By C. O. H. Gifford
Edna St Vincent Millay was born on Broadway here in Rockland 125 years ago. She was a rock star of her time and one of the country’s most popular poets. Her work is characterized by direct expression, lucidity, and the shunning of vagueness. Such candor and clarity would be of great value today, with the proliferation of alternate facts and weasel words.
Just after WWI, she embraced the concept “of a free and equal society” Her play,_Aria da Capo (1919)_portrays a theatre where the play becomes real: those “acting” are ultimately murdered because of greed and suspicion. The action repeats endlessly._
In_A Few Figs from Thistles (1921)_she expressed the postwar feelings of young people; their rebellion against tradition, and their mood of freedom. These sentiments found voice in the famous opening poem,_“First Fig,”_beginning, “My candle burns at both ends.” Prudence, respectability, and constancy were deprecated throughout. This cavalier attitude in the sonnets was new, presenting the woman as player in the love game no less than the man and frankly accepting biological impulses in love affairs. “Rarely since Sappho,” wrote Carl Van Doren,_had a woman “written as outspokenly as Millay.” Harriet Monroe_said of_The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver_(1922 – Pulitzer Prize 1923), “How neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Woman…!”_
In 1927 Millay became inflamed by the Sacco and Vanzetti case. She later asserted that the affair made her “more aware of the underground workings of forces alien to true democracy.” Her article_“Fear” (1927) lashed out against the callousness of humankind and the “unkindness, hypocrisy, and greed” of the elders.
Fatal Interview_(1931) expresses a woman’s point of view utilizing Shakespearean/Elizabethan poetic architecture. Critic_Allen Tate pointed out_that Millay used a nineteenth-century vocabulary to convey twentieth-century emotion: “She has been from the beginning the one poet of our time who has successfully stood athwart two ages.”
Wine from These Grapes_(1934) contained no personal love poems. An eighteen sonnet sequence,_“Epitaph for the Race of Man,”_ends the volume in an unflinching way. She describes the slow disappearance of the human race from far past to distant future. She concludes that Man will die by his own hand, since no disasters over time have persuaded us to live with Nature rather than apart from Nature:
“Man, doughty Man, what power has brought you low,
That heaven itself in arms could not persuade
To lay aside the lever and the spade
And be as dust among the dusts that blow?
Whence, whence the broadside? Whose the heavy blade?…
Strive not to speak, poor scattered mouth; I know.”
For a while “Modernism” reigned, making the poetry of Millay and other poets of her generation seem dated. But the growing spread of feminism and environmentalism rekindled interest in her work, and she is again recognized as a highly gifted writer who spoke her mind freely, upholding societal and individual freedom, and possessing a deep reverence for life.
For more about Edna, has a Millay Festival in Rockland this September featuring a round table with four of her biographers.
“Take up the song; forget the epitaph.”
Chuck Gifford will Join us this Wednesday from 5 to 6 pm on WRFR’s Rockland Metro Show, for a conversation about Millay’s relevance today. Join us in the ether, and call in with your thoughts. WRFR broadcasts on 93.3 fm Rockland and 99.3 fm Camden, and streams online at
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