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Millay, in Mamaroneck, NY in 1914 photo by Arnold Genthe

Millay, in Mamaroneck, NY
in 1914 photo
by Arnold Genthe

Photo Credit

Edna St. Vincent Millay – Fire In Her Heart

 

“My candle burns at both ends

It shall not last the night.

But ah my friends and oh my foes,

It gives a lovely light!”

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Young and beautiful, red-haired with a matching fire in her heart, Edna St. Vincent Millay brilliant Bohemian poetess and playwright is an idol of the young during the 1920s through the 1940s. She is a spokesperson for them in Greenwich Village, where the avant garde congregates. Controversial both in lifestyle and in writing, she is openly bisexual in a time when  the word sex wasn’t mentioned in mixed company.. Then she compounded that scandal by marrying a man more than twice her age when she was in her 20s. But the scandal doesn’t end there; Millay and  husband Eugen Jan Boissevain enjoy what is known as an “open” marriage, meaning they’re free to enjoy sex with another person whenever they choose. There is absolutely nothing about Edna that could be considered staid or common; she is considered a flaming hussy by dignified ladies. But lived and she wrote some of the most meaningful and beautiful poetry of the 20th century, winning praise from those who grudgingly gave her praise.

Edna’s Father Was Asked To Leave The Home

She was born to ordinary parents in Rockland, Maine on February 22, 1892. However, her mother Cora asked her husband to leave the family home in 1899. I found no history behind this, but assumed it was the usual problems a marriage encounters. From that time on, nothing is ever mentioned about any further contact with her father. Cora raised Edna and her other two daughters alone. Cora encouraged them to be self-sufficient and ambitious, that there was nothing they could not attain if they gave it the effort. She also taught them an appreciation of music and literature from an early age.

First Published Book And Other Things

In 1912 Edna’s mother suggested that she enter her poem “Renascense” into a contest, where it took fourth place winning Edna acclaim, publication in the The Lyric Year and a scholarship to Vassar. She was on her way as a poetess and continued writing poems and a screenplay during her school years. She developed several intimate relationships with women, including one with English actress Wynne Matthison. The year of Millay’s graduation, 1917, she published her first book of poems titled “Renascence and Other Poems.” She also wrote her first verse play “The Lamp and The Bell” about love between women.

Edna Receives a Nickname

Edna’s friends began calling her “Vincent” and she moved to Greenwich Village after graduation. She was considered a Bohemian and a feminist, and in our time of the 1960s would have been considered a hippie. In any case, she went her own way, never expecting anything from anyone except understanding and friendship. But she became the voice of Greenwich Village to her thousands of young listeners and followers. She believed in living free, that life was meant to be whatever you wanted it to be and nothing and no one should stand in your way.

Pulitzer Prize Award

In 1923 she became the third woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Critic Floyd Dell said of the beautiful redhead, “She’s a frivolous young woman, with a brand new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.” In 1924 she and other friends founded the Cherry Lane Theater to, as she put it, “continue the staging of experimental drama.”  Openly bi-sexual, she received marriage proposals from critics Floyd Dell and Edmund Wilson. She refused both.

She Finally Says Yes To Marriage

In 1923 she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, who supported her career and took on the domestic responsibilities. In 1925 they bought what was once a blueberry farm in Austerlitz, NY, which they named Steepletop. Millay began a vegetable garden and they built a writer’s cabin. Steepletop is now a museum, with guided tours of the house and her gardens are available from the end of May through the middle of October. Part of the grounds, including the Millary Poetry Trail which leads to her grave are open year round.

Millay Was A Pacifist In WWI

She was a pacifist against the war in WWI, but in 1940 during WWII, she was a war activist, supporting the Allied efforts and writing propaganda poetry. Many of her literary friends turned against her because of this. However, she stood firm and never wavered in her support of those who were against the Nazi tyranny. In The New York Times, Millay mourned the Czechoslovak city of Lidice, the site of a Nazi massacre.

The whole world holds in its arms today

The murdered village of Lidice,

Like the murdered body of a little child,

Innocent, happy, surprised at play. ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay died on October 19, 1950 in her home. Her husband had passed on in 1949 from lung cancer. She was found dead after falling down the stairs and was there some eight hours before she was discovered. Her physician said it was a heart attack.

 

If this red-haired, Bohemian Poetess works interest you, as they do me, perhaps you might like these selections: