One hundred and twenty years ago on February 22nd, 1892, the poetess who wrote the famous lines, “My candle is burning at both ends/It will not last the night;/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–/It gives a lovely light” was born in Rockland, Maine. Edna St. Vincet Millay is one of the most celebrated American poets of the 20th century. She became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was a devout activist throughout her life.
As a child, Edna Millay (who preferred the name Vincet) read eagerly. After her parents divorced when she was 8-years-old, Millay found herself on the road with her mother and two sisters. The four traveled from town to town living in poverty. During this period of transient living, Millay became well acquainted with classic literature, especially Milton and Shakespeare. Millay, her mother, and her sisters eventually became permanent residence in Camden, Maine. Here, Millay attended high school and began writing her own poetry. By age 15 she had claimed the title “published writer.” Her poems appeared in St. Nicolas, Camden Herald, and Current Literature. As she developed her literary voice in high school, Millay discovered the duality of her sexual orientation. In a time that same-sex relationships were an unspeakable taboo, the young poetess held a number of relationships with both male and female classmates. One such lover was Edith Wynne Mathison, who went on to star in silent films.
After high school, Millay enrolled at Bernard College only to dropout within her first year. A few years later, at age 21, she was accepted to Vasser College where she finished her degree. After graduating she moved to Greenwich Village and wrote plays, short stories, and an abundance of poetry; much of this literature was published in different magazines under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd. While living in The Village, she penned scads of famous works, including her collection of poetry A Few Figs From Thistles (which contains the famous lines quoted in the first paragraph), and the anti-war drama Aria de Capo.
In 1921 the Bohemian writer took a sabbatical in Europe where she met her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain. Boissevain was a wealthy coffee porter and progressive thinker. (His previous wife, Inez Millholand–an advocate of workers’ rights, a feminist, and journalist–died in 1916 from complications due to pernicious anemia). Boissevain and Millay were wedded in 1923. The couples’s marriage reflected their dedication to freedom. During their twenty-six-years together both had multiple affairs and longtime partners. These outside relationships never interfered with their commitment to one another, though. Boissevain and Millay were happily married till his death in 1949.
Along with getting married in 1923, Millay was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver”. The award secured her literary success, and Millay became a household name. Her poetry had consistently addressed social and political issues, but literary critics seemed to not mind her contentious words. However, as WWII carried on Millay overstepped her boundaries when she challenged several of The Allies’s activities. She was condemned by the press as an enemy-sympathizer and a threat to the national spirit. Although her popularity suffered, Millay continued to confront controversial topics in her poetry.
Millay’s writing slowed down greatly after a nervous breakdown in 1944. Her literary work never regained motion, and six years later in 1950, Millay died from a heart attack at her home in Austerlitz, New York. A hundred and twenty years after her birth, we remember Edna St. Vincet Millay as one of the writers who has helped define American literature.
Below is Edna Millay’s poem “Autumn Daybreak”:
Cold wind of autumn, blowing loud
At dawn, a fortnight overdue,
Jostling the doors, and tearing through
My bedroom to rejoin the cloud,
I know—for I can hear the hiss
And scrape of leaves along the floor—
How may boughs, lashed bare by this,
Will rake the cluttered sky once more.
Tardy, and somewhat south of east,
The sun will rise at length, made known
More by the meagre light increased
Than by a disk in splendour shown;
When, having but to turn my head,
Through the stripped maple I shall see,
Bleak and remembered, patched with red,
The hill all summer hid from me.