Biography Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay

photo of Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Time Period1892 - 1950
  • PlaceRockland
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in 1892 in Maine, grew to become one of the premier twentieth-century lyric poets. She was also an accomplished playwright and speaker who often toured giving readings of her poetry. All of that was in her public life, but her private life was equally interesting. An unconventional childhood led into an unconventional adulthood. She was an acknowledged bisexual who carried on many affairs with women, an affection for which is sometimes evident in her poems and plays. She did marry, but even that part of her life was somewhat unusual, with the marriage being quite open, and extramarital affairs, though not documented, are quite probable.

At the young age of seven, Edna's mother asked her husband to leave the family home. After that point he held a negligible role in the girl's life. Edna and her two sisters moved, with their mother, to Newburyport, Massachusetts where, to Edna's delight, she was given piano lessons. Edna (who insisted on being called Vincent and who even entered writing contests under that name) and her sisters were encouraged in their literary and musical leanings by their mother. Then, in highschool, Millay's interests expanded to include theatre. She performed in numerous plays and wrote a Halloween play for her classmates to act out.

Millay enjoyed her free-spirited childhood and adolescence and the creativity that it inspired. At the age of twenty, she entered her poem "Renascence" into a poetry contest for the The Lyric Year, a contest from which 100 poems were to be chosen to be published. It was, at first, overlooked as being too simplistic, however, one of the judges took a second look at it and the poem, now one of her most well known, ended up winning fourth place. It was that poem which really started her on her literary career, beginning with a scholarship to the then all female college of Vassar.

Millay kept up her writing, both poetic and dramatic while at Vassar. It was during this time that she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Harp-Weaver and other Poems.

Millay's first book of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems was published in 1917 and well received. Then A Few Figs from Thistles was published in 1922 and sparked some attention as well as controversy with its feminist leanings. In particular the poems within maintained that the sexual freedom formerly commandeered by men was equally valid for women. This feeling is particularly obvious in the sonnet beginning "What lips my lips have kissed,".

Keep in mind that all of this was accomplished during Millay's college years! After graduation she moved to Greenwich Village in New York, a particularly free-thinking and artistic borough.

In Great Companions, Max Eastman relates an interesting story about Millay that, if true, reveals something of her attitude about own sexuality.

Millay did eventually marry Eugen Boissevain, who managed her career and was a great source of support. The marriage, as mentioned above, was agreed to be open and Millay herself said that they maintained their personal freedom, living more as great friends than as husband and wife. Millay, a smoker in an age of smokers, succumbed to her failure in 1950 at her home, Steepletop, in Austerlitz New York. Boissevain, who was considerably older, had died the previous year.