Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay

20th Century Poet

Edna St. Vincent Millay
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Edna St. Vincent Millay was a popular poet, known for her Bohemian (unconventional) lifestyle. She was also a playwright and actress. She lived from February 22, 1892 to October 19, 1950. She sometimes published as Nancy Boyd, E. Vincent Millay, or Edna St. Millay. Her poetry, rather traditional in form but adventurous in content, reflected her life in dealing forthrightly with sex and independence in women. A nature mysticism pervades much of her work.

Early Years

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1892. Her mother, Cora Buzzelle Millay, was a nurse, and her father, Henry Tolman Millay, a teacher.

Millay's parents divorced in 1900 when she was eight, reportedly because of her father's gambling habits. She and her two younger sisters were raised by their mother in Maine, where she developed an interest in literature and began writing poetry.

Early Poems and Education

By the age of 14, she was publishing poetry in the children's magazine, St. Nicholas, and read an original piece for her high school graduation from Camden High School in Camden, Maine.

Three years after graduation, she followed her mother's advice and submitted a long poem to a contest. When the anthology of selected poems was published, her poem, "Renascence," won critical praise.

Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1914
Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1914. Library of Congress /  public domain

On the basis of this poem, she won a scholarship to Vassar, spending a semester at Barnard in preparation. She continued to write and publish poetry while in college, and also enjoyed the experience of living among so many intelligent, spirited, and independent young women.

New York

Soon after graduation from Vassar in 1917, she published her first volume of poetry, including "Renascence." It was not particularly financially successful, though it won critical approval, and so she moved with one of her sisters to New York, hoping to become an actress. She moved to Greenwich Village, and soon became part of the literary and intellectual scene in the Village. She had many lovers, both female and male, while she struggled to make money with her writing.

Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edmund Wilson with signs and a mannequin at Millay's home, 75 1/2 Bedord Street, Greenwich Village, New York City; Millay's husband, Eugen Boissevain sits behind them
Edna St. Vincent Millay is in front of her Greenwich Village home with Vanity Fair editor Edmund Wilson at right and her husband Eugen Boissevain behind them. Library of Congress /  public domain

Publishing Success

After 1920, she began to publish mostly in Vanity Fair, thanks to editor Edmund Wilson who later proposed marriage to Millay. Publishing in Vanity Fair meant more public notice and a bit more financial success. A play and a poetry prize were accompanied by illness, but in 1921, another Vanity Fair editor arranged to pay her regularly for writing she would send from a trip to Europe.

In 1923, her poetry won the Pulitzer Prize, and she returned to New York, where she met and quickly married a wealthy Dutch businessman, Eugen Boissevain, who supported her writing and took care of her through many illnesses. Boissevain had earlier been married to Inez Milholland Boissevain, dramatic woman suffrage proponent who died in 1917. They had no children.

Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband Eugen Boissevain embarking for Spain in 1932.
Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband Eugen Boissevain embarking for Spain in 1932. Bettmann / Getty Images

In following years, Edna St. Vincent Millay found that performances where she recited her poetry were sources of income. She also became more involved in social causes, including women's rights and defending Sacco and Vanzetti.

Later Years: Social Concern and Ill Health

In the 1930s, her poetry reflects her growing social concern and her grief over her mother's death. A car accident in 1936 and general ill health slowed her writing. The rise of Hitler disturbed her, and then the invasion of Holland by the Nazis cut off her husband's income. She also lost many close friends to death in the 1930s and 1940s. She had a nervous breakdown in 1944.

Edna St. Vincent Millay is standing in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1941.
Edna St. Vincent Millay is standing in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1941. Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

After her husband died in 1949, she continued to write, but died herself the next year. A last volume of poetry was published posthumously.

Key works:

  • "Renascence" (1912)
  • Renascence and Other Poems (1917)
  • A Few Figs from Thistles (1920)
  • Second April (1921)
  • The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923)
  • The King's Henchman (1927)
  • The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (1928)
  • Fatal Interview (1931)
  • Wine from These Grapes (1934)
  • Conversation at Midnight (1937)
  • Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939)
  • Make Bright the Arrows (1940)
  • The Murder of Lidice (1942)
  • Mine the Harvest (published 1954)

Selected Edna St. Vincent Millay Quotations

• Let us forget such words, and all they mean,
as Hatred, Bitterness and Rancor,
Greed, Intolerance, Bigotry.
Let us renew our faith and pledge to Man
his right to be Himself,
and free.

• Not Truth, but Faith it is that keeps the world alive.

• I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.

• I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much I will not map him
the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living
That I should deliver men to death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me.
Never through me shall you be overcome.
I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death.

• Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.

• The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.

• God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on thy heart!

• Don't stand so near me!
I am become a socialist. I love
Humanity; but I hate people.
(character Pierrot in Aria da Capo, 1919)

• There is no God.
But it does not matter.
Man is enough.

• My candle burns at both ends...

• It is not true that life is one damn thing after another. It’s one damn thing over and over.

• [John Ciardi about Edna St. Vincent Millay] It was not as a craftsman nor as an influence, but as the creator of her own legend that she was most alive for us. Her success was as a figure of passionate living.

Selected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Afternoon on a Hill

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!

Ashes of Life

Love has gone and left me, and the days are all alike.
Eat I must, and sleep I will - and would that night were here!
But ah, to lie awake and hear the slow hours strike!
Would that it were day again, with twilight near!

Love has gone and left me, and I don't know what to do;
This or that or what you will is all the same to me;
But all the things that I begin I leave before I'm through -
There's little use in anything as far as I can see.

Love has gone and left me, and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse.
And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
There's this little street and this little house.

God's World

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, -- Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, -- let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

When the Year Grows Old

I cannot but remember
When the year grows old --
October -- November --
How she disliked the cold!

She used to watch the swallows
Go down across the sky,
And turn from the window
With a little sharp sigh.

And often when the brown leaves
Were brittle on the ground,
And the wind in the chimney
Made a melancholy sound,

She had a look about her
That I wish I could forget --
The look of a scared thing
Sitting in a net!

Oh, beautiful at nightfall
The soft spitting snow!
And beautiful the bare boughs
Rubbing to and fro!

But the roaring of the fire,
And the warmth of fur,
And the boiling of the kettle
Were beautiful to her!

I cannot but remember
When the year grows old --
October -- November --
How she disliked the cold!

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).