Edna St.Vincent Boissevain-Millay: American poet and playwright

Edna St Vincent Boissevain-Millay was born in Rockland, Maine on 22nd February, 1892. Cora St Vincent Millay raised Edna and her three sisters on her own after her husband left the family home. When Edna was twenty her poem, Renascence , was published in The Lyric Year . A wealthy woman named Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poetry and offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College.

In 1917, the year of her graduation, Millay published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. After leaving Vassar she moved to Greenwich Village where she befriended writers such as Floyd DellJohn Reed and Max Eastman. The three men were all involved in the left-wing journal, The Masses, and she joined in their campaign against USA involvement in the First World War.

Millay also joined the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman’s wharf at the seaport of Provincetown was turned into a theatre. Millay was considered a great success as Annabelle in Floyd Dell’s The Angel Intrudes. In 1918 Millay directed and took the lead in her own play, The Princess Marries the Page. Later she directed her morality play, Two Slatterns and the King at Provincetown.

In 1920 Millay published a new volume of poems, A Few Figs from Thistles. This created considerable controversy as the poems dealt with issues such as female sexuality and feminism. Her next volume of poems, The Harp Weaver (1923), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poety. The writer, Dorothy Parker wrote: “Like everybody else was then, I was following in the footsteps of Edna St Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers…. We were all being dashing and gallant, declaring that we weren’t virgins, whether we were or not. 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.”

Floyd Dell recalls how he was attending a party at the home of Dudley Field Malone and Doris Stevens, when he saw Edna meet Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of Inez Milholland: “We were all playing charades at Dudley Malone’s and Doris Stevens’s house. Edna Millay was just back from a year in Europe. Eugene and Edna had the part of two lovers in a delicious farcical invention, at once Rabelaisian and romantic. They acted their parts wonderfully-so remarkably, indeed, that it was apparent to us all that it wasn’t just acting. We were having the unusual privilege of seeing a man and a girl fall in love with each other violently and in public, and telling each other so, and doing it very beautifully.”

The couple married in 1923. They lived at a farmhouse they named Steepletop, near Austerlitz. Both were believers in free-love and it was agreed they should have an open marriage. Boissevain managed Millay’s literary career and this included the highly popular readings of her work. In his autobiography, Homecoming (1933), Floyd Dell commented that he had “never heard poetry read so beautifully”.

In 1927 she joined with other radicals in the campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The day before the execution Millay was arrested at a demonstration in Boston for “sauntering and loitering” and carrying the placard “If These Men Are Executed, Justice is Dead in Massachusetts”.

Later Millay was to write several poems about the the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. The most famous of these was Justice Denied in Massachusetts . Her next volume of poems, The Buck and the Snow (1928) included several others including Hangman’s Oak , The Anguish , Wine from These Grapes and To Those Without Pity. Floyd Dell, a long-term friend, said of her: “Edna St. Vincent Millay was a person of such many-sided charm that to know her was to have a tremendous enrichment of one’s life, and new horizons… Edna Millay was to become a lover’s poet. But with some of her poems she was also to give dignity and sweetness to those passionate friendships between girls in adolescence, where they stand terrified at the bogeys which haunt the realm of grown-up man-and-woman love, and turn back for a while to linger in the enchanted garden of childhood. She had a gift for friendship. People try to draw a distinction between friendship and love; but friendship had for her all the candor and fearlessness of love, as love had for her the gaiety and generosity of friendship.”

In 1931 Millay published, Fatal Interview (1931) a volume of 52 sonnets in celebration of a recent love affair. Edmund Wilson claimed the book contained some of the greatest poems of the 20th century. Others were more critical preferring the more political material that had appeared in The Buck and the Snow.

In 1934 Arthur Ficke, asked Edna St. Vincent Boissevain-Millay to write down the “five requisites for the happiness of the human race”. She replied: ” A job – something at which you must work for a few hours every day; An assurance that you will have at least one meal a day for at least the next week; An opportunity to visit all the countries of the world, to acquaint yourself with the customs and their culture; Freedom in religion, or freedom from all religions, as you prefer; An assurance that no door is closed to you, – that you may climb as high as you can build your ladder.”

Millay’s next volume of poems, Wine From These Grapes (1934) included the remarkable Conscientious Objector , a poem that expressed her strong views on pacifism. Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939) also dealt with political issues such as the Spanish Civil War and the growth of fascism.

During the Second World War Millay abandoned her pacifists views and wrote patriotic poems such as Not to be Spattered by His Blood (1941), Murder at Lidice (1942) and Poem and Prayer for the volume entitled Invading Army (1944).

Eugen Jan Boissevain died in Boston on 29th August, 1949 of lung cancer. Edna St Vincent Boissevain-Millay was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Steepletop on 19th October 1950.

By John Simkin (john@spartacus-educational.com) free content published by Spartacus Educational

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