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Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, playwright and feminist figure.

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Edna St Vincent Millay

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Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, playwright and feminist figure.

Did you know? Millay was the third woman to win a Pulitzer Poetry Prize!

Edna St Vincent Millay biography

Edna St Vincent Millay was born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine. Her mother, Cora Lounella Buzelle, divorced Millay's father, Henry Tolman Millay, in 1904 for domestic abuse and financial recklessness. Cora raised Millay as a single mother for most of her childhood, travelling from town to town with Millay and her two sisters, Norma and Kathleen, before settling in Camden, Maine.

Millay asked to go by her middle name Vincent in her youth and later adopted the pen name Nancy Boyd when she became a writer. At fourteen, Millay won her first poetry prize, the St Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry. A year later, she published her poems in the magazines St Nicholas and Current Literature.

In 1912, Millay won fourth place in The Lyric Year's poetry contest for her poem 'Renascence'. As a prize, her poem was published in the publication's anthology, which led to her receiving a scholarship to Vassar College in New York.

After graduating from Vassar College in 1917, Millay published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. This same year she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. It was at this time that Greenwich Village gained its reputation as a Bohemian writer's colony. Here, Millay began publishing poems, short stories, and satirical articles in magazines such as Forum and Vanity Fair.

Bohemian refers to an artist who is socially unconventional. At the time Millay was living in Greenwich village it had become a hotspot for such artists.

When living in New York, Millay became a notable social figure, with her open bisexuality and feminist politics causing her to stand out. Although some of Millay's ideas were regarded as controversial at the time, in 1923, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1922).

Millay can be categorised as a 'New Woman' of the 20th century. This term refers to women who entered adulthood from the 1890s to the 1920s and challenged social expectations of women which were prominent during the Victorian Era. These social expectations include women fulfilling the role of a wife and mother and not taking on any additional roles (such as a job) outside of the home. The 'New Woman' sought financial and social independence, pursuing their own career and education.

In 1923 Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain. The two were together for twenty-six years and had an open relationship.

For the majority of her life, Millay had a highly successful literary career. She won the Frost Medal for her contribution to American Poetry in 1943.

However, towards the end of her life, Millay fell into financial debt. In 1950, Millay died at her home following a heart attack.

Edna St Vincent Millay facts

Now that we know about Millay's life, here are some interesting facts about her!

  1. Millay received her middle name from St. Vincent's Hospital, New York. Her uncle's life was saved there before her birth.
  2. Millay wrote a total of six plays during her lifetime, her most notable one being The Lamp and the Bell (1921).
  3. In the late 1920s, Millay was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera House to write a libretto for The King's Henchman (1927).
  4. After Millay's death in 1973, her sister Norma set up the Millay Colony for the Arts, which provided retreats, workshops, and free arts programmes.
  5. In 2001, writer Nancy Milford published a biography on Millay titled Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay.

Edna St Vincent Millay bibliography

Millay was a well-known and critically acclaimed writer during her lifetime. Although Millay produced work during the modernist period of literature, she gained acclaim for her use of the traditional sonnet form. In her obituary, American poet Richard Wilbur claimed that Millay 'wrote some of the best sonnets of the century'.1

A sonnet is a form of poetry commonly associated with romance. Sonnets consist of four-lines and are usually written in iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter refers to a line of verse containing five iambs. An iamb consists of two syllables, the first syllable is unstressed, and the second syllable is stressed.

Modernism is a literary movement that began in the early 20th century. It is characterised by its departure from earlier traditional forms of literature.

Poetry collections Millay published during her lifetime include;

  • Renascence and Other Poems (1917)
  • A Few Figs from Thistles (1920)
  • The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1922)
  • The Buck in the Snow (1928)
  • Conversations at Midnight (1937)

Plays Millay published during her lifetime include;

  • Two Slatterns and a King (1922)
  • The Lamp and the Bell (1921)
  • The Murder of Lidice (1942)

Edna St Vincent Millay poems and analysis

Millay published a total of seventeen poetry collections before her death in 1950. Famous poems by Millay include;

'Sonnet XLIII' ('What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why') (1920)

Millay's 'Sonnet XLII' is spoken by an anonymous speaker who reflects on their past lovers. Although they have 'forgotten' 'what lips' their 'lips have kissed' and 'cannot say what loves have come and gone', they reflect on the joy they must have felt during those experiences.

The poem is in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet and utilises iambic pentameter to create a structured, lyrical rhythm.

The Petrarchan sonnet can also be referred to as an Italian sonnet. This form of sonnet consists of fourteen lines, similar to a Shakespearean sonnet. However, a Petrarchan sonnet is divided into an octave (set of eight lines) and a sestet (set of seven lines). Unlike a Shakespearean sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet doesn't end with a rhyming couplet. Instead, its final sestet follows a CDE CDE or a CDC CDC rhyme scheme.

The poem holds a melancholic tone as the speaker longs for the loves of their past. This tone is produced through a semantic field of loneliness and pain which is carried throughout the poem, as demonstrated by the language choices such as; 'ghosts', 'sigh', 'pain', 'cry', 'lonely', 'vanished', 'silent', and 'gone'.

The speaker's melancholy for their forgotten loves is captured by the final lines;

I only know that summer sang in me A little while that in me sings no more.

'Wild Swans' (1921)

'Wild Swans' presents the thoughts of the speaker as they watch a flock of birds pass over their town. The speaker dreams of freedom from their current life, wishing to follow the swans on their journey.

In contrast to the majority of Millay's poems, 'Wild Swans' is written in free-verse consisting of a single eight-line stanza with an irregular rhyme scheme. This use of free-verse creates an unbalanced rhythm to the poem, reflective of how the speaker feels unbalanced in their current situation.

Free-verse refers to a poem written without a set meter or rhyme scheme.

Millay utilises an extended metaphor of swans in the poem to represent the theme of freedom, as demonstrated by her use of language associated with flight; 'swans', 'flight', 'birds', 'flying', 'air'. In contrast to the birds is the speaker's;

house without air

An extended metaphor is a type of metaphor that extends over multiple lines of poetry or multiple paragraphs of a piece of prose.

The lack of air in the speaker's house contrasts with the swans, who are able to glide through the air and fly 'over the town'. This emphasises the speaker's current state and how they wish to be free.

'I, Being born a Women and Distressed' (1923)

In 'I, Being born a Woman and Distressed', Millay explores the themes of desire and female sexuality.

The poem is written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, in line with Millay's typical style. The majority of the poem is written in iambic pentameter, and there is a fixed rhyme scheme, creating a mostly regular and controlled rhythm. This rhythm adds power to the voice of the female speaker, underpinning the poem's feminist nature.

The content of the poem opposes the expectations of a sonnet, which is a form typically associated with traditional romance. This produces an ironic tone, as instead of providing the expected declarations of love, Millay provides declarations of lust.

There is a tension between the speaker's mind and wants within the poem, as expressed by Millay's use of juxtaposition. For instance;

To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,

While her desire clarifies her physical wants, it clouds her mental capacity.

Edna St Vincent Millay quotes

Now that we've looked over some of Millay's well-known poems, here are a few memorable quotes from her works!

'Weeds' (1921)

In 'Weeds', Millay presents love through the extended metaphor of 'the daisy', a 'bastard flower'. The poem follows an ABAB rhyme scheme and consists of four quatrains (four-line stanzas). In the first stanza, the idea that the speaker is facing a challenging situation is produced through the imagery of life being a 'quest' and love a 'quarrel', as though these two things are a constant battle to get through. This is embodied by the 'daisies', 'a worthless crop of crimson weeds' which grow in the meadow the speaker describes

Life is a quest and love a quarrel--

Imagery refers to language in literature that is visually descriptive.

'Sonnet XXVII' (1923)

'Sonnet XXVII' is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet and explores the emotions of a brief love or 'summer fling'. In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker acknowledges how they are only one season in their lover's heart rather than the 'full four seasons' in a year. This acknowledgement at the poem's opening produces a despondent and reflective tone, contrasting with the traditional romantic expectations held by the sonnet form.

I know I am but summer to your heart,

And not the full four seasons of the year;

A Shakespearean sonnet is a form of sonnet consisting of fourteen lines and an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme.

'Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies' (1934)

In this poem, Millay presents the themes of childhood and death, exploring ideas of childhood innocence in contrast to a sometimes cruel reality. The poem is written in free-verse, with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. This produces a natural yet uneven rhythm, which stops and starts.

Stream-of-consciousness is a narrative form that represents the continuous flow of a person's thoughts.

The opening lines highlight the overarching theme of the poem, how childhood can be perceived as a beautiful place where bad things never happen. However, as highlighted by the speaker, this is not reality. To a child, it may seem like death does not exist, yet in reality, death does not usually directly affect them.

Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age The child is grown, and puts away childish things. Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies. Nobody that matters, that is.

Edna St Vincent Millay - Key takeaways

  • Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American poet, playwright, and feminist figure who lived from 1892 to 1950.
  • Millay began writing poetry from a young age, in 1912, she won fourth place in The Lyric Year’s poetry contest. Over the course of her life, Millay published a total of seventeen poetry collections.
  • Millay is best known for her use of the sonnet form. This use of a traditional style of poetry contrasts with the dominance of modernism at the time of Millay’s writing, as it was a literary movement centred on experimental styles.
  • Famous poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay include; ‘Sonnet XLIII’ (1920), ‘Wild Swans’ (1921), and ‘I, Being born a Woman and Distressed’ (1923).
  • Alongside her work as a poet, Millay published a total of six plays in her lifetime, including; Two Slatterns and a King (1922), The Lamp and the Bell (1921), and The Murder of Lidice (1942).

References

  1. Richard Wilbur, Edna Vincent St Millay Obituary, Variety, 1950.

Frequently Asked Questions about Edna St Vincent Millay

Famous poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay include; ‘Sonnet XLIII’ (1920), ‘Wild Swans’ (1921), and ‘I, Being born a Woman and Distressed’ (1923).

Edna St Vincent Millay wrote poems in both the form of a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet. 

Edna St Vincent Millay is best known for her poetry.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American poet, playwright, and feminist figure who lived from 1892 to 1950.

Edna St Vincent Millay died of a heart-attack. Millay had a heart-attack while stood at the stop of her stairs in her home, which she fell down.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

A common critique of Millay's poetry is that it is too traditional.

The poem uses a lot of ___ imagery?

Almost every line, including enjambed sentences, includes alliteration.

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