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Essay

Working Girl

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s most enduring muse was her heart, but her brains and strong work ethic transformed her into a literary sensation.

It isn’t easy to even think about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s body of work without also thinking about her—well—actual body. This is entirely her doing. Born in Maine in 1892, she was blessed with not only uncommon genius but the romantic Gibson Girl looks prized by her era—winsome face, comely curves, heavy masses of auburn hair—and she wasn’t afraid to use them. In the spring of 1912, just 20, she put the finishing touches on her epic poem “Renascence” and submitted it to the prestigious Lyric Year poetry contest. When the editor, a man, responded with a letter praising her verse, she replied with a photograph of herself. He asked if he could keep it.

Let’s just say Millay placed fourth in the Lyric Year poetry contest but won the war. Published alongside the victors in a commemorative anthology, her poem incited a public sensation that biographer Daniel Mark Epstein ranks on par with that of “The Waste Land” and “Howl”: readers fought the verdict in letters and newspaper columns; the winner recused himself from the awards banquet. In 1917 Millay’s first book, Renascence and Other Poems, made her the muse and celebrity of Greenwich Village bohemia, and as fans of her poetry are well aware, she took so effortlessly to the neighborhood’s progressive sexual politics that she fast became its emissary. Millay wasn’t the first woman to tell a lovesick man to just get over it (“And if I loved you Wednesday, / Well what is that to you? / I do not love you Thursday— / So much is true”), but she may have been the first to publish a poem in a respected literary journal saying so. Indeed, she had so many lovers that she hardly took the time to differentiate them in her poems, much to the disgruntlement of her conquests, who’d hoped for at least a compensatory brush with immortality. Those brave or foolish enough to propose marriage—most famously Edmund Wilson—consoled themselves with her friendship, and even learned to return it in kind; it was Wilson who bankrolled Millay’s European sojourns, on Vanity Fair’s dime.

Millay’s untouchability wasn’t a pose. She kept a close watch on her heart, tracking its every surge and plunge, until her deeply felt subjectivity was her most powerful creative instrument. She was fearless with it, tripping up and down the tonal scales to evoke the slightest fluctuation in mood—defiant, wistful, exuberant, indifferent—and as anyone who has spent a significant stretch of time in and out of relationships knows, romantic experimentation is a moody business. “I’ve been a wicked girl,” she confides in “The Penitent,” in which she tries to muster up guilt for some unnamed “little Sin,” fails, decides to “put a ribbon on my hair / To please a passing lad,” and finally concludes that “if I can’t be sorry, why, / I might as well be glad!”

A generation of “new women” just beginning to flex their own personal agency needed exactly such a voice, and her use of familiar, traditional forms—she was partial to rhyming couplets and the sonnet—helped deliver her version of female independence to a public newly ready to receive it. Millay became so famous so fast it’s commonly reported that in 1923 she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In fact, she was the third. But who beyond poetry scholars remembers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer?

Millay’s reach was remarkable, particularly in an age before television. Biographer Nancy Milford recounts how, after winning the Pulitzer, Millay started traveling around the country giving readings to packed auditoriums, and for her audiences, whatever line may have existed between her life and her art was completely obscured by these performances. Onstage she appeared an astonishing creature, a real live New Yorker and honest-to-god poetess who looked and played the part: loose velvet robes dwarfed her pale, tiny frame, making her resonant voice with its clipped consonants and plummy vowels seem all the more dramatic in comparison. By then she was bobbing her hair, and after her visit to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the campus newspaper noted that the percentage of bobbed hairstyles among students shot up from 9 percent to 63 percent.

In a 1924 essay, Poetry’s Harriet Monroe went so far as to venture “that a certain living lady may perhaps be the greatest woman poet since Sappho.” She was kidding, sort of. After narrowing history’s roster of woman poets to Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson, Monroe argues that Millay stands apart for the way “she has courted life and shunned none of its adventures.” The danger, she writes, “is that life might lure her away from art,” and continues:

The complications of a hunted human soul in these stirring days—the struggle for breath, for food and lodging, the pot-boilers, the flirtations, the teasing petty trials and interruptions—how could the poet in her survive all these, and put out fresh flowers of beauty?

What Monroe understood about the importance of Millay’s influence is something that’s easily dwarfed by the poet’s reputation for sexual adventuring: she was a self-made woman with an extraordinary work ethic who managed to live her life on her wits—a rare achievement for either gender.

Even in the boho-friendly Manhattan of the 1910s and ’20s, poetry was a profession most easily undertaken by those with means. Millay came from nothing. At Coe College, she had read the poem that won her the Pulitzer, “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,” a strange, haunting elegy about a single mother too poor to buy clothes for her young son. When winter comes, they burn the furniture for heat, until all that’s left is her “harp with a woman’s head / Nobody will buy” and “a chair we couldn’t break.” The night before Christmas, the freezing boy cries himself to sleep and dreams that his mother picks up her useless harp to spin and weave him sumptuous gold and red garments. When he wakes, she is frozen dead, “And piled up beside her / And toppling to the skies, / Were the clothes of a king’s son, / Just my size.”

The poem is completely unlike the odes to urban romance most commonly associated with Millay, but it, too, is drawn directly from life—albeit an early period not quite as famous as her later exploits. Millay was raised by a single mother who left her incompetent husband for being more trouble than her three small daughters, at a time when there was absolutely nothing acceptable about being unmarried or divorced. Cora Millay was fiercely intelligent and hardworking. She made her living traveling through Maine selling her services as a practical nurse and hair weaver (hence the harp and the clothes), which required leaving her daughters alone at home for long stretches. The only house she could afford was in the poor section of town, at the foot of Mount Battie, where the itinerant millworkers lived. According to Milford, Millay wrote explicitly about these experiences only once, in a notebook where she describes herself and her sisters “flinging themselves against the front door, to close it and bolt it” against the unfamiliar men lurking outside. It wasn’t much of a girlhood. But it imbued Millay with a steely resourcefulness made sharper by frustrated ambition.

There certainly wasn’t any money for college, so after Millay graduated from Camden High School in 1909, she stayed home writing poems and confiding her dissatisfactions to her journal. It was during this period that she drafted the epic, 214-line “Renascence,” which uses the topography of that little coastal burg—the mountains and bay islands and apple trees—to dramatize one woman’s spiritual oppression and mystical rebirth. Maine can get forbiddingly grim in winter, and it’s tempting to imagine the young poet sick with thinking she’ll never leave that godforsaken place, desperate to get out of the house at least, heroically pulling on her boots, trudging through the freezing slush, and eventually winding up at the local five and dime, idly flipping through a movie magazine. The year is 1912. There’s a big spread on the latest hit, The New York Hat, starring “America’s Sweetheart” (actually Canadian) Mary Pickford. It’s a silly film, about a girl and a hat. But what Millay sees is her more-or-less reflection. She and Pickford were born the same year. Like Millay, Pickford was barely over five feet tall and rarely exceeded 100 pounds, with a winsome face and masses of hair—“luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity,” as one film critic put it. Millay pays for her hot cocoa and hurries back home, seed planted; soon enough, she’ll send that fetching portrait to the editor of the Lyric Year poetry contest.

That little scene is an invention, of course—I made it up. But there’s something potent in the idea of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mary Pickford shining at opposite reaches of the same celestial firmament. In the 1910s, women were entering the public sphere in greater numbers just as the publishing and entertainment industries were gaining momentum, to mutually beneficial effect. Pickford, too, was raised in poverty by a single mother, and used her beauty and acting talents as her ticket out, inaugurating one of modern America’s most enduring fairy tales. Millay represented a different narrative, a touch more Horatio Alger: brains and hard work could turn rags into riches.

The turning point in Millay’s story is so good as to seem apocryphal. In August 1912, three months after the poet had submitted “Renascence” to that Lyric Year contest, her sister Norma invited her to the end-of-season staff party at Camden’s Whitehall Inn, where Norma worked as a waitress. There was dancing and a masquerade competition, and then everyone gathered around the piano to sing. Norma asked her sister to recite “Renascence.” Picture the poet again, this time face flushed, loosened tendrils of hair forming a blazing bronze halo. The room is packed with friends and neighbors, everyone in high spirits, pressing cool glasses of punch against their brows or pulling up a chair to rest for a spell. As Millay’s voice rises above the crowd, the excited chatter and clinking glasses hush into a long, unbroken silence, until nothing but her words can be heard in the still, warm night:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.

Among the spellbound onlookers was an erstwhile fairy godmother in the shape of a middle-aged woman named Caroline B. Dow. She was so impressed with Millay’s talent and presence that she visited Millay and her mother the following day. As Millay recorded it in her diary: “Miss Dow (Caroline B.) called;--dean of New York Y.W.C.A. Training School. Wealthy friends in New York who might send me to Vassar.” All Millay had to do was apply. In September 1913 Millay was enrolled in the freshman class.

Four years at an elite all-women’s college not only fostered Millay’s formidable intellectual capacities but provided a testing ground for the romantic swashbuckling to come. She threw herself into campus cultural life, starring in plays, publishing poems, and cultivating her already magnetic personality into a persona that proved irresistible to a captive pool of young women ripe for seduction. (Millay was a notorious heartbreaker even then.) By the time this country mouse graduated and moved to the city, Greenwich Village must have felt as daunting as a stroll across campus to the dining hall.

So it comes as some surprise that Millay’s salad days as an unfettered urbanite were relatively short: six years in all. On July 18, 1923, a few months after her Pulitzer was announced, Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch importer 12 years her senior. That afternoon five New York newspapers announced the news, three on the front page, one with the headline “Famous Love Lyricist Belies Her Own Philosophy by Marrying”—surely capturing the sentiments of more than a few disappointed fans. But the newlyweds were hardly conventional. Boissevain, who considered himself a feminist, was an enthusiastic helpmate to his legendary wife, and contentedly took on all of the domestic chores so that she could write; by now she was even penning plays. Their open marriage even ensured that she could continue to indulge her most enduring muse, her heart; indeed, her 1931 sonnet collection, Fatal Interview, was inspired by her long-term love affair with Poetry’s third editor, George Dillon, which Boissevain encouraged from the sidelines.

Detractors complain about Millay’s late work, which includes an overage of admittedly mediocre political poetry. Some go so far as to blame this decline on her marriage. But where is it decreed that a writer must burn with unflagging intensity from the start of her life until it’s finished, exhausting herself on the flames of our attention? A 1936 car accident left Millay with severe nerve damage, chronic pain, and, ultimately, a morphine addiction; meantime, she began turning her passions outward, to the world stage. By the late 1930s, outraged by the worsening situation in Europe, she was waging her own war against isolationism with poems and public appearances. As for Boissevain’s role in this so-called demise—well, in spite of Millay’s medical problems, the two had what appears to have been a mostly satisfying 26 years together, farming an estate they called Steepletop in upstate New York, and later spending summers on their own tiny Ragged Island in Casco Bay, Maine, until he died in 1949, and she the year after. Throughout, she wrote and she wrote and she wrote. In this way, she never stopped being herself.

  • Kate Bolick is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and contributes regularly to Elle, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate, among other publications. Previously, she was culture editor of Veranda, executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for The Boston Globe Ideas Section. A recipient of...

Essay

Working Girl

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s most enduring muse was her heart, but her brains and strong work ethic transformed her into a literary sensation.
  • Kate Bolick is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and contributes regularly to Elle, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate, among other publications. Previously, she was culture editor of Veranda, executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for The Boston Globe Ideas Section. A recipient of...

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