Edna St. Vincent Millay

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Edna St. Vincent Millay
September 2011

I’d like to remind us, and our audience of an amazing poet who was born in 1893 and died in 1950. Her name is Edna St. Vincent Millay. Chances are, many of us know one poem of hers, maybe by heart. The one I’m thinking of is called
First Fig

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!

She has another tiny poem called “Second Fig”—two lines. It goes like this:

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Both of these poems celebrate a life lived on the edge, which, I have to say, perfectly characterizes Millay’s own life. She was born in Maine. When she was seven, her mother sent her father away. She and her two sisters were raised to be strong and independent, to love music and literature. When Edna was 20, her mother talked her into entering her poem, “Renascence” in a contest. She won 4th place and her poem was published, all of which eventually led her to a scholarship to Vassar. She published her first book the year she graduated. That we should all be so lucky. Here’s a poem from that book. You hear a lot of passion, a fine control of the line, and her trademark angst.

God’s World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

All this old-fashioned language! She was writing in the fashion of her day. She also wrote her first verse play that year. It was called “The Lamp and the Bell,” and was about love between woman. She was openly bisexual. Her friends all called her “Vincent.” She moved to Greenwich Village and lived what has been called a “notoriously Bohemian life.” She was poor as a church mouse and wrote like crazy. She joined the Provincetown players and hung around with some of the avant garde writers of her time. One of them was Floyd Dell, a magazine editor and leader of the Chicago Renaissance and promoter of writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg. Dell tried hard to get her to marry him, but she said no over and over. She was constantly in love with someone new. You might remember Warren Beatty’s film, Reds, about her love for Dell as well as for the radical writer John Reed. She published A Few Figs from Thistles in 1920—it got a lot of attention for its descriptions of female sexuality. Her fourth volume, The Harp Weaver, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

That year she did get married, to Eugen Boissevain, a widower and feminist himself. Boissevain gave up his work to manage Millay’s literary career. He spent his time setting up the readings and speaking engagements that made her so well known. Millay said the two of them lived like two bachelors, having an “open” marriage for all of their twenty-six-year marriage. Boissevain died in 1949. Millay died in 1950.

We may think of Millay’s work as old fashioned, since it keeps to a very regular meter and rhyme. And the occasional artificial inversion of words, or the occasional “prithee” or “stretcheth.” Even for its time—consider that the poet e.e. Cummings was writing! And Dylan Thomas, and Ezra Pound! So it’s all the more surprising, coming from this radical young woman. The words, the passion, feel barely compressed inside the forms, which makes the poems feel even more intense. I talked about Gerard Manley Hopkins on another show, and I find some of the same stress and tension in Millay’s poems. Both Hopkins and Millay strain after a love that never quite is satisfied—Hopkins after God and Millay after, well, various lovers. I’ve read those two short poems. Here’s a sonnet, a rather dim view of love.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

And one more sad look at love.

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ’tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.

But we love that sort of sadness, don’t we? It’s why we love the blues. We love to feel life being lived at its most intense. We love to be there, in the poem, because it echoes what we’ve felt at our most intense, which is when we’ve been most alive. Edna St. Vincent Millay.