|Edna St. Vincent Millay|
She was America's favorite poet during an era when a poet was considered absolutely one of the best things you could be.
She made a living out of being a poet, the only woman in 20th century USA who did.
One of three daughters of a divorced nurse, Millay learned independence and self-reliance early, and transmitted those qualities to her poetry. She began publishing poetry in high school. In 1912, the year she turned 20, her poem “Renascence” appeared in a literary review and drew the attention of a benefactor who made it possible for Millay to attend Vassar. The year she graduated, in 1917, her first volume of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, appeared.
Millay moved to New York City, where she was one of the shining lights in Greenwich Village. One of the first women to write shamelessly about her lovers, Millay had numerous affairs–with younger poets or with other writers like Edmund Wilson–before and after her marriage. In 1920, her famous poem “First Fig” includes the lines:
My candle burns at both ends, It will not last the night.Millay’s frenetic life style, fueled by alcohol and an addiction to morphine that followed her hospitalization, wore her out. She traveled to Europe for a long rest in 1921. In 1923 she published The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, for which she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
But ah my foes, and oh, my foes, It gives a lovely light.
That year she met for the second time my great-uncle Eugen at a party in Harmon-on-Hudson (on the first occasion Edna was with her sister Norma and Eugen was not impressed with Norma). They married when she was 31. He gave up his active role in the family coffee-importing business business to devote himself to Millay as her business manager, butler and nurse.
They (he) bought a 600-acre farm in Austerlitz, N.Y., which they called Steepletop. I have visited it. There Millay continued to write verse and plays and the libretto for an opera that was performed to rave reviews in New York City. She was arrested and jailed for supporting Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists condemned to death for murder. In the 1930s, she wrote anti-Nazi poetry for newspapers, as well as radio plays and speeches. She had a nervous breakdown in 1944 and did not write for two years after it. Eugen died in 1949. Edna had another nervous breakdown and died at 58, either from a heart attack or from falling down a flight of stairs the following year; she was discovered by the local postmistress.
In the second half of the 20th century, she went out of favor in some university poetry programs because she is considered "too easy" for university study. But I can provide two answers to that put-down.
First. Dorothy Parker said: "Beautiful as she was, Miss Millay did a great deal of harm with her double-burning candles. She made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But, of course, we couldn’t." The full quote is here.
Second. The Dad Poet (David J. Bauman) has written a wonderful exegesis of Millay's poetry, after a birthday weekend in honor of Millay two years ago. He observes that for much of Millay's poetry, the easy reading is often the wrong reading.
Even the short poem for which she is most famous, "I burn my candle at both ends...", presents more than one meaning. In one succinct nugget it displays the battle between her rational understanding of her situation and her inability to do anything about it.
- She lives an impassioned life.
- She knows the consequences - her life will be shortened.
- But she is deaf to the worries of her friends and complaints of her enemies.
- She will persist in her passion because she is like a moth, and must go to the flame.
Edna the Queen Bee of Ragged Island
Edna met her husband Eugen's first wife Inez when she came to speak at Vassar as an alumna. In 1928 she dedicated to Inez a poem she had written previously, in 1923, after her marriage and operation. I am a fan of Eugen as well as his very-different and both-wonderful wives.
|Edna and Eugen - Anemone and The Rock.|
Eugen's first wife Inez Milholland died tragically in 1916 and he threw himself into his business importing coffee from Java with his two Dutch brothers Robert and Jan.
It was a good time to buy and sell coffee from Java, and for a while the Boissevain brothers had special access because Java was a Dutch colony through WW2. Eugen became a wealthy man in the interwar years and was able to retire soon after he married.
He wanted to look after Edna, who was constantly sick, and help her manage her literary affairs in a way that would capitalize on her fame and generate income for them both. This became important after 1929) She is said to have been the only female in the 20th century to have made a living from her poetry, the other poet to have done so being W. H. Auden. All the other poets had day jobs to put food on the table.
Ten years after they were married, they purchased Ragged Island in Casco Bay, Maine. In a previous century it was called Cold Arse Island. My mother, Eugen's niece, had good information about Eugen's activities because Eugen's sister Olga, my Granny, was living with us in Washington, D.C. at the time.
Edna decided that she should be the Queen Bee of Ragged Island, the only female allowed. She told Eugen that he was not to invite any other woman, or allow any other woman, to come on the island. My mother told me that Eugen asked Edna:
"Even Norma?"Norma was Edna's sister, younger by one year. She did not have Edna's talents, or even the talents of their younger sister Kathleen, but she envied Edna's fame and many friends. Kathleen, who had literary aspirations along Edna's lines, was four years younger than Edna and shared a portion of Edna's literary capability. She was also apparently was less of a clinging vine to Edna than Norma. It was about Kathleen that Edna wrote her famous letter to her mother Cora in which she said that if her sister wanted to publish a book of her poetry, she knew what she was getting in for. Kathleen was a grownup and could do as she damned pleased, she said, foolhardy though it might seem to her mother. Kathleen sadly died at 47 in 1943, seven years before her Edna. Her literary papers are available in four parts at the New York Public Library; in a word, she did not come close to Edna's success. Norma's triumph was to outlive them both.
Edna answered Eugen:
"Especially Norma!"(My mother told me that Eugen was asked frequently to protect Edna from Norma's threatened visits to Steepletop. Norma surely resented Eugen's being the gatekeeper and on the maps of the Austerlitz "Millay Estate", which Norma occupied after Eugen died in 1949 and Edna in 1950, there is no mention of Eugen. The place where Eugen is buried, next to Edna, was labeled on the maps "The Millay Graves". I hope that the Millay Colony has rectified this erasure of the name of Edna's husband, caretaker and patron. In fairness to Norma, there were many others who resented Eugen. No less a person than Edmund Wilson, in his book on The Twenties, cannot conceal his astonishment that he would be rejected by Edna as spouse material in favor of Eugen, whom he describes as "a Dutch importer". I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Wilson when he was living in Cambridge, Mass. in the early 1960s with Mary McCarthy.)
Ragged Island today is not inhabited, at least year round. It provides a home for nesting seabirds, including the eider duck, black guillemot, greater black-backed gull, herring gull and osprey. It was the subject of a well-regarded 1914 watercolor by John Marin in which the island and the water are juxtaposed in an innovative way that is described as creating "vertigo".
The island when purchased was described as occupying 85 acres. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant program in 2008 awarded a $323,000 Coastal Wetland grant to secure seabird-nesting protection of the 77-acre (310,000 square meters) natural area. So the island has eroded, or the area was measured differently the second time.
John Felstiner wrote about Steepletop and Ragged Island in The American Poetry Review Vol. 36, No. 3 (May-June 2007), 45-48. "There, there where those black spruces crowd": To Steepletop and Ragged Island with Edna St. Vincent Millay. My wife Alice and I have on our bucket list visiting Ragged Island and other haunts of young Edna, and her mother and sisters.