This Day In Literary History
On February 22nd, 1892, the legendary American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine. Her unusual middle name, St. Vincent, was given to her in honor of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, where her uncle's life had been saved shortly before she was born.
Edna and her two sisters were raised by their mother to be independent and outspoken feminists. Edna's strong feminist convictions developed at a very young age. She was often angered when she or other girls received unequal treatment compared to boys.
In elementary school, she often angered her principal with her frank opinions on gender inequality. When she asked him to call her Vincent - a boy's name - he refused, but instead of calling her Edna, he called her by girls' names that began with the letter V.
After several years of separation, when Edna was twelve, her mother divorced her father for his financial irresponsibility. The family lived in poverty and moved from place to place. When she started high school, Edna began developing her writing talent.
Soon, her poetry appeared in her high school magazine and in other literary magazines. At the age of 14, she was awarded the Gold Badge for her poetry by St. Nicholas Magazine, a then famous and progressive literary and art magazine for children.
Around this time, Edna came to understand and accept her bisexuality, and she would remain openly bisexual throughout her life. In 1912, when she was twenty years old, Edna St. Vincent Millay first became famous - for losing a poetry contest.
She had entered her classic poem Renascence in a poetry contest held by The Lyric Year magazine and was awarded fourth place. The decision proved scandalous for the magazine. Its readers were shocked.
The other poets who had entered the contest were also shocked - and embarrassed - as they considered Renascence to be the best poem. The first place winner, poet Orrick Johns, said of his first prize, “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." The second place winner offered to give Edna his $250 prize money.
Not long after the contest debacle, Edna gave a poetry reading and piano recital in Camden, Maine, at the Whitehall Inn. Among those attending the event was Caroline Dow, director the New York YWCA National Training School. She was so impressed that she offered to pay for Edna's tuition at Vassar College. So, at the age of 21, Edna began her college education.
After she graduated in 1917, Edna moved to New York City's Greenwich Village and took up the life of a bohemian poet, having affairs paramours of both sexes, immersing herself in the culture of the Village, and writing some of her best poetry.
Her classic poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles, published in 1920, courted controversy with its feminist themes and meditations on female sexuality.
In 1923, Edna won the Pulitzer Prize for her poem, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. That she year, she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, with whom she had fallen in love. She was 31 years old and he 43. His late wife, Inez Millholland, was a labor lawyer and war correspondent whom Edna had known in Greenwich Village.
Edna and Eugen would remain together for 26 years, until his death in 1949. Eugen supported his wife's career and took care of the household. They maintained an open marriage, each having lovers on the side. One of Edna's lovers was George Dillon, a young poet 14 years her junior for whom she would write several sonnets.
In 1925, Edna and her husband bought Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York. The 500-acre estate had been a blueberry farm. They built a barn, a writing cabin, and a tennis court on their new estate, and Edna started a garden where she grew her own vegetables.
During World War II, Edna found herself criticized for the pacifist themes in her poetry. Years before, she had written Aria da Capo, (1921) an antiwar one-act play in verse.
Now, as critic Merle Rubin observed, "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism." Edna had also written poems about Nazi atrocities committed during the war.
In 1943, Edna became the sixth person (and the second woman) to be awarded the Frost Medal, a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to American poetry. Her husband died of lung cancer in 1949.
A year later, Edna St. Vincent Millay fell down her staircase at home and was found dead eight hours later. The autopsy revealed that she actually died of a heart attack, which had caused her to fall down the stairs. She was 58 years old.
After Edna's death, her sister Norma and her husband, painter Charles Ellis, moved into Steepletop. In 1973, they set aside some of the estate's vast acreage and established the Millay Colony for the Arts, which they would run until Norma died in 1986.
One of Norma's closest friends was Mary Oliver, a teenage poet who had moved into Steepletop and lived there for seven years. A huge fan of Norma's sister Edna, whose papers she would help organize, Mary would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, as her idol had done before her.
Edna St. Vincent Millay remains a major influence on American poetic voice.
Quote Of The Day
"You see, I am a poet, and not quite right in the head, darling. It’s only that." - Edna St. Vincent Millay
Today's video features a rare recording of Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her classic, Pulitzer Prize winning poem, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. Enjoy!