Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
Contributing Editor: John J. Patton
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students have few problems reading Millay's poetry because the poet is forthright in expressing her emotions, ideas, and experiences. Obviously such references as those to Euclid and Endymion require explanation. Occasionally the diction needs some explication because of Millay's fondness for archaic and Latinate words.
Not much more is required than the teacher's ability to clarify some allusions and an occasional word or phrase. Any teacher of modern American literature should also have no problems with the references to city life and to issues of the times, which are generously sprinkled throughout Millay's work. As for accessibility, some benefit will come from placing Millay in the context of the poetry of the 1920s and 1930s as one of those like, for instance, Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, and Edward Arlington Robinson, who carried forward the more traditional verse form and techniques in the face of the experimentalism of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Millay also wrote on subjects that have a long history in English verse--the natural scene, romantic love, impermanence and death, and even poetry itself and the poet. Some students may therefore possibly view her as "old-fashioned" in contrast to the more experimental poets of her time. What must be emphasized is that Millay and other technically conservative poets flourished alongside the "New Poets," the modernists, and similar poets and that they produced poetry with less emphasis on intellectualization and more on overt feeling. It is characterized by forthrightness of expression, clarity of diction, and avoidance of ambiguity and of the esoteric and erudite as a source for figurative language.
Millay is one poet in particular whose work benefits from being read aloud in order to do justice to its melodic qualities. In her own recording of some of her poems, Millay emphasizes the song-like nature of much of her verse. Teachers should play this recording for students or, of course, have them read the poems aloud themselves.
Students often raise gender issues. For example, they ask whether it makes any difference that the poet is a woman. Does gender show itself in any apparent way, allowing for those instances where the poet deliberately displays it as in the speaking voice used or the pronoun gender? How is Millay's stance as a "liberated" woman shown in her poetry if at all? Another issue is relevance. In what ways are Millay's poems relevant to today's lives? Are her concerns significant to present-day readers? Is it readily apparent that her poetry dates largely from the 1920s and 1930s?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Millay's interest in heterosexual relationships is a major theme in her poetry, whether between husband and wife, as in "An Ancient Gesture," or between disaffected lovers, as in "The Spring and the Fall." Few American poets in this century have written on this subject with the combined artistry and diversity of Millay. "Love is not all" and "Oh, sleep forever in the latmian cave" are from Fatal Interview, a fifty-two sonnet sequence that deals with the course of a love affair from beginning to end.
Millay should not, however, be associated exclusively with this kind of poetry. Another major theme is the integrity of the individual, which Millay valued highly for herself as well as for others. "The Return" describes a man who has apparently "sold out" in order to escape into the illusory "comfort" of nature. In "Here Lies, and None to Mourn Him" Millay is describing a humankind that has fatally compromised itself by, perhaps, a reliance on technology (others see it as a comment on war).
A related theme, the integrity of the artist, is touched on in "On Thought in Harness." Millay also had a high degree of social consciousness. She spoke out against the execution in 1926 of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, she wrote about the wars in Spain and China, and she devoted a volume of verse, Make Bright the Arrows, to concern about World War II. "Here lies, and none to mourn him" is one of an eighteen-sonnet sequence in this volume.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Millay's relationship to the poetry of her time should be discussed, as well as her antecedents in verse and her achievements in the sonnet and the lyric. Her immediate contemporaries include notably E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Edward Arlington Robinson. Millay, like Frost and Robinson, was a conservative in verse form and technique, a "traditionalist." Although highly aware of the work of her contemporaries, she steered clear of all "schools," such as imagists, modernists, objectivists, etc. Some critics place her in a line of descent from such late-nineteenth-century English poets as Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne.
A widely read person, Millay absorbed influences from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poets, hence her devotion to the sonnet form, in which she has no peer in all of American literature. The sonnet "His stalk the dark delphinium" is noteworthy because Millay uses tetrameter verse rather than the more common pentameter. Millay's lyrics display a wide variety of form. Students may gauge her breadth in lyric poetry by contrasting the mixed verse feet and line lengths in "Spring" and its abrupt turns of phrase with the melodic flow of "The Spring and the Fall" and its regularity of form.
Millay continues to appeal to a large audience, as shown by the publication in the fall of 1987 of a new edition of her sonnets, a volume of critical essays, and an annotated bibliography of secondary sources. A very large audience of readers in her own time admired her frequent outspokenness, her freshness of attitude, her liberated views as a woman, and the reflection in her poetry of an intensely contemporary sensibility. She is quintessentially modern in her attitude and viewpoint even if her language is often redolent of earlier poets. Although it is true that Millay's poetry has great appeal to women readers, she must not be either presented or viewed as writing solely for women because of the evident limitations it would place on appreciation of her accomplishment.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
To illustrate Millay's mastery of the sonnet, a comparison should be made with Keats as her nearest equivalent. Both display the same ease and control in the form. The sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney, for one, may be used to show Millay's historical connection with the great sonneteering tradition in English. Direct comparison with Shakespeare would be useful only to illustrate her range of achievement--181 sonnets in the new edition.
Millay's lyric poetry can be compared with that of several late-nineteenth-century English lyricists, such as Dowson, D. G. Rossetti, and Housman (Browning and Swinburne have already been mentioned).
Her relationship to older American poets is less clear. She seems to have been little interested in them. Commentators have related her work in ways to that of Emerson and Holmes and perhaps some of Whittier and Longfellow, but not at all to Whitman and Dickinson. As noted above, Millay stands apart from the experiments and innovations in verse in her own time. She should be more meaningfully compared with Robinson, MacLeish, Frost, and Masters, among others, who, while employing conservative prosodic techniques, expressed a contemporary point of view.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. "Spring": What is suggested about life by images of the empty cup and uncarpeted flight of stairs?
"The Return": Why is Earth not able to comfort the despairing Man?
"Here lies, and none to mourn him": What seems to have "cut down" Man (the human race)?
"Love is not all": Although love is not "all," would the poet easily give it up?
"On Thought in Harness": Explain the significance of the title with reference to the poem.
"Oh, sleep forever": Restate the last two lines in your own words.
"His stalk the dark delphinium": Explain why "all will be easier" when the mind grows its own "iron cortex."
2. The student who selects Millay could read more of her work and then write about a major theme in the work.
Another possibility is that a student might read further in her sonnets, read sonnets by others, e.g., Sidney, Donne, and Keats, and then write an analytical paper on differences and/or similarities in form, predominant subject matter, diction, etc.
The following items are recommended because most teachers should have little trouble in gaining access to them and they provide a cross section of opinion and comment:
Dash, Joan. "Edna St. Vincent Millay." In A Life of One's Own, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, 116-227.
Flanner, Hildergarde. "Two Poets: Jeffers and Millay." In After the Genteel Tradition, edited by Malcolm Cowley, 124-33. New York: W. W. Norton, 1937.
Gassman, Janet. "Edna St. Vincent Millay: 'Nobody's Own.' " Colby Library Quarterly 9 (1971): 297-310.
Gray, James. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967. Forty-six small pages provide a thoughtful overview.
Hillyer, Robert. "Of Her Essential Voice and Spirit." New York Times Book Review (15 April 1954): 5.
Kelmans, Patricia. "Being Born A Woman." Colby Library Quarterly 15 (1979): 7-18.
Salter, Mary Jo. "The Heart Is Slow to Learn." New Criterion (April 1922): 23-29.
Sprague, Rosemary. "Edna St. Vincent Millay." In Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1969. 135-82.
Walker, Cheryl. "Women on the Market: Edna St. Vincent Millay's Body Language." Masks Outrageous and Austere. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991. 135-164.
Wilson, Edmund. "Epilogue 1952: Edna St. Vincent Millay." In The Shores of Light, 744-93. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Young, 1952.