Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent MillayEdna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was an American poet and playwright. Born in Rockland, Maine, her mother taught her to write poetry when she was four years old. At 14, she published her first poem, Forest Trees. In high school, her poem, Renascence (1912), won critical attention in an anthology contest and caught the interest of a patron who paid for her education at Vassar College. Saucy, independent, and openly bisexual, Millay was known for her unconventional Bohemian lifestyle, feminist activism, and many love affairs. Her poetry collection, A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), drew controversy for its novel exploration of female sexuality and feminism. In 1923, her fourth volume of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Poet Richard Wilbur said Millay “wrote some of the best sonnets of the century,” and English author Thomas Hardy said that America had two great attractions: The skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. On her death, The New York Times described Millay as “an idol of the younger generation during the glorious early days of Greenwich Village . . . One of the greatest American poets of her time.”
16 poems

 

“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!”
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “First Fig” from A Few Figs from Thistles, 1920

After a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine and her college days at Vassar, Millay moved to Greenwich Village to pursue acting and became the darling of the literary set.

Dorothy Parker wrote: “Like everybody else was then, I was following in the footsteps of Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers . . . We were all being dashing and gallant, declaring that we weren’t virgins, whether we were or not. Beautiful as she was, Miss Millay did a great deal of harm with her double-burning candles. She made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But, of course, we couldn’t.”

millay-husbandAt a party in 1923, Millay met Eugen Jan Boissevain, a tall and muscular 43-year-old American importer of Dutch-Irish descent. After a brief courtship, the pair married. Boissevain proved to be an ideal husband for Millay. Intelligent, pro-feminist, and considerate, he did all of the household chores, encouraged her writing, catered to her whims, and condoned her extramarital affairs.

George Dillon

George Dillon
(Source: Wikipedia)

During the marriage, both Millay and Boissevain had lovers. One significant relationship for Millay was with poet George Dillon. Millay met Dillon in 1928 at one of her readings at the University of Chicago where he was a student. He was fourteen years younger that she was. The relationship inspired a collection of remarkable and haunting sonnets Millay called Fatal Interview (published in 1931). Years later, after Dillon’s death, a note from Millay was found in a copy of Fatal Interview in his library. It read: “These are all for you, my darling.”[1]

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click to enlarge

In 1927, Millay joined other poets and writers in a campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. On the day before the execution, Millay was arrested at a demonstration in Boston. She was charged with “sauntering and loitering” and carrying the placard that read: “If These Men Are Executed, Justice is Dead in Massachusetts.” Later, she wrote several poems about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, including Justice Denied in Massachusetts.

When Millay and her husband were not traveling, they resided at Steepletop, a 635-acre blueberry farm in the Berkshire hills near Austerlitz, New York, which they had purchased in 1925. Beginning in 1933, they enjoyed summers on Ragged Island, an 85-acre private island they purchased, located in Casco Bay, Maine.

Their marriage lasted twenty-six years . . . until Boissevain’s death in 1949. Millay died at Steepletop a year later on October 19, 1950. She was 58 years old.

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.” ―Edna St. Vincent Millay

Steepletop

Steepletop, Austerlitz, NY

[1] Reported by Fanny Butcher in Many Lives: One Love, NEW YORK: HARPER AND ROW, 1972.