Although only breath,
words which I command
—attributed to Sappho
I shall not wholly die...
—Horace, translated by Christopher Smart
What is it that makes some poets and poems seem candidates for immortality? What sometimes makes them targets of scorn later on? What do such questions have to do with poetry itself? Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), once the most loved and celebrated poet in America, was born and grew up in Maine, in a bookish and musical family headed by a single mother. As a girl she read all the poetry she could and became famous at nineteen for “Renascence,” a long ballad-like poem originally written in rhymed couplets, which begins with a scene of vista that is also limitation:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
“Renascence” moves through impassioned experiences of anguish and ecstasy, death and rebirth, and ends, in part, with an admonition:
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky—
No higher than the soul is high.
I would place “Renascence” alongside Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” both poems of spiritual journey and travail. Far from the then centers of literary power, the young Millay is playing for high literary stakes. The poem didn’t win the 1912 The Lyric Year contest she sent it to, but it was published in the anthology. The first- and second-place winners thought it should have won, and so did a crowd of others, including a local Maine woman who paid Millay’s tuition to Vassar, from which she catapulted herself to New York City and the bohemian life in 1917. There she fell in and out of love with men and women, composed plays as well as poems both scandalous and serious, became an icon of the Jazz Age and the liberated New Woman, won a Pulitzer at thirty-one, and began a career of sold-out poetry readings all over the country, supported by the kindest of husbands, the businessman Eugen Boissevain, who gave up his own career to manage hers and with whom she had what we would now call an open marriage.
What was Millay’s draw? Partly, audiences enjoyed the thrilling naughtiness of poems like “First Fig”:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
Many of her sonnets—with beginnings like “Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow,” or “I shall forget you presently, my dear,” or “I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex, / Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat”—are sparklingly dismissive of romance. In another sonnet, a speaker confesses herself “urged by your propinquity to find / Your person fair, and feel a certain zest / To bear your body’s weight upon my breast,” closing by remarking that the gentleman in question shouldn’t think her dislike for him will be seasoned by pity: “I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again.”
I enjoy the meticulously structured condescension in such poems. The poet wants the lover to understand that she is mainly interested in the sex, yet there is always a strain of regret that love inevitably lapses into loss or indifference. The mix of tones and attitudes deviates appealingly from the standard gendered playbook of Millay’s era—and ours. It is as if Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” were answered by “Frankly, my dear, in six months I won’t give a damn either.” At the same time, I cannot help but be seduced by the poems’ craft, by their beauty, by their dance with syntax and image and prosody as well as their courage.
The voice of regret animates one of Millay’s best-known poems, “[What lips my lips have kissed] Sonnet XLIII,” but within the body of this Petrarchan sonnet a complex and subtle metamorphosis takes place:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
In a poll I recently sponsored with the help of the Academy of American Poets, asking poets and poetry lovers to name their favorite Millay poem, “Sonnet XLIII” was the clear winner. I can see why, purely in terms of the poem’s form and feeling-laden metaphor. The octave begins almost like a sexual boast, then elides the sex in order to evoke a postcoital serenity that is then invaded by something between fear and yearning. The “quiet pain” may be for the “lads” for whom she is almost motherly, or for herself, no longer needed by such lads. The extended metaphor in the sestet picks up the suggestions of time and nature in “morning,” “rain,” “midnight,” to specify a “winter” that is both environmental and emotional. The tree could be like one of those ghosts tapping and sighing at the window. It has consciousness—and here is one of Millay’s signal traits—she is always endowing living things with consciousness, knowing, and feeling, which makes her a brilliant forerunner of today’s ecological poetry. The tree is Millay’s speaker, and she is the tree. The “arms” of the “lads” become boughs of a tree. The life of a woman mirrors the life of a tree, which is quite different from the conventional poetic trope frequently found in poems by men, of woman as fast-fading flower. “Sonnet XLIII” begins in careless youth and ends in careful age. And at the back of the stage is a screen representing mortality, as the “cry” becomes birdsong, then becomes summer itself, that fructifying force felt by the poet as music, then fades to black.
Many of Millay’s best sonnets, composed in sequences to lovers, endorse the ancient ideal of love as a form of sacred energy. In “[Love is not all; it is not meat nor drink] Sonnet XXX,” another of her most popular poems, the poet lists the things love is useless for, then makes a ninety-degree turn:
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
The sound here is as essential as the imagery: say these lines and listen for the inconspicuous alliteration, assonance, consonance, and off-rhyme—“thickened” and “breath,” “clean” and “bone,” “blood” and “bone,” “many” and “man” and “making,” “friends” and “death,” and “lack” and “love” and “alone.” Listen to the music. I have known that poem by heart, as we say, since I was fifteen or sixteen. I did not have to consciously memorize it; it was always simply there when I needed it, like many of Millay’s poems, because of the music. Only just last week did I realize that these last two lines, “Many a man is making friends with death, / Even as I speak, for lack of love alone,” which sound a bit sentimental, can also be read as plain fact. At a moment in our loveless society when suicide rates are climbing ever upward, can we say she is wrong? Millay’s assertion can stand beside William Carlos Williams’s claim for poetry that “men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Poetry. Love. What is found there, in both, is something we may call Beauty.
What most intrigued me in my polling experiment was how many different kinds of poems seemed to be readers’ “favorites.” As the subtleties of Millay’s poems multiply on rereading, so does her range, commonly misconstrued as narrow. Early on, the joy of poems like “Recuerdo,” which begins “We were very tired, we were very merry, / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,” exemplify the poet’s youthful exuberance. But the love poems branch out into poetry of the natural world, its precisely evoked seasons, weeds and flowers, trees, birds, ocean, and the basis of all things in mathematics: “Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.” The sonnets of her 1931 book Fatal Interview (Harper & Brothers) sold an amazing 60,000 copies in the midst of the Great Depression and are as exact in their natural observations and use of classical myth as in their erotic moods. The poems branch into recurrent meditations on death and grief, as in the defiant “Dirge Without Music.” A low-key but astonishing sequence of seventeen “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” chronicles months in the grim daily life of a farm woman who has come to tend a dying husband from whom she has been estranged, “loving him not at all.” Another sequence, “Epitaph for the Race of Man,” prophesies human extinction amid cosmic evolution.
Along another branch still, the poems are political. In August 1927 Millay demonstrated at the Boston State House against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and was arrested along with Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Lola Ridge, and other writers. She lobbied the governor of Massachusetts for pardons for Sacco and Vanzetti, in person and by scathing public letter. Her headline-grabbing poem “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” published by the New York Times on the day before the execution, angrily envisions Americans “leaving to our children’s children… a blighted earth to till with a broken hoe.” The urgency of this poem, with its parody of T. S. Eliot’s “Let us go…” and its evocation of biblical curses dooming a corrupt society, made it widely admired—much as Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was ubiquitous after 9/11. At the same time, it signals her increasing engagement in poems around political issues. She wrote as a pacifist during World War I, with poems like “Conscientious Objector” and a satiric verse play performed by the Provincetown Players. By the time of World War II she was writing what she herself considered “propaganda” attacking fascism and supporting the Allied nations.
Shakespeare speaks of “the bubble reputation.” Millay is a case in point. “The Murder of Lidice,” a 1942 radio play mourning the destruction of the Czech town by German forces, made her a kind of poet as social heroine. She went, as it were, viral. But popularity can be a kiss of death for poets, especially women poets. Millay had been praised as the best writer of sonnets since Keats and as the greatest woman poet since Sappho. Allen Tate thought her “the one poet of our time who has successfully stood athwart two ages.” Edmund Wilson wrote that she was “one of the only poets writing in English in our time who have attained to anything like the stature of great literary figures.” In England, A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy admired her. However, in the age of T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s literary ascendancy, sonnets were passé, as were traditional forms in general. As was love—and emotion in general. In the grip of modernism, what Keats called “the true voice of feeling” was nigh strangled to death. Millay was warm, hot, sometimes seething. Modernism was cool. Millay was personal, modernism was impersonal. Critics condescended to her poetry as old-fashioned. In a 1938 essay on Millay titled “The Poet as Woman,” John Crowe Ransom explains that “man distinguishes himself from woman as intellect,” and that “the limitations of Miss Millay” are evident in “her lack of intellectual interest,” more precisely defined as “deficiency in masculinity.”
One other factor was influential in the critics’ bursting of the Millay bubble. I remember vividly a freshman Introduction to Poetry course, taught by a young instructor obviously just out of graduate school, who told us that we should not like Edna St. Vincent Millay, essentially because (though he did not use exactly these words) she slept around. No fooling. I remember just where I was sitting, two-thirds back from the front row, in the small classroom. I was shocked and awakened. By now it is taken for granted that women have been at a disadvantage in the world of poetry, and a scan of the field tells us that until an eyeblink ago women poets with sex lives tended to be stopped at the gate. Too much emotional intensity, unfashionable use of traditional form, irritating focus on issues of social justice, and the threatening obtrusiveness of sex—four strikes and Millay was definitely out.
“We think back through our mothers,” as Virginia Woolf famously said. I think Edna St. Vincent Millay should be seen as one of our poetic mothers, along with poets like H. D. and Muriel Rukeyser. Swept under the rug of modernism and disdained in MFA programs, a renascent Millay looks surprisingly current. She sounds a lyrical battle cry for women’s freedom, for social justice, for the nuances of human emotion, and for the loveliness our monetized culture has trashed, embodying it as she does (to choose but one instance) in “[This is mine, and I can hold it],” a poem on the song of a thrush:
It is not so much the tune
[...] going suddenly higher
Than you expect, and neat, and something like the nightingale dropping
and throbbing very low.
it is not so much the notes, it is the quality of the voice,
something perhaps to do with over-tone
And under-tone, and implication....
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2019 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2019 by Alicia Ostriker and the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.