Edna St. Vincent Millay achieved greater fame and wealth as a poet before her thirtieth birthday than most writers enjoy after a lifetime of achievement. Her poetry readings drew tremendous crowds and often listeners were moved to tears by her dramatic performances. As “the Madonna of her time,”1 Millay and her success represented new possibilities for career, lifestyle, and creativity available to women early in the twentieth century.
Millay and her two sisters grew up in Maine, raised by their mother who worked as a nurse to support the family. They spent much time reading together, and Millay, called Vincent by her family, was supported in her pursuit of writing from an early age. It was her mother, in fact, who encouraged the nineteen-year-old poet to enter one of her early poems, "Renascence," in a poetry contest sponsored by The Lyric Year. The poem, still considered to be one of Millay’s most successful and accomplished works, was awarded an honorable mention and was printed in the magazine. This early publication won Millay the attention of many influential readers; one, a Miss Caroline Dow, was so impressed she offered to help with Millay’s college expenses. She attended Vassar on a scholarship and with the support of Dow and other sponsors.
After graduation, Millay moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. Her fame as a poet increased with the publication of Renascence, and Other Poems, and other early collections, including A Few Figs from Thistles, and Second April. During her time at Vassar and her first years in New York, Millay had a number of love affairs with both men and women. These relationships often provided material for her work, especially her romantic and passionate sonnets. Millay wrote openly about female desire and sexuality, subjects that were not commonly considered by other women writers. During this period, she wrote magazine fiction using the pen name Nancy Boyd. Many of these stories were about young women living in New York and struggling for self-determination.
In 1923, Millay’s The Harp Weaver, and Other Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making her the first woman to receive that honor. In the same year, she married Eugen Jan Bossevain. Theirs was an open marriage and Millay continued to pursue other relationships. Bossevain was completely dedicated to Millay and her poetry; he gave up his own work and devoted himself to developing Millay’s career. The couple bought a country home in Austerlitz, New York, which they named Steepletop. Millay lived there for the rest of her life.
After a car accident in 1936, Millay began using morphine and developed an addiction to it. Her writing suffered; her work became more politically motivated and was generally criticized as mere propaganda. Her reputation faded. When her husband died in 1949, Millay suffered a nervous breakdown and was briefly hospitalized. She died the following year after falling down the stairs at Steepletop; it is unclear whether the fall was an accident or a successful suicide. She was fifty-eight years old.
Millay’s traditionally formal poems contrasted sharply with the literary experimentation of many of her contemporaries, including modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot, H.D. and Ezra Pound. Many have maligned her work, calling it sentimental and arch; she is often dismissed as a very minor poet whose work is not worthy of serious consideration. Others, however, maintain that much of Millay’s subject matter, especially her investigations of desire, sexuality, and female independence, represent a break with the simple and popular “women’s poetry” with which she is often associated.