Readers can explore ten of the best poems that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote throughout her life on this list. Some are sonnets, others contend with themes like religion, nature, and love.
Best Edna St. Vincent Millay Poems
This piece, also known as ‘Sonnet XLIII,’ is perhaps Millay’s best-known poem today. It is an Italian sonnet that is told from the perspective of a speaker who cannot remember the lovers of her past, only the happy state she must once have inhabited. The speaker describes what parts of her memory have been lost, “what” her lips have kissed, “why” they kissed, and “where” they kissed. With few specific details, Millay’s poem is widely relatable. Here are a few lines from the poem:
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
‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’ is also known as Sonnet XLI. It is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. In the lines, Millay describes the emotional “frenzy” that relationships can evoke in women and how one may walk away unpossessed. The speaker concludes that she is too strong for a man to possess her and that she’s capable of being with any man and leaving him.
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
This is a beautiful short poem that was originally published in Renascence and Other Poems in 1917. It is told from the perspective of a woman who is interested in opening an inn. Those she’s thinking about will stumble upon her tavern while on a journey. There, they could rest and recover while she tended to them. Here are a few lines:
I’ll keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest,
Wherein all grey-eyed people
May set them down and rest.
‘Renascence‘ is a well-known poem that speaks on suffering, time, rebirth, and spirituality. The piece was written when the poet was only nineteen years old. She wrote the poem while looking out from the summit of a mountain in Camden, Maine, a spot that’s now memorialized with a plaque. The first lines contain the speaker’s horror at the boundaries of her world. It is mundane, without interest, and confining. The weight of infinity presses down on her. In the end, she is reborn and is never going to forget God or stop from one moment seeing him in everything around her. Here are a few lines from the poem:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine
‘Wild Swans’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay tells of a speaker’s desperation to get out of her current physical and emotional space and find new, bird-like freedom. The poem begins with the speaker expressing shock at the sight of wild swans, the primary image of the poem. She leaves the poem, desperate for the swans to come back and show her again how to fly over the town. Here are a few lines:
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
‘Spring’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a highly original poem. It takes an interesting approach to the spring season and what it truly conveys. She uses techniques like apostrophes within the lines. The speaker addresses Spring, asking the season why it has to come back again. It brings to mind nothing but negativity for the speaker. She thinks of death and change, even with the new life around her. Here are a few lines:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
Millay’s ‘Sorrow’ is a deeply sad poem that explores the speaker’s depression. Millay may have written this poem based on her own experiences and feelings. It follows her wherever she goes. She has no reprieve from it, day or night, and nowhere to go that makes her feel as if there is a purpose to live x. Here are the first four lines:
Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain, —
Dawn will find them still again;
‘Bluebeard’ retells the traditional story of a wife, the latest in a long line, who is married to Bluebeard. She finds a bloody mess and the remains of the previous wives behind a locked door. Once her husband arrives home, he plans to kill her, but she manages to escape. The poem rearranges the plot of the story focusing on the woman rather than on the man.
This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed… Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
‘Afternoon on a Hill’ is a short poem that uses nature imagery. In it, the speaker describes her intentions for the afternoon. The poem takes the reader into the future, where the speaker plans to spend time alone on a hill surrounded by hundreds of flowers. She’s not going to pick them, but she is going to touch them. At the end of the afternoon, when the sun has gone down, and she’s looking out over the lights of the town, she’ll pick out her home among them and head down to it. Here are a few lines:
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
‘Time does not bring relief; you all have lied’ is another example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. It tells of an emotionally damaged woman seeking relief from heartbreak. She notes that time has not brought relief from the emotional pain she’s been feeling. Her longing for her lover is omnipresent. It comes to her in the rain and with tidal changes.
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
Usually, readers and scholars consider ‘Renascence’ to be Millay’s most famous poem. Other famous poems she wrote include ‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why’ and ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed.’
Millay wrote lyric poetry, including sonnets. Her poems often include images of natural scenes, moving emotional experiences, and even her personal struggles. She often wrote short poems as well, many of which are fourteen lines or shorter. But, her best-known poem, ‘Renascence,’ is quite long.