“I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.”
-Afternoon on a Hill
Effervescent in both her life and in her prose, Edna St. Vincent Millay created a name for herself in the literary world as both a rebel and a fundamentalist; weaving new ideas into the pattern of the age old sonnet.
So who was the woman who first penned the popular phrase “My candle burns at both ends?” Born in Rockland Maine in 1892, Millay was the eldest of three girls raised by single mother Cora, who divorced Millay’s father, Henry, in 1900 when Millay was eight-years-old. Millay received her saintly middle name in honor of St. Vincent Hospital, the hospital that saved her uncle’s life shortly before Millay was born. In fact, her family and close friends would refer to the poet lovingly as “Vincent” throughout her life.
Though Millay grew up impoverished, her mother was a firm believer in the arts and introduced her children to as much music and literature as possible. Most importantly, Cora encouraged her daughters to create within themselves and write, perform, and sing. In fact it was Cora herself who found an advertisement for the poetry contest sponsored by The Lyrical Year and suggested Millay submit her poem “Renascence” which was made up of 107 rhyming couplets describing a spiritual awakening in its purest highs and most dreadful lows. Though Millay didn’t win the contest outright, instead taking fourth position, her poem turned heads of critics and readers alike and brought Millay her first literary acclaim.
It was due to a reading of “Renascence” in a local hotel that Millay was able to attend college. Caroline Dow, the head of the YWCA National Training School in New York at the time, heard her performance and offered her a scholarship, as Millay was unable to pay for her education herself. Millay was accepted to Vassar and spent her time studying both literature and theater. It was during this time that Millay, who was openly bisexual, had a romantic affair with English actress Wynne Matthison.
Millay graduated Vassar in 1917, and moved to New York to begin her bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village and focus solely on her writing. In fact, Millay turned down a comfortable position as a secretary and several offers of marriage in fear that it would hinder her ability to commit to her work. It would seem that her hard work paid off, because in December of 1917 Millay published her first book “Renascence and other Poems”. She also wrote for several publications, including Vanity Fair, under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd.
In 1921, after publishing her experimental play Aria de capo, Millay was looking for a change of scenery and inspiration for new material and moved to Europe. Over the next three years Millay would compose the play The Lamp and the Bell and her controversial book of poetry “A Few Figs from Thistles”. The book was bold for its time as it portrayed women, namely Millay herself, as both the pursed and the pursuer in romantic relationships, and it is widely referred to as a feminist work.
1923 would bring Millay to her peak of critical acclaim as she received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her work “Ballad of a Harp Weaver.”
It was simultaneously the year Millay decided to return to America. When she returned New York she met Eugen Boissevain at a house party. Boissevain was a coffee importer, self-proclaimed feminist, and widower of Inez Milholland, noted New York Lawyer and suffragist. Millay and Boissevain immediately hit it off, and were married a few months later.
Immediately after their marriage, Millay was whisked off to the hospital where she would undergo surgery for intestinal issues. Boissevain nursed her back to health, and decided to retire from the importing business to manage Millay’s career.
Finding it hard to write in the hustle and bustle of New York City, Boissevain and Millay purchased a 435 acre abandoned berry farm in Austerlitz New York and made a life renovating the property and naming it Steepletop. The pair transformed the estate and purchased an extra 300 acres as well. For Millay, Steepletop was a writer’s haven, and while there she wrote “The King’s Henchmen” an opera set in 10th century England that was wildly successful, with 17 curtain calls at the premiere and the libretto itself sold 10,000 copies. During her time at Steepletop she also composed and organized eight collections of poetry.
However it was not all work and no play for the free spirited poet. She and her husband used to throw lavish multi-day parties at Steepletop, inviting family friends and notable artists of the time. Millay and Boissevain, unwilling to give up their own independence, maintained an open, poly-amorous relationship throughout the entirety of their marriage which lasted until his death in 1949.
Millay herself died a year later in 1950, when she slipped and fell to her death on the stairs at Steepletop at the age of 56.
Throughout her life, Millay carved a space for herself in both the literary community and during a time period where her lifestyle and point-of-view were constantly challenged. However her passion for life and power over words allowed her to create a multi-faceted, fascinating life that suited her just fine.