Edna St. Vincent Millay: The woman and the poet
Forster, Lois Patricia
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There lies about Edna St. Vincent Millay a touch of mystery. Very little is known about her life. We have only the barest outline of facts - her childhood in Maine, on the ocean; four years at Vassar; her marriage in 1927 to Eugen Jan Boissevain, after which they both retired to the seclusion of their estate, Steepletop, in Austerlitz, New York; her interest in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial of 1927; and her more recent interest in writing war propaganda for the Allies. There are no intimate and revealing sketches, either biographical or auto-biographical. This must have been deliberate on her part, for only a woman who lived intensely and with humor could have written her poetry. There we have the key to her personality. She resented intrusion by people who were too small to understand her, yet her poet's nature demanded expression. Perhaps she felt that anyone who read her poetry would naturally sympathize with her and understand her. Through her early, more personal writing, we come to know her as a person - a woman. We see the warm-hearted, emotional girl who loved the natural beauty, and especially that of the sea, with a passionate and naive intensity. We see a girl who was sensitive at all times to the happiness and sorrow of others; a girl who refused to be bound by conventions that didn't hold real meaning for her. We learn that as a girl she tried to direct her emotions, to love casually and briefly. As she grew older her emotions deepened. She gloried in love, and yielded herself freely to the sway of emotion - yet she never lost a tendency for self-analysis and objectivity that enabled her to see just what was happening, She knew that love was largely a matter of physical attraction, and could not last, and because she knew this she never really trusted in love. She sought it eagerly, but she could not believe in it completely. By the time she wrote Fatal Interview in 1931 she had learned that love cannot be controlled, and one cannot love casually, no matter how much one would like to. She had learned, too, that the conventions she rebelled against were there because the laws of nature and psychology demanded them. One factor that added to her charm was her sense of humor. She showed, from her first writing, a readiness to laugh at her own inconsistency and her own intensity. She never laughed at others, but she often mocked her own weaknesses in a manner that is delightfully refreshing. Her first period included Renascence, A Few Figs From Thistles, Second April, The Harp-Weaver and Three Plays. The poems are intensely feminine and emotional, and often intimate to the point of being confessional. They are characterized, furthermore, by a sure confidence. Renascence, ringing with exultation just for the joy of living, seems inspired by a revelation, and is written with a direct simplicity that gives it authority. The flip defiance of A Few Figs From Thistles and the challenging independence of Second April and The Harp-Weaver all show the high confidence of youth. Her second period, containing The Buck in The Snow, The King's Henchmen, Fatal Interview and Wine From These Grapes, is different in many respects. The Buck in The Snow, which contains her reactions to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, shows decided changes in form and feeling. It breaks away from self-centered, personal poetry, and shows instead a restless urge to solve the problems of the world. No longer sure of herself, she is wondering about the meanings of things she has always accepted - love, beauty, and above all, justice. In form she shows her first desire for experimentation. In Fatal Interview she reverts to the feminine, the emotional, and the personal, but she is still restless, wondering now just what is right and wrong, and what is love. There is a reversion, also, in her use of her favorite form, the sonnet. Wine From These Grapes continues with the musing and philosophying of Buck in the Snow. Any sureness she displays now comes not from the confidence of youth but from the bitter knowledge reluctantly acquired. In "Epitaph For The Race of Man", the sonnet sequence closing Wine From These Grapes, she seems to have found an answer to some of her questions, but it is an answer that she regrets - that man is causing his own downfall by his greed for money and lust for power. She sees indications of the world chaos ahead, and tries with a savage desperation to warn men - but even as she tries she knows the effort is futile. The whole keynote is one of keen despair and anger, and the language is not the clear, musical language of her early poetry, but strong and harsh and effective. It is as definitely 20th Century as some of her writing is 16th Century. In her latest period she turns to what we call her "propaganda poetry". In "Conversation at Midnight" the propaganda is general, and there is no clue to show which of the seven conversationalists is giving her viewpoint. The form is new - a conversational verse, ranging from free verse to sonnets, and often tinged with Ogden Nash. Still newer and more surprising is her use of the masculine viewpoint. This may have been a challenge to the critics who called her too feminine. At any rate, it is generally admitted to be successful. Her last three works, Huntsman, What Quarry?, Make Bright The Arrows, and "Murder of Lidice" are definitely war propaganda. The last was written at the request of the Writers' War Board. All her war propaganda poetry, though undoubtedly sincere, lacks the spontaneity and intensity that were her best characteristics. There is no help for it. She is too sensitive a person to ignore the war, but the very material is foreign to the type of musical beauty she excels in. Until this war is over, there can be no more great poetry from Miss Millay. As for her other poetry - more often than not it has been popular, rather than great. She has put into beautiful and expressive words emotions common to women of all times, races and places. Because of this such books as Fatal Interview will always be read and loved by many. Great poetry calls for more than that. It must have beautiful form, and design, and intellectual or moral value. By the latter we mean it must reveal something of the greatness of human nature. In Renascence, Aria da Capo, the Euclid Sonnet, and possibly Epitaph For The Race of Man, these qualifications are fulfilled. On the whole, Miss Millay is a good poet, and a beloved one, but in these works she wins a place among the great artists of literature.
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