Isle of Lesbos : Poetry : Historical : Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay
1892-1950

Edna St. Vincent Millay, twentieth-century poet and playwright, was best known for her lyrical poetry. She wrote many poems in traditional sonnet form, on topics such as love, fidelity, erotic desire, and feminist issues. What isn't as widely publicized is that she also acknowledged herself as bisexual and had many affairs with women before her marriage. It's not clear if she continued sexual involvements with women after marriage (though it is quite possible), nor is it clear which of her poems are written about women rather than men.

She grew up in a different sort of family--past the age of seven, her father wasn't present, as her mother (Cora) asked him to leave. Cora was a nurse who encouraged Millay (called Vincent by her close friends) and her sisters in musical and literary pursuits. Millay was brought up to be self-sufficient and was taught that ambition was good, an upbringing reflected in her accomplishments of later years.

At her mother's encouragement, Millay entered her poem "Renascence" into a poetry contest and won fourth placed. When the poem was published, she gained literary recognition and earned a scholarship to Vassar. At Vassar, she continued to write poetry and became involved in theater. In 1922 one of her plays--The Harp Weaver--was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Throughout her years at Vassar, Millay shared her affection with women. At one point, she was approached by Wynne Matthison, a British actress who kissed Millay and invited her to her summer home. They exchanged letters, and in one Millay wrote: "You wrote me a beautiful letter,--I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was.--I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love...When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to You." She was involved with other women during this time, and years later, continued writing affectionate letters to some of them.

In 1922, Millay published a book of poetry called A Few Figs from Thistles In this volume, she described female sexuality in a way that gained her much attention, as she put forth the idea that a woman has every right to sexual pleasure and no obligation to fidelity.

Vassar commissioned her to write a verse play, and so she wrote The Lamp and the Bell, a story of two devoted stepsisters (Bianca and Beatrice) who are separated by a male suitor. This play, more than any of her others, has a strong undercurrent of lesbian love. In fact, Millay modeled Bianca after Charlotte Babcock, a woman she was infatuated with. She includes a line in the play where a character, remarking on the stepsisters, says, "I vow I never knew a pair of lovers/ More constant than these two."

After college, Millay went to Greenwich Village, continuing her involvement with poetry and the theater. She began to take men as lovers, as well. Floyd Dell was her first male lover, and according to his memoirs, he felt it was his duty to rescue her from her homosexuality. He was disappointed when she continued affairs with women after her relationship with him. In an interview he commented, "It was impossible to understand [Millay]....I've often thought she may have been fonder of women than of men." He proposed marriage; she refused.

In Great Companions, Max Eastman relates an interesting story about Millay that, if true, reveals her something of her attitude about own sexuality. According to Eastman, while at a cocktail party Millay discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist. He asked her, "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional impulse toward a person of your own sex?" She responded, "Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual, too, but what's that got to do with my headache?"

In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist. Their marriage was agreed to be sexually open, though little is known about how she conducted her personal life once they married. She claimed he allowed her personal freedom and that they lived like "two bachelors." She wrote a great deal while married. Eugen managed her literary career, setting up readings and public appearances. The were together until his death in 1949. Millay died the following year of heart failure.

Biography by Alix North

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Selected Works

Witch-Wife

From Renascence:

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun `tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.

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From A Few Figs From Thistles:

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I am save to love's self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now;
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger's rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you--think not but I would!--
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.

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From Second April:

Into the golden vessel of great song
Let us pour all our passion; breast to breast
Let other lovers lie, in love and rest;
Not we,--articulate, so, but with the tongue
Of all the world: the churning blood, the long
shuddering quiet, the desperate hot palms pressed
Sharply together upon the escaping guest,
The common soul, unguarded, and grown strong.
Longing alone is singer to the lute;
Let still on nettles in the open sigh
The minstrel, that in slumber is as mute
As any man, and love be far and high,
That else forsakes the topmost branch, a fruit
Found on the ground by every passer-by.

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Sonnet: VII

From Fatal Interview:

Night is my sister, and how deep in love,
How drowned in love and weedily washed ashore,
There to be fretted by the drag and shove
At the tide's edge, I lie-these things and more:
Whose arm alone between me and the sand,
Whose voice alone, whose pitiful breath brought near,
Could thaw these nostrils and unlock this hand,
She could advise you, should you care to hear.
Small chance, however, in a storm so black,
A man will leave his friendly fire and snug
For a drowned woman's sake, and bring her back
To drip and scatter shells upon the rug.
No one but Night, with tears on her dark face,
Watches beside me in this windy place.

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Sonnet XXVIII

From Fatal Interview:

When we are old and these rejoicing veins
Are frosty channels to a muted stream,
And out of all our burning their remains
No feeblest spark to fire us, even in dream,
This be our solace: that it was not said
When we were young and warm and in our prime,
Upon our couch we lay as lie the dead,
Sleeping away the unreturning time.
O sweet, O heavy-lidded, O my love,
When morning strikes her spear upon the land,
And we must rise and arm us and reprove
The insolent daylight with a steady hand,
Be not discountenanced if the knowing know
We rose from rapture but an hour ago.


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Where to Read More...

  • Portrait of Millay
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay Biography with a link to selected works.
  • The Life and Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second April (Project Gutenberg)
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, Renascence and Other Poems From The New Bartleby Library.
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (Celebration of Women Writers)
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Few Figs from Thistles (Celebration of Women Writers)
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, Collected Sonnets (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, Selected Poems (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991)
  • Norman A. Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982)
  • Anne Cheney, Millay in Greenwich Village (University: University of Alabama Press, 1975)
  • Joan Dash, A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married (New York: Harper & Row, 1973)
  • William B. Thesing, Editor, Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: G.K. Hall, 1993)
  • Cheryl Walker, Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991)

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