Authors: Edna St. Vincent Millay

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and playwright.

February 22, 1892

Rockland, Maine

October 19, 1950

Austerlitz, New York

Biography

Despite the intricacies of its rhetoric, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay speaks directly and intensely of the emotions. Her work both inspired and shocked the generation to whom she first became a symbol of female freedom. Born to a nurse, Cora Lounella, and Henry Tolman, a schoolteacher, Vincent Millay (as she was known to her family) began writing verse in adolescence and won several poetry prizes from St. Nicholas magazine. At the age of nineteen she composed her first mature poem, "Renascence," which was published in The Lyric Year in 1912 and warmly admired by the poet Arthur Davison Ficke. Millay’s romantic attachment to Ficke subsequently gave rise to some of her best and most tender love sonnets.

In 1917, following her graduation from Vassar College, Millay went to New York hoping to become an actress. In 1919 she directed and had a role in the production of her one-act play Aria da Capo at the Provincetown Playhouse. Her 1921 Two Slatterns and a King was produced at the same theater. With the 1920 publication of A Few Figs from Thistles—which includes such passionate love poetry as the lines "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night: / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends / It gives a lovely light!"—catapulted her prominently into the generational position of New Woman.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

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(Library of Congress)

In 1923 Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain, and that same year she became the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded her for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd she issued a collection of essays with the title Distressing Dialogues; she had written the essays to support herself, and they had earlier appeared in Vanity Fair. In 1925 she and her husband acquired the house Steepletop in the Berkshires near Austerlitz, New York. Though she remained an eager traveler, Millay considered this her permanent home; there, after surviving her husband by fourteen months, she died on October 19, 1950.

Millay’s work up to Conversation at Midnight may be regarded as a continuous personal testament. The same vivacity evident in her letters emerges in her poetry but in the concentrated form of a passionate devotion to life. Her creed was hedonistic; high among her themes was resentment that death would pitilessly smother joy, and it was not accidental that she was a close student of the Roman elegiac poets, especially Catullus.

Her later poems are more impersonal. Although an active social consciousness had led her, in 1927, to plead with zeal and anger for the lives of accused murderers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, she did not until the 1940s display more than a generalized concern with the problems of humanity. During World War II, however, the character of her work changed. Most critics did not regard the results as altogether favorable. Her true metier was the poetry of love and grief on which, in the beginning, her fame had been based.

Author Works Poetry: Renascence, and Other Poems, 1917 A Few Figs from Thistles, 1920 Second April, 1921 The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, 1922 Poems, 1923 The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems, 1928 Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poems Selected for Young People, 1929 Fatal Interview, 1931 Wine from These Grapes, 1934 Conversation at Midnight, 1937 Huntsman, What Quarry?, 1939 Make Bright the Arrows, 1940 There Are No Islands Any More, 1940 Invocation to the Muses, 1941 Collected Sonnets, 1941 The Murder of Lidice, 1942 Collected Lyrics, 1943 Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army, 1944 Mine the Harvest, 1954 Collected Poems, 1956 Drama: Aria da Capo, pr. 1919 The Lamp and the Bell, pb. 1921 Two Slatterns and a King, pb. 1921 The King’s Henchman, pr. 1927 (opera libretto) The Princess Marries the Page, pb. 1932 Nonfiction: Distressing Dialogues, 1924 (as Nancy Boyd) Letters, 1952 Translation: The Flowers of Evil, 1936 (of Charles Baudelaire with George Dillon) Bibliography Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Brittin rewrote his 1967 biography of Millay (he uses the name "Vincent," as her friends and family called her, in the earlier edition), providing more discussion of her prose works and less space to the biography. He brings out her feminist ideas and her relation to the poetic movement of High Modernism. Includes chronology and useful annotated bibliography. Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village. University: University of Alabama Press, 1975. A psychological biography of Millay focusing on her liberated lifestyle and relationships with men during her days of experimentation with free love in Greenwich Village. Contains a bibliography of books, articles, and interviews. Daffron, Carolyn. Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This short biographical and critical study, part of the American Women of Achievement series, was written especially for young readers. Contains many photographs and direct quotations from Millay’s poetry. Daffron does a good job of making younger readers appreciate the political and intellectual climate of Millay’s time. Drake, William. The First Wave: Women Poets in America, 1915-1945. New York: Collier Books, 1987. Drake captures the essential meaning to women poets in the period between the two world wars of the rising movement for female independence, the Freudian backlash to that movement, and the effect of a wave of anticommunism on the critical reception of women poets. Millay’s place in this story is well documented and argued. A full-page photo shows Millay and Lola Ridge being arrested for protesting the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Contains excellent notes, a bibliography, and an index. Epstein, Daniel Mark. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. Although the author’s emphasis is on Millay’s love affairs and their connection to specific love poems, he discusses Aria da Capo and Millay’s career as an actress in part two. Freedman, Diane P., ed. Millay at One Hundred: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995. A collection of essays by critics of poetry and women’s writing that reinterpret the themes of Millay’s poetry. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969. In seventeen chapters, Gould retells Millay’s life from sources oral and written. Many fascinating anecdotes reveal Millay’s personality in her childhood, her adolescent and college years, her travels, and her marriage. Sixteen pages of photographs accompany the text. Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2001. The author was the first biographer to have access to Millay’s private papers, and she also discussed them extensively with Norma Millay. Sheean, Vincent. The Indigo Bunting: A Memoir of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper, 1951. The title refers to a small North American bird that sings when other birds are still. So Sheean characterized Millay, his friend for many years. Her personal fascination shines through these pages of recollections. Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993. A comprehensive collection of both early reviews and modern scholarly essays.

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