“The greatest woman poet since Sappho”? Consider the work, not the life.


Today is Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s birthday. (We’ve written about her here and here and here.) Every so often, someone calls for a revival of her delicious verse, and today it’s Amandas Ong’s turn, over at The Guardian. She notes that Millay is more remembered for her wild and crazy life than lines like these:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. … (Read the rest here.)
An excerpt from Ong’s article (which is online here):

Where should one begin with Millay? She had a famed predilection for Petrarchan sonnets and rhyming couplets, at odds with prominent experimental modernists of the era, such as TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens. But Millay expanded the scope of these poetic forms, presenting a bold, sexually charged vision of the female experience. Her verses serve as a kind of elaborate architecture, housing the fickle, frenetic movements of the heart that falls in love and then out of it. Renascence and other poems (1917), which includes the 200-plus line poem that brought her acclaim, also boasts six sonnets, all of which are outstanding in this respect.

“If I should learn, in some quite casual way, / That you were gone, not to return again —,” she muses in Sonnet V, she would not cry in a public place, like a train; no, she’d “raise my eyes and read with greater care / Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.” This is classic Millay – how else can one grapple with the end of a love affair than to instinctively busy oneself with the mundane?

But Millay never approached love and its vicissitudes with passive melancholy. In “No Rose That in a Garden Ever Grew,” she ponders cynically on the temporal nature of infatuation that drives the stories of women such as Lilith, Lucrece and Helen: “And thus as well my love must lose some part / Of what it is, had Helen been less fair, / Or perished young, or stayed at home in Greece.”

Happy birthday, Edna. You deserve a revival. And a little cake.

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2 Responses to ““The greatest woman poet since Sappho”? Consider the work, not the life.”

  1. Peter Grudin Says:

    What lovely lines. Thanks for reminding me. I’ll go back and read more of her poetry.

  2. Jeff S. Says:

    I have two small books of Millay’s work—one a collection of sonnets, the other a collection of lyrical poems—that commute between my coat pocket and my car. I dip into them often when I’m out or on the road, and it occurs to me now that I know almost nothing of her life. You’ve convinced me not to worry about that, but to keep on reading her work, which is now all that matters.