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Passionately admired, Eda St. Vincent Millay's works are some of the most often memorized of modern poetry. Early Works of Edna St. Millay reprints the early poems and plays that created the famosu figure of the "girl poet." Published between 1917 and 1921, and collected in this volume, are the three books of poems Renascence and Other Poems, A Few Figs from the Thistles, and Second April, and the three plays Aria da Capo, The Harp and the Bell, and Two Slatterns and a King.
About the Author
Her voice was, by all accounts, thrilling. Whether onstage with the Provincetown Players, reciting her poems to packed auditoriums on tour, or reading on weekly radio broadcasts during the 1930s, Edna St. Vincent Millay's rich contralto had a galvanizing effect on audiences. The critic Louis Untermeyer remembered it "like the sound of the ax on fresh wood," and Edmund Wilson recalled that when she read, "the company hushed and listened as people do to music." Coupled with the already dramatic qualities of her poems-their high romantic passions, their startling frankness about sexual matters, their wry humor-and her striking physical presence, this voice helped to make Millay one of the first celebrity artists of the twentieth century, someone whose popularity was rivaled only by the film stars emerging on the scene at about the same time. In our own era, we might liken Millay to Madonna. Like Madonna's, Millay's identity and style were hard to pin down. The power of her personal presence and the emotive force of her language could make her poetry seem utterly sincere and disturbingly intimate. Contrarily, her heightened rhetoric, allusions to earlier literature, and multiple personae could suggest the most studied of performances. In the almost one hundred years since her poetry first came to public notice, Millay has been praised and condemned for both qualities.
This volume reprints Millay's early poems and plays, published between 1917 and 1921, just as she was first "danc[ing] like a Bomb, abroad" (to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson). These texts helped to create the famous figure of the "girl poet," Edna Millay, and to shape the terms by which her work would be received for years to come.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on February 22nd, 1892, in Rockland, Maine, to Cora Buzzell Millay and Henry Tolman Millay. She acquired her middle name from St. Vincent's Hospital, where her maternal uncle had recently been treated, and throughout her life she was known to friends and family as "Vincent" rather than Edna. Along with her two younger sisters, Millay was encouraged by her mother to pursue literary and musical studies (one sister became an actress, the other a poet). When she was eight, Millay's parents divorced and she moved with her mother and sisters to Camden, Maine, where the girls were left alone for long periods of time while Cora Millay supported them by working as a traveling nurse. Much of Millay's early life reads like a version of Little Women: a missing father, a beloved but often absent mother, talented and affectionate sisters overburdened by domestic duties while dreaming of bigger things. Bigger things began to happen for "Vincent" Millay at an early age. She published her first poem in St. Nicholas Magazine for children (where Louisa May Alcott had also often published) when she was fourteen. In 1912, when she was twenty, Millay's mother encouraged her to enter a poetry contest sponsored by The Lyric Year, which promised publication to the best one hundred poems and cash prizes to the top three. Millay's submission, "Renascence," took fourth place, but the anthology's publication gave rise to a general outcry at Millay's not having received top honors. The subsequent notoriety and shows of support from more established poets doubtless benefited Millay more than the prize would have done. She was hailed as a poetic prodigy and "Renascence" was lauded for its spiritual freshness and dramatic power.
This youthful triumph led to a scholarship at Vassar College, where Millay received a broad education in classical and modern languages and distinguished herself as a poet, playwright, actress, and flouter of the college rules (she was almost prevented from graduating when she spent a weekend away from campus without permission). After taking her degree in 1917, Millay moved with her sister Norma to Greenwich Village, at the time a vortex of artistic experiment, radical politics, and free love. There, she supported herself by acting with the Provincetown Players and the Playwright's Theatre and publishing satirical prose in Ainslee's (a popular periodical) and Vanity Fair under the pen name Nancy Boyd. Her circle of acquaintances and lovers included many famous names of the period: Floyd Dell, John Reed, Max and Crystal Eastman, Elinor Wylie, Alfred Kreymborg, Eugene O'Neill, and Edmund Wilson. With her publication in 1920 of A Few Figs from Thistles (in which she famously claimed that her "candle burns at both ends"), the fantastic success of her anti-war play, Aria da Capo, the same year, and her public support of feminist and radical causes (such as the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti from execution), Millay became a symbol of feminism and youthful rebellion in the post-war period. In 1923, after traveling and living in Europe for two years, Millay returned to America to become the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize (for A Few Figs, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, and eight of her sonnets). Also in 1923, she married Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch importer and widower of the famous suffragist, Inez Milholland, and together they relocated to a farm near the Berkshires, which they named Steepletop. Among Millay's most well-respected works are Second April (1921), an opera entitled The King's Henchmen (staged to great acclaim by the Metropolitan Opera in 1927), the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview (1931), an experimental play entitled Conversation at Midnight (1937), and a final posthumous volume of poems, Mine the Harvest (1954), which contains some of her most memorable sonnets. Make Bright the Arrows (1940), and a radio play, The Murder of Lidice (1942), both written in support of the war effort, were, by Millay's own admission, more propaganda than poetry, and led to a steep decline in her reputation. After many years of debilitating illness, pain from an injury suffered in a car accident, and drug and alcohol dependency, Millay died in a fall down the stairs at Steepletop on October 19, 1950, at the age of fifty-eight.
"Renascence," the poem which launched Millay's career in 1912, and which reached an even broader audience when it was reprinted in Renascence and Other Poems in 1917, is still perhaps Millay's most well-known work (though in later years she lamented this fact). It sets in motion the central themes of her early work. Like many of Dickinson's poems, "Renascence" speaks from the grave, pitting the small self with its limitless imagination against an overwhelming world and an unfathomable deity. The poem begins with its speaker firmly bound by the physical world:
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands and a bay.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
The feeling of claustrophobia is palpable, and it intensifies as the speaker reaches out to touch the sky, only to find that such contact brings the sky down upon her in a kind of living burial: "I screamed, and-lo!-Infinity / Came down and settled over me." The speaker is shown an image of "Immensity," made to hear the "ticking of Eternity," and suffers as her own all the pain and guilt of a sinning world until she is glad to be freed of such sympathy through death. In "Renascence," overreaching is punished by a nightmarish access to experience of cosmic dimensions and the only escape from such overwhelming knowledge is the assertion of desire and will-here, in the form of a prayer that God will return her to life so that she may once again witness the wonders of nature. The poem ends with a moral about the necessity of the self's being equal to-or, as Whitman might say, "tallying"--the world:
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky-
No higher than the soul is high.
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
Than can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat-the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
The theme of the poem is, as in all of Millay's poetry, experience-a plea on behalf of "living large." Though "Renascence" was received by many as a religious or visionary poem, God's presence is less instrumental in its narrative than the speaker's own power to push back against the potentially crushing weight of worldly knowledge. Its voice is that of the repressed child reclaiming her birthright of egotism, asserting her appetite for experience. And the process the poem describes is precisely the process that the poem set in motion for its young author: it unburied her. From a childhood of impoverished duty and rural obscurity, Millay was suddenly thrust onto center stage of a very wide and rather unruly world. By the time Renascence and Other Poems appeared, Americans were embroiled in World War I, and Millay's youthful allegory of struggle and rebirth spoke to the hopes of a generation hungry for vital experience in the face of suffering and death.
The themes of experience, self-assertion, and naïve wonder which characterize its title poem are continued in several other poems in Renascence, such as "God's World" ("Oh world, I cannot hold thee close enough!") and "Afternoon on a Hill." Poems such as "Interim," "The Suicide," and "The Shroud" develop the elegiac note that would form a prominent strand of Millay's poetry throughout her career. "Witch-Wife" and "Bluebeard" illustrate the influence of fairy tales, especially on Millay's depictions of relations between men and women. As became her habit, Millay closed the volume with a cluster of sonnets (and this is notable for the way it gives precedence to the ballads and free-verse poems, using the more tightly crafted sonnets as a kind of envoi). One of these, in particular, demonstrates the skill with which, from early on, Millay could loosen the sonnet's form to accommodate narrative and modernize it with gritty details and vernacular phrasing. It also shows how much emotional power she could wring from understatement, when she chose to use it.
That you were gone, not to return again-
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor on a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man, who happened to be you,
At noon today had happened to be killed-
I should not cry aloud-I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place-
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face;
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
There are few poems which can equal this one's depiction of the impersonality of the modern city and the emotional vortexes which swirl beneath it.
A Few Figs For Thistles and Second April (both 1921) were conceived of by Millay as companion volumes, the first made up of light verse, the second of more weighty poems. However, Few Figs, with its sexy, insatiable, insouciant speakers, created such a flurry that it overshadowed the other book, and earned Millay a reputation for flippancy. The critics chided, and asked where the young Romantic of "Renascence" had gone, but her young public loved it and quoted its poems merrily all over New York and Paris: "We were very tired, we were very merry-- / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry" ("Recuerdo"); "And if I loved you Wednesday, / Well, what is that to you? / I do not love you Thursday--/ So much is true" ("Thursday"); "The fabric of my faithful love / No power shall dim or ravel / Whilst I stay here,--but oh, my dear, / If I should ever travel!" ("To the Not Impossible Him"). Such lines had never been heard from a woman poet before. Here was female sexuality so exuberant and unabashed that it played like innocence. Millay's speakers were women who loved love-"Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow! / Faithless am I save to love's self alone"--and the poems were about their own experience of passion more than about any one man who might afford the occasion for it.
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever....
In poems such as this, Millay manhandles the materials of the Renaissance carpe diem tradition in order to assert a woman's right to inconstancy and, tongue firmly in cheek, to bemoan the perishable beauties of men. Where earlier sonneteers such as Petrarch, Sidney, Wyatt, and Shakespeare used the opportunity to memorialize their mistress' beauties as a way of asserting the power and permanence of their own poems, Millay escapes from the woman's designated position as object (both sexual and poetic) in order to claim that her own unquenchable passions provide her with an inexhaustible fund of poetic material. Modern love is, she tells us, ephemeral. The desirous self panting for experience is the only constant thing.
Second April, though less popular with the public than A Few Figs, garnered much greater critical respect. It contains some of Millay's most effective nature poems, especially those that invoke the Maine landscape of her childhood, such as "Eel-Grass," "Low-Tide," "Exiled" (one of Millay's most musical poems), and "Inland" with its "water sucking the hollow ledges" and its waves "Spanking the boats at the harbor's head." In these poems, Millay's voice resembles that of Robert Frost in its particularity and precision regarding place. Here too are some of her most effective poems about death and the poignancy of time's passing: "Passer Mortuus Est" with its "little petulant hand" becomes "an annotation," and "Elegy Before Death" with its catalog of all the beautiful things that the death of the loved one will not alter, and its wonderfully quiet closing:
Little of beauty not your own,--
Only the light from common water,
Only the grace from simple stone!
Notable as well is the series "Memorial to D.C." written in memory of Millay's Vassar classmate, Dorothy Coleman, with its combination of classical allusion and homely detail (the dead girl's closet full of unworn shoes, the memory of her "indefinite-coloured hair"). The volume closes with twelve sonnets, among which are some of Millay's finest, such as "Into the golden vessel of great song" and "Not with libations, but with shouts and laughter." These sonnets, unlike the "child poems"-"Renascence," "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," "The Bean-Stalk"--speak in a seasoned voice, at once learned and impassioned, whose tonal modulations and formal finesse represent the very best of Millay's style. They demonstrate the emotional depths and rich ironies which could be achieved by the modern woman's appropriation, rather than mere imitation, of a traditionally masculine form.
Millay's involvement with the theater as playwright, director, and actress complemented both the theatrical and historical tendencies of her poetry. Though the plays she wrote as a teenager were set in modern times, the ones she wrote in college and immediately after, three of which are reproduced in this volume, were all verse dramas based on medieval and Renaissance models. Two Slatterns and a King (1920), first produced in 1919 by the Provincetown Players, is a light farce modeled on medieval morality plays, in which a king sets out to marry a model housewife. Through the machinations of Chance (the narrator), Tidy, who is usually fastidious, lets her house go to ruins on the day the king visits; Slut, who is typically a slattern, decides to clean up as a novel amusement, and ends up winning the king's hand. Though the explicit moral is that no-one can control chance (and, of course, good housekeeping is all about control), the submerged moral seems to be a feminist one: men's attempts to control and reward women's virtue (terms such as "Slut" and "slattern" suggest that sexual virtue is at issue) will inevitably backfire, since women can appear to be what they are not (that there are "two slatterns" suggests that no women are truly "chaste").
The Lamp and the Bell (1921), a quasi-Renaissance pageant commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the Vassar College Alumni Association, is, like Two Slatterns, a kind of fairy tale. Modeled on "Rose White and Rose Red," it tells the tale of two step-sisters divided by a jealous mother and a disloyal man, who nonetheless remain loyal to one another. Though some commentators dismissed the play as a "lesbian" allegory, its theme of female solidarity-and its enormous cast of courtiers, pages, and soldiers-suited its occasion, and its leavening of Elizabethan atmosphere and wit with modern attitudes showcased Millay's talent for reworking historical modes. Like many women writers both before and after her (Christina Rossetti, Marianne Moore, and Anne Sexton, to name a few), Millay found the fairy tale an apt vehicle, in both plays and poems, for revisiting cultural assumptions about gender, virtue, and power.
Aria da Capo (1920), Millay's most admired play, was the hit of the 1919-1920 season at the Provincetown Playhouse, where it was directed by Millay and starred her sister Norma in the role of Columbine. The play combines elements of commedia dell'arte and theater of the absurd into an effective anti-war allegory. In the play, two lovers, Pierrot and Columbine, exchange silly banter as they dine sumptuously. But when they leave the stage, two shepherds enter and are directed by Cothurnus (a Fate-like figure), to enact their own scene, though the set is not appropriate and they have difficulty remembering their parts. Their scene requires that they play at building a wall between themselves out of paper ribbon; when one discovers jewels on his side of the wall, and the other discovers water, each of which they refuse to share, their game turns earnest and leads to mutual slaughter. When Pierrot and Columbine return to discover the bodies, and object that they cannot continue their part of the play with dead bodies onstage, Cothurnus urges them to shove the bodies under the table, reassuring them that "the audience will forget." The play's title, which refers to a musical direction to repeat, suggests that the trivialities of everyday social life, and the senseless eruptions of greed and violence being enacted alongside them, will continue their cycle without end as long as the witnesses to history are willing to forget. While the petty misunderstandings of the lovers seem to be a distraction from the tragic conflict between the shepherds, the play's placing of them together on the same set suggests that the daily battles between men and women may be more than incidentally related to the impulses which lead to war, an idea which prefigures the argument made by Virginia Woolf in her feminist anti-war manifesto, Three Guineas.
Though Millay is one of the most beloved-and most often memorized-of modern poets, the critical assessments of Millay's work have never equaled the passionate admiration of her fans. There are a number of reasons for this. First, in an era in which many poets were experimenting with innovative forms and throwing off rhyme and meter, Millay continued to employ the themes and structures of earlier Renaissance and Romantic verse. While this practice rendered her poetry recognizably "poetic" to a general audience, it led many avant-garde writers and critics to conclude that her work was merely derivative or old-fashioned, a remnant of the conventional literary practices which modernism was attempting to overthrow. Second, at a time when poems such as T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" or Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" were depicting the modern subject as alienated or nihilistic and attempting to distance poetry from its source in the poet's private feelings, Millay spoke directly to the topic of love-heterosexual, homoerotic, platonic, and communal-in poems which foregrounded the personal and the emotional. Third, as many poets of the early twentieth century moved away from explicit engagement with social and political questions, towards poetry as a purely aesthetic realm, Millay persisted in using both her poetry and her plays to address questions of war, injustice, and gender inequality. And, finally, while many modernists were cultivating an elite coterie of readers through increasingly difficult styles, Millay wrote universally accessible and wildly popular poems which many readers perceived to be speaking directly to and of their own experiences (in the midst of the Depression, Wine From These Grapes sold over 66,000 copies in seven months). For all of these reasons, literary historians have found it difficult to place Millay as a modernist poet, often seeing her instead as a holdover from earlier Romantic or sentimental poetic modes or as a precursor of late twentieth-century popular culture with its marketing of "personalities."
As with any celebrity artist, the fascination of Millay's private life (her famous bohemianism, her sexual allure) has been difficult to disentangle from the value of her works and their cultural significance. This is a potential trap for any lyric poet, given that lyric is the literary genre most dependent upon the illusion of a speaking voice and a personal presence. But it is has proved a particularly vexing problem for women poets, who are too often considered first as women, subject to society's expectations regarding womanly attributes and behavior, and only secondarily as poets. Millay's life excited interest in her poems, and often competed with them for attention. But the sense that the poems give unmediated access to the poet's life has tended to diminish readers' appreciation for Millay's erudition and superb craftsmanship, the imaginative range of her works, and the extent to which the conventions of various literary forms such as the ballad, the sonnet, and the elegy help to determine the kinds of identities the speakers of her poems can effectively adopt. Moreover, the emphasis on Millay's poems as merely personal effusions has long obscured the fascinating ways in which these poems both shaped and were shaped by early twentieth century cultural attitudes about poetic authority, women, sentiment, and sex.
However, in recent decades, the increasing prominence of women writers has generated a desire to re-examine the achievements of literary precursors such as Millay. In addition, feminist approaches to literature have enabled new ways of thinking about women artists' conflicted relationships to the decidedly masculine rhetoric of modernism, and have helped to broaden our sense of the variety of poetic practices in play in the early twentieth century. We now realize that there was more than one way of "making it new." Where early critics often devalued Millay's poems as too "feminine," contemporary critics find both historical and aesthetic value in the feminine (and feminist) perspectives which they bring to questions of sexuality, power, and poetic inheritance. Perhaps most significant for a revaluing of Millay, her performability (the theatrical readings, the borrowed forms, the role-playing as Helen or Isolde) may no longer strike readers as insincere, but rather as the very embodiment of the postmodern self. Madonna may, oddly enough, have given us back Millay
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