Historical Context

The Roaring Twenties
Victory in World War I and the economic boom that followed it brought about a period of carefree living and a sense of well-being in the United States. America underwent a cultural transformation, having solidly established itself as a major military and economic leader in the world. Advances in technology affected almost every aspect of society, from science to the family kitchen. The construction industry was busy with high demand for residential and commercial buildings, which included hotels, banks, and chain stores. Mass-produced items and improved household appliances made everyday life easier, and increased production of airplanes and automobiles added a decidedly modern aspect to American life.

Expanding industry offered increased work opportunities in cities. As a result, city populations soon surpassed rural populations. While this was good for businesses, it created new social challenges. Population density and diversity brought about conflicts over issues such as religion, prohibition of liquor, race relations, and immigration. Many of these contentious issues carried over into the depressed years of the 1930s.

Although the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbade the making, sale, and distribution of liquor, Americans who wanted liquor were able to find it. Organized crime groups ran clubs where people could buy drinks, dance, and listen to music. “Bootleggers” sold liquor to individuals who wanted to drink in their homes or at parties.

Women became more independent in the 1920s. Flappers were women who rejected convention,...

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Literary Style

Literary Devices
Although “Wild Swans” is only eight lines, Millay introduces a number of literary devices to add depth to the poem. The swans are symbolic of freedom and certainty; that the speaker describes them as wild emphasizes their totally unfettered existence and their instinctual sense of purpose. Millay employs synecdoche (using a part to represent the whole) by referring to the heart. The heart represents the speaker’s entire emotional reality, including feelings past and present. Millay uses personification when she describes the heart as “tiresome.” This implies that the heart is a separate entity that exhausts the powerless speaker. Millay also introduces a metaphor of a house to describe the heart. Line six reads, “House without air, I leave you and lock your door.” The speaker regards her heart as a stifling house that lacks life-giving air. The metaphor extends as the speaker states that she is leaving the house and locking its door. In the final line, Millay employs anthropomorphism (assigning human characteristics or feelings to nonhuman beings) as she suggests that the swans are crying.

Rhyme Scheme and Meter
Millay creates a subtle tension in the poem’s structure. The rhyme scheme, for example (abbccbac), does not have a predictable pattern. The first five lines seem to follow a pattern, but the last three lines seem random. Examining the content of those three lines, however, reveals...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Clampitt, Amy, “Edna St. Vincent Millay, Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition,” in the New Republic, Vol. 205, No. 28–29, January 6, 1992, pp. 44–47.

Colum, Mary M., “Edna Millay and Her Time,” in the New Republic, Vol. 124, No. 11, March 12, 1951, pp. 17–18.

Flanner, Hildegarde, “Two Poets: Jeffers and Millay,” in After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers since 1910, edited by Malcolm Cowley, Peter Smith, 1959, pp. 155–67.

Hart, Paula L., “Edna St. Vincent Millay,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, edited by Peter Quartermain, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 264–76.


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Compare and Contrast

1921: In late January or early February, T. S. Eliot begins work on his opus “The Waste Land.” Eliot works on the poem throughout the year and sees it published in 1922.

Today: “The Waste Land” is among Eliot’s crowning achievements and one of the greatest literary works to come out of the 1920s. Students of American literature study this poem as a matter of course in their high school, undergraduate, and graduate studies.

1921: President Warren G. Harding is inaugurated after winning the first election in which women had the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women over the age of twenty-one the right to vote, was ratified in August, 1920. This enabled millions of women to cast their ballots for the first time in American history.

Today: Voter turnout among women is low. Although more women vote than men (by a narrow margin), the percentage of voting-age women who vote in presidential elections hovers around 50 percent.

1921: World War I has been over for three years, and America is in a period of high spirits, confidence, patriotism, and growth. Many people are optimistic that the end of this war marks the end of large-scale wars forever.

Today: Having emerged victorious in World War II and smaller-scale wars such as the Persian Gulf War, Americans continue to feel confident in their nation’s position as a world leader. American...

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Topics for Further Study

Compare the style of this poem to Victorian poetry, such as that by Robert Browning, Edward Lear, Matthew Arnold, or Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Consider differences in style, expression of emotion, and tone and write a Victorian version of Millay’s poem.

“Wild Swans” is one of many poems that associate human emotion with birds. Other examples include Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” Read at least three other poems about birds and write an essay explaining why poets often use bird imagery to explore or describe human emotion.

Read Millay’s “Renascence” or “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which are considered her crowning achievements in poetry. Write a review of the poem expressing your opinion of it and using as many specific references to the poem as appropriate. Take a stand on whether you think, based on the poem, that Millay should be considered a major or a minor poet.

Swans are considered among the most beautiful and graceful of all birds. Artists are often inspired to portray them. Find examples of swans in art and prepare a short presentation that discusses how swans are perceived by artists. Conclude your presentation with the example that best complements Millay’s poem.

Swans symbolize different things in different cultures and religions. Do...

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What Do I Read Next?

Elizabeth Dodd’s The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet: H. D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and Louise Gluck (1992) explores the lives of four twentieth-century female poets. Dodd shows how each woman navigated her male-dominated environment to find her unique voice as a poet.

Few novels capture the uninhibited consumption of the 1920s as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby (1925). In a love story about Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald depicts the high-spirited parties and materialism of the decade.

Edited by Millay biographer Nancy Milford and published by Modern Library, The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Modern Library) (2001) includes the poet’s early works, her most renowned poems, and many of her sonnets. The introduction provides a biographical context for the reader.

Edited by June Skinner Sawyers, The Greenwich Village Reader: Fiction, Poetry, and Reminiscences, 1872–2002 (2001) is a compilation of the work of some of the major writers who lived in and around Greenwich Village. Some of the selections are written about, as well as by, Greenwich Village literary figures.

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