Millay the poet, Millay the woman

Readers won't easily trace Edna St. Vincent Millay's personal life in this collection.

For much of her adult life, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) lived with her husband on a small farm in upstate New York. Steepletop, near Albany, provided Millay with space to write away from the noise that followed  the publication of her earliest books to popular acclaim and her reception of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923. Millay’s assertive feminist voice challenged social conventions in poems suffused with images from nature.

Timothy Jackson, who received his Ph.D. from the Editorial Institute at Boston University, drew on first editions of Millay’s works between 1917 and 1954 for this scholarly collection. He strives to counter the traditional preference for Millay’s early writings—she tarnished her own reputation with universally panned propaganda poems during WWII—by providing a more balanced selection spanning her professional life. He also includes Millay’s wonderful self-portrait, “E. St. V. M.,” previously unpublished in any anthology of her collected poetry.

Millay’s poem “Renascence” first drew her talents to national attention. The narrator of the poem encounters the im­mense suffering of humanity and individual finitude in a state of life-in-death. Love, however, brings release from the suffocating weight of the grave, a transformation of vision, and new birth through a Pauline conversion of heart in which “night / Fell from my eyes and I could see.” “Renascence” launched Millay’s career, but some critics wondered how a “sweet young thing of twenty” could write with such potency: “it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that.” Millay responded to the faultfinder with a nymphish photo and characteristic verve: “The brawny male sends his picture. I have to laugh.”