Skip to main content

Edna St. Vincent Millay

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

It is remarkable in one who has done all her work within the last fifteen years—years of tremendous change and revolt in poetry—that she should bear away so little, so extraordinarily little, of the revolutionary hall-mark. And that fact by no means argues, on Miss Millay’s part, any indifference to influence or a lack of sympathy with the main movements of her time. On the contrary, it speaks simply for her genuineness and courage in keeping staunchly by her own individual plan of life; for in this she represents a mastery of self that is rare always and doubly rare in these roaring days. Amid the striving and searching, so fashionable in our generation, for a false originality, Miss Millay has stood her own ground with the passionate will that belongs only to the strong of voice.

And yet it is very probable that she herself was scarcely conscious of her stand, for it was too natural, too inevitable to be designed. While such persons as Amy Lowell, Harriet Monroe, and Carl Sandburg—really important persons, beyond doubt—worked about her, preaching the “new poetry,” she turned a deaf ear and went her own unavoidable way: not because she was thinking of their “manner” and modernity, and refuting them, but because she knew no other way to go and was too honest to hoodwink herself into believing that she did. A real artistic revolution has always some most salutary effects; it cleanses the air and swamps the weaker spirits who attempt to join the red-shirts when they do not naturally, belong among them. Today the battlefield is strewn with the dead cratic bards who, in their anxiety to “express the age,” let theory get ahead of their sense of beauty. Those rare beings in this country who could abide the pressure and the tides now stand the mightier for their sincerity—supreme among them, William Ellery Leonard, Edwin Anlington Robinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

But to say that Miss Millay is apart from clique-movements is not by any means to say that she is not original; rather, she is exceedingly original, for the only real originality possible to man consists in setting down one’s own individual impressions and emotions, the whole matter lying in the potential expansiveness of one’s soul. Whether one chooses to write free-verse or sonnets is of no moment. For the poseur is as old as Adam, and there is nothing very original about an insincere gesture, no matter how it may be accomplished. A lover of light and clarity, Miss Millay, with the instinct of the true poet, will allow nothing to come between her and her honest expression.

Perhaps the first impression that one receives from her poetry is that of an extraordinary range and interplay of moods, yet each one so distinctly a part of her mind that they seem sometimes to result from what appears to be, narrowly speaking, almost an excess of self-knowledge. That Miss Millay found herself early, is certain. And it is equally certain that she has always possessed what may be called “poetic instinct”—the ability to select from one’s physical and mental experience the things that contribute most to the intensification of one’s soul. A sensitive spirit on a romantic pilgrimage through an over-sophisticated civilization from which much of its romance has been robbed—this is the keynote of her work, as it is the keynote of many other modern poets not so finely tempered or so feverishly alert.

In words, not one of which can be divided from its context, she has celebrated an exquisitely personal reaction to a world that cannot draw her response in every of its various manifestations. That those intense and beautiful “high-moments” of life occur to us less directly in our modern times, that existence is larger and more difficult than it was for Spenser or Milton, for examples, is a fact that must lead to the development on our parts of a closer, more concentrated observation, together with the evolution of an immaculate craftsmanship, that we may express, as nearly as possible, all that we can snatch of beauty where we see it—or in other words, to convey what Pater has somewhere called “the impression of the individual in his isolation.”

And thus it is that the good poet must needs become a “specialist,” so to speak, in the sphere of beauty, dividing what is distinctly his from what he can neither claim nor let claim him. And as the entangled interests of modern life grow in range and breadth, so the poet must become more and more selective, reaching out his hand only to what pleases his soul; and much more, indeed, must he disregard, not because it is of less value in itself, but simply because it has not the same high level of appeal to his individual perception. This has been true of all ages, but it becomes increasingly true among the perplexities and “opposites” of our fast-changing civilization. That it is difficult, impossible for some to achieve, there is abundant testimony in our modern books of verse; for it requires above all else that the writer know himself, and such knowledge asks that rare broadness of soul to which we have, perhaps obscurely, assigned the term genius.

Amid this confusion of interests that appalls so many of us, Miss Millay has made her own choice, gone her own way,. While her outlook upon life is one of sad delight and worship of beauty, one can detect, far beneath the surface that is so seldom bitter, a strong undercurrent of disenchantment and something of that pessimistic laughter that mixes the pride of youth with an almost premature life-wisdom. Hers is the wistful striving to recapture an unnamed and undefinable joy that has fled away—an afterall-hopeless effort to maintain an unalloyed exuberance, for as she says:

Growing old is dying young.

Life she sees, with the rest of us, as too much in the fleeting order of things, mocking our attempts to hold it at its best, vanishing as it appears, along with its ecstatic little train of loveliness; and with that awful uncertainty fully realized, she expresses a passionate cry for the Absolute:

Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare,

she says, not because she has any desire to see Euclid’s peculiar kind of beauty, but because she craves a governing definiteness among the things of the world, that she may escape in a measure from that terrible sense of quick-lived wonder that leaves with us only a pang at our helplessness to hold or define it. And because hers is the longing for the eternal, “fixed” beauty that cannot pass with the momentary change of the senses, she envies those

Who, though once only, and then but far away, Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Over the frail surface of things Miss Millay lets play her extraordinarily wistful pity and irony—those two qualities which Anatole France saw as the most graceful attributes of man—and mingled with them is a strain of sad, yet almost pouting, humour. She has asked for the fullest intensity of life, if only to complete its otherwise faint meaning; and to see the vision depart is to bleed one’s self.

That April should be shattered by a gust, That August should be levelled by a rain, I can endure, and that the lifted dust Of man should settle to the earth again; But that a dream can die will be a thrust Between my ribs forever of hot pain.

To broaden our scope, to reach out for all things good and bad as parts of being, and to infuse into that being all that there is of mystery and wonder, is an ideal to be persistently sought after if we are ever to achieve fulfillment. And in “Renascence,” that magnificent celebration of the individual consciousness—with its restriction or its freedom, as the soul makes choice—she has pointed to this with exquisite artistry.

The world stands out on either side No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,— No higher than the soul is high. The heart can push the sea and land Farther away on either hand; The soul can split the sky in two, And let the face of God shine through. But East and West will pinch the heart That cannot keep them pushed apart; And he whose soul is flat—the sky Will cave in on him by and by.

She carries, through fortune and misfortune, this same determination to “harvest beauty where it grows,” even unto the dust, with a sweet fierceness.

Death, I say, my heart is bowed  Unto thine,—O mother! This red gown will make a shroud  Good as any other!

But because so intensely alive, beauty must die and fade the farthest away; and Miss Millay knows its passing and the pain of its passing and the awful emptiness that haunts its shade.

Nor will my love avail you in your hour. In spite of all my love, you will arise Upon that day and wander down the air Obscurely as the unattended flower, It mattering not how beautiful you were, Or how beloved above all else that dies.

And she knows, too, how it must torture and tear the heart that is responsive above others to it; how man must often hate with all his soul the very beauty that is his life and his shrine, and how he must turn from it sometimes as if in dread.

I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk Between me and the crying of the frogs? Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass, That am a timid woman, on her way From one house to another!


As part of the sensuous paganism which is in her attitude towards life, she has sung boldly and beautifully of her woman’s love of man, appreciating his peculiar beauty as can only women and Walt Whitman. The old inhuman days when women poets were forced to take up the disguise of Rosalind are gone now, and (may Heaven grant!) gone forever: for their assumed garb made them no more convincing in their roles than did Rosalind’s hose and doublet; and it is only within the reach of modern poetry (barring Sappho) that we can find women paying their direct and unconcealed tribute to their lovers, neither under the cloak of pseudonym nor with the insincerity of adopting the masculine point of view.

None has been more clear and honest—more amazingly honest sometimes—than Miss Millay. Sensitively, and with swift strokes, she has set down, if not the Odyssey of a heart, at least a record of all its poignant moments, its strange terrors, its little absurdities, and much, too, of its mocking emptiness. Love, speaking broadly, is her religion; and without it she would be as unconvincing as a wingless bird. No woman since Mrs. Browning has written love-sonnets that equal hers in sheer intensity and depth; and I believe that no English-speaking poet, either man or woman, within the memory of our generation, has brought to love a more exquisite and personal interpretation. Sara Teasdale has done beautiful lyrics, Arthur Davison Ficke some sonnets that bid for a hallowed name; but no one has achieved, in my view at least, the same insistence of passion, the same sadness born of joy, which Miss Millay has created in so delicate a music. What her personal life has been is, of course, no concern of ours; but it seems only obvious that she must have suffered deeply, for it is only, through suffering that one can attain such richness and sweetness. Hers is no celebration of a pretty courtship or a sick caprice; it is the madness and fierceness of love, the horror and sudden hollowness of love, the love that kills while it satiates, that corrodes while it soothes, the love that drives men to ecstacy and to despair—

. . .wherefore now let sing All voices how into my throat is thrust, Unwelcome as Death’s own, Love’s bitter crust.

It seems worth while to insist upon her love poems, because she has insisted upon them herself as the intensest part of her experience. Love (so-called) is a passion common to us all, and yet it is only the rare and great person who can love well and deeply—one’s capacity for noble passions being always the measure of one’s soul. Miss Millay is aware of this, I think, for her harping is upon the beautiful and terrible, scorning all that is stodgy and small of spirit.

‘Tis not love’s going that hurts my days, But that it went in little ways.

Or again, in characteristic strain:
Weep him dead and mourn as you may,  Me, I sing as I must: Blessed be Death, that cuts in marble,  What would have sunk in dust.
The secret of a life well-lived is simply the ability to intensify, to bring all that is rare and strange in humanity into one’s own experience. The only failure is the failure to do this. Miss Millay knows that anything really great must be, in its essence, egotistic; and that love, the most essentially, selfish of passions, is (in its broad sense) the highest exaltation we can reach. She knows, too, that the lover is the head and counterpoint of his own world, and that the beloved is only the spring, so to speak, of his flight. For the true lover, whether consciously or not, asks for nothing save his own ecstasy; and, little as he may, guess it in the moment of his passion, he is forever paying his tribute, not to the divine one, but to the cruel and remorseless god of his own ego. As a kind of quintessence of Miss Millay’s viewpoint, I quote in this place a sonnet in which she has given expression to this attitude with a beauty as subtle as it is courageous:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, I have forgotten, and what arms have lain Under my head till morning; but the rain Is full of ghosts to-night, that tap and sigh Upon the glass and listen for reply, And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain For unremembered lads that not again Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: I cannot say what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that sings in me no more.


Miss Millay’s first substantial achievement was, of course, “Renascence,” written when she was barely nineteen and published in “The Lyric Year” for 1912; but her first poetry of length dates from a short decade ago when, as a senior at Vassar College, she wrote a lyric drama in five acts, “The Lamp and the Bell.” As a production for the graduating class, it was distinguished from the mass of such by the fact that it was poetry and beautiful poetry, and that it can stand in good place in modern literature. The story is of Elizabethan times, celebrating the devotion of two women; but no matter how much the thing may be in the spirit of the sixteenth century, it never descends to imitation, but rather strikes an essentially modern note, embodying much of its author’s accustomed “raciness” of language and thought. Of course it has its weaknesses—the greatest of which is a slight sentimentality —its technical deficiences, and here and there something of immaturity. But that Miss Millay herself thinks well of it was said in the fact that she reprinted three of its loveliest lyrics in “The Harp-Weaver.” She has written, also, a poetic fantasy in one act, “Aria da Capo”—a rather captivating but insignificant little thing which has no place in her best work. It shows emphatically, a frivolous, frilly chord that worms its way into her other poetry now and then, along with a desire to be “pretty”—the most inexcusable of poetic faults, but one which she has apparently now outgrown.

But these two plays are interesting, not so much for themselves, perhaps, as in that they point a direction in her later work, and bring us to what is indubitably her greatest attainment, “The King’s Henchman.” All the deep maturity of her art is here, all its breath-taking beauty and delicacy. I believe it has surprised even her most fervid admirers, those who have been long confident of her powers. Its success as an opera, which has been almost unprecedented at the Metropolitan (thanks to Mr. Taylor’s excellent music), is actually, small beside its value as literature, which is inestimable. I do not exaggerate when I say that “The King’s Henchman” is unapproachably the greatest lyric drama since Swinburne’s “Atalanta”—and I am well aware of Flecker’s “Hassan.”

The tale itself is simple and colourful, a tragedy of tenth century England. The widowed King Eadgar, wishing a new bride to grace his state, sends, as his henchman, Aethel-wold, ins foster brother and bosom friend, to Devon to woo in his stead the beautiful Aelfrida, being himself unable to leave court because of tiresome business with the monks.

Aethelwold, a courageous soldier, has had little experience with women and holds them almost in contempt:

So many dry leaves in a ditch they are to me, These whispering girls, A little fairish and a little foulish, And all alike, and mightily underfoot— so that Eadgar knows the wisdom of sending him.

Aethelwold and Maccus, his friend and serving-man, after travelling long, come at last one night into a deep wood, heavy with mist, thinking themselves yet far from their destination, though actually within calling distance of Aelfrida’s house. Maccus goes off to hunt a road, while Aethelwold drops asleep. It is All Hallow’s Eve which, according to legend, is the night upon which any maid that wanders forth will find her lover. Aelfrida comes softly into the wood, singing; and as the mist clears, the moonlight, “icy-sweet,” falls upon the slumbering Aethelwold. Thinking him a vision of her dream, Aelfrida bends to kiss him, and he awakes. When they discover they are both flesh and blood, they find themselves already deeply in love. And this love-scene, which Miss Millay pens so sensitively, must take its place among those rare few in all literatures that are really poignant and exquisite. Aethelwold is overcome by Aelfrida’s radiant glory, still ignorant of who she is.

Oh, Godes Son, How wounding fair thou art! The sight of thee Is like a knife at the heart! Of thee the sight or the sound, The turn of thy head, thy speaking, Is like a thing found To a man seeking!

Aelfrida slightly fears the strangeness of the meeting, while Aethelwold recognizes the depth of the spell:

Oh, God, what aileth me? Thou—knowest thou aught of love, And how it taketh a man? Thinkest thou i am in love with thee?

Aelfrida gives herself into his arms, helpless:

I am lost—I am swept out to sea—.

The scene moves on, deeply charged, to its tragic climax. It seems a pity that Miss Millay, should have marred it at its very height by two such hackneyed-sounding lines as:

Drink, drink in haste my breath, Ere it be swallowed up by thievish Death!

Then Ase, the servant-nurse, calls her mistress through the woods, “Aelfrida!” and Aethelwold, hearing the name, is stricken down by grief and remorse. He tries to escape, but he cannot; his passion is too fiercely upon him. He yields to the temptation to betray Eadgar’s trust, sending back word that the lady “is nothing fair . . . nothing for the King”—
And whereas Lord Aethelwold, Sparing the King’s love . . . Sparing the King’s love, hath little else beside,— The blessing of King Eadgar is besought Upon the wedding of Lord Aethelwold Unto the maid Aelfrida.

After their marriage they are lost in their love, but Aethelwold is forever haunted by the thought of his foul play. Then the ominous sky finally crashes down its storm when Eadgar comes to pay a friendly visit. Before his arrival Aethelwold confesses to Aelfrida that she might have been Lady of all Britain but for him; but begs her now, for his love to her, to put grey meal in her hair and to appear bent and weather-weary to the King, that her husband may not be found out. Aelfrida promises; but her narrow ambition to be Queen overpowers her mind, and she seals the tragedy of all three by suddenly coming before Eadgar in all her glorious beauty, bedecked with jewels. The King, his heart sore and sad, bitterly, reproaches his friend:

My mind, that hath been fed so long on the  sweet fare of utter trust in thee, Smells at this meat, And turns away—

while Aethelwold, unable to forgive his own treachery, stabs himself and stretches dead at Eadgar’s feet. The drama comes to an end like the chanting of a momentous dirge—a deep-voiced song of beauty and sorrow.

Among her shorter work, Miss Millay has published some things which are perfectly negligible (good poets are not always discerning critics of their own poetry), others like “Sorrow” or “The Bean-Stalk” that have but a small and passing appeal. Such a piece as “The Suicide” is well enough for the pulpit, but I would claim nothing further for it. The “Ode to Silence” smacks of the school-room and lacks original inspiration. I heartily hope that on the distant day when she collects her poems, she will have the critical keenness to exclude things like “Indifference” and “The Return from Town”; that she will shorten “Interim” and delete the trite second stanza of “Ashes of Life.”

“The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, in 1922, is a pathetic, curiously wistful little thing, utterly apart from the tenor of anything else she has written. Speaking from my own experience, the quiet beauty and the pathos of it must rush upon one in the first reading, or not at all; the suddenness of its thrill and the terrible indictment of its meaning wear away after repeated perusals. The Ballad is important, of course, as another manifestation of a versatile spirit, but it falls, I think, slightly below the level of her best work. Still, the hand of the artist is there—certain, relentless, and operating with a subtlety that defies analysis.

But it is in her sonnets, according to my view of the matter, that she reaches the Alps of her shorter accomplishments. In all her books they stand out head and shoulders above the rest, and many approach the cool, Olympian beauty of “The King’s Henchman.” To this difficult and delightful form she has brought a touch most deft and exquisite, with that combination of simplicity and grandeur which her art commands so well. The more one goes over these sonnets (and their test is that they can bear innumerable readings), the more do they yield, like the plays of Shakespeare, of their inner kernel of thought and strength of human love. Their unity and swift music are a joy and a relief in a day when the sonnet, in so many cases, has become a sort of hoarse scream trying to penetrate a vacuum. (I do not speak of the “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree”; these are, to my mind, sadly disappointing). She possesses that rare gift which makes the fine sonneteer—the gift of carrying her meaning by rhythm and making one unconscious of the rhyme-words. The following quotation illustrates her almost magic handling of a single thought:

When I too long have looked upon your face, Wherein for me a brightness unobscured Save for the mists of brightness has its place, And terrible beauty not to be endured, I turn away reluctant from your light, And stand irresolute, a mind undone, A silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight From having looked too long upon the sun. Thus is my daily life a narrow room In which a little while, uncertainly, Surrounded by impenetrable gloom, Among familiar things grown strange to me Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark, Till I become accustomed to the dark.


The woman who wrote “The King’s Henchman,” “The Poet and His Book,” and “The Harp-Weaver,” is vastly apart from her contemporaries. A master of a wide range, she can command the oldest as well as the newest forms with equal felicity. She has not the hard, cold, wellnigh Grecian beauty of H. D., nor the polished, crystal-glass beauty, of Elinor Wylie, nor the purple-trumpeted, battle-field beauty of Amy Lowell. Her beauty, on the contrary, while lacking something of their sharp precision, is yet much closer than theirs to flesh and blood, to life as it is lived on earth; and harkens back for strength to the great elemental things—mountains, the sea, simple people, and the forces of pure nature. And above all, she has never betrayed her deep human sympathy, by dragging it into the snare of words and theories.

She is a pure poet, in the sense that Keats and Shakespeare were pure poets. Knowing well that life is primarily a search after beauty (for all our efforts amount to this in the final reckoning), she is without prejudices, without dyspeptic “moralities,” and asks only that, through its vicissitudes, the soul shall grow. She gives what she has, in a flood of light. As for the spring-time freshness of her style and mastery of language, there are no words; we can only wonder and be thankful.

Her final place, time and its advancing generations will determine. Posterity, that exacting gardener, will winnow her poetry for what is best in it—and the greater part is too sweet and clear to sour with the years. The smaller portion of chaff will be blown away. What of change and development another decade may bring to her, is not for us to prophesy. She is still a young woman—a very, young woman when her fame and accomplishment are considered— and there is time ahead for even better work than she has done thus far—which is, I confess, saying a great deal.

She is a very vital, impulsive, and original spirit, I think —a lover of life and beauty, for their own sakes, insisting always upon the sovereignty of emotions and the essential nobility of all that is human in man’s days. Her position among the poets of our century is as secure as it is enviable. She stands out, a rich figure against the dull-coloured tapestry of modern verse. No one can approach her to-day without becoming aware of a lucid and subtle vision that seems to have penetrated far into all that there is of hope and fear, and love and dreams, in the rough architecture of our lives.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading