Monday, December 15, 2014

MILLAY | 4C. Edna St. Vincent Millay's Name [3]

Stuart Mitchner in a Town Topics post notes that the late St. Vincent's Hospital was "the grand old hospital that gave Edna St. Vincent Millay her middle name."

But when she was born on February 22, 1892, on George Washington's birthday, she was named Edna Vincent Millay, with no "Saint". Her parents thought it was a "pretty" name.

The fact that her original name didn't include the "Saint" doesn't make Mitchner wrong, but it makes the story more interesting and revealing. My late mother, who was Millay's niece by marriage (Eugen Boissevain married her in 1923, seven years after the death of his first wife Inez Milholland), told me Millay changed her middle name because she didn't think it was poetic.

Millay was right. Edna Vincent Millay adds up to three spondees - dash dash, dash dash, dash dash. Veddy bohdd-ing.

That makes her parents wrong, as well.

I looked in Nancy Milford's biography, Savage Beauty, to find out exactly when the "Saint" went marching into her middle name. There are four citations in the index about her name. One says that her parents thought her name was like a song. The second notes she was originally named Edna Vincent Millay and her parent thought the name "pretty". The third says she got into trouble in school for insisting that she be called "Vincent". I could not locate the fourth citation.

On some unrecorded (it seems) date, Millay changed her middle name when she became a poet. It doesn't require a formal document to change a middle name (I found that out when I married and gave up "Anthony" for my wife's maiden name "Tepper"). But it would be after "Renascence" (1912), which she signed as E. Vincent Millay - not much of an improvement over Edna Vincent Millay, although for purposes of the competition it disguised her gender. The poem won fourth place in the competition, but the first prizewinner and a second prizewinner both believed that her poem was better and said so.

When the poem "Renascence" was published by Harper Brothers in a collection by that name in 1917, the year Millay graduated from Vassar, it was over the name Edna St. Vincent Millay. So she added the "Saint" sometime from her senior year in high school to her senior year at Vassar.

Millay must have realized that by adding in the "Saint" she would get a name with a meter deserving of a woman who was the first of her gender to be awarded the Pulitzer prize for poetry (in 1923, the year she was married): dash dot dot, dash dot dot, dash - i.e., two dactyls and a truncated spondee. ED na saint VIN cent mil LAY. Now THAT is poetry.