Edna St. Vincent Millay
b. February 22, 1892
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!
Edna St.Vincent Millay burned the candle at both ends, to quote her most famous line, and she left us poetry that pierces our soul.
Poet, feminist, playwright, political activist, polyamorous lover, gardener. Vincent, as she liked to be called, has risen and fallen and risen again in popularity. She read to sold-out houses, immensely admired for her sensuous beauty, for her intense imagination. She knew the naked value of words and could breathe immense power into a few lines, or a lot of lines. She could take a traditional form and turn it into an original and powerful work of art. She created magic out of thin air.
Growing up in poverty with a determined single mother, she kept house, took care of two sisters, played piano, learned several languages, acted in plays, and served her church until she decided she didn’t believe in it. She was born on Broadway in Rockland, Maine, February 22, 1892 in the duplex now rescued and preserved as the Millay House Rockland. She mostly grew up in Camden, graduating from Camden High School in 1909.
She bucked society’s oppression of women, showing she could succeed mightily in a world where “girls” would be secretaries or just stay home. At 23, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, a moving tribute to her mother.
A wind with a wolf’s head
Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
And sat on the floor.
The ballad is very much her own story. She also wrote a highly successful opera, The King’s Henchman, she wrote the play Aria Da Capo, and book after book of poetry.
She declined several marriage proposals from fellow literary lights, not wanting the life of a domestic. She lived for several years in various Greenwich Village apartments, having various affairs and seeing her poems published in various places.
In 1925 she married coffee importer and widower Eugen Boissevain, Vincent loved him, and maintained an open marriage with her handsome and devoted husband. He gave up his business to support her. Vincent and Eugen bought a 700-acre rolling farm in upstate New York, and the couple reveled in country life at Steepletop.
Vincent loved Eugen, and she was passionate about gardening, horses and Ragged Island in Maine. The couple bought the island as a summer home in 1933. Vincent loved to swim there in the nude with her guests, as well at her pool at Steepletop. She could be a happy free spirit, but she had a darker side. She became way too fond of gin, perhaps it was an escape from inner turmoil. After a car accident, she relied on increasing amounts of morphine. On October 19, 1950, she was found dead at the foot of Steepletop’s flight of stairs.
Vincent’s candle did not last the night, yet the light of her work shines on. And it is lovely.