Last reviewed: June 2017
American Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and playwright.
February 22, 1892
October 19, 1950
Austerlitz, New York
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
Edna St. Vincent Millay
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.