Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) grew up in small towns in the state of Maine in the U.S.A. Millay’s mother was her only parent for most of her upbringing, and the family was so poor that Millay and her two sisters would sometimes ice skate in the living room on the water that had flooded their house from a nearby creek and had frozen.
Edna St. Vincent Millay by Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village
Millay's mother was a visiting nurse who was often gone from the family. An intelligent, self-educated woman, Millay’s mother instilled in her three daughters a love of learning and poetry, as well as providing a strong role model. Here’s Millay’s tribute to her mother:
The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried;
Now granite in a granite hill.
The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear;
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.
Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!—
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.
By an odd set of circumstances, Edna St. Vincent Millay became a famous poet at the age of nineteen by losing a literary contest. She entered her poem “Renascence” in a contest called The Lyric Year, something like The Best Poems of… series that is published today. The judges wanted to pick Millay’s poem for the first prize, but when it became known that the winner was an unknown young woman from a small town, they changed their minds and gave her the fourth prize. A judge who opposed the decision publicized his grievance, and the ensuing scandal made Millay a literary celebrity, as well as helping her to gain a full scholarship to Vassar College.
Millay (who went by the nickname “Vincent”) went on from there to conquer Greenwich Village’s literary bohemia. She wrote startling poetry that embodied the values of the Roaring 20s and the radical 1930s: free love, opposition to World War I, support for the republic in the Spanish Civil War. Here is her Sonnet CXXVIII, with its frank confessions:
I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex,
Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat,
Leaving the lofty tower I labored at
For birds to foul and boys and girls to vex
With tittering chalk; and you, and the long necks
Of neighbors sitting where their mothers sat
Are well aware of shadowy this and that
In me, that’s neither noble nor complex.
Such as I am, however, I have brought
To what it is, this tower; it is my own;
Though it was reared To Beauty, it was wrought
From what I had to build with: honest bone
Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;
And lust is there, and nights not spent alone.
I keep going back to Millay’s poetry, partly because she is such an unapologetic advocate of passion, but with so many nuances—check out the word "anguish" in the penultimate line of this sonnet. I also read her poems over and over because she chooses such unusual and modern topics, curiously combined with a retro love for and mastery of the sonnet form, particularly the very continental Petrarchan sonnet, while most English-language poets favor the Shakespearean. This is one of my favorite sonnets of Millay’s, because it contains such a modern sensibility in an ornately carved ivory box:
Still will I harvest beauty where it grows:
In coloured fungus and the spotted fog
Surprised on foods forgotten; in ditch and bog
Filmed brilliant with irregular rainbows
Of rust and oil, where half a city throws
Its empty tins; and in some spongy log
Whence headlong leaps the oozy emerald frog….
And a black pupil in the green scum shows.
Her the inhabiter of diverse places
Surmising at all doors, I push them all.
Oh, you that fearful of a creaking hinge
Turn back forevermore with craven faces,
I tell you Beauty bears an ultra fringe
Unguessed of you upon her gossamer shawl!
This is not just a poem about pretty, little moments. It’s about seeking and still finding beauty in a world where pollution and urban life deposit “rust and oil” in nature. The last four lines contain a challenge to anyone who refuses to see that our era, flawed by progress though it may be, is still a time of great beauty, beauty that might be more “ultra” (what a great word!) than what came before.
Millay was also a philosopher. Her literary work features five plays in verse, including Conversations at Midnight, where a group of men conduct an after-dinner Platonic dialogue over whiskey and cigars, discussing politics, art, and other topics. The play has an interesting history. Millay wrote a draft of it while on a road trip in Florida with her husband in 1936. The two of them checked into their room at a hotel and went for a walk. As they returned from their stroll, they noticed a column of smoke rising in the air. The hotel had burned down, along with her manuscript. Millay had to recreate the entire script from memory.
Among Millay’s more philosophical works, I like many of her later sonnets where she contemplates the large questions—the place of humanity in the long history of Earth and in the cosmos. Here is her Sonnet CXXIV, again featuring the moon:
Enormous moon, that rise behind these hills
Heavy and yellow in a sky unstarred
And pale, your girth by purple fillets barred
Of drifting cloud, that as the cool sky fills
With planets and the brighter stars, distills
To thinnest vapor and floats valley-ward,—
You flood with radiance all this cluttered yard,
The sagging fence, the chipping window sills.
Grateful at heart as if for my delight
You rose, I watch you through a mist of tears,
Thinking how man, who gags upon despair,
Salting his hunger with the sweat of fright
Has fed on cold indifference all these years,
Calling it kindness, calling it God’s care.
Fascinating that she uses "rise" for the moon in line 1 and not "rises." I think she is addressing the moon—"you that rise." What is so haunting for me about this poem is that Millay refuses a sloppy faith in a caring divinity she cannot see in the skies. But this is not a bleak world she describes, despite the absence of a god or goddess to protect us. There are sagging fences and chipping window sills and tears of pity for the millennia of ignorance that came before. But Millay balances those imperfections with the plenitude of a twilight where the moon floats upward as “the cool sky fills/With planets and brighter stars...”
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