By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was a poet, playwright, andfeminist, who enjoyed considerable success during the ‘Roaring Twenties’. As A. Mary Murphy notes in The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry, Millay’s poetry books sold in the sorts of numbers we usually associate with fiction rather than poetry.
Despite her popularity, however, she is often left out of ‘serious’ literary-critical discussions of American poetry: neither Peter Jones’s Guide to 50 American Poets nor Michael Schmidt’s vast Lives of the Poets even mentions her.
Millay was also out of key with the literary modernism of her time: while her contemporaries Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) were embracing fragmentation, free verse, and literary experimentation, Edna St. Vincent Millay often – though not always, it should be noted – preferred to write in more traditional forms, such as the sonnet.
You’ll find several sonnets on the list that follows, which is our attempt to select and introduce ten of Millay’s essential poems.
1. ‘What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, And Where, And Why’.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning …
This is Sonnet XLIII, and sees Millay using the Petrarchan sonnet form, not to praise a beloved, but to talk about all of the previous lovers she has now forgotten: all she has now are the ‘ghosts’ of those ‘lads’ who once shared her bed, and her ‘summer’ – or prime – appears to be over.
The poem is mournful, a lament for lost youth, but is also a poem about finding oneself alone when one was once so popular and sought-after.
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus …
One of Millay’s best-known free-verse poems (she tended to opt for fixed forms in the majority of her poetry), the 1923 poem ‘Spring’ expresses a variation on the sentiment which T. S. Eliot more famously expressed in The Waste Land when he asserted, ‘April is the cruellest month’.
Here, Millay’s speaker cannot welcome the return of spring – look at the choice of adverb, ‘stickily’, to describe the new leaves opening – perhaps because the recent war has made the continuation of life seem almost perverse: the poem later speaks of the ‘brains of men’ being eaten by ‘maggots’.
3. ‘Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare’.
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves …
Although not one of Millay’s best-known poems, for our money this 1920 poem is one of her best uses of the sonnet form which she utilised so well for a variety of purposes. Here, the topic is beauty, viewed from an unconventional angle: the classical mathematician Euclid, whose work uncovered the ‘beauty’ of angles.
4. ‘Love Is Not All’.
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again …
In this 1931 poem, Millay discusses some of the necessities of life, contrasting these with love: a luxury and a bonus rather than one of the essential components of living. The poem shows Millay’s unsentimental approach to life, and love, which underscores all of her very best work, and makes her truly modern (if not ‘modernist’).
Look out for the devastating final line, with its full-stop mid-line (what’s known as a caesura, or mid-line pause) and the strong-willed final six words of the poem.
5. ‘Dirge without Music’.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned …
Death is hard to accept, and when we lose loved ones, it is difficult to let go of them. The ‘wise and the lovely’ must die, too – but Millay asserts, ‘I am not resigned.’ Not does she approve of death taking ‘the intelligent, the witty, the brave’.
The poem rails against death’s callousness but also refuses to give in to it, even though it is inevitable that all that is mortal must die. Once again, Millay eschews sentimentality in favour of tough-minded stoicism.
And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday—
So much is true.
And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday,—yes—but what
Is that to me?
Here’s a short Millay poem that’s brief enough to reproduce in full here. It sees the female speaker bluntly telling her lover that, whilst she loved him yesterday, today she loves him no more.
Once again, the poem emphasises the value of the moment, the fleeting quality of love, and the need to accepting of this fact. A kind of ‘anti-love poem’ which still acknowledges that love is real – just not long-lasting?
I’ll keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest,
Wherein all grey-eyed people
May set them down and rest.
There shall be plates a-plenty,
And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
Who happen up the hill …
Here’s a slightly different Millay poem which recalls the ballad metre (albeit with slightly shorter first and third lines of each stanza) and expresses the speaker’s wish to open a tavern for ‘grey-eyed people’: travellers needing a place to rest as they ‘happen up the hill’.
Is the poem a metaphor for life itself, that ‘uphill struggle’, as we say, or journey, which we all make? And does the tavern, then, symbolise the very human desire to look after others and be a part of the wider community?
8. ‘Time Does Not Bring Relief’.
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide …
This is one of Millay’s best-known poems, which once again cuts through some of the received wisdom offered by many other poets – in this case, on the subject of grief.
Millay brilliantly highlights how we avoid places that remind us – overwhelmingly – of those we have lost, ending with a poignant paradox: in order to avoid being reminded of him by visiting his familiar haunts, she goes somewhere he never set foot, declaring that he never came here – and so starts thinking of him again …
9. ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’.
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast …
This is one of Millay’s best-known sonnets. It’s a love poem, although not a conventional one. The form of the poem is also a curious choice given Millay’s subject-matter: the Petrarchan sonnet form is associated with unconsummated, courtly love, but here, Millay explores her indifferent feelings towards a lover whom she has bedded and then grown tired of.
10. ‘First Fig’.
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.
Originally untitled, this quatrain is perhaps Millay’s single most quoted poem, and it’s brief enough to be quoted in full here. Millay certainly did burn the candle at both ends: she was a prolific writer and had a full and very busy social (and personal) life.
On this fine note, we’ll conclude our pick of Millay’s best poems, but there are many more gems to be discovered: we recommend her Collected Poems, if you’d like to read more of her work.