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Edna St. Vincent Millay, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1933

Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950) was an American lyrical poet and playwright and the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was also known for her unconventional, bohemian lifestyle and her many love affairs with men and women. She used the pseudonym Nancy Boyd for her prose work.

Early life

Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, to Cora Lounella (Buzzelle), a nurse, and Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher who would later become superintendent of schools. Her middle name is derived from St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, where her uncle's life had been saved just prior to her birth.

In 1904, Cora officially divorced Millay's father for financial irresponsibility, but they had been separated for some years prior. Struggling financially, Cora and her three daughters, Edna (who would later insist on being called "Vincent"), Norma and Kathleen, moved from town to town, counting on the kindness of friends and relatives. Though poor, Cora never traveled without her trunk full of classic literature — including William Shakespeare, John Milton, and more — which she enthusiastically read to her children in her Irish brogue. Finally the family settled in Camden, Maine, moving into a small house on the property of Cora's well-heeled aunt. It was in this modest house in the middle of a field that Millay wrote the first of the poems that would catapult her to literary fame.

Cora taught her daughters to be independent and to speak their minds, which did not always sit well with the authority figures in Millay's life. Millay preferred to be called "Vincent" rather than Edna, which she found plain — her grade school principal, offended by her frank attitudes, refused to call her Vincent — instead, he called her by any woman's name that started with a V.[1]

At Camden High School, Millay began nurturing her budding literary talents, starting at the school's literary magazine, The Megunticook, and eventually having some of her poetry published in the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas, the Camden Herald and, significantly, the anthology Current Literature, all by the age of 15.

Millay rose to fame with her poem "Renascence" (1912), and on the strength of it was awarded a scholarship to Vassar College. After her graduation in 1917, she moved to New York City.

Writing career

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Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1914, photographed by Arnold Genthe.

In New York, she lived in Greenwich Village. It was at this time that she first attained great popularity in America. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, for The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems. Her reputation was damaged by poetry she wrote in support of the Allied war effort during World War II. Merle Rubin noted: "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism."

In 1943 she was awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. She was the sixth recipient of that honor, and the second woman.

Personal life

Millay, who was bisexual, had relationships with several other students during her time at Vassar, then a women's college.[1] In January 1921 she went to Paris, where she met sculptor Thelma Wood, with whom she had a romantic relationship.[2] During her years in Greenwich Village and Paris she also had many relationships with men, including the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who unsuccessfully proposed marriage to her in 1920.[3]

In 1923, she married Eugene Jan Boissevain, then the 43-year-old widower of labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland. Boissevain greatly supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. They lived near Austerlitz, New York, at a farmhouse they named Steepletop.

Millay's marriage with Boissevain was an open one, with both taking other lovers. Millay's most significant other relationship during this time was with the poet George Dillon, fourteen years her junior, for whom a number of her sonnets were written. Millay also collaborated with Dillon on Flowers of Evil, a translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal.

Boissevain died in 1949 of lung cancer. Millay was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her house on October 19, 1950, having apparently broken her neck in a fall.[1]

In 2006, the state of New York paid $1.69 million to acquire 230 acres of Steepletop. The land will be added to a nearby state forest preserve. Proceeds from the sale are being used to restore the farmhouse with plans to turn it into a museum.

Parts of the grounds of Steepletop, including a Poet's Walk that leads to her grave, are now open to the public. Millay bought Steepletop with her husband in 1925,two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.


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Her best known poem might be "First Fig" from A Few Figs From Thistles (first published in 1920):

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

Mathematicians recognize her poem "Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare" (1923) as an expression of mathematical beauty, or an homage to the geometer Euclid.

However, many consider "Renascence" and "The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver" to be her finest poems.

Thomas Hardy once said that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Also, she wrote five verse dramas early in her career, including Two Slatterns and a King, The Lamp and the Bell (written for Vassar College), and The King's Henchman (originally an opera). Her most famous verse drama is the often anthologized One Act play Aria da Capo, written for the Provincetown Players.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Epstein, Daniel Mark (2001). What Lips my Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6727-2. 
  2. Herring, Phillip (1995). Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes. New York: Penguin Books, 158. ISBN 0-14-017842-2. 
  3. Milford, Nancy (2001). Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 191–192. ISBN 0-375-76081-4. 

External links

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