American Literature Edna St. Vincent Millay
by
Marilyn M. Lombardi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0106

Introduction

Edna St. Vincent Millay (b. 1892–d. 1950) was among the most celebrated poets and accomplished sonnet writers of the 20th century. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and in 1943 she became the sixth person and second woman to be awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. At the height of her critical acclaim, the New York Times proclaimed her one of the “ten greatest living women” and the “chief glory of American literature” (1931). Yet her reputation underwent a steep decline during her lifetime. High modernist poetry, with its impersonality, allusiveness, and elitism, came to dominate academic taste in midcentury America. Combined with her enormous popularity and public engagement in social causes, Millay’s adoption of the European lyric form, known since the Renaissance for its highly polished structure, musicality, and intense expressivity, made her a critical target of the ascendant New Critics. Beginning in the 1970s, however, feminist reappraisals rekindled critical interest in Millay’s use of the sonnet to subvert the genre’s traditional associations with masculine poetic authority. Born on 22 February 1892 in Rockland, Maine, Millay was given her distinctive middle name as a tribute to the New York hospital that had saved her uncle’s life. Her divorced mother raised Millay and her two younger sisters to pursue their literary, musical, and theatrical ambitions. Millay was a literary prodigy, attaining national attention at the age of nineteen when she entered her poem Renascence in a prize competition that led to its publication in The Lyric Year (1912). Her public reading of the poem attracted the support of a wealthy patron who paid for her education at Vassar College. She graduated the same year that her first book of poems was published (1917), but only after the Vassar president saw fit to overturn her latest suspension. Her years living amid the pageantry of Greenwich Village during its radical heyday were her most productive. To this day, she remains best known for giving lyric and physical expression to the New Woman emerging in the aftermath of the Great War—unconventional, shimmering with Jazz Age energies, sexually sophisticated, and knowingly cynical in matters of love. Settling into an open marriage with the 43-year-old Dutch coffee importer Eugen Boissevain in 1923, she repaired to Steepletop, a seven-hundred-acre farm the couple bought in Austerlitz, New York, which is now a repository of Millay materials and the site of the Millay Colony for the Arts. In 1936, a freakish car accident left her in severe pain and sent her spiraling into alcoholism and drug addiction. After a yearlong battle with alcohol following her husband’s death in 1949, Millay died of a heart attack in 1950 at the age of 58.

General Overviews

By the time of Millay’s death in 1950, the collective wisdom of the academic establishment had consigned the poet, along with many of her female contemporaries, to the margins of literary history. In the decades that followed, Millay’s literary accomplishments were rarely mentioned without reference to her personal life and the theatricality of her public persona. Critical opinion regarding Millay began to turn following the publication of Brittin 1982, which updated the author’s original 1967 full-length study of Millay and represented the first multidimensional portrait of the poet as humanist, radical, and feminist. The years 1993–2011, beginning with preparations for the centenary of the poet’s birth and culminating with the 2011 publication of a new edition of the Collected Poems, produced a major reevaluation of Millay’s place in modern American poetry. Scholars gained access for the first time to unpublished Millay materials long held in private hands, which were used to great effect in Milford 2001 and Epstein 2001, two major biographies of the poet that appeared in the same year (see also Biographies and Personal Reminiscences). Milford’s volume is a prodigious accomplishment, with a level of detail that may overwhelm the casual reader, while Epstein’s lively account may provide a more accessible gateway into Millay’s poetics as illuminated by the life. Undergraduates, in particular, are encouraged to view two highly engaging documentaries from the Films on Demand educational video collection, Burning Candles: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Duncan 2011) and Greenwich Village Writers: The Bohemian Legacy (2012), which capture the contemporary excitement surrounding Millay and her artistic circle. Finally, those readers with a wider interest in gender and the reception accorded American women poets in the 20th century will learn much from Dickie and Travisano 1996 and Cucinella 2010, two fine general studies in which Millay figures prominently (see also Criticism).

  • Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is still one of the best introductions to Millay for undergraduates. It includes an explication of Millay’s work, a brief biography, a chronology of the life and work, complete notes and references, a selected annotated bibliography, and (in the 1982 update) a chapter on modernism, feminism, and Millay.

  • Cucinella, Catherine. Poetics of the Body: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Chin, and Marilyn Hacker. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230106512E-mail Citation »

    Following in the footsteps of critics Cheryl Walker, Suzanne Clark, and Sandra Gilbert, Cucinella emphasizes “the indeterminable nature of [Millay’s] bodily performance and the body of her poetry” (p. 41).

  • Dickie, Margaret, and Thomas Travisano, eds. Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    This readily available collection includes an especially lucid introduction by the editors and important chapters from critics Suzanne Clark and Cheryl Walker that introduce readers to “the trajectory of Millay’s reception” amid changing “literary fashions” (p. 172).

  • Duncan, Robert A., dir. Burning Candles: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. DVD. New York: Films Media Group, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    This 90-minute documentary’s chronological account of Millay’s life and work is broken down into short 3–5 minute chapters (“Scandalous Poetry,” “Millay’s Mother,” “Millay Expelled from Vassar,” etc.) for easy online viewing. Available online from Films on Demand via libraries and subscription. Transcripts of each segment and related video resources are also provided.

  • Epstein, Daniel Mark. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay. New York: Holt, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Largely eclipsed by Nancy Milford’s tour de force, Epstein’s book is notable for being more selective and, as the work of a poet in his own right, more perceptive than Milford’s volume on the topic of Millay’s craft.

  • Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Exhaustive and dense, the book represents the culmination of the author’s thirty-year effort to gain access from Millay’s sister to a treasure trove of the poet’s letters, drafts, and unknown poems and weave the material into a definitive biography of the poet’s personality.

  • Rock, Marcia, dir. Greenwich Village Writers: The Bohemian Legacy. DVD. New York: Films Media Group, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The New York City neighborhood surrounding Washington Square was a low-rent home for successive generations of immigrants and radical artists. In this account of the Village, Millay and Edmund Wilson arrive on the scene just as the sun was beginning to set on the golden years of bohemianism (1912–1916). Available via libraries and subscription from the Films Media Group.

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