Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s reputation has only grown over the years. Her home is now the site of the seven-acre, Millay Colony for the Arts and she has recently been named as one of history’s most important LGBTQ icons. She is considered to be one of the most important poets of the 20th century. 

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Life Facts

  • Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in February of 1892.
  • She was fourteen when her first poems were published in St. Nicholas Magazine.
  • In the early 1920s, she worked as a contract writer for ‘Vanity Fair’ and traveled throughout Europe.
  • In 1913, Millay started attending Vassar College.
  • She died at 58 years old in 1950 from a heart attack.

Interesting Facts

  • Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote for her high school magazine “Megunticook”.
  • In 1919, she wrote a play titled, ‘Aria da Capo’ in which her sister acted.
  • She was an active proponent of pacifism during WWII.
  • Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.’
  • She helped to create propaganda for the Writers’ War Board.

Famous Poems

  • ‘God’s World’ describes the wonders of nature. The speaker goes into the sights she observes in God’s world. Despite the speaker’s best effort, she says, she’s unable to get any closer to God’s wonders than she already is. She wants to embrace the woods, mists, and cliffs but they are all too heavy. In the end, she turns to God and asks that he not allow her to see another “autumn leaf” or hear a bird’s call. 
  • ‘Elegy Before Death’ is one of Millay’s best-known poems. It is about the physical and spiritual impact of a loss and how the world isn’t really going to change after someone dies. All the plants and animals will continue on as they always have.
  • ‘Wild Swans’ describes a speaker’s desperation to get out of her current physical and emotional space. She’s seeking out a new, bird-like freedom. The first lines describe the shock the speaker feels when she sees swans flying over her mom. She’s determined to change herself and move away from her “Tiresome” life. 
  • ‘What My Lips Have Kissed, and Where and Why’ is also known as Sonnet XLIII’. in the poem, Millay’s speaker states that she can’t remember past lovers but can remember how happy she was when she was with them. She can’t remember “what arms have lain / Under my head” but does remember the comfort she felt. The poem ends on a solemn note, suggesting that things won’t ever go back to the way they were.
  • Love is Not All’ describes the various ways that humans suffer for love. It doesn’t bring one food or shelter but people still risk everything for it. People will always kill themselves, in every meaning of the word, for love.

Early Life

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine in February of 1892. Her mother, Cora Buzelle, was a nurse, and her father, Henry Millay, was a school teacher. Millay’s unusual name stemmed from personal family history. Her middle name, “St. Vincent” was taken from a nearby hospital which was responsible for saving her uncle’s life. This miraculous event happened just before she was born and her parents chose to honor those that helped their family in this touchingly permanent way.

Millay’s parents were not happily married and had already been separated for a few years when her mother divorced her father for financial irresponsibility. Millay was only eight years old at the time and she, her mother, and her two other sisters, Kathleen and Norma, moved to Camden, Maine. They did not stay in one place for long as their mother struggled to find steady work. Although they were not well off financially, Millay’s mother encouraged her daughters to love literature, music, and the arts.

While in high school, Millay wrote for the school’s magazine, Megunticook, and published a number of her early works in St. Nicholas Magazine. She was only fourteen at the time, and by fifteen she had published poetry in a number of other publications. Of particular note, one of Millay’s best-known poems, ‘Renascence,’ was published in 1912 in an anthology called, The Lyric Year. In 1913, Millay started attending Vassar College. She had already had her first relationships with women years before, and she went on to form a number of close relationships while enrolled in college. Millay graduated in 1917, the same year that she published her first collection, Renascence and Other Poems.

Literary Career

Around the same time (1917), Millay moved to Greenwich Village, where she lives in a small apartment. Here she wrote her second collection, A Few Figs From Thistles. It was seen as being quite controversial as it delved into themes of feminism and sexuality. The following years were quite productive for Millay. In 1919, she wrote a play titled, Aria da Capo, in which her sister Norma starred. The poet then embarked on a contract writing for Vanity Fair and traveled throughout Europe for the next three years. In 1923, after returning from Europe, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. At the time, he was only the third woman to have won this prize.

In the same year as the publication of The Ballad of the Harp-Weave, Millay married 43-year-old Eugen Jan Boissevain. He was supportive of her career and took care of the domestic responsibilities while she wrote. The two remained married for the next twenty-six years but were not exclusive. Only a few years after the couple was married, they bought the Steepletop house just outside of Austerlitz, New York. This house is now known as the “Edna St. Vincent Millay House” and is maintained to this day.

Over the following years, Millay received a number of different awards and suffered a number of losses. She was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But in 1928, Elinor Wylie, a fellow poet, and a close friend died, followed soon after by Millay’s own mother and a few years later, her father. During this period Millay was still working as an active writer. She published the works, ‘The Buck in the Snow‘, Fatal Interview, Wine from These Grapes, and Conversations at Midnight from 1928 to 1937.

Later Life and Death

During the years of WWII, Millay was an active proponent of pacifism. She wrote in support of the Allied Forces and helped to create propaganda for the Writers’ War Board. There were those amongst the literary circles at the time who believed that Millay’s efforts to further a political cause she believed in and support the troops fighting fascism, damaged her reputation.

In 1944, Millay’s mental health took a turn for the worse and she suffered a mental breakdown. This change in her condition kept her from being able to write for over two years. Her husband diligently took care of his ailing wife, so much so, that some believe exhaustion caused him to die in 1949 from a combination of lung cancer and a stroke. Millay was not far behind. She died at 58 years old, (in 1950), while alone in her home, after falling down the stairs. The coroner’s report stated she had suffered a heart attack. She now rests alongside her husband on their property at Steepletop.

Millay’s reputation has been long-lasting. Her home is now the site of the seven-acre, Millay Colony for the Arts and she has recently been named as one of history’s most important LGBTQ icons.

Influence from other Poets

Edna St. Vincent Millay was notably influenced by writers such as Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Witter Bynner, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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Will created Poem Analysis back in 2015 and has a team of the best poetry experts helping him analyze poems from the past and present. Although he has a background in Automotive Engineering, having worked for McLaren testing supercars, Will has a keen eye for poetry and literature.

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