a poet formed by her culture, choosing from that cultural matrix those elements that particularly fit her self-understood needs and interests. She was daring in some ways, but she was also, in others, a casualty of the sexual revolution of the 1910s and 1920s. Encouraged to see herself as a particular kind of consumer of sensual pleasure, she placed herself and her work within a matrix of market relations only briefly and superficially rewarding.
What she did not see at first was the vulnerability of that position and once she saw it, it was too late. Though Millay exploited the roles of both consumer and commodity, her poetry—like her body—failed to charm after a certain point. Then she was consigned, like an aging fashion model, to the ash heap of literary history. Hugh Kenner, for instance, dismisses her as a writer of “unread, unreadable books,” calling her “what's her name, the candle woman, Miss Millay, Edna St. Vincent.”21
In fact, Edna Millay was not before and is not now the author of “unread, unreadable books.” For some readers, not exclusively female, her work continues to have semiotic power. For our purposes we can see in it both an index of cultural strains and a defiant rejection of those who insist that woman as body/text cannot write of body/text, that is, of our own cultural positioning. Now that we understand this better, her poetry deserves more profound, and more profoundly feminist, readings than it has received.
The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, ed. Allan Ross Macdougall (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), 71; hereafter cited in the text as L, page reference following.
Collected Poems (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), 688; hereafter poems from this edition will be cited in the text as CP, page reference following.
These remarks are from Floyd Dell, one of Millay's early lovers, cited in Allen Churchill, The Improper Bohemians (New York: Dutton, 1959), 264; and John Hyde Preston, “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Virginia Quarterly Review 3 (1927), 343.
The negative views of Millay quoted here are from Louise Bogan, A Poet's Alphabet: Reflections on Literary Art and Vocation, ed. Robert Phelps and Ruth Limmer (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), 299; Bette Richart, “Poet of Our Youth,” Commonweal, May 10, 1957, 150; Maureen Howard, “City of Words,” Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York, ed. Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lusier (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1982), 45.
See Jane Stanbrough, “Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Language of Vulnerability,” in Shakespeare's Sisters, ed. Gilbert and Gubar, 183-99; Walter S. Minot, “Millay's ‘Ungrafted Tree’: The Problem of the Artist as Woman,” New England Quarterly 48 (1975), 260-69; and Elizabeth Perlmutter Frank, “A Doll's Heart: The Girl in the Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louise Bogan,” Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, ed. Martha Collins (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), 130-31. Nancy Milford has been working on the biography of Millay for many years. Her reviews have appeared in the New York Times, always tantalizing.
In the headnote to this poem, Macdougall says: “Miss Millay and her two friends, John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson, had amused themselves one evening writing poetic self-portraits.” One longs to compare Bishop's and Wilson's to Millay's; would they have described themselves in such terms?
For an interesting essay concerning Stein's relationship with her body, see Catherine Stimpson, “The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein,” in Susan R. Suleiman, ed., The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986).
Stanbrough says: “The language pattern of vulnerability suggests strongly that Millay saw herself as a misfit and a failure and that she believed that some external forces in her life impeded her development and inflicted permanent injury,” 191. Stanbrough compiles a startling list of poems in which the speaker is violently assaulted.
See “Women on the Market,” in Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), 170-91.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin, 1972), 46.
For some time biographers of Millay, particularly Nancy Milford and Jean Gould, have been throwing out hints about Millay's connection to lesbianism. In her biography, The Poet and Her Book (New York: Dodd Mead, 1969), Gould indicated that Millay was willing to describe herself as both homosexual and heterosexual but Gould was careful to indicate that people connected to the poet, possibly her sister Norma, had kept the full story from being told.
T. J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of Consumer Culture, 1880-1930,” in The Culture of Consumption, ed. Richard Wrightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 8.
Mary Ryan, Womanhood in America, 2d ed. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1979), both quotations 179.
Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola (New York: Methuen, 1985), 32.
In 1950, after her husband's death from cancer, Millay wrote a frustrated letter to a friend who was collecting money for cancer research. “The American Cancer Society doesn't know how to advertise itself. This is a pity. Infantile Paralysis is all over the radio and all over everything else with its tricky slogans … and Heart Disease has gone and spoiled St. Valentine's Day with its National Heart Week. … But all that the American Cancer Society ever does is simply to announce, in a dignified way, that it exists, and is not averse to contributions” (L, 367).
“Renascence” has inspired a number of readings which seem to me to miss crucial aspects of the poem. James Gray, in his monograph on the poet in American Writers (ed. Leonard Unger [New York: Scribner's, 1979]), says: “‘The soul can split the sky in two, / And let the face of God shine through.’ This confrontation with the divine can be dared and endured because man is one with the divine” (125). It seems to me crucial that the speaker is not one with the divine. Edmund Wilson thought the poem described sexual love. This, of course, ignores almost all of its specific elements. Wilson also had a hunch that the images of claustrophobia were important but he does not analyze them beyond saying that “this poem gives the central theme of Edna Millay's whole work: she is alone; she is afraid that the world will crush her; she must summon the strength to assert herself, to draw herself up to her full stature, to embrace the world with love: and the storm—which stands evidently for sexual love—comes to effect a liberation” (The Shores of Light [New York: Farrar, Straus, 1952], 758-59. After this chapter was complete, I discovered Suzanne Clark's fascinating essay on this poem; Clark reads “Renascence” in ways startlingly similar to mine, using Lacan and Kristeva. Clark, however, sees Millay struggling to repress the maternal and agrees with Frank that Millay's persona remains “the girl.” See Clark, “Jouissance and the Sentimental Daughter: Edna St. Vincent Millay,” North Dakota Quarterly 54 (Spring 1986), 85-108. I was also interested to discover that the black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde memorized all eight pages of this poem in the 1940s according to Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1982). To her at that time “the words were so beautiful they made me happy to hear, but it was the sadness and the pain and the renewal that gave me hope” (83-84).
Sigmund Freud, On Creativity and the Unconscious (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 153.
Michelet is quoted in Clément and Cixous, The Newly-Born Woman, 4; hereafter cited in the text as NW, page following.
NW, 33. For Catherine Clément, to touch the integrity of the masculine body image, which is what the sorceress and Millay's speaker do, is to participate in a demonic festival of liberation possible to the female only outside of cultural sanity. “It is the moment at which the woman crosses a dangerous line, the cultural demarcation beyond which she will find herself excluded” (NW, 33).
Jan Miel, “Jacques Lacan and the Structure of the Unconscious,” Structuralism, ed. Jacques Ehrmann (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1970), 99.
See Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (New York: William Morrow, 1975), 14.
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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 biography [Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay], cites a poignant memory of Millay searching for a chord on the organ, and asking her exhausted mother for help.
We did not have the notes of it, it was something she knew by heart. I called her to help me with the chord, and she came in. She had been doing washing, and her hands, as she placed them upon the keys[,] were very pink, and steam rose from them. Her plain gold wedding ring shone very clean and bright, and there were little bubbles on it which the soap suds had left, pink, and yellow, and pale green. When she had gone and I was sure that she would not hear me, I laid my cheek softly down upon the cool keys and wept. For it had come into my mind with dreadful violence as she bent above me and placed her fingers upon the keys … that my mother could die; and I wanted to save her from that, for I knew she would not like it; and I knew that I could not.
Poetry also came from Cora [Millay]. “Mother gave me poetry,” Millay wrote. Her discovery of the physical thrill of poetry was a perfect match for Emily Dickinson's famous statement that “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Millay said of her own first encounter with poetry: “I know that it knocked the wind clear out of me, and left me giddy and almost actively sick … when, on opening at random my mother's gargantuan copy of Shakespeare, I read the passage from Romeo and Juliet about the ‘dateless bargain’ and Death keeping Juliet as beautiful as she was in life, to be his ‘paramour.’” She began writing poems early, and perhaps too early learned to meet perfectly the editorial expectations of the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas. By the time she was eighteen, the cut-off age for submissions, she had won every poetry contest that the magazine offered. The awareness that poetry was a matter of prizes and editors as much as a giddy and gut-wrenching experience set her on the path of a big career—but one sometimes wishes that her eyes had not always been so firmly locked on the prize.
By her twentieth birthday, in 1912, Millay had written the first half of a masterpiece, the claustrophobic Renascence, which recalls in its hammering tetrameters both her hemmed-in Maine childhood landscape and her Uncle Charlie's below-deck ordeal:
Two hundred lines or so detail this circular feeling of boundedness. “The sky, I thought, is not so grand; / I 'most could touch it with my hand! / And reaching up my hand to try, / I screamed, to feel it touch the sky.”
What saves the poem from bathos is a verbal dexterity and self-mocking wit that is never far from light verse, as well as such Tin Pan Alley tricks as placing the reached-for rhyme first. The ending of the poem perfectly skirts the edge between grandiosity and a nimble tread:
The world stands out on either side No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,— No higher than the soul is high. The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That can not keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.
Those last four lines, with the skittish dash and the culminating throwaway “by and by,” could hardly be improved upon.
Renascence, the title poem of Millay's first book, which appeared in 1912, was in the running for a big prize given by The Lyric Year. The much-publicized indignation of critics such as Louis Untermeyer, protesting Millay's honorable mention, was worth more to her reputation than winning would have been. The poem and the controversy also brought Millay a more discerning audience and more powerful patrons than her childhood submissions to St. Nicholas. The wealthy Caroline Dow, dean of the YWCA Training School in New York City, heard her recite Renascence at a party and offered to pay her way through Vassar, which Millay entered, four years older than her classmates, in 1913. It was at Vassar that the Millay legend can truly be said to have begun. A diminutive five-foot-one, never weighing more than a hundred pounds, she stood out, with her flame-red hair, waist-length as a child but pinned up at Vassar, her complementary green eyes, her trained voice, and her sexual swagger that combined a New Woman androgyny with an aristocratic remove.
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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 of what I am afraid. The thought of the universe makes me sick. It is dread that I feel, an intangible, fatalistic feeling. There is so little left of my winnowing on which to build a faith. … I love you. At least I think it's love. But it seems to me I'm drowning.”1 If she had been reading Kierkegaard, which of course she had not, she could not have composed a passage more sympathetic to the angst of the Danish existentialist, whose influence would not be felt in America for another thirty years.
On February 3, her “anniversary” night, she entered in her journal only three sentences: “I have a lot of things to say but this is another death—this night. I've lighted my candle and I'm going to wear my ring all night. Perhaps I will tell you the things tomorrow.”
But she will not tell him anything that day, or the next, because she has been busy writing verses.
All I could see from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked the other 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 started from …
It might have been the view from the crest of Mount Battie, or it might have been the panorama from the waterfront anywhere along the western side of the harbor just down the hill from Vincent's room and across Bay View Street. Anywhere south of the mast- and spar-makers you could see mountains in one direction and islands in the other.
These were the things that bounded me. And I could touch them with my hand, Almost, I thought, from where I stand! And all at once things seemed so small My breath came short, and scarce at all.
The vision that follows takes up themes that haunted Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, fearful feelings of claustrophobia and thoughts of premature burial. Sure that the sky is big enough for her to rest comfortably under it, she lies down to look at the heavens until she has got her fill of them; but soon she grows suspicious that “the sky … must somewhere stop.”
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; Forced back my scream into my chest; Bent back my arm upon my breast …
Through the lens of infinity she is granted a unique and privileged revelation:
I saw and heard and knew at last The How and Why of all things, past, And present, and forevermore.
The price she must pay for such knowledge is dear.
For my omniscience paid I a toll In infinite remorse of soul. All sin was of my sinning, all Atoning mine, and mine the gall Of all regret.
For months she had been recording in her diary her sufferings of guilt, existential terror, and angst. On February 11 she wrote, “I do not think there is a woman in whom the roots of passion shoot deeper than in me. … It seems to me that I am, incarnate, rapture and melancholy. … I feel intensely every little thing. … Sometimes I think that I have experienced … every emotion, that is, the emotions I have not physically felt I have imagined so vividly as to make them real to me. And what life I have lived I have lived doubly, actually and symbolically.” For example, waking in the morning so tired she dreads to get up, she envisions a world of workers filled with the same dread.
There can be no more precise account of the psychic burden of the poet, the moral poet, or the anointed saint. Renascence is perhaps the most striking expression of this burden in American literature, at least before the later poems of T. S. Eliot and some of the meditations of Thomas Merton. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, who was restrained but unequivocal in his praise of what he did not hesitate to call Millay's “genius,” said “Renascence is genuine, in the sense that it is the right kind of religious poem for an actual young girl of New England.” She resumes:
I saw at sea a great fog bank Between two ships that struck and sank. A thousand screams the heavens smote; And every scream tore through my throat. … All suffering mine, and mine its rod; Mine, pity like the pity of God.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity Pressed down upon the finite Me!
Under this terrible burden she longs for death. And quietly the earth gives way beneath her until she is “full six feet under ground.” There the onerous weight cannot follow, and she rests peacefully, “gladly dead,” listening to the rain fall.
For rain it hath a friendly sound To one who's six feet under ground; And scarce the friendly voice or face, A grave is such a quiet place.
Here, at line 116 of the poem that would someday be nearly twice that length, the poet looked up from her paper and desk, out the window overlooking Camden harbor. She did not know what would come next, but tried out certain lines aloud: “Long lay I listening to the rain / Conscious of blessed ease from pain …” And she imagined peace personified as a kind of domestic goddess “whose sandals fall / Softly along from hall to hall / Where Pain has held his wild carouse, / While patiently she rights the house. …” These lines played through her mind, and she tried them out with the pencil on the page.
The last lines were somehow wrong. Either the poem was finished before, or she was stuck. She left the work, returning days later to scribble disjointed notes: “I know not how such came to be!—I breathed my soul back into me.” And then, “Bounding to my feet came I / And hailed the earth with such a cry / As is not heard save from a man / Who dies and comes to life again.” These and a few other fragments she scrawled on the same unlined pages with the 116 finished verses. But the rest of the poem, if there was indeed more to come, would have to wait for a while.
Writing the first half of Renascence greatly lifted the poet's spirits, as only working at the top of one's form can do. The diary entry on her twentieth birthday (February 22, 1912) is quite cheerful. “Good morning! I am just twenty years old this minute—half past nine—and you are the first person I've spoken to. Just think! Not in my teens anymore and never again. It seems so funny. I usually make resolutions on my birthday, and I usually keep them pretty well … but I think I'll not make any today, or perhaps just one … suppose that during the next year I try to be fairly decent. … Now I am going out and be fairly decent to somebody. Good-bye!”
The chance to do a good deed came a week later, and Vincent jumped at it. On Thursday, February 29, a long-distance call came from Kingman, Maine, where her father lived. Cora was working on a case in Rockland, so Vincent answered the phone.
“Your father is very ill, and may not recover.”
Vincent was speechless, but eventually stuttered out the words that she would soon be sending a telegram. Then she rang her mother long distance. They decided that Vincent ought to go at once to Bangor and see how she might help Henry Tolman Millay.
Few references to Henry Millay appear in the family letters and diaries before this year. Vincent sometimes mentions that she has written to her father, but there are no letters from him before 1912 or mention of visits to him or from him. Though he seems to have sent the girls money irregularly, whenever he was able, there is no evidence that they depended upon it or that Cora received alimony.
From photographs and Vincent's letters we know that he was handsome: square-jawed, fair-haired, and blue-eyed, with a luxurious handlebar mustache. He was fond of jokes, laughter, and singing, and a devil with the cards. During long nights at the whist or poker table he was not averse to steadying his nerves with rye whiskey. It has always been believed that Cora (whose mother divorced her father) divorced Henry more or less amicably because he spilled their hard-earned dollars onto the card table and lost more than he won. Divorce was rare in those days. Detailed letters from Cora to her sister Sue speak of a pattern of abuse. The only witness at her divorce trial was Henry's brother Bert, who testified that Henry “had abused her bitterly.” Another brother, Fred, said he did not know how she “had stood it so long.” It is difficult to imagine the feisty, tough Cora allowing anyone to strike her, with words or fists, but we do not know how she became the “hard-bitten” woman who raised three girls by herself, or what she was like as a young bride. There is little room for doubt that Henry did treat his wife cruelly, that the girls witnessed this, and that Cora was bitter about it forever afterward.2
Nevertheless, Cora seems to have encouraged her daughters to maintain contact with their father, in deference to the Fifth Commandment, not to mention the man's potential as a source of income. Henry evidently was dying up there in Kingman, and if he had a dollar left to his name after his compulsive gambling (he was still a notorious cardsharp), the money belonged to his daughters.
So Vincent threw some clothes and poems together into her Aunt Rose's borrowed suitcase, and the next day boarded the noon boat for Bucksport, where she caught a train to Bangor. She spent the night there with family friends, the Duntons, whose granddaughter Gladys Niles, a law student, read Vincent's new poem, as yet untitled. Vincent casually called it “the down underground poem.” Gladys liked the verses and the Camden girl, and before Vincent boarded the train for Kingman the next morning they had vowed to keep in touch.
Ella Somerville, the daughter of Henry Millay's doctor, met Vincent at the train station. Arrangements had been made for her to stay at Dr. Somerville's home. According to Vincent's diary, after a cup of coffee there, the doctor and Ella took Vincent to the place where her father was boarding, a pale blue house owned by Mr. and Mrs. Yannis Boyd. As Vincent walked through the doorway she heard the sound of a man coughing upstairs. Only at that moment did she realize how long it had been since she had seen her father—eleven years.
An Irish nurse announced that Mr. Millay was expecting his daughter. Then it seemed to Vincent that all of them—the doctor and nurse, the Boyds and their sons, and Ella—were watching her carefully, piteously, advising her to brace up and keep calm, “which was really funny,” she recalled, “as I was not the least bit nervous and everybody else seemed very much upset. Isn't that always the way? Perhaps I wasn't so calm though, as I was numb.” She stood outside of herself, “hearing myself say things and watching myself do things,” as if she were “an altogether different being, not in the least concerned.”3
Dr. Somerville led her upstairs and left her alone with the dying man.
“It didn't seem to me that the man on the bed was my father.” She stood beside him and said, “Hello Papa, dear,” just as she had planned, but her voice came out higher pitched than usual.
He opened his eyes, the bluest she had ever seen, and cried out, “Vincent, my little girl,” struggling to sit up in the bed, as he held out his arms to her. She put her arms around him and made him lie back against the pillows, then sat on the side of the bed and talked to him.
“Oh, I wish my eyes were blue like yours so they might match my hat.”
Now he could only whisper. “You can't very well change your eyes, Vincent, but you might have got a green hat.”
She laughed then, and he smiled faintly, with his eyes closed. He had difficulty opening them, which made her all the more certain that he was going to die, a suspicion that the doctor confirmed later that afternoon, saying the man had only a few days to live.
That evening she wrote a card to her mother and sisters, telling them that she had “found Papa very low.” That little postcard was, to their dismay, the last they heard from their emissary for three weeks. Whether or not the presence of his beloved daughter revived Henry Tolman Millay, the man did begin to improve, slowly. She visited him daily and read to him from the works of Kipling, his favorite, and the humorous story “Pigs Is Pigs,” no more than an hour or two a day. And when she wasn't attending her father, the twenty-year-old girl, free at last from the dreary routine of housekeeping in Camden, was having the time of her life.
“He didn't die after all. In spite of everything he got well, and my sojourn in Kingman turned out to be a visit to Ella Somerville whom I grew to like very much.”
Ella was twenty-four, a talented painter and pianist who had attended a good finishing school. Witty and funny, Ella delighted in poetry and dancing and certain boys. But she never loved anything on this earth as much as the red-haired fairy poet from Camden. She fell madly in love with Vincent Millay, in ways that Vincent found altogether welcome. According to her diary, the first night she spent at the Somervilles' home Ella asked Vincent if she would prefer staying with her in her room, or if Ella should just come and sleep with Vincent in her bed. Vincent said she would much rather Ella would come to her.
“After that we slept together every night—at least we spent the nights together.” They talked, laughed, and giggled until the bed shook. They read poetry aloud, including Vincent's new poem. Ella particularly enjoyed hearing Vincent read Robert Burns, because she rolled her tongue so easily and joyously around the words. She loved Vincent's tongue and her little fingers, and it is not until the end of the month when Vincent has gone home and Ella, bereaved, starts writing her candid love letters, that we realize just how Ella loved Vincent Millay.
March 30, 1912
Did you think that Lovey had forgotten her own precious poppy laden canoe? Not so! She has only been so overcome by her loss that she has been incapable of transmitting even one rational sentence on paper. … She was so overwhelmed with anguish that she became temporarily deranged.
This is not playful sarcasm. After Vincent's departure Ella went into seclusion for two days. When she emerged she visited Henry Millay “thinking I might extract a grain of comfort by talking of my beloved.” She stammered, “What a dreadful thing it is to be in love,” a comment which Vincent's father took in with a kind glance of understanding but then dismissed “with an unseemly levity.”
Of course, Henry had no idea what Ella was really trying to tell him, and modesty prevented her from being more explicit. But Ella's letters are graphic. “Say, it's awfully lonesome. No one to play with me, no one to call me ‘grapefruit,’ no one to roll on at night. … One thing is certain, old girl; when you make a place for yourself in someone's heart, no one else can fill it. …” This was the prototype of a thousand love letters, mostly from men, that Millay will receive during a lifetime abounding in love affairs. The specific carnal details of the girls' play, the flames of pretty tongues, “each little tongue will do a cunning dance … the serpentine dance, the butterfly dance,” should not be construed as indicating the two girls were practicing to be lesbians primarily. They were both obsessed with men; most of their correspondence concerns their shared crush on a vaudeville fiddler, and Ella was lustily navigating a sea of romantic suitors on the way to marriage. But men were too dangerous to serve the physical needs of these hot-blooded Edwardian ladies, so they were relieved—delighted even—to turn to each other for warmth in the long winter nights, to touch each other in just the way they wanted to be touched. Praising Vincent's genitalia in the most liberated manner, Ella concludes: “It will afford much greater opportunity to give vent to the domestic side of your nature.”
Their days together were as fun filled as their nights. They went to town meetings (where Henry Millay had always been “moderator”) and attended dances almost every night. The Kingman fellows were renowned for dancing, not the old-fashioned contra dances, but waltzes and polkas and schottisches, and Vincent was a sensational dancer.
During the entire second week of March, the Kickapoo-Laguna Vaudeville Medicine Show played Kingman, and the girls went to it every day except for Tuesday, when they attended a lecture by the Dean of Education of the University of Maine. The medicine show's chief attraction was the Violin Man, described by Vincent “from our near front-end seats … was a good-looking man of thirty or almost, tall, rather, and slim, rather, with peripatetic eyes, three gold teeth, black hair, and the handsomest feet and ankles I ever saw. We could not keep our eyes away from—his violin.”
She made eyes at him; he noticed her and returned the favor. “And he played to us and at us and through us, beautifully, just beautifully.” The next night came the lecture, which the girls attended under duress “because all the nice people went … and Ella and I were nice people still, for we had not yet fallen in love with the violin man. We were just teetering round on the bias edge of it.” But “our hearts were in the show-barn there with the fiddle.”
So the next night they were back in the show-barn, sitting in the same seats, and this time they noticed that the Violin Man was looking at them. “When he had finished the overture, Ella said ‘I wish he would play the Intermezzo from Cavaliera Rusticana.’” Ella had been playing the “Ave Maria” air from that Intermezzo to accompany Vincent's singing of it, which the duo planned to perform in the town's Methodist church. Imagine their surprise when, minutes later, the Violin Man played the piece they had longed for as his only solo of the evening!
“We began to think we had him hypnotized.”
Indeed the flirtation between Vincent and the Violin Man became more and more flagrant as the week went by. She and Ella persuaded the Methodist minister to invite the Violin Man to play the Intermezzo as an obligato to Vincent's solo in the church on Sunday. And while the Violin Man was flattered beyond words, his schedule would not permit it, as he had to move on to the next town before the Sabbath. “The violinist was almost heart-broken, it seemed.”
But eventually Vincent would get her man, in the only way that mattered to her. The medicine show nightly debauched into a dance party, for which the fiddler provided the music. Vincent was far and away the best dancer in the barn, and he could not keep his eyes off her as she spun and glided in the arms of the handsomest men in Kingman. “He didn't know it, but I was dancing for a prize, which was the Violin Man's admiration.”
The fifteen-page letter that she wrote at last to her sisters on St. Patrick's Day “has more stuff to tell you than would fill a novel of Dickens.” She can only begin to tell them what has happened to her, in the humorous and enthusiastic prose of a young woman who has discovered a new source of joy and vitality.
At the center of the Kingman experience is her father. “Papa sat up yesterday in a chair, partly dressed. I pop in and out all the time and we just love each other.” The pale blue house where he was convalescing stood across the yard from the Methodist Church. Before she and Ella went into the sanctuary to rehearse Vincent's solo, she opened up Papa's window wide, despite the cold, and then they opened the church window so that he could hear his daughter singing a few lines of “Ave Maria.”
“Papa thinks I have a voice with a future, said he thought it was [Madame Ernestine] Schumann-Heink a-bellering next door, had no idea I could sing like that. … Lord! How I do fool 'em all!” Her father who adores her, her pianist who is head over heels in love with her, the Violin Man who doesn't know what to do with her, the bedazzled swains of Kingman: it is a heady taste of power, far from home, where she can be free.
The letters from Camden came fast and furious before Vincent took time to write her long epistle of March 17. Her mother and sisters were frantic without her, could not understand why on earth they had heard nothing from her. On March 20 Cora wrote, “I have been so anxious about you that tonight I tried to telephone Dr. Somerville and the line was out of order. …4 We have watched the mails and I have come down from my case every night to hear from you. I have been afraid you were sick.” On the contrary, Vincent never felt better. “It is time for you to come home. We need you. The girls are not having a fair chance for the last term. … I want you to be sure to be here to look out for things next week for them. … If I do not hear at once I shall telegraph.” She enclosed a pathetic letter from Norma begging her sister to come back to her at once.
But Cinderella was taking her own sweet time. Ella was begging her to stay forever; at last Vincent decided that the two of them would go to Bangor together the following week, their date depending upon the theater schedule, as they wanted to take in a play before Ella put Vincent on the train to Bucksport.
In desperation, seeing the entreaties to Vincent's family loyalty were falling on deaf ears, Cora appealed to her daughter's literary ambitions: “I am going to try to catch you now with something that may interest and encourage you.” Cora had seen an ad in a magazine announcing a “contest for writers of verse is being held by Mitchell Kennerley the publisher. … One thousand dollars [Cora's italics] has been set aside to be distributed in three prizes to authors of the best three poems submitted before June 1, 1912. … Nov 1st of this year Mr. Kennerley will put out the volume under the title ‘The Lyric Year.’” It would contain the winning poems as well as others. “This seems to be a great chance for you. … Come home and make a good try so you can have chances to run up to school and use the typewriter.”
This letter did not catch up with Vincent until March 28, when she was staying at her friends the Duntons for two days in Bangor, on her way back to Camden.
She arrived home on March 31, completely rejuvenated and ready to resume work on her long poem.
The Kingman adventure is essential biography of the young woman who wrote Renascence. The rejuvenation of spirits that had begun with the cathartic composition of 116 anguished lines in the winter of 1911-1912 was thoroughly accomplished and secured in March of 1912. Poetry had revived her, and love had restored her—paternal love, as well as a strong dose of erotic love, which she had found as strange and exhilarating as poetry. For the next several years, a critical transition in Vincent's life, the letters to and from her Papa are frequent and affectionate. As for the letters from Ella, though the correspondence will be short-lived it is intense. In her teens Vincent had felt the promptings of erotic love for nameless and insignificant boys. But never before had she known the erotic power of being adored, which Ella so finely expressed in her letters. Now that Vincent had experienced this passion, she would never be able to do without it.
Her crisis was over. Never again in her diaries or letters will she seem so frightened, tormented, so full of existential angst. She had found two sources of strength that would sustain her for years to come: poetry and erotic love. She returned to all of her work, domestic and literary, with a new outlook, joy, humor, and an irrepressible appetite for adventure. She came home to the exciting news that they were moving, from the dark tenement on the ground floor of 40 Chestnut, where she had suffered so deeply for more than a year, to a bright, two-story freestanding house with an upstairs bathroom and a coal furnace at 82 Washington Street. “A dear place,” she called it at first sight, only a few blocks on the town side of the house in the field where she had spent her childhood.5
April would always be a starred month on Millay's calendar. It was in mid-April of 1912, in a little room with a slanted ceiling under the eaves, at a table at the northeast window overlooking Washington Street, that the poet returned to her unfinished poem. There is a snapshot of her leaning out of this window, her long hair flowing like Rapunzel's. In reciting the visionary narrative to her friends Gladys Niles and Ella Somerville she had been calling it “the down underground poem.” The first part she had written under the weight of two family dwellings above her on Chestnut Street. Now she sat in the light-filled aerie at the top of her house. And even when it rained there the drops on the tin roof made a happy sound. She wrote:
The rain, I said, is kind to come And speak to me in my new home. I would I were alive again To kiss the fingers of the rain …
And she was alive again, joyously alive after a winter whose gloom had buried her so deeply she feared she might never arise from it.
O God, I cried, give me new birth, And put me back upon the earth! Upset each cloud's gigantic gourd And let the heavy rain, down-poured In one big torrent, set me free, Washing my grave away from me!
In order to finish the poem she had started that winter she needed a poetic vision of regeneration to redeem the horrific nightmare of premature burial that had inspired her first hundred lines—and April and May would bring it. The rain in a black wave falls from the sky and strikes her grave.
And as I looked a quickening gust Of wind blew up to me and thrust Into my face a miracle Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,— I know not how such things can be!— I breathed my soul back into me.
The last thirty-four verses of Renascence are an ode to joy whose exuberance and philosophical import know few parallels in American literature. Many of the lines are familiar even to those who have never read the poem in its entirety.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I And hailed the earth with such a cry As is not heard save from a man Who has been dead, and lives again. About the trees my arms I wound; Like one gone mad I hugged the ground; I raised my quivering arms on high; I laughed and laughed into the sky; … God, I can push the grass apart And lay my finger on Thy heart!
The twelve lines that end the poem, the “moral” or metaphysical coda, are drawn from her “Essay on Faith,” a geometry of belief reminiscent of Pascal: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide; / Above the world is stretched the sky,— / No higher than the soul is high.” The elaboration of this Donne-like metaphysical simile leads her to a cautionary conclusion, which has been praised for nearly a century for its profundity cast in the cracker-barrel tone of the “Down East” porch philosopher: “And he whose soul is flat—the sky / Will cave in on him by and by.”6
From the kitchen door, their new house looked out on the mansard roof, high-arched windows, and the slender-columned portico of the Camden High School on Knowlton Street. Vincent had arranged to use the typewriter in the school office. Back and forth to the school, under the balcony of the Victorian portico, Vincent passed with her manuscript. At the end of May she was satisfied with her new poem, which she now titled Renaissance. (The Americanized spelling was her editor's idea.) And on Monday, May 27, she sent the poem, along with her other long poem “Interim,” and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Mitchell Kennerley on East Twenty-eighth Street in New York City. Her greatest hope was for a generous portion of the one thousand dollars in prize money that judges Edward J. Wheeler and William Stanley Braithwaite would be awarding for the three best poems. She did not dream that the poem Renaissance was about to shoot lightning through the literary world. Even less did she think that the prayers she had offered up to her dream lover in the little chamber on Chestnut Street were soon to be answered. The poem she had written would bring the longed-for lover to her, in a myriad of forms, as befitted the nature of her longing:
My love for you is something more than just thought, it is the love of Everywoman for Everyman. It is all primitive female life desiring its mate, it is all hunger crying for food, all weariness sighing for rest, it is the instinctive reaching out of the universal soul.7
That June Vincent was joyfully preparing for Norma's graduation—sewing, baking, and rehearsing some duets they would perform at the commencement in the Opera House. Several of her friends, including Ethel Knight, were getting married, and there were wedding showers and weddings to attend, and gifts to be made for brides.
On July 19, 1912, she received a letter from an editor of The Lyric Year, saying that her poem Renaissance was accepted. He liked it “tremendously,” and was requesting biographical information.
What happened to Edna St. Vincent Millay that summer and autumn has been told often and well by a hundred biographers, journalists, and literary historians. It has become a legend central to our literary heritage, like the death of Poe, Whitman's reviewing of Leaves of Grass under pseudonyms, Pound's editing of The Waste Land, or the vanishing of Ambrose Bierce. In Millay's case the events were so public, controversial, and widely discussed that the documentary accounts have given a false impression. It was generally believed that the apotheosis of St. Vincent Millay that year and the next was a thing that happened to the girl from Camden, a series of peculiar coincidences of which she was less an active participant than a passive spectator. This is far from true. From the day she received her first letter from The Lyric Year, the ambitious poet worked the situation for all it was worth, and it turned out to be worth a fortune.
To start with, thinking that the editor who had written to her was none other than Mitchell Kennerley himself (and that perhaps “her editor” was the dream lover she had been conjuring for nearly a year and a half), she set her cap to seduce him in a series of letters that range from coquettish to downright salacious. The editor, assuming Vincent was a man, addressed her as “esquire.” At first the judge/editor wished to conceal his identity, and withheld his name, knowing it unethical to be corresponding personally with a contestant in such a competition. So during the months of July and August the two performed an epistolary striptease, as she, shedding a veil at a time, suggested to him she was a young, lovely, and passionate girl from Camden, and he divulged that he was one Ferdinand Earle, a thirty-four-year-old poet from England with a wife and baby daughter. He confided that the contest at Kennerley's Lyric Year was his very own brainchild “to reach just such budding geniuses as yourself.” And in his second letter he addressed her as “Dear and true Poetess! You have indeed astonished me through and through—a lassie o'twenty—is it possible? I am not alone in thinking that your poem is very fine, original, strong, impressive.” In short, “sometimes” he thinks it's the best in the book—that “sometimes” serving as the shade that keeps the concupiscent judge from completely giving the game away. Vincent sent him her photo and a four-leaf clover; he called her his “most captivating young authoress,” and sent her a picture of himself on snow skis. By that time Vincent was ready to order a bumper of champagne and a new autumn wardrobe with her prize money, which was as good as in the bank.8
Before he told her his real name she wrote to him, “It doesn't matter in the least who you are, for, whoever you are, you are perfectly charming and I am crazy about you. There! Such a relief to be able at last to confess it …”—as if this had been a page of her secret diary instead of a mash letter to a married English poet with an infant daughter. By October they were planning to meet in New York, he was teasing her to “write something decidedly immoral,” and she was all but assured that the five hundred dollars in first-prize money was hers if he could only lay eyes on her.9
In an exuberant letter to Gladys Niles she notes, “Isn't it wonderful, the way it has happened? I little thought when I sent my manuscript away last spring that today I should be on such intimate terms with the editor. … Isn't it lovely to make new friends? I've made so many this year: you and your grandmother and Sophie, and Ella Somerville and her people.” And all of them are in love with her. This is the year, 1912, that she has discovered the rare power she has to make people fall in love with her, and the incomparable thrill of it.
She appeared at first to have no knowledge of the risks and dangers of the game she was playing with Earle, until, in a letter of October 19, he responded to one of her love letters with wise caution. “Dear impulsive child: What am I to say or think. … I should grieve to hurt you … and you could easily hurt me.” Her love letters were so full of wit, badinage, and sexual wordplay that he did not know exactly how to take them (“Lay aside, very gently, the roguish mask behind which you write,” he pleaded), but it is obvious she was driving him mad with desire and uncertainty. “I beg of you to write me immediately … a frank, serious intelligible letter. … Remember in spite of all you may suspect, I am just a baby boy in the woods. You must take me by the hand and lead me to the light. There is something bewitching about you. … You see, I need a letter, crystal clear!” This is an ultimatum. He is calling her bluff in this letter that is breathless with schemes about his sneaking into Camden or her coming to New York, this letter in which he coyly and parenthetically remarks “think of it, while I am writing to you I know the decision of one of the two other judges!!!!!!!”
Whether or not Earle was the dream lover Millay had been summoning with her candles and incantations, she implies in the letters that she was prepared to go to bed with him if it might give her a jump on winning the five hundred dollars. For top prize, the imaginative girl might convince herself he was the man she hoped he was.
Not all of the correspondence has been preserved, but it is clear from subsequent events, and from a letter written by Millay on October 28, that this is what happened: She wrote him the crystal-clear love letter that he demanded. It scared the daylights out of him. He left the billets-doux from the shameless Camden girl poet lying somewhere where his wife could find them, and she read him the riot act. Then during the last week in October he wrote a craven note in which he apologized for any part that he might have played in encouraging her amorous, wanton schemes. By then he certainly knew that Vincent's poem Renascence had finished the poetry tournament out of the money. She would not know this for another two weeks, nor would she learn until thirty years later that her correspondence with Ferdinand Earle had been the beginning of the end of his marriage.10
In her letter of October 28, 1912, furious, she lambastes him as “the Patch-Work Letter Man,” asking him to return her last love letter, of which she was proudest, granting him permission to read the others aloud to his wife, and offering to send all of his letters back to him (she didn't). She had wanted a flesh-and-blood lover, not a nervous moralist. “Let me congratulate you,” she hisses, “on your convincing impersonation of a genuine man. … How can I be expected to understand a person who got his education in France, his business-methods in Siberia, his behaviour in vaudeville, and his brains in a raffle?”
So the search for her true love was only beginning.
That summer Norma Millay had a job waiting tables at the new Whitehall Inn on High Street, located on the slope of Megunticook overlooking the bay. The white-columned inn with its wide picture windows and broad porches with Shaker rocking chairs was a new guest house, which looked old because it had once been the Victorian manse of a sea captain. At the end of the summer season it was the custom for the inn's employees to put on a show for the guests, after which everyone would mingle at a masquerade ball. Vincent had written several songs, and Norma thought it would be fun if her sister would come along and sing some of them.
So on August 29 Vincent showed up at the inn dressed adorably as the pantomime character Pierrette, wearing a ruffled tunic. She sat at the piano and belted out her songs “The Circus Rag,” “Sun's Comin' Out,” and “Humoresque,” which pretty Norma had sung recently at her graduation. Then someone asked for a poem. Vincent told the audience of forty charmed listeners about Renascence and its impending publication, and they begged to hear it.
At the piano bench she turned her profile toward them and delivered, by heart, the whole 214-line poem, intoning it through the archway of the music room to a spellbound audience lounging in wing chairs and on davenports, a group that included a Miss Caroline B. Dow from New York City. After long and enthusiastic applause, Miss Dow and others insisted that this otherworldly creature return from whatever planet she had descended from, and repeat the entire performance. Agreeably, Edna St. Vincent Millay returned and performed the next night; and on Tuesday, September 3, she went up the hill to the inn once more, having been invited to a tea. On that occasion Miss Dow asked Vincent's permission to call upon her and her mother the next day at their home.11
Now the writer whose fame was growing so rapidly was almost twenty-one, and frankly confessed to anyone who asked her that she was a self-educated poet who had taught herself Latin and read the classics on her own, time permitting, having had no occasion to go to college. She did not have to tell anyone that she was poor—that tidbit would slip out between and around the lines of her conversation.
Miss Caroline Dow, a woman of means, was the dean of the YWCA Training School in New York City. Stolid, earnest, she resembled the actress Margaret Dumont, Groucho Marx's straight lady. In the parlor of the Millay residence on Washington Street, with its little bay window, Miss Dow explained to the poet and her mother that it was inappropriate, not to say an injustice, for the author of Renascence not to attend college. So she suggested a plan to send Vincent to Vassar, naming several wealthy friends who would be willing to put the plan into action.
This was not a novel idea. Abbie Evans, the preacher's daughter, had gone to Radcliffe by grace of wealthy patrons. By October Dow found herself in competition with Mrs. Julius Esselbourne, who had also caught Vincent's act at Whitehall, and was pulling strings to get Vincent a scholarship to Smith College. (In December Vincent would receive a letter from President Burton of Smith, offering to pay full freight if the poet would sign with Smith.)
Summing up the whole chain of events in her diary, Vincent wrote, “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to anybody, I think.” At twenty she looked like a changeling princess in a fairy tale, and recently her life had begun to take on a fairy-tale unreality. But what she had seen so far was paltry compared to the wonders that were soon to come, some of them longed for, schemed for, others beyond imagining.
First she had to win that prize, and the fame and glory and five hundred dollars that came with it. She may even have feared that her college prospects hinged upon her success in the contest. “The Lyric Year is to come out in a week, and I'm almost dead with impatience and nervousness and wariness and anxiety.”12 Just how much that money meant to Vincent, her mother, and her sisters—and how much “her editor” had led her to count on it—is painfully obvious in a drafted letter to Earle of November 5, 1912, upon learning of her defeat. The draft, unfinished and without heading or signature, probably was never posted:
This, then, is what I have been waiting for, from day to day, from mail to mail, in such an agony as I had not known I could experience. This is the answer, this is the end. I wonder why I am not crying. My mother is crying. Did you ever hear your mother cry as if her heart would break? It is a strange and terrible sound. I think I shall never forget it.
After months of teasing the poetess with comments like “Were I a sport, I should wager odds on Renascence for first honors,” and “You will, I think, be quite pleased with the results of the competition,” Earle had feebly written, “Would you be satisfied with a very honorable mention?”
No, she would not. And “the difference between first prize and no prize … is, in fact, the difference between the distressing poverty of my family and a comparative ease—a release from the heart-breaking, soul-sickening desperation of old debt. [It began with a loan Cora had taken out when they moved to Camden.] I have lived with this debt ever since I can remember. I have talked it, tasted it, breathed it. … And at last I had sighted help, I was made so hopeful I began to plan just what I could do with it.” Cora's annual income in 1912 was probably between eight hundred and one thousand dollars. Five hundred dollars from the contest would have put them solidly in the black.
Vincent herself is numb, she says. She pities her mother and sisters, whom she has convinced the prize money was a sure thing; and she pities, disdainfully, the double-talking editor. “I would not be in your place, with my own capability for remorse, for anything on earth or heaven. …” What little she feels for herself is anger that she, like Earle, led others to believe in a chimera. “Perhaps this will be good for me in the end. It will make me so careful what I say to people.”
It would be good for her in many other ways. Strange, is it not, the way certain themes in a life recur? Three years earlier the Camden boys had conspired to deprive the poetess of her rightful laurels; now the high judges Earle, Wheeler, and Braithwaite had denied her every last one of the cash awards for Renascence, which she now had reason to believe was the finest poem in The Lyric Year.
The prizes went to Messrs. Orrick Johns, Thomas Daly, and George Sterling. History has had her little joke on them by leaving them out of all conversation except biographies of Millay. We will never know exactly what transpired among the judges in Mitchell Kennerley's office on East Twenty-eighth Street. But it is my guess that the discovery of Vincent Millay's sex, her dalliance by mail with a judge, and his wife's tantrum over it did nothing to help Millay's cause.
But Vincent's honorable mention in The Lyric Year, a handsomely bound red-cloth-covered book with a golden lyre stamped on its cover, turned out to be the consolation prize of the century. Most well-established American poets—Richard LeGallienne, Sara Teasdale, Edwin Markham, Louis Untermeyer, William Rose Benét, Joyce Kilmer, John Hall Wheelock, Witter Bynner, Arthur Ficke, and fifty others—contributed to the book that showcased Renascence. They all read the poem, and it was universally acknowledged that the judges had made a colossal and outrageous error. To his credit, Earle singled out Renascence for special praise in his “Note by the Editor,” implying that not he but the other judges had allowed the miscarriage of justice, the aesthetic blunder. Letters poured in from all over the literary world (this is not hyperbole: the bundle of mail is preserved in the Library of Congress collection) protesting the imbecilic decision and praising Edna St. Vincent Millay. The winner himself, Orrick Johns, embarrassed, wrote, “I realized it was an unmerited award. The outstanding poem in that book was Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay, immediately acknowledged by every authoritative critic as such.” He excused himself from the awards banquet. Legend has it that one of the prize winners offered to give Millay his share of the money, and the proud girl refused. This seems incredible: not that he would have offered, but that she would have turned it down. The influential poet and critic Louis Untermeyer wrote to praise her poem in the Chicago Post, as did many others around the country (the New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1912; St. Louis Mirror, November 28, 1912) who reviewed the anthology. The secretary of the Poetry Society of America, Jesse Rittenhouse, wrote to Millay that “Renascence is the best thing in the book,” and invited her to give a poetry reading for the society.13
An oft-repeated (though unattributed) comment came from one critic who called her “the young girl from Camden, Maine, who became famous through not receiving the prize.” In the year when John Butler Yeats (W. B. Yeats's father) noted “The fiddles are tuning all over America,” and such poets as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Robinson Jeffers burst upon the scene, the same year Harriet Monroe founded the showcase of modern verse, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse—in that age of poetic renaissance, 1912, Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem struck the keynote.
In her hillside bedroom overlooking Camden harbor the young woman had prayed to a mysterious spirit, a dream lover, to come and rescue her from loneliness and a bitter life of futile toil. In that same room where she made love ritually to a ghost, she also summoned Erato, the muse of love poetry. She had cast a spell over her room, her notebooks, pencil and paper, the air around her, and the streets of her hometown. Now through her poetry she was casting a spell over the whole world.
On January 10, 1913, in the dark early hours of the morning, Vincent gazed at her guttering candle. She braided her long red hair into one pigtail. She pulled the tarnished ring from her finger, placed it in a little white box, and holding the candle at an angle spilled a drop of molten wax into the box with the ring. Then she took up a sewing needle. “I did it. And I pricked my ring-finger and dropped in a drop of red, red blood. (I shall always have to do things like that. It is my self that does it).” So she whispered, then wrote in her book as she sealed the box: “We will have no more vigils.”
Diary, January 24, 1912.
Letter from Cora Millay to Sister Sue, January 10, 1929.
ESVM, Diary, March 1 and 2, 1912.
ESVM to “Dear Children” (mother and sisters) March 17, 1912.
Diary, April 1, 1912.
“Essay on Faith,” from Notebook of 1911.
ESVM, Diary, May 27, 1912; “My love for you …” Diary, February 11, 1912.
“to reach just such budding geniuses …” Ferdinand Earle to ESVM, August 14, 1912; “Second Letter” of Earle's is quoted in ESVM's letter to Gladys Niles, August 12, 1912, White Hall Inn Collection.
ESVM to Gladys Niles, October 1912, White Hall Inn Collection; “It doesn't matter in the least …” Undated letter, ESVM to Earle, in the Library of Congress Collection.
Letter from Ferdinand Earle to Eugen Boissevain, June 18, 1940.
ESVM, Diary, August 29-September 3, 1912.
“It was the most wonderful thing.” Diary, September 3, 1912; “The Lyric Year is to come out …” Diary, October 25, 1912.
“I realized it was …” Letters, p. 18; “Renaissance is the best thing,” Diary, November 14, 1912.
Atkins, Elizabeth. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936).
Britten, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967).
Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village (University of Alabama Press, 1975).
Dash, Joan. A Life of One's Own (New York, Harper & Row, 1973).
Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969).
Gurko, Miriam. Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1962).
Shafter, Toby. Edna St. Vincent Millay, America's Best-Loved Poet (New York: Julian Messner, 1957).