Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Edna St. Vincent Millay - Feb. 22, 1892 - Oct. 19, 1950

Edna St. Vincent Millay

The first book of poems I bought (while I was a soldier in Germany, 19-years-old) was a collection by a red-haired beauty named Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became, thus, where poetry is concerned, my first love; a love that has not diminished in the least.

I read those poems over and over lying in my bunk or lounging in the snackbar.  I memorized three or four of them, including the two hundred-and-some lines of one of my favorites, "Interim".  I believe I could still say it from memory with perhaps just a few promptings.

Historical marker along Route 9

When, last June, I visited Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, New York,which is now a National Historical Landmark, and a museum dedicated to her, the curator sadly mentioned that Millay has fallen out of favor with those who decide which poets are included in the anthologies and with those who decide which poets are taught in the classrooms. These are huge mistakes.  Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems; a majority of these hundreds are perfect. Surely there's no poet who makes more accessible the beauty and magic of words when arranged in rhyme and meter.  She (IMHO) should be required reading.

Steepletop; Austerlitz, New York
For me, she was a lucky start; I'm so glad the graphics of that paperback caught my eye -- Millay was the perfect poet with whom to set out on the road to an appreciation of the beauty of precisely arranged words. Eventually, in 1963, a friend named Richard English gave me a hardback copy; it's worn but loved:

At Steepletop the docent asked we four pilgrims -- which, besides myself, included my dear friend Ellen Miller, and another couple whom we did not know -- asked how each of us had first come upon Millay. I spoke about buying her in paperback in Germany, and added that I had not been a good student, but had learned punctuation and a good deal of grammar through my close reading and re-reading of Millay. "I can still remember some of her poems by heart," I said, and recited a sonnet. I was moved to realize myself standing in Millay's very home, a place I had imagined and longed to visit for over fifty years. I was moved to be saying the first of her poems I'd memorized, whose words have never fallen from my mind; and I was mindful, too, of the desolative nature of the poem's sentiment, so that, as I recited, my eyes welled with tears; I played to my tiny crowd; I managed to manage every enunciation and emphasis perfectly:

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,   
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;   
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.   
There are a hundred places where I fear   
To go,—so with his memory they brim.   
And entering with relief some quiet place   
Where never fell his foot or shone his face   
I say, “There is no memory of him here!” 
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.  
The docent, obviously charmed, turned to the other museum official, a woman who was (I believe) a curator, and said, "We'll have to have him back to recite at ...."

I forget at what -- some sort of special event at Steepletop. I'm sorry I don't recall the docent's name but am glad the picture I took of him (above) shows his warm and welcoming face which indicate his pleasant demeanor. And I wish I had his curly hair.

I don't remember the exact words -- it was in the sixties that I read Millay's Collected Letters, but when her husband Eugen died the postmistress sent her a note of sympathy.  "I can't believe I'll never see him coming down the hill again to fetch the mail," she wrote.  Millay responded: "Yes, and I can't believe he won't be coming up the hill either."

First Day Issue Millay stamps; postmarked Austerlitz and St. Vincent's Station, N.Y.; July 10, 1981

Below is her obituary from the New York Times:
Millay, Edna St. Vincent, EDNA ST. V. MILLAY FOUND DEAD AT 58 - Noted Poet Succumbs of Heart Attack in Upstate Home, Body Discovered 8 Hours Later - WON PULITZER PRIZE IN ‘22 - Also Scored Success With Book for Opera, "King’s Henchman," and "The Harp-Weaver" - Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES - AUSTERLITZ, N. Y., Oct. 19 - Edna St. Vincent Millay, the famous poet, was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her isolated home near here at 3:30 P.M. today.  Her physician said she died of a heart attack after a coronary occlusion.  She was 58 years old.  She was dressed in a nightgown and slippers when her body was found by James Pinnie, a caretaker, who had arrived to fix a fire for the evening.  The Columbia County coroner estimated that she had been dead for eight hours.  Her nearest neighbor lived a mile away.  Miss Millay had lived alone in the Berkshire hills near the Massachusetts border, ten miles southwest of Chatham, N. Y., since her husband died on Aug. 20, 1949.  He was Eugen Jan Boissevain, a retired New York importer.  Spokesman for Three Decades - Edna St. Vincent Millay was a terse and moving spokesman during the Twenties, the Thirties and the Forties.  She was an idol of the younger generation during the glorious early days of Greenwich Village when she wrote what critics termed a frivolous but widely known poem which ended: 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!  All critics agreed, however, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time.  In 1940 she published in THE NEW YORK TIMES Magazine a plea against isolationism which said, “There are no islands any more,” and during the second World War she wrote of the Nazi massacre of the Czechoslovak city of Lidice: 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.  Before this, when Miss Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1922, her work. had become more profound and less personal as she grew out of the “flaming youth” era in the Village.  The nation and the world had become her concern.  Was Raised in Maine - Miss Millay was born In Rockland, Me., on Feb. 22, 1892, in an old house “between the mountains and the sea” where baskets of apples and drying herbs on the porch mingled their scents with those of the neighboring pine woods.  She was the eldest of three sisters, brought up by their mother, the former Cora Buzelle [sic].  Of the younger sisters, Norma became an actress and Kathleen a writer, whose first novel, published in 1927, was succeeded by fairy stories, short stories, plays and verse.  Floyd Dell, novelist and unofficial historian of the Village in the early Twenties, has written how the mother worked to bring up her daughters in “gay and courageous poverty.”  Edna, the tomboy of the family, was usually called “Vincent” by her mother and sisters.  Her talent was recognized and encouraged and poetry was read and reread in the household.  At 14 she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry, the first of many honors.  In the poem that gave its name to her volume, “The Harp-Weaver,” some have discovered the inspiration of her poor youth and her mother's devotion.  Edna entered Vassar late.  She was then 21 years old, but when she was 18 she had finished the first part of her first long poem.  “Renascence” and at 20 had ended it.  It was published in a prize contest, which incidentally, it did not win.  Sonnets and lyrics followed while she still was in college.  She was graduated In 1917 and came to live in the Village, remaining for years, something of a tradition in her college.  Miss Millay, says Floyd Dell, was in those days “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine,” young, red-haired and unquestionably pretty.  But the Village was the wartime Village, and Miss Millay took the radical stand.  John Reed, Communist and war correspondent, was among her friends.  Inez Milholland, feminist leader, to whom the sonnet "The Pioneer” is a tribute, was one of her admirers.  In a play, “Aria da Capo,” written in 1921, she expressed her hatred of war, and it has been recorded that she haunted court rooms with her pacifist friends, reciting to them her poetry to comfort them while juries decided on their cases.  With Provincetown Players - At first poetry in Greenwich Village did not pay, and Miss Millay turned to the theatre, briefly.  She acted without pay with the Provincetown Players in their converted stable on Macdougal Street and got a part in a Theatre Guild production.  For some time she did hack writing for magazines under a pseudonym.  It was her second volume of verses, “A Few Figs From Thistles,” that turned national attention to the nine-foot-wide house on Bedford Street where she lived.  There followed “Second April” in 1921 and “The Lamp and the Bell” and a morality play, “Two Slatterns and a King,” in the same year, and in 1922, with the Pulitzer Prize, her position as a poet was established.  “The Harp-Weaver” was published In 1923, and then the Metropolitan Opera House commissioned Miss Millay to write a book for the score of an opera composed by Deems Taylor.  For her plot she went to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Eadgar, King of Wessex, a story not unlike that of Tristan and Isolde, and the result was “The King’s Henchman,” called by one writer the most effectively and artistically wrought American opera ever to reach the stage.  It was produced at the Metropolitan Opera as the most important production of the 1927 season, with Lawrence Tibbett, Edward Johnson and Florence Easton, and later was taken on an extensive tour.  Within twenty days of the publication of the poem in book form four editions were exhausted, and it was calculated that Miss Millay’s royalties from her publishers ran to $100 a day.  In the summer of 1927 the time drew near for the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzettti, Boston Italians whose trial and conviction of murder became one of the most celebrated labor causes of the United States.  Only recently recovered from a nervous breakdown, Miss Millay flung herself into the fight for their lives.    (New York Times, Oct. 20, 1950).

Her grave is on the grounds of Steepletop, which comprise some 200 acres.  Although it was June when Ellen and I were there it was a cold and rainy day, and the grave is placed a good distance through a woods. We lost our way a couple times but -- owing Edna St. Vincent Millay a huge amount of homage -- there was no giving up.


  1. For a while now I've thought Cate Blanchett is the one to play Edna ...can see it so clearly...

    What a read was Nancy Milford's "Savage Beauty"..might pick it up again..

    Can remember memorising:

    I know I am but summer to your heart,
    And not the full four seasons of the year;
    And you must welcome from another part
    Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.
    No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell
    Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;
    And I have loved you all too long and well
    To carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.
    Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,
    I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,
    That you may hail anew the bird and rose
    When I come back to you, as summer comes.
    Else will you seek, at some not distant time,
    Even your summer in another clime.

    "Memory of Cape Cod" was read at Jacqueline Kennedy's funeral..

    There's something about a book that's worn and loved!

    A delightful surprise George..this post...wonder what's next!

  2. Have you read her letters?..edited by Allan Ross Macdougall...writing to Herbert C Lipscomb, Professor of Latin at Randolph-Macon College.."I have just finished learning by heart the beautiful "Si qua recordanti". I can't imagine why I've never learned it by heart before. I think it the most beautiful short poem in any language I know. The Iliad is the most beautiful long poem!"

    How I love the idea of learning by heart. The film "Bright Star" set me off on the learning poetry by heart trail..the joy of walking along with a poem for company!

  3. Uncle George:

    Don't forget the over page of our wedding program. Take another look sometime. : )

    Love, Johnny

  4. I remember you sending me copies of her poems back in the sixties. Wonderful.

  5. Edna St. Vincent Millays poems are lovely. I relish every line and revel at the beauty of each story. Thank you for sharing, this is beautiful.

  6. george: i admire your devotion to truth and beauty. reading edna makes me misty for frozen moments full of the thoughts, images and feelings that well-crafted poems evoke. thank you for keeping the admiration of this craft alive. i love your blog; it makes me feel like i am connected to something bigger than myself.
    xo dshell

  7. Thank you for remembering Edna St. VIncent Millay. I grew up in Spencertown (a hamlet in the Town of Austerlitz) but my father was born in a house at the corner of Rt 22 and 203 in 1924. He grew up in Austerlitz. His father did some work for Ms. Millay and our family has been enamoured with her work and her legend ever since. WHile attending Chatham High School, I wrote a paper for an English class based on the life and works of Ms. Millay. I made my way to Steepletop and spoke at length with her sister. Even though I graduated more than 35 years ago, I remember the day well. WHile cleaning out my garage, I found a First Day of Issue stamped envelope with Ms. Millay's stamp, addressed to my father. It is dated July 10, 1981. Do you have any idea the monetary value of the stamp? I just wanted to know. Thanks for any help. Also, the picture you have posted of the landmark sign indicates that it is located on Rt. 9. It is actually on Rt. 22 as evidenced by the sign in the rear of the pcture. Thanks. Diane