The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
The Library of Congress Manuscript Division is home to the personal papers of poet, playwright, librettist, and activist Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). The collection includes correspondence, diaries and notebooks, writings, photographs, and other types of materials from Millay’s youth, family, and career. It documents her life at her Steepletop home near Austerlitz, New York, with husband Eugen Boissevain, her world travels, and the many literary figures she counted as friends.
The young Millay was raised in Maine with her talented sisters Norma and Kathleen, in a matriarchal single-parent household headed by their mother, Cora—a writer of children’s stories and sonnets, who earned a living working as a visiting nurse. While battling chronic poverty, Cora created with her girls a home life alive with music, art, fashion, play, reading, humor, and imagination. The family’s mail included subscriptions for the youth edition of Harper’s and the St. Nicholas Magazine, and the girls, left to themselves, with Vincent as taskmaster, took charge of daily chores.
From the start, Millay was possessed of a remarkable ethereal beauty. She was rambunctious and outdoorsy and bold, always pushing at boundaries. In her youth, and ongoing with close friends and family, she went by the name Vincent rather than Edna. She was passionate and experimental, and formed intense attractions over the course of her lifetime to individuals of various gender identities.
Millay began writing poetry as a child. She made her famous breakthrough into the literary limelight with her poem “Renascence,” penned in 1911 as a teenager and published through a contest in The Lyric Year in 1912. Her recital of the poem after singing and playing the piano at a resort hotel brought her the attention and patronage of Caroline Dow, Vassar graduate and founder of the Training School for Secretaries at the YWCA in New York City. Dow cleared a path for Vincent to study first at Barnard, and then at Vassar.
The Vassar years (1913-1917) were formative, as Vincent rebelled against institutional regulations, excelled in the performing arts, wrote, directed, and acted in plays and pageants, and penned work for the college magazine and ceremonial events. She forged relationships with teachers and schoolmates at the all-female school. It became quite clear to those who knew her well—from her sister Norma, to her Latin professor and mentor Elizabeth Hazelton Haight—that Vincent was a genius.
Editor and writer Floyd Dell, who published Women as World Builders: Studies in Modern Feminism (1913) when Millay was at Vassar, became an intimate of Millay’s after her graduation, when she and her sisters and mother lived a Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village. Millay was involved in playwriting, poetry, and acting with the Provincetown Playhouse, and Dell was editing The Masses. Vincent supported Dell, John Reed, and others when they were pressured for their political stances on pacifism, socialism, and the World War. He mused in a 1931 New York Herald Tribune article about the power of Millay’s magical presence, and wondered what she must have been like as a girl in Camden, Maine. Dell observed that “Vincent was very much a tomboy—and still is, on one side of nature; a delightful, impudent, freckle-faced, snub-nosed, carroty-haired gamine.”
This youthful nature comes across strongly in the diaries Millay began to keep in Camden in March 1907, at age 15, at the suggestion of her friend from church, Ethel Knight. Her first diaries and notebooks provided imaginative company for a teenage girl whose mother was often away from home and who was developing herself as a writer. Vincent assigned the first diaries comforting or romantic personas, and addressed them as secret confidantes.
Her “Sweet and Twenty” diary of 1912 documents the transition to her future fame. It charts the milestone publication of “Renascence” and her entre into the company of literary movers and shakers, including editors Mitchell Kennerley and Ferdinand P. Earle, and fellow writers and poets who would become close friends and supporters: Arthur Davison Ficke, Witter Bynner, and Louis Untermeyer (who became the 14th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1961).
The highly sensitive Vincent vacillated in the diary between various forms of anxiety or doubt, and exuberance over the good fortune that was beginning to befall her. “The two elements of passion are rapture and melancholy,” she noted in a February 11 entry: “It seems to me I am that incarnate—rapture and melancholy . . . . I feel intensely every little thing.” Her brief excited notation in July that “Renascence” had been accepted for publication is interspersed on the same pages with enthusiasm over Ethel Knight’s engagement and wedding showers being held with female friends. By diary’s end, Vincent was being actively aided by Dow. She received first contacts from Ficke, who would later become a lover, and was faced with choices between attending Smith College or Vassar. She received notice of her election to the Poetry Society of America on December 17, and in the coming year the Poetry Society in New York became an influential gathering and networking place for her. At Christmas time in 1912, Ficke sent her poems by Vachel Lindsay and “a copy of William Blake, of whom he has been astonished to learn that I had never heard. Mr. Ficke is a dear!”
The diary marked just the beginning for Vincent. She would soon find herself exploring New York City on her own (“Walked up Riverside Drive for the first time, all alone,—from 119th to 135th,” she wrote in her diary on February 19, 1913, noting that she was seeing an equestrian scene she’d frequently read about in novels). She saw “Madame Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera House shortly before her birthday, and wished she could return and see it again, little imagining she would have her own operatic hit at the opera house in 1927, as author of the libretto for “The King’s Henchman,” composed by Deems Taylor and performed to popular acclaim by the baritone Lawrence Tibbett.
By 1923, Millay was a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry (the first woman to receive the prize) and the new wife of Dutch entrepreneur and arts supporter Eugen Boissevain. Millay was the second of Boissevain’s two extraordinary wives. His first was the iconic orator of the women’s suffrage movement, Inez Milholland, who led the 1913 Woman Suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., on horseback, and died in 1916 in the midst of a speaking tour for the cause, at the age of 30. As a college student, Millay had greatly admired Milholland (who was a fellow Vassar girl) and watched as Milholland took the world stage in her activism. She memorialized Milholland’s work for women’s equity in “Sonnet LXVII: To Inez Milholland.” She read the poem at a November 18, 1923 ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the women’s rights movement. She did so in the company of some 200 women, in association with sculptor Adelaide Johnson’s Portrait Monument statue at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, and in support of Alice Paul’s proposed Equal Rights Amendment. She published the sonnet in 1928 in The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems. In the spirit of further activism, Millay and Boissevain joined National Woman’s Party activist Lucy Brannan, writer John Dos Passos, and others in picketing against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts in August 1927.
Millay and Boissevain traveled and made a life for themselves at the Steepletop farm they acquired in New York’s Hudson River Valley. They extended generous hospitality to friends and fellow poets. Millay swam, rode, and gardened, and worked in a writing hut across the lawn from the main house. Issues about horses and pigs entered her diary pages, along with the sighting of birds, and dew upon the nearby meadow.
Read more about it:
- Jerri Dell, editor. Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay. Warwick, N.Y.: Glenmere Press, 2017.
- Daniel Mark Epstein, editor, with foreword by Holly Peppe. Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022.
- Colton Johnson, with preface by Laura Streett. Vincent and Vassar. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society and the Vassar College Library, 2017.
- Norma Millay, editor. Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper’s, 1959.
Thank you for bringing her to life!
Excellent. Informative. Well written. Much too short. Wanted to know of her illness and debilitation. You make the life seem wholesome. Was it, really?
Responding to jh bailes, I did emphasize the positive, that is very true. It is in some ways a whole subject for a different blog re her illnesses, treatment, and the costs to her health of her sensitivities and some of the life-style choices (ones that were not unusual in her time among literari) including alcohol consumption, smoking, and opiate use that became an issue for her due to pain from an injury. And there were other kinds of disappointments, as well as triumphs. You can see more about this in Daniel Mark Epstein’s new book of her edited diaries, and in biographies of Millay. There is a lot more to be said about all the points in the blog (which is necessarily short), and the sources listed in Read More About It can help do that. Happy reading!
Loved this blog post. I have been a fan of ESVM for decades and have followed her life around places in Greenwich Village during many trips there. Have tried to adapt the book, Indigo Bunting, into a play. I love her work and admire her free-spirited life!!