Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was one of the most famous poets of the twentieth century. From her early success with the long poem ‘Renascence’ (which earned her a scholarship to study at Vassar in 1913) to her later appearances within the pages of Vanity Fair and her sensational public reading tours of the 1920s, Millay quickly became a household name and one of the most beloved poets of America. She won admirers far and wide – apparently, Thomas Hardy once said that ‘there were only two great things in the United States, the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay’ (qtd. in Milford xiii). Millay’s achievements were confirmed by her winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, and her regular radio broadcasts that secured her fame during the 1930s. Millay was remarkably productive, publishing twelve volumes of poetry within her lifetime and a number of dramas, including the celebrated play Aria da capo (1921) and the opera The King’s Henchman (1927). Today, she is perhaps most remembered for her love sonnets, such as those published in Fatal Interview (1931), a volume that traces a love affair from its hopeful beginnings to its bitter end.
But despite her fame during her lifetime, Millay is largely overlooked in scholarship today. This is partly due to Millay’s ambiguous relationship to modernism – she is often seen as popular and sentimental, more aligned with the middlebrow than avant-garde modernism. Her preference was for traditional fixed poetic forms rather than experiments with vers libre. This meant that Millay remained cut off from the revisionist scholarship focusing on female modernists that took place in the late twentieth century, although critics such as Suzanne Clark have worked to correct this oversight. The centenary of Millay’s birth, which took place in the 1992, led to some essay collections on her work, and she has proved an attractive subject for biographers. Scholarly work on her continues to appear, albeit at an inconsistent rate. But as critics such as Catherine Cucinella have observed, Millay’s sophisticated performance of femininity has often proved a challenge for feminist revivals of her work: ‘In the case of Millay, when confronted with the hyperfeminine, one can never be sure whether the performance, poetic voice, or poetic body signals internalization of patriarchy’s construction of women or mockery of that construction’ (29)
So why does Millay deserve to be included in the ‘Groundbreakers’ section of this blog? Whilst Millay’s poetry is often perceived as somewhat conservative in its forms, Millay’s subject-matter was certainly ground-breaking. Her poetry expressed a remarkable sexual frankness that many found shocking, others inspiring. This aspect of her verse is epitomised by one of Millay’s most oft-quoted poems, ‘First Fig’:
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!
Readers did not have to stretch far to interpret this carpe diem poem as referring to a woman’s erotic experience – the speaker keeps her metaphorical candle burning all night long, rejoicing in its pleasurable light and taking little heed of the consequences. As Millay’s biographer Nancy Milford notes: ‘when she published “First Fig” in June 1918, her cheeky quatrain ignited the imagination of a generation of American women: she gave them their rallying cry’ (xiii).
This ‘First Fig’ eventually headed Millay’s 1920 volume A Few Figs from Thistles (1920). The poems collected in this volume sought to capture ‘the new’: the fleeting life of the city, of parties, lovers – and these poems shocked too, in their frank expression of subjects previously thought unsuitable for women writers, such as free love, promiscuity, active female sexual desire, and the pleasures of roaming the city. Millay continued to break new ground throughout her career. For example, her 1939 poem ‘Menses’ is one of ‘the first to deal openly with pre-menstrual syndrome’ (Walker 155). Writing about Millay’s series of fifty-two love sonnets, Fatal Interview, Patricia A. Klemans argues that ‘not until Millay do we have the experience of seeing a personal examination of a love affair from a woman’s point of view’ (17). In this volume, Millay turned the gendered conventions of the Elizabethan love sonnet upside down by voicing the vicissitudes of female desire, praising male beauty, and confronting fears of rejection, aging and loneliness. As Klemans astutely observes, while Millay’s poems may look traditional, the complex characterisation of their female speakers as an ‘initiator, aggressor, and controller as well as victim, sufferer and survivor’ brings something new to poetic tradition (17-18), demonstrating that women poets could handle the love sonnet as skilfully as male poets, transforming poetic tradition in the process.
Writing in 1979, Klemans believes that Millay’s poetry is perhaps the first to present ‘the liberated woman’s view’ (3). In ways scarcely dreamt of by her nineteenth-century foremothers, Millay could be said to inherit and benefit from American women’s increasingly liberated position within society – for example, A Few Figs from Thistles was published in 1920, the same year that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, enabling American women to vote. Millay’s own life is testament to the new possibilities opening up for women – her academic success at Vassar, her roll call of poetic achievements and her notoriously unconventional lifestyle meant that for many, Millay was an embodiment of the New Woman. With her bobbed hair, her artistic gowns, and the dashing capes and beaded kimonos that she donned for her public readings, Millay’s very appearance epitomised the daring ‘modern girl’ or flapper, touched with a hint of Greenwich Village bohemia. But Millay’s rebellion went beyond style and self-fashioning. She was a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage and exponent of human rights, as proved by her public support of the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, sentenced to death in 1927. Millay was arrested for protesting at a picket-line in Boston in April 1927. She also opposed fascism, writing the poem ‘The Murder of Lidice’ in 1942 in order to encourage America to continue to fight against the Nazis, at a time when the majority of Americans wanted to make peace with Germany (Milford xiii).
In keeping with her politics, Millay lived life very much on her own terms. Millay’s personality was formed by her rather unconventional childhood in Maine. Millay was raised solely by her mother, Cora Buzzell Millay, who worked as a nurse in order to earn enough money to support her three daughters: Edna, Norma and Kathleen. In this incredibly close-knit, all-female family, Cora raised her daughters with high aspirations, encouraging them in their literary ambitions. Millay’s devotion to her mother was unwavering and she often stated in interviews that it was her mother who had made her a poet, by introducing her to the work of earlier poets and encouraging her talent from a young age.
Beyond her own mother, Millay had a number of intense and productive relationships with other women. Her bisexuality is well-documented; she enjoyed a number of flirtations with other girls while at Vassar, and had brief but intense relationships with a fellow student Elaine Ralli and the actress Edith Wynne Matthison. During her years in Greenwich Village, Millay relished her erotic power and embraced a ‘free love’ philosophy, toying with fellow artists and writers including Floyd Dell, Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Edmund Wilson, among others. When Millay did eventually marry, her marriage was far from conservative. Her husband, the businessman Eugen Jan Boissevain, was a widower – his previous marriage had been to the suffragist Inez Milholland. Boissevain considered himself a feminist and devoted himself to supporting Millay in her work. In a 1931 interview, when asked about how she found time for housework, Millay declared: ‘I have nothing to do with my household […] Eugen does all that kind of thing’, describing herself and her husband as ‘living like two bachelors’ (qtd. Milford 336). In addition to his domestic support, Eugen also granted Millay the freedom to pursue other love affairs, such as her relationship with the younger poet George Dillon, which inspired the poems of Fatal Interview.
Millay was particularly sensitive to the sexual double-standards attached to men and women, resenting such hypocrisy. For example, when her friend the poet Elinor Wylie was disinvited from a meeting of the League of American Penwomen due to her previous adulterous affair with Horace Wylie, Millay wrote angrily to the organisation that she too should be struck from their lists: ‘I too am eligible for your disesteem […] permit me, I beg you, to share with Elinor Wylie a brilliant exile from your fusty province’ (qtd. Milford 297). Millay was equally enraged in 1937, when, on receiving an honorary doctorate from New York University, she discovered that all the male recipients had been invited to a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, whilst she had been invited to tea with the chancellor’s wife. It was too late to take back her acceptance of the award or the invitation to tea, but Millay did write a letter to ensure that this would be last time that women be treated differently to male recipients (see Milford 403)
To conclude, whilst Millay’s feminism was far from uncomplicated – she could be dismissive of other women, and felt her work should not be considered in terms of gender – in both her poetry and her lifestyle she was certainly ‘groundbreaking’. In the subject-matter of her poetry, she boldly set out in new directions, writing about desire, sexuality and women’s bodies in ways that forged new paths which would be influential to later poets such as Anne Sexton (see Michailidou). In her lifestyle, Millay served as an icon for other women, epitomising professional success, personal adventure and the new opportunities for women within modernity. For this reason, she deserves to be recognised as a groundbreaker and a poet more than worthy further consideration.
Dr Sarah Parker is Impact Research Fellow at University of Stirling. She recently published her first monograph, The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930 (Pickering & Chatto, 2013). Her other publications include ‘Fashioning Michael Field: Michael Field and Late-Victorian Dress Culture’ (Journal of Victorian Culture, 2013), ‘Whose Muse? Sappho, Swinburne and Amy Lowell’ in Algernon Charles Swinburne: Unofficial Laureate (Manchester UP, 2013) and ‘“A Girl’s Love”: Lord Alfred Douglas as Homoerotic Muse in the Poetry of Olive Custance’ (Women: A Cultural Review, 2011). She is currently working on her second monograph, provisionally entitled ‘Women Poets, Self-Fashioning and Photography at the Fin de Siècle (1880-1914)’.
Clark, Suzanne. Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Cucinella, Catherine. Poetics of the Body: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Chin, and Marilyn Hacker. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Klemans, Patricia A. ““Being Born a Woman”: A New Look at Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Colby Quarterly 15.1 (1979): 7–18.
Milford, Nancy Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2001.
Michailidou, Artemis. “Gender, body, and feminine performance: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s impact on Anne Sexton.” Feminist Review 78 (November 2004): 117–140.
Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.
 This poem originally appeared in the June 1918 issue of Poetry magazine: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/3298