Edna St Vincent Millay 1892-1950

Edna St Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, the daughter of a teacher, and grew up in Camden, a seaport town on the Maine coast. Her parents divorced when she was twelve. Her mother, a well-educated woman, encouraged her and her sisters to read major works of literature and Edna had poems published in children’s magazines in her mid-teens. She was educated at Camden High School until 1909, spending the next four years at home. It was only through the sponsorship of a wealthy female arts patron, impressed with her poem Renascence, written when she was twenty, that she was able to attend the prestigious Vassar College in Poughkeepsie to continue her studies.

On graduating from Vassar in 1917 with a BA, she moved to New York where she lived a Bohemian existence among artists and writers in Greenwich Village. She wrote an anti-war play Aria da Capo in 1919 and published her first volume of poetry, A Few Figs, the following year. This explored the controversial and previously taboo themes of female sexuality and feminism, about which she wrote explicitly. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for her poem The Ballad of the Harp Weaver, the third woman to receive this award. During this period she also wrote short stories under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd to support herself.

In 1921 she moved to Paris, where she continued her cavalier lifestyle with several short-lived love affairs, one of which resulted in her pregnancy and a subsequent abortion. After this and possibly as a result she suffered a period of ill health during which she was solicitously looked after by Eugen Jan Boissevain, a widower some twelve years her senior, whom she married in 1923. They bought a 700-acre farm in Austerlitz, New York State, where they lived together. It appears to have been a happy but unconventional marriage, both parties openly taking lovers. In 1931 she published Fatal Interview, a collection of sonnets inspired by her love affair with the poet George Dillon, whom she had met at one of her many poetry readings in 1928 at Chicago University where he was a student.

Although a pacifist during World War I, during the Second World War she strongly supported the war effort and her poem Murder at Lidice conveys her disgust at this Nazi atrocity. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1944. She died in 1950 after a fall at her home in Austerlitz, aged 58, her husband having died the previous year. Her poetry displays her independent spirit and her rebellion against tradition. Her best poetry was written in the 1920s, of which Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare is a good example.

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