Hating the constraints laid upon her by patriarchy, and finding those constraints present in the president of Vassar, where she was then a sassy undergraduate, Edna St. Vincent Millay challenged the man to expel her. He replied, "And have a banished Shelley on my doorstep?" Her, perhaps apocryphal, rejoinder: "On those terms, I think I can continue to live in this hell hole."
As "a spokesman for the human spirit," as Edmund Wilson called her, a phrase under which she must have bristled, Millay gave her most-famous attention to the most archetypal of human concerns: love and death. Collected Sonnets, published in 1941 and compiling work from over twenty-three years and ten books, is a testament to her twinned obsessions.
Her lovely sonnet "Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink" proceeds as William Shakespeare’s "My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun" in defining, by way of negation, what her love is. Ever subversive, Millay enlisted the sonnet—and its intrinsic tension between form and content, its status as the most revered of her culture’s literary traditions—to battle all things preconceived, all constraints.
"A free woman of her age," she wrote openly of her many affairs, her bisexuality, and her independence as a woman. One can hear the permission given to women of the era to ignore gender boundaries in Millay’s sonnet, "I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed."
Although Millay's work has been devalued over the last few decades, in part because she bucked the tide of Modernism, it is hard today to fathom the scope of her popularity in the 1920s and 1930s: she spoke for an age.