Wednesday, February 22, 2017

BIRTH | Feb. 22, Edna St Vincent Millay

Eugen Boissevain and Millay (1923-1949),
at sea.
Edna St Vincent Millay
Wrote poems that paid her way.
Though no longer so treasured today,
For mourners, her poems show the way.
Clerihew by JT Marlin.
On this day in 1892, the poet later known as Edna St. Vincent Millay was born "between the mountains and the sea" in Rockland, Maine. 

She was named Edna Vincent Millay by her mother, a nurse and not a poet.

Millay's name was originally three spondees (a plodding long-long meter). Edna was known as "Vincent" as a child, and enjoyed the excuse to be a tomboy. She was given the name because of St Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. Millay added "St" to the middle name to make her name into two elegant dactyls (long-short-short) and a truncated spondee.

One of three daughters of a divorced mother, Millay learned from her mother independence and self-reliance. She began publishing poetry in high school. 

When Millay was 19, her mother saw a poetry contest in a magazine called The Lyric Year and encouraged Millay to enter. In 1912, the year she turned 20, her poem “Renascence” appeared in it. Her poem, "Renascence," came in fourth, but the second-prize winner offered her his $250 prize. Millay drew the attention of a benefactor, Caroline Dow, who made it possible for Millay to attend Vassar. She wore men's clothes, wrote and starred in a play called The Princess Marries the PageThe year she graduated, in 1917, her first volume of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems, appeared.

Millay headed to Greenwich Village after graduation, just in time for the Jazz Age. She said: "People fall in love with me and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me." Millay lived a glamorous life as a writer and actress in Greenwich Village. She was one of the first women to write openly about her many lovers. She never, however, seems to have been tempted to leave the caring arms of her husband Eugen.

For a while she lived at 75½ Bedford Street, a house that is just eight feet wide, the narrowest house in New York City, known now as "The Millay House." 

Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1923) for her book, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver. That year she married my mother's uncle Eugen Jan Boissevain, who decided to devote himself to looking after her because she was not well. He was previously married to Inez Milholland in a very different marriage although with both wives he announced in advance that he would forgive them in advance for any affairs they had. Inez died in 1916 and in the next seven years Eugen and his two Dutch brothers became wealthy from importing coffee from Java, then a Dutch colony. 

Eugen bought for Millay a big house in Austerlitz, New York that she called "Steepletop". They built a cabin where she could write and cultivated the gardens. Steepletop has a bathing pool (I have been there) and Millay and her husband enjoyed swimming in the nude. Once a bumblebee alighted on a private part of Eugen's anatomy and in characteristically quick-witted moment Millay quoted from the first line of the song in Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1.

She gave readings all over the country that her husband organized in a businesslike way, selling her books and charging fees. She is said to be only one of two people who made a living from her poetry in the 20th century (W. H. Auden was the other).

A passionate advocate of civil liberty, she wrote poems in support of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists condemned to death for robbery and murder. She was arrested and jailed for protesting their trial. In the 1930s, she wrote anti-totalitarian poetry for newspapers, as well as radio plays and speeches.

Millay died in 1950. Eugen had died the previous year from cancer, and she succumbed to the addictions (alcohol, morphine) that from time to time dominated her life. The Austerlitz postmistress found Millay lifeless at the foot of the stairway at Steepletop. 

A lovely memory of her father by Katherine Vaz calls on several quotations from Edna St. Vincent Millay to feed her melancholy mood. 

The memory is a couple of years old but was just posted on Jennifer Pastiloff's Manifest-Station blog.

Perhaps her most famous poem was the short one: "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!" 

Here's another poem: 


We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold
We were very tired, we were very merry
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-
       covered head,
And bought a morning paper which neither of us
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and
and we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

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