Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century
and Modernism

Edna St. Vincent Millay
1892-1950

© Paul P. Reuben
June 23, 2014
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Outside Link: | Modern American Poetry: ESVM |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap. 7: Index | Authors Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |


Edna St. Vincent Millay Portrait
(with permission from the Columbia University Bartleby Library)

Primary Works

Renascence and Other Poems, 1917; A Few Figs from Thistles, 1920; Aria da Capo, 1920; Two Slatterns and a King, The Lamp and the Bell, Second April, 1921; The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, 1923; Distressing Dialogues (used pseudonym Nancy Boyd), 1924; Three Plays, 1926; The King's Henchman, 1927; The Buck in the Snow, 1928; Poems Selected for Young People, 1929; Fatal interview, 1931; The Princess Marries the Page, 1932; Wine from These Grapes, 1934; Conversation at Midnight, 1937; Collected Sonnets, 1941; Murder of Lidice, 1942; Collected Lyrics, 1943; Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1952; Mine the Harvest, 1954; Collected Poems, 1956; Collected Sonnets, Revised & Expanded Edition, 1988; Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition, 1991.

The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Milford, Nancy (ed. and introd.). NY: Modern Library, 2001.

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems. McClatchy, J. D. (ed. and introd.). NY: Library of America, 2003.

Awards & Recognition

1923 - the first woman in the United States to receive a Pulitzer Prize for poetry

1929 - elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters

1943 - received a Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America 

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Benfey, Christopher. American Audacity: Literary Essays North and South. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008.

Daffron, Carolyn. Edna St. Vincent Millay. NY: Chelsea House, 1989.

Meade, Marion. Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties. NY: Doubleday, 2004.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. NY: Random House, 2001.

Millier, Brett C. Flawed Light: American Women Poets and Alcohol. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009.

Moore, Mary B. Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000 .

Nierman, Judith, and John J. Patton. eds. An Annotated Bibliography of Works about Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1974-1993. With Supplement (1912-1973). College Park: University of Maryland Women's Studies, 1996.

Showalter, Elaine. ed. The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. NY: Vintage, 2011.

Thesing, William B. ed. Critical essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. NY : G.K. Hall, 1993. PS3525 .I495 Z634

| Top |Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Narin Ros

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on February 22, 1892, in Rockland, Maine. She was the oldest of the three daughters of Henry Tolman Millay and Cora Buzelle Millay. (Brittin, "Chronology") Cora Millay was a practical nurse and Henry Millay was a teacher. Unfortunately, Henry was also a gambler, which caused the family to split. In 1900, Edna Millay's parents divorced, leaving the Millay girls with only Cora to support. (Gilbert, 1501) Cora Millay had a positive influence on her daughter to be a poet, even as a child. In one letter, Vincent, the name she was known by, wrote a letter to her mother about how she loved and appreciated her, acknowledging that she was a poet because of her mother:

"I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved her mother as much as I love you. I don't believe there ever was anybody who did, quite so much, and quite in so many wonderful ways. I was telling somebody yesterday that the reason I am a poet is entirely because you wanted me to be and intended I should be, even from the first. You brought me up in the tradition of poetry and everything I did you encouraged. I cannot remember once in my life when you were not interested in what I was working on, or even suggested that I should put it aside for something else." (MacDougall, 130)

Cora Millay was devoted to her daughter's love for poetry and music. This helped Vincent become a great poet of her time.

Millay, however, did have some obstacles to tackle. Throughout her life time, the concern of money would constantly reappear and eventually made its way into her poems. (Notice the last line of "Recuerdo" and the reality of the "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.") This however did not seem to be the major theme. She also suffered from illnesses throughout her life. She noted that life wasn't one thing after another; it was "one damned thing over and over." She, of course, referred to her illnesses. She had bronchitis, back pains and intestinal problems, as well as nervous breakdowns, which would eventually block her writing for periods of time. Vincent also encountered the intense emotions of passion through her early affairs, which also reflected in her poems.

Vincent was schooled in Maine, attending a high school in Camden and being editor-in-chief of the school magazine. Roughly at the same time, she had her poems published by St. Nicholas Magazine. Examples are "Young Mother Hubbard" (August, 1907) which won a Silver Badge, "Forest" (October,1910) which won a Gold Badge, and "Friends" (May, 1910) which also won a prize. And in 1912, Vincent published "Renascence" in The Lyric Year, an anthology of selected poems by various authors. (Brittin, "Chronology") Even though Vincent didn't place in any of the top three in this contest, this poem did bring instant fame. The Lyric year was best known for the poem "Renascence." It was a fresh, new expression of the concept of understanding the world. In Harriet Monroe's review of Renascence and Other Poems, she noted the poem that introduced Vincent to the world:

Renascence gave me the only thrill I received from Mr. Kennerly's 1912 anthology, The Lyric Year. It was so much the best poem in that collection that probably it's no wonder it didn't receive any one of the three prizes. Reading it once more, after six years discipline in the modern poetry, I am thrilled again. The surprise of youth over the universe, the emotion of youth at encountering inexplicable infinities&endash;that is joy, the very mood of exultant youth; and the poet gets a certain freshness and variety into a measure often stilted. The poem is too compact for quotation&endash;it should be read entire. Possibly its spiritual motive is summed up in the couplet:
"God, I can push the grass apart

And lay my finger on Thy heart!"

…It requires a rare spiritual integrity to keep one's senses of infinity against the persistent daily intrusions of the world, the flesh and devil; but only the poet who keeps it through the years can sing this grand song. (Monroe, 1)

As Monroe insightfully stated, Vincent's poem was an overwhelming spiritual discovery of the universe by a young lady. Her expression of such a concept was fresh then and still is now. Her poems seem to have a timeless effect on the readers.

Having heard this poem, Caroline B. Dow, the executive secretary of the YWCA's national training school of New York, noticed the talent of the young poet. Dow helped Vincent raise funds and prepare for Vassar College, which she would attend from 1913 to 1917. (MacDougall) At Vassar, Vincent juggled a career of being a poet, an actress, and a playwright. She wrote and took a leading role in Princess Marries the Page (1932). She also wrote other plays: Aria da Capo (1920), The Lamp and the Bell (1921), and The King's Henchman, (1927) in which she wrote a libretto with Deems Taylor. In 1917, she published her first volume, Renascence and Other Poems. In the same year, she graduated from Vassar with an A.B.

After, college, Vincent lived in poverty in Greenwich Village while acting.

She also sold her works to magazines to scrape enough money to pay the bills.

She wrote poems and fiction under the name Nancy Boyd in the magazine Anslee's. She also published other poems in Vanity Fair and Reedy's Mirror. In 1920, A Few Figs from Thistles and Aria da Capo were published.

Shortly, her health was waning, so she traveled to Europe. In 1921, her third volume of poetry was published. Second April seemed to have a more realistic and cynical view than the previous volumes. With a $500 advance on a novel Hardigut (never finished because of her worsened condition), Vincent brought her mother to Europe with her for a visit, because Cora Millay was also seriously ill. With this visit, Vincent began another volume of poem The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923. (Brittin, "Chronology") Vincent was the first woman to receive this prize. (Brittin, 17) In the same year, Millay married Eugen Boissevain, a well-to-do Dutch businessman who also had a frank expression. He was a widower of a well-known feminist at that time, Inez.

From then, the two traveled and began reading tours. In 1927, Millay participated in a Boston protest against the execution of accused anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. These two were tried, arrested, and convicted of murder and robbery of a paymaster and his guard. This crime was committed in April of 1920. Millay wrote a poem "To the Liberty Bells" and "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," which protested against this case. (Brittin 20-21) Millay was conscious about their rights. She defended these two men because of her belief that the Italians were victims of the postwar antiradical hysteria of a judge of another case that may have set precedence for this case. She was also an advocate of feminism.

In the 1930's Millay's poems geared toward social consciousness. She published Conversation at Midnight in 1936, and in 1937 she published Huntsman, What Quarry?. In 1940's, her writing seemed to be propaganda, as in Make Bright the Arrows. Her popularity began to wane because of her structured verses. Even though, she did try her hand at agenda poems, her work weren't as innovative as the modernist contemporaries; her mode seemed to be too traditional.

Near the end of her life, she still struggled with writing, and later died of heart failure in 1950, at her home Steepletop, a year after her husband's death. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a poet with many themes, ranging from her youthful wonder of the universe, to her personal poems about love, to her realization about life and social awareness and protest. Her ideas were expressed in fresh, fervent manner even though she continued to write in traditional style. She can be considered as a modern poet for her expressions of ideas. Reading them today, we can still see the timeless essence of her ideas.

Works Cited:

Brittan, Norma A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Revised Edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. Second Ed. NY: W.W.Norton & Co., 1995. 1501-2.

MacDougall, Allan. Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay. NY: Harper & Bros., 1952.

Monroe, Harriet. "First Books of Verse." Poetry. 1918, Dec., 13 (3), 167-68. Encoded by Powell, Chris. http//www.hti.umich.edu/english/anverse/monroe.html.

Warner, Lawrence. "Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay: http://www.hand writing.org/archives/98apr_03.html, 1997.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: Edna St. Vincent Millay." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/millay.html (provide page date or date of your login). 
 

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