I first encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay in an old high school literature textbook. Parked like a shiny convertible amongst the hearses of early twentieth century American literature, she called to me. Now granted “Renascence” wasn’t a horn-honking kind of poem, and it was certainly death-haunted, but it was written by a woman, one of only twenty at that, and it sang of possibilities.
High school textbooks, of course, would not publish some of Millay’s best works that came later, poems about sexuality, love, and longing, that were certainly ground-breaking topics for a female writer in the early twentieth century. She lived life on her own terms, had many affairs, was openly bi-sexual, went to jail for supporting Sacco and Vanzetti, and traveled extensively.
Today, February 22, in 1892, Millay was born. Her friends called her “Vincent.”
She wrote these famous lines in “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!
In Sonnet XXX, she delivers a deceptively simple analysis of the power of love:
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; Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath, Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone; Yet many a man is making friends with death Even as I speak, for lack of love alone. It well may be that in a difficult hour, Pinned down by pain and moaning for release, Or nagged by want past resolution's power, I might be driven to sell your love for peace, Or trade the memory of this night for food. It well may be. I do not think I would.
Her poem about Spring is one of my favorites about that season. It is her only poem I have committed to memory:
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 crocus. The smell of the earth is good. It is apparent that there is no death. But what does that signify? Not only under ground are the brains of men Eaten by maggots. Life in itself Is nothing, An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs. It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, April Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
I love the line, “I know what I know.” Precisely. And when she wrote about trying to forget an old love in “Intention to Escape from Him,” the ideas and phrasing spring forward into 2013 without hesitation:
I think I will learn some beautiful language, useless for commercial Purposes, work hard at that. I think I will learn the Latin name of every song-bird, not only in America but wherever they sing. (Shun meditation, though; invite the controversial: Is the world flat? Do bats eat cats?) By digging hard I might deflect that river, my mind, that uncontrollable thing, Turgid and yellow, strong to overflow its banks in spring, carrying away bridges; A bed of pebbles now, through which there trickles one clear narrow stream, following a course henceforth nefast— Dig, dig; and if I come to ledges, blast.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was always overshadowed by her male contemporaries, but she was not a flowery “woman poet.” I remember her today for the beauty of her words and for having the courage to live in and write with the truthful detail from which all good poetry comes.