Edna St. Vincent Millay was a singular phenomenon in American literature of the early 20th century. She was a star whose books sold in numbers more often associated with fiction than poetry and whose speaking voice and magnetic personality gave her an irresistible appeal in both her public and private lives. She was encouraged early by Sara teasdale and the critic Louis Untermeyer, but Millay's literary acquaintanceship primarily included publishers and minor poets rather than the other major writers of her time; hers was an art more influential than one influenced by her contemporaries. While her career coincides with the IMAgist school, she is not an imagist poet in any strict sense of community or practice. During the 1920s she wrote plays produced by the Provincetown Players in New York, as did Sherwood Anderson, Djuna Barnes, E. E. cummings, Susan Glaspell, Eugene O'Neill, Wallace stevens, and William Carlos WILLIAMS. She was significant enough to share a stage with Robert frost and Carl sandburg, and her prominent position allowed her to exercise advocacy on behalf of other poets. Mil-lay once declared Robinson jeffers "the best poet in America" (Milford 330), and in the 1930s she annually advised the Guggenheim Foundation on how best to grant its fellowships. She recommended E. E. Cum-mings (whom she believed had "a pretty big talent in pretty bad hands" [qtd. in Milford 370]) and Louise bogan in 1933; Conrad aiken, Kay boyle, and Walter lowenfels in 1934; and in 1938 she rejected Muriel rukeyser, whose writing on social issues Millay felt made for poor poetry.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, the eldest of three daughters; her irresponsible father was asked to leave by the time she was eight. The girls were raised by their practical mother, a nurse, whose work absences were so frequent and prolonged that the children often were left to their own devices. The all-female family existed in relentless poverty. For her 12th birthday, Mil-lay received a subscription to a children's publication called st. Nicholas and began writing seriously, submitting pieces for its editor's consideration. By the time she was 18 and too old to enter any more writing contests, she had won every award the magazine offered. In high school she acted in school plays, played the piano in recital, edited the school paper, and wrote. In 1912 she submitted the poem "Renascence" to a competition, The Lyric Year's selection of the year's 100 best poems. Her poem placed fourth and therefore was awarded no prize money. Ironically this fact garnered the poem more attention than it might have had the poem won. Critics extolled the virtues of "Renascence" and its writer. Millay was rewarded with the attention and patronage of Caroline Dow, who organized sufficient financial support to send her to college. Millay chose Vassar (1913-17). She also chose to have no children, and although she married, hers was not a conventional marriage. Eugen Boissevain took care of her from the time they married in 1923 until his death in 1949, managing their lives so that she was free to immerse herself in living and writing. Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, the Levinson Prize in 1931, and the Gold Medal of the Poetry Society of America in 1943. She was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1929) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1940).
From her earliest poems, Millay's work displays a freshness of image, a depth of emotional loss, and a cynicism about love. In "Thursday" (1923), she expresses surprise at a rejected lover's dismay, wondering at the assumption that what was love on Wednesday will still be love the following day—unusual to hear in a woman's voice because of the traditional myth of woman's constancy. Millay showed no interest in a pedestrian life of decorum; in an untitled quatrain she declared, "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night" (1923). Millay's originality is clearly expressed in "Spring" (1923), in which she argues against poems exuberantly praising the season simply for its existence. All of the beauties of spring taken together are not enough to justify life, which the poem compares to "an empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs"; she is unimpressed and unrelieved that every year spring "Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." The jaded voice and bravado of many of her poems are counterbalanced by the extraordinary longing articulated in others. Her sonnets (see prosody and free verse), a form she consistently employed from the time she was 15, variously express sexual desire uncomplicated by emotional involvement but complicated by gender norms ("I, being born a woman and distressed" ), make a case for love as one of, but not the only or most necessary, the necessities of life ("Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink" ), condemn a world inactive in the face of fascist expansion ("Czecho-Slovakia" ), and chart her history as a woman. In these poems she is stricken with love, by turns abandoned and abandoning, and she wrestles with mortality, her own and that of those she loved.
Millay published 25 books between 1917 and 1949, primarily writing poetry, but also fiction, drama, and an opera libretto. Her later poems are not held in the high regard her early work enjoyed, and Millay herself occasionally feared she had lost her gift. Critics sometimes wondered if perhaps she had been too eagerly lauded as a major poet at the start of her career. Her late poems are often politically motivated propaganda rather than passionate love lyrics, and this change of focus may have caused a reassessment of her body of work in more recent times. Whatever one might think of her political statements, there is no denying the emotional power of her lyric poetry.
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