Edna St Vincent Millay and the feminist lyric

Edna St. Vincent Millay is often read - perhaps unfairly - as the poetic counterexample to more experimental work by women modernists. Millay not only wrote in what was generally considered to be a typically "feminine" manner, but she also publicized her own status as a woman writer in a way Lowell, H. D., and Moore never did. It was no doubt Millay's unique prominence as a literary figure - her gender-identified "star" status within the world ofAmerican poetry - that made her the target for sexist critiques such as that of John Crowe Ransom. In a 1937 article entitled "The Poet as Woman," Ransom used Millay to stand for what he saw as a more general tendency of women poets to be "undeveloped intellectually" and to "conceive poetry as a sentimental or feminine exercise." Ransom's attack was unfair: while it is true that Millay remained relatively traditional in her poetic style and wrote in an idiom that was more emotionally expressive than it was intellectually challenging, she was an extremely talented poet and a centrally important literary and cultural figure of the 1920s. Not only was Millay the example to her generation of the hugely successful woman poet - a literary "flapper" whose candle "burned at both ends" - but the popularity of her poems helped to bring the sonnet and other traditional lyric forms into modern American literature.

Millay was born in Rockville, Maine, in 1893. After her parents divorced in 1900, her mother encouraged Millay and her sisters to pursue both reading and music. Millay was extremely precocious, publishing her first poem in 1906; her 1912 poem "Renascence," submitted to a literary contest, was praised by such prominent writers as Louis Untermeyer and Witter Bynner. Millay attended Vassar College, where she studied literature and acted in plays. It was her training in both music and drama (she at one point considered a career as a professional actress) that no doubt accounted for the uniquely lyrical and dramatic sense of her poetry.

In 1917, Millay moved to Greenwich Village, where she participated in the revolutionary mix of politics, modernism, and sexual experimentation that typified that community at the time. Millay was extremely productive during the next half decade: she published her first book of poems, Renascence, in 1917; she wrote and directed a play for the Provincetown Players in 1919; and she published several more volumes of poetry in the early 1920s, culminating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Ballad of the Harp Weaver (1923).

Millay's early poem "First Fig" (1918) remains her most famous work, and it contains one of the most memorable first lines in all of twentieth-century poetry:

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!

The poem may be dismissed by some readers as sentimental, and it is certainly not a work of modernist sensibility, but it managed better than any other poem of the time to capture the exhilarating sense of freedom characterizing the new era. When the poem first appeared, there was hardly a literate young person who did not have it memorized. To "burn the candle at both ends" is to live life to its fullest potential, a potential only made possible for a young woman like Millay by a new social, sexual, and artistic freedom.

The poem is constructed around a single image, the candle, which clearly serves as a metaphor for the female body. Not only does the conceit of the burning candle refer to the traditional idea of "burning with desire," but the idea of the body as a candle suggests a site of pleasure that can be also consumed by its own flame. The image of the candle can cut in different ways, depending on how affirmatively we choose to read the poem. It can represent Millay's social role as a female poet who packages her body for consumption by a large and enthusiastic public, but it also corresponds to her vision ofherselfas depleted, brutalized, or objectified at the cost ofsome genuine sense of self-worth.

Despite the popularity of "First Fig," the poetic form for which Millay is best known is the sonnet; in fact, it was Millay's skillful use ofthe sonnet that helped restore it to respectability. "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" (1923) is a sequence of seventeen poems in which a New England farm woman returns to the home of her dying husband, whom she no longer loves. The sonnets are unsentimental and antiromantic, as Millay uses precise imagery to convey the experience of her protagonist with a devastating realism. In the course of the sequence, we learn the history of the woman, who had been betrayed by loneliness and desire into an unfortunate marriage. In style and tone, the sonnets are probably closer to the work ofFrost than to that of any other American poet; like Frost, Millay shows an impressive rhetorical dexterity in working with traditional forms and a profound understanding of human relationships. At the same time, we find in these poems a reversal of conventional gendered roles: it is the woman rather than the man who functions without sentimentality, and it is she who is ultimately empowered rather than saddened by her husband's death.

Millay provides a description of a relationship which - far from romanticized - is shown in its most destructive aspect. Though the woman is now an "ungrafted tree" - a subject free from her husband and from her former self-she has developed various neuroses that prevent her from living a happy life.

She is deeply disillusioned with her husband, her marriage and herself, and her days are reduced to a "wan dream." The sequence works through suggestion rather than through explicit explanation: we are never told why the woman left her husband or why she has decided to return to care for him. The reader witnesses her engaging in domestic tasks in a masochistic and seemingly pointless pattern. In poem VII, for example, she fanatically cleans the kitchen until it is "bright as a new pin, / An advertisement, far too fine to cook supper in." The closed sound of the end-rhyme pin/in is a sonic expression of her constricted life. In poem X, we are given a hint as to her ill-fated decision to marry her husband: "And if the man were not her spirit's mate, / Why was her body sluggish with desire?" When the husband dies, towards the end of the sequence, she feels only irritation at having to deal with his dead body: "The stiff disorder of a funeral / Everywhere, and the hideous industry, / And crowds of people calling her by name / And questioning her" (XVI).

In the final poem, she gazes dispassionately at his body laid out on the marriage bed, where "his desirous body" with its "great heat" had once held her:

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead, It seemed a curious thing that she had lain Beside him many a night in that cold bed, And that had been which would not be again.

Millay's reticent style in these lines - with its monosyllabic iambic pentameter and simple, unadorned diction - captures eloquently the deadened feelings ofthe woman, who feels no sadness or wifely piety, but only a sense of relief that her husband is "for once, not hers, unclassified." The rhyme of "dead" and "bed" accentuates the changes that have taken place in her attitude toward love and marriage, as she first outgrew her husband's passion and then outlived him.

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