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Poet of the Week: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Before studying Edna St. Vincent Millay’s life and work, I knew little about her except for her most famous poem. I still think I have much to learn about one of America’s influential women poets of the twentieth century. In truth, I find it difficult to separate her life from her poem “First Fig” because of the correlations between the two. While I will focus on Millay as a person today, tomorrow’s post will continue the comparison between her life and her work.

Edna St. Vincent Millay lived during a time of history marked by extremes. Her life mimicked these extremes in a variety of ways.

Femininity and Feminism

Millay was raised by her divorced mother who earned money as a nurse. No doubt her mother’s ability to support her daughters influenced Millay’s views of women’s roles. Millay may have developed into an independently-minded woman, but she credited her initial success as a writer to her mother who encouraged her to submit “Renacense” and other poems to a poetry contest in 1912. Millay was about twenty at the time, although she had poems published in magazines in her late teens. She didn’t win, but the contest exposed her work to literary critics. Arthur Ficke, a poet, lover, and friend, implied in reference to “Renancense” that “No sweet young thing of twenty ever ended a poem where this one ends: it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that.” Millay–who submitted this poem under the name E. Vincent Millay and was known to her friends as Vincent–declared emphatically “I simply will not be a ‘brawny male’ . . . I cling to my femininity!” She and her husband Eugen Boissevain reversed roles–he gave up his business career and took care of all domestic responsibility so that she focus on her writing–and lived as “bachelors” with separate living quarters. Yet, Boiseevain also accepted responsibility for Millay’s physical well-being. Millay was a proponent of women and defiance of normative roles, yet she also seemed to have realized her deep dependency on those closest to her despite her rebellion against the idea.

Fearful of being possessed and dominated, the poet disparaged human passion and dedicated her soul to poetry. Millay thus maintained a dichotomy between soul and body that is evident in many of her works.

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography at Poetry Foundation

Traditional Forms and Contemporary Philosophies

Like her contemporary Robert Frost, Millay was one of the most skillful writers of sonnets in the twentieth century, and also like Frost, she was able to combine modernist attitudes with traditional forms creating a unique American poetry. 

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography at Poetry Foundation

As the meaning of the word Renaissance implies, Millay’s work revitalized the traditional forms with contemporary philosophies. My post for Thursday will highlight some of Millay’s sonnets that reflect this bridging between generation constructs. Her literary influences were Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dicken, Scott, George Eliot, and Ibsen. In addition to writing poetry and plays, she also wrote stories under the penname Nancy Boyd that pushed the boundaries of traditional women’s roles and living an artist’s life.

The bravado and stylish cynicism of much of Millay’s early work gave way in later years to more personal and mature writing, and she produced, particularly in her sonnets and other short poems, a considerable body of intensely lyrical verse.

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography at Britannica

Pacifism and Activism

Before WWI, Millay was associated with Floyd Dell as a performer in his play The Angel Intrudes, as a proponent of his socialist ideals, and as his lover. She never joined the Communist Party, but she aligned herself with the socialism’s ideals of freedom and equality as well as the “spirit of nonconformity” prevalent in Greenwich Village society.

She was involved in activism in the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by protesting against their executions for being anarchists and was arrested on August 22, 1927.

Yet, her attitudes about pacifism changed with Hitler’s rise to power in Europe. She began to advocate for “American preparedness” with the increased invasions and atrocities.

Personal Note: After attending my state’s Libertarian convention and knowing the pioneers of Libertarianism included women authors, I wonder if Millay was influenced by these female contemporaries.

Performances and Preferences

Millay gave brilliant readings of her poetry. She wrote and performed in plays. But, she struggled with appearances and her touring schedule because she was inherently shy. She had to be in busy cities, but she wrote best in seclusion at Steepletop. As set-apart as the acreage was from society, she isolated more by having a writing cabin. Although she did take her German shepherd with her.

Millay’s youthful appearance, the independent, almost petulant tone of her poetry, and her political and social ideals made her a symbol of the youth of her time.

From Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography at Britannica

My understanding of Millay also vacillates with extremes. I cannot relate to her indulgences, political activism, and moral choices. But, I certainly appreciate her need for solitude in writing with the exception of canine companionship. As I will reveal in tomorrow’s post, I do relate to her on the common ground created by “First Fig.” Until then, I will be writing poetry with my canine companions keeping my feet warm.

Categories: Poet of the Week Poetry

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Book Reader and Reviewer
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Labrador Retriever Owner
Mother of Three Boys
Quiet Moments (a rare commodity!)
RV Camping
Singer in Church Choir
Wife of My High School Sweetheart
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