In the summer of 1912, at an evening party in Maine, a young woman with light red hair was asked to recite some of her poems to the guests. “All that he could see from where he was standing; there were three long mountains and a forest…”, she began. By the time she finished the poem, “Rebirth,” she had impressed a guest, Caroline B. dow, enough to encourage the young poet to apply for a scholarship at vassar and promise to provide the money for any other expenses as well. the poem that gave the young woman the opportunity to go to university attracted national attention when it was published in the poetry anthology the lyrical year (1912), where she won fourth prize out of 10,000 entries. The poet who composed the piece, called “Vincent” by his family and close friends, was Edna St. vincent millay.
Born in Rockland, Maine, in 1892, the eldest of three daughters, all raised by her mother, Cora, a hard-working nurse and enthusiast of the arts, Millay read and wrote voraciously throughout her childhood, and was recognized from her earliest days. childhood. years both for her intelligence and her stubborn spirit. As she got older, she Edna St. Vincent Millay would be recognized as a truly independent woman, becoming the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, a vocal feminist, activist, and openly bisexual.
Before starting at Vassar, the 21-year-old poet spent a preparatory semester at Barnard and, in the fall of 1913, enrolled in the class of 1917. Four years above most in her class made the adjustment to Vassar difficult for Millay. She earned a reputation for breaking many of the university’s rules, and often found herself before the new president, Henry Noble Maccracken, for discipline. President MacCracken punished Millay with reprimands and limited privileges for her infractions, but he also respected the talent and intelligence he saw in the young woman. he once told her that no matter how she might flout the rules of the university, she would not expel her from it because she did not want another “banished shelley” on her hands. To this Millay replied, “On those terms, I think I’ll continue to live in this hell.”
in an interview in 1966, maccracken recalled an incident that clearly reflected his relationship with the young poet:
in those days, students could be absent whenever they wanted and just send in a sick excuse. i stopped her in the hallway one of those times and said, “vincent, you sent in a sick excuse at nine o’clock this morning and at ten o’clock i looked out my office window and you were trying to turn off the chandelier light in the top of the arch in the taylor hall, which seemed like quite a lively exercise for someone so afflicted with the disease.” he looked at me very solemnly and said, “prexy, at the time of your class, i was in pain for a poem.” what could you do with a girl like that?
excerpt from “renascence” from renascence and other poems:
“All I could see from where I was standing were three long mountains and a forest; I turned and looked away, and saw three islands in a bay. so with my eyes I traced the line of the horizon, thin and fine, straight I went around until I returned to the starting point; and all I saw from where I was standing were three long mountains and a forest.”
Despite its mockery of authority, Millay found Vassar a rich environment to nurture her talents. she became a regular contributor to the vassar miscellany and a noted campus composer. Millay wrote the award-winning song for Founder’s Day in 1916, composed the words to the “High School Anthem” sung at her graduation in 1917, as well as writing songs for other campus events, such as the opening of the senior class at his class in 1917. The young poet was also heavily involved in the dramatic life of the university, writing for and appearing in a number of productions. her play “the domino wall” was published in vassar miscellany, and in her senior year she took the title role in her original play “the princess marries the page”.
“sonnet v” of the renaissance and other poems
“if I knew, quite casually, that you left, never to come back again —read from the back cover of a newspaper, let’s say, held by a neighbor in a subway train, how on the corner of this avenue and from such a street (this is how the newspapers are filled) a hasty man — which turned out to be you — was killed at noon today, I shouldn’t shout out loud — I couldn’t shout out loud, nor wring my hands in such a place: I should watch the station lights go by with more careful interest in my face, or raise my eyes and read more carefully where to keep furs and how to treat the hair.”
Just before graduation, Millay’s rebellious ways caught up with her and she was suspended, meaning she potentially wouldn’t receive her degree. as graduation approached, faculty members frantically urged that the deserving, if unconventional, student receive her diploma. Ultimately, in response to a petition signed by 120 faculty members, Millay was allowed to obtain the degree from her. However, she was prohibited from participating in any of the other graduation activities, including the singing of the “high school anthem” that she had composed for the occasion.
In the fall after graduation, Millay’s first book, Renaissance and Other Poems, was published, and she moved to Greenwich Village to pursue acting. In town, Millay was at the heart of a bohemian scene filled with artists and writers like Max Eastman, Eugene O’Neill, and E.E. Millay Cummings participated in the culture and built a reputation in the town. Her sister Norma came to live with her, and both sisters supported themselves by doing odd jobs, while volunteering with Provincetown Players Productions. They both earned enough to live on, and Millay stayed in town through the early 1920s.
Although Millay never considered herself a true bohemian, her second volume of poetry, The Light and Jollyking a Few Figs from Thistles (1920), made her something of an icon of the jazz age. Works like her poem, “First Fig” were adopted as maxims for young people trying to live as free and wild as possible. Millay was more than just a free spirit, though. Those who knew her recognized in her all the contradictions of a nuanced character. Her friend, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, described her as “a capricious genius, sometimes… petulant and imperious… sometimes… stormy, turbulent and as unrecognizable as the sea… sometimes a lost and tragic soul.” And, she added, this mercurial personality was always forged by the “most penetrating intelligence, and the gift of evoking the most passionate and tender love.”
“first fig” of some thistle figs:
“my candle burns at both ends; it won’t last all night; but oh my enemies, and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light!”
Writing for Vanity Fair, Millay toured Europe in 1921, the year a collection of poems appeared, April Two, and two plays, The Lamp and the Bell and Two Slatterns and a King. in europe he continued to mix with a wide variety of artists and writers, and after two years of travel he returned to the united states and to his apartment in town. In 1923, Ella Millay became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection of Ella the Harp Weaver and Other Poems.
In that year, Millay met and married Eugen Jan Boissevain. forty-three when she met millay, the dutch coffee importer was the widower of suffragette inez milholland ’09. Elizabeth Hazelton Haight ’94, Classics professor and Millay’s mentor, reflecting on how the handsome and proud Boissevain handled his relationship with the strong and independent Millay, she could only describe him as a “quiet power.” As Dorothy Thompson put it, he was a “husband, nurse, cook, business manager, and most of all, a friend…”.
excerpt from the “trip” of the second of April:
“ah, could I lie in this tall grass and close my eyes and let the wind blow over me? I’m so tired, so tired of going through nice places! All my life, following care along the dusty road, I have looked back at beauty and sighed.”
In 1925, Millay and Boissevain moved from town to a 600-acre farm in Austerlitz, NY, three hours north of New York City. they named the farm “steepletop” after the steeple bush, or hardhack, that grew on the estate, and the white house on the farm remained the couple’s home until their deaths. Millay continued to travel, taking reading tours and working on radio broadcasts of her poetry, but the top of the bell tower was her main refuge from the world. for many years after the couple moved in, they refused to even install a telephone on the estate. With numerous gardens and woodland, as well as a fully modernized house, Millay and Boissevain atop a bell tower away from public view, a rural yet comfortable home of seclusion. From her beloved estate, Millay published her celebrated collection of love sonnets, Fatal Interview (1931), and the subsequent collection She Came From These Grapes (1934).
Nationally acclaimed and recognized. Millay was not without misfortune. In 1936, the manuscript of her next book, Conversation at Midnight, was destroyed in a hotel fire, and a few months later, while the poet was trying to recreate the lost manuscript, she was involved in a car accident that caused her serious injuries. on the nerves both her back and her right arm. She never fully recovered from the accident and had to take painkillers for the rest of her life.
During World War I, Millay had been a staunch pacifist, but in the late 1930s, when the world was on the brink of another world war, her policy shifted to dedicated support for preparation and actions of the allied forces. In the 1940s she began writing poetry in support of the Allied war effort, and once the United States came into conflict, she collaborated with the writer’s war junta in producing propaganda. Her main poem from this period was “The Lidice Murder” about the massacre of a small German town by the Nazis. the piece was broadcast with great success throughout Europe on shortwave radio.
excerpt from “spring” of April 2:
For what purpose, April, do you come back again? beauty is not enough. You can no longer silence me with the redness of the sticky leaves that open. I know what I know.
In 1944 Millay suffered a nervous breakdown and temporarily stopped writing. with the encouragement of her husband, she slowly improved and eventually began writing again. however, she was much more critical of her work than ever before, and the accumulation of poems for her next book was a painstaking process. Ella Eugen Boissevain died in the spring of 1949, just days after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. After her passing, Ella Millay continued to work on her book, living alone at the top of a steeple until the fall of 1950, when she died of heart failure while sitting on the steps. the poems that she had been collecting were published posthumously in 1954 as mine the harvest. In the end, the young woman who recited poetry in Maine, the rebellious and frustratingly intelligent student of Vassar, and the passionate middle-aged writer who lived alone at the top of the bell tower, will always be remembered as an innovative and passionate poet with a marked strength. lyric.
“the passion of a preserved poet; Belfry, Austerlitz, NY”, The Garden Conservancy Bulletin. 2004, vol. 15, no. 1
“Like a Moth to a Flame: Two New Biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay portrays a life lived on the edge” New York Times Book Review. sep. 16, 2001.
interview with henry noble maccracken (november 16, 1966), the vassarion, 1967.
sheean, vincent. “edna street. vincent millay: ‘among the birds and the poets’ a memoir of millay”, vogue. August 19, 1951.
macdougall, allen ross. “Tribute to Edna St. vincent millay. 1950. (ts: vassar special collections)
thompson, dorothy. “the poet woman”. 1951. (ts. vassar special collections)
haight, elizabeth hazelton. vincent in vassar. 1951.
crane, muriel. “vincent at vassar burned a candle but all with enthusiasm and charm.” miscellaneous news. nov. 19, 1952
Brittin, Norman A. edna vicente millay street. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1967.
mpb, 2006, cj, 2012