Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

David Anthony

Born in Rockland, Maine, she moved to Greenwich Village on graduating from Vassar College and lived a self-consciously Bohemian lifestyle. Her poetry was structured and highly disciplined. The sonnet form suited her perfectly, and she wrote about 200 sonnets, all of great technical excellence and many in strict Petrarchan form.

Recognition came early when, in 1923,she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; but her popularity waned after her death and her work was dismissed as petulant and artificial. This was primarily a result of changing fashion: the poetic pendulum was swinging towards free verse, and a later generation was perhaps less comfortable with her values.

"What lips my lips have kissed" is an example of Millay at her best, and of the sonnet form used to maximum effect. Here is gentle, wonderful imagery, of tapping ghosts and lonely trees. The subject, however--too many lovers to remember--would hardly appeal to a post-war generation nurtured on images of true loves waiting faithfully for their returning warriors.

Relationships are her forte, and she returns to them again and again, in many moods, wistful, wry or practical, but always with the sharpest observation, as in Only until this cigarette has ended. But her gift for observation is also sometimes used for telling social comment; and her fierce but simply expressed comment on contemporary materialism, "To Jesus on His Birthday," rings out with indignation.

Today the pendulum is swinging back, and formal, structured poetry is receiving the recognition it deserves. Millay is being re-evaluated yet again, and this time, without a doubt, she will take and keep her place at the very front rank of 20th Century poets.