A Lovely Light: Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

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“No woman poet of her generation was as adored, or as widely read or quoted, as Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Holly Peppe writes in her introduction to the new Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay’s ascent to the status Peppe describes, well-documented by multiple biographers, could be a movie tagline from the Golden Age of Hollywood: “Young woman of modest means from rural Maine skyrockets to stardom.” Not long after garnering wide accolades for her poem “Renascence” when she was only twenty-one years old, Millay became a sought-after celebrity among Greenwich Village literati. With the publication of her books A Few Figs from Thistles and The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems in the early 1920’s, she achieved national renown and earned a Pulitzer Prize, still just the beginning of a career that would span ten poetry collections along with numerous lauded works in other genres.

But Millay’s life beyond the page, including her riveting reading style, the erotic mythos of her free-spirited persona, and the dramatic drug-and-alcohol-fueled decline of her later years, has often risked overshadowing her work. With the release of this new selected poems edition, Holly Peppe, Millay’s literary executor, and Timothy F. Jackson, the book’s editor, redirect our gazes from Edna St. Vincent Millay the public figure to Edna St. Vincent Millay the poet.

Describing his editorial method, Jackson asserts a desire to highlight aspects of Millay’s oeuvre that both he and Peppe believe have not yet been given due attention. While anthologists and editors have largely focused on her earlier poems, which comprise the bulk of her most popular writing, Jackson places an emphasis on Millay’s lesser known mature work. Examples include the rarely anthologized “Rendezvous,” and “New England Spring, 1942,” two pieces that, Jackson argues, “demonstrate a range of prosody beyond her earlier achievements.” As the last stanza of “Rendezvous” shows, the poem’s long lines, complex enjambments, and irregular rhymes represent a departure from the stricter formal approach that drove much of Millay’s early work:

Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the
…… over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and
…… are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed – with
……..pumice, I suppose –
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish
……..I did not feel like your mother.

Whether or not one considers Millay’s use of form in “Rendezvous” more accomplished than that of her early-career poems, Jackson hits on an important truth about Millay’s trajectory: As she matured, her poetry evolved, stylistically and otherwise, in directions frequently overlooked by readers enamored of the poems that first catapulted her into public consciousness. Indeed, though “Rendezvous” displays Millay’s signature combination of emotional intensity and wry cynicism (J.D. McClatchy has described her defining tone as “exquisite feeling dipped in a bitter irony”), many lovers of her work will not instantly recognize here the Edna St. Vincent Millay best known for lines like these from “Afternoon on a Hill,” an early poem that has appeared in numerous anthologies: “I will be the gladdest thing / Under the sun! / I will touch a hundred flowers / And not pick one.” Jackson and Peppe, through highlighting her less vaunted work, hope to expand and complicate our perceptions of Millay’s poetry so that the true amplitude of her talent can be appreciated.

One way that Jackson widens our view of the poet is through featuring sections devoted to samples of her correspondence and prose writings. The Millay letters we encounter in the book, sent to family members, editors, supporters, friends, and fellow writers throughout her career, inform our understanding of her life and work in salient ways. But the prose inclusion that most illuminates Millay’s poetry is her previously unpublished “Essay on Faith.” Written early in her career, the essay explores Millay’s convictions about the value of individual perception as a spur to artistic and spiritual growth. Jackson quotes one of Millay’s biographers, Daniel Mark Epstein, who has observed that “Essay on Faith” serves as “the philosophical groundwork…for the sublime ‘Renascence,’ which the poet began a few months later.”

As Epstein suggests, assertions like these from “Essay on Faith” reveal the belief system that shaped the poem: “Just as surely as each is the center of his universe, just so surely is his universe bounded by the circumference of his life,” and “the universe is made up of a million universes, each one as big as itself, for all infinities are equal.” Millay lovers will thrill to discern in “Essay on Faith” the intellectual seeds she would sow, through “Renascence,” into language that encompasses but ultimately transcends human intellect:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, –
No higher than the soul is high.

Another strength of this edition is Jackson’s method of annotation, which manages to be assiduous without becoming obtrusive. He offers valuable context, literary and cultural, for many of her word choices, images, and allusions, often suggesting intriguing parallels between Millay’s work and that of other writers. For example, in one of his annotations on “Spring,” a lesser known Millay poem in which she presents a dark vision of the season, Jackson highlights the fact that the piece was published in London just two years before T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land appeared in print. “Spring” begins with these lines, which seem more like lines from one of Millay’s avowedly modernist contemporaries than from the “Renascence” poet:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.

Through his suggestion that Millay’s “Spring” may have influenced what he calls Eliot’s “similarly dismissive tone toward spring” in The Waste Land, Jackson imbues our reading of the poem with a powerful sense of Millay’s historical moment. Jackson’s annotation also adds an interesting dimension to the critical conversation surrounding Millay’s relationship to the modernist movement. As Peppe writes in her introduction, “a sea change was underway in American poetry” when Millay entered the literary sphere, a “new cultural aesthetic, modernism, in which poetry would no longer serve as a vehicle for personal emotional expression.” Accompanying this shift was a move away from formal poetic conventions toward an emphasis on free verse and experimentation, as reflected in Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new.” Various scholars have argued that Millay’s reputation has suffered, in comparison to figures like Eliot and Pound, because she maintained an emphasis on traditional form and personal expression rather than embracing modernist values.

The inclusion of “Spring” in this new edition, along with Jackson’s notes about the piece, complicates any overly simplistic narratives about Millay as an old-fashioned versifier unwilling or unable to keep pace with her more future-minded contemporaries. Reading “Spring” certainly makes it difficult to agree with critical assessments of Millay as a poet who rendered herself entirely immune to modernist influences, especially when one arrives at the last three lines: “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” Allen Tate praised Millay for combining elements of a nineteenth-century sensibility with a twentieth-century ethos in her work, asserting that “she has been from the beginning the one poet of our time who has successfully stood athwart two ages.” Jackson and Peppe have constructed this edition in a way that supports Tate’s vision of her versatility, giving us both the Millay who wishes to “touch a hundred flowers” under the sun in “Afternoon on the Hill” and the Millay who warily regards flowers as harbingers of desolation strewn on the hillside by “an idiot.”

Among all of the poems included in this edition, “If I should learn in some quite casual way” illustrates Tate’s assessment of Millay’s work with special force. Merging traditional sonnet themes (love and death) with details of modern urban life, she creates a bracing tension between restraint and release, both within the speaker’s psyche and within the poem’s form. As the sonnet unfolds, one long sentence marked by a complicated and often halting syntax, its language mirrors the speaker’s resistance to her own emotions. Quoted here in its totality, the poem shows Millay at her most masterful, confirming her place as one of the twentieth-century’s greatest practitioners of the sonnet form:

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again –
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man – who happened to be you –
At noon today had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud – I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place –
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Though not all of the work featured in this edition shows Millay at the apex of her powers, as does “If I should learn in some quite casual way,” even the weaker pieces that Jackson has chosen to include illustrate crucial elements of her sensibility. For example, if Millay’s poem “Exiled” veers toward melodrama, predictability, and grandiloquence, it also offers insight into the nature of Millay’s wild popularity with general readers in her day. “Exiled” has never been a poem likely to garner critical attention or find a place on any academic syllabus, but one can imagine that, when it first appeared in Vanity Fair in 1922, readers must have loved the accessible narrative, the direct expression of emotion, and the addictive rhythms: “Searching my heart for its true sorrows, / This is the thing I find to be: / That I am weary of words and people, / Sick of the city, wanting the sea.” The poem has been built to beguile us. Through the inclusion of “Exiled,” Jackson reminds us that Millay’s status as a popular poet has long been at odds with her reputation in the critical sphere. He puts us in touch with the Edna St. Vincent Millay whose work, though not always embraced on the loftier ends of the literary spectrum, sold in record numbers during her lifetime.

Given Jackson’s editorial championing of her more obscurely known poems in this edition, die-hard Millay fans will meet with disappointment if they search the pages for oft-anthologized favorites like “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare,” “The Spring and the Fall,” and “No Rose That in a Garden Ever Grew.” But the book, though it emphasizes poems outside of the commonly read Millay repertoire, does include a handful of her signature work. Readers will encounter the full text of “Renascence,” which contains several of Millay’s best known lines, and “First Fig,” a piece arguably quoted more than any other poem of Millay’s career and credited with establishing her as a defining figure of the Jazz Age:

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.

Those hungry for Millay’s most beloved work will also delight to find “I shall forget you presently my dear,” “What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why,” and “Love is not all; it is not meat nor drink,” three sonnets emblematic of Millay’s persona as the quintessential self-defined 1920s woman. They present a liberated female speaker who reverses tradition by actively seeking, rather than passively receiving, romantic attention from males. She collects beaus too numerous to recall with distinction, “unremembered lads” from whom she coolly detaches herself once the whims of passion pull her in other directions. The sestet of “I shall forget you presently, my dear,” with its mixture of tenderness and mordancy, epitomizes the Millay whose voice became a bohemian bellwether for many members of the postwar generation:

I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,—
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

The inclusion of these three sonnets, along with a scattering of other touchstone Millay poems, prevents the book from eclipsing its own significance. Peppe and Jackson recognize that an edition focused solely on the poet’s more obscure writing risks being, at best, not much more than an interesting intellectual exercise, and at worst, irresponsible. Aware that many future readers may experience Millay for the first and only time in these pages, they have put together a book that challenges received notions of her poetic trajectory while also delivering much of her most time-honored work.

If Jackson has gone astray anywhere by excluding many of Millay’s widely anthologized pieces in favor of her lesser known writing, the absence of “Recuerdo” feels particularly conspicuous. A poem that was widely loved, memorized, and recited in Millay’s day, it remains one of her most obsessively haunting works. In “Recuerdo,” Millay captures the speed, restlessness, and ennui-tinged glamor of city life as experienced by a pair of young people during the roaring twenties. The dizzying carnival-music rhythm of the language heightens our sense of time’s passage (hours flying forward and forever circling back) as the two of them absorb ephemeral pleasures, unable to find permanence in their surroundings or human interactions. In the poem’s heart-searing final stanza, Millay contrasts the changing lifestyle of modern youth with the lives of previous generations:

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Millay herself felt that “Recuerdo,” written early in her career, had been over-anthologized in comparison to her later work, and this may stand as a factor behind Jackson’s choice not to feature it in the book. But any edition of Millay’s work that leaves out “Recuerdo” neglects one of the poems that embodies her greatest strengths. Consequently, readers would do well to include previous Millay editions alongside this new one in their poetry libraries (in particular, The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Nancy Mitford, and Edna St. Vincent Millay: Selected Poems, edited by J.D. McClatchy) so that they can access the unforgettable “Recuerdo.”

If the absence of “Recuerdo” hinders this edition, Jackson makes up for it in his determination to shine a light on Millay’s enthralling but little-known sequence “Sonnet from an Ungrafted Tree.” The sequence details the experience of a farm wife who has returned home to care for the dying husband she left behind years before. In Jackson’s view, “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree,” a rare example of Millay eschewing the lyric “I” in favor of an omniscient narrative voice, has been underappreciated by critics and general readers alike. Another feature that distinguishes this sequence from Millay’s other sonnets is her decision to end each piece with a line containing fourteen syllables rather than ten syllables, an innovation that underscores the farm wife’s struggle to reconcile the dictates of social convention with the ungovernable directives of her own mind, body, and heart. The sprawling final line of each sonnet in the sequence makes it seem as though both the farm wife and the language describing her might burst, at any moment, beyond containment. “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” offers a probing portrait of the woman as she confronts the limits of love and mortality. In particular, the last sonnet of the sequence, with its psychological complexity and stunning sestet, deserves a place among Millay’s most widely read work:

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
Loosened forever. Formally the sheet
Set forth for her to-day those heavy curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one that enters, sly, and proud,
To where her husband speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers; for once, not hers, unclassified.

Jackson has done a service to Millay’s legacy by bringing attention to “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree,” which has long been sidelined by anthologists in favor of “Fatal Interview,” a sonnet sequence that explores Millay’s love affair with a man fourteen years her junior. While Jackson’s not the first to point to “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” as an overlooked aspect of Millay’s oeuvre (Sandra M. Gilbert has called it Millay’s “finest sonnet sequence”), the degree to which he emphasizes it spurs us to expand our vision of Millay’s artistic range.

Another unique feature of this edition is the inclusion of a self-portrait poem titled “E. St. V. M,” which has never before been printed in book form. Millay originally enclosed the poem in a letter to her friend and one-time suitor, the famed critic Edmund Wilson. With its uneven line-lengths, fragmented sentences, and lack of rhyme or meter, the poem shows a notable departure from Millay’s usual formal aesthetic. On the tonal level, “E. St. V. M” is striking for the way that Millay celebrates her sensuality while also undercutting, in a manner both playful and dark, any sense of excessive self-seriousness. Here it is in full:

Hair which she still devoutly trusts is red.
Colorless eyes, employing
A childish wonder
To which they have not statistic
A large mouth,
Aceticized by blasphemies.
A long throat,
Which will someday
Be strangled.
Thin arms,
In the summer-time leopard
With freckles.
A small body,
But which,
Were it the fashion to wear no clothes,
Would be as well-dressed
As any.

While “E. St. V. M” isn’t likely to claim a place among her most renowned work, the poem adds a fascinating dimension to our sense of how she viewed herself, and it offers us the gratification of encountering an Edna St. Vincent Millay we haven’t met before.

Jackson further enhances our understanding of Millay by featuring most of the poems as they originally appeared in first editions of her single volumes. Noting how Millay constantly revised her published work for subsequent printings over time, Jackson states that his main goal in honoring first-edition versions of Millay’s poems is to invite comparisons between other published versions of the same work. Readers interested in her process will relish comparing the poem-versions in this new edition with those that appear in previous anthologies and collections of her work. It’s a particular joy to encounter a first-edition printing of “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” along with the illustration by Rockwell Kent that accompanied the poem’s appearance in Vanity Fair. Millay’s indelible portrayal of a mother’s commitment to her child, made all the more vivid by Kent’s imagery, intensified her growing popularity during the early 1920’s.

In “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” Millay tells the tale of a widowed woman who must take care of her young son amidst crushing poverty. With few possessions to her name other than “a harp with a woman’s head nobody will buy,” the boy’s mother laments her inability to clothe him properly during the freezing winter months. One night, necessity drives her to an ingenious solution: She will turn the useless harp into a loom on which to weave clothing for her son. As we discover in the last stanza, the mother’s efforts yield an unexpectedly dire result, a final sacrifice that demonstrates the power of maternal love while, ironically, robbing her son of his one living parent. Her pride at having provided for him and his sense of reverent gratitude toward her both exist in devastating tension with the reality of what has happened:

There sat my mother with the harp against her shoulder,
Looking nineteen, and not a day older,
A smile about her lips, and light about her head,
And her hands in the harp-strings frozen dead.
And piled up beside her, and toppling to the skies
Were the clothes of a king’s son, just my size.

Given its appearance in numerous anthologies over the decades, including those intended for children and adolescents, “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” has often been the first Millay poem encountered by young readers across the generations, and it has remained one of her best-known works. Holly Peppe notes in her introduction, “I first heard the name Edna St. Vincent Millay when I was about five or six years old and my mother read “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” aloud as part of our bedtime ritual.” Anybody lucky enough to discover the poem in childhood, when language still exists so viscerally as a form of pure enchantment, has made contact with Millay’s most elemental force. Grown-up readers who encounter “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” find themselves delivered back to that early enchantment while traversing the darker regions of adult awareness, an effect that stands central to Millay’s greatest work.

Timothy F. Jackson and Holly Peppe, through their efforts with this edition, have made a potent contribution to Millay’s legacy. Decorated with major literary honors throughout her life, admired by contemporaries like Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, Babette Deutsch, and Witter Bynner, and described in her New York Times obituary as one of the greatest American poets of all time, she possessed a rare superstar status in the poetry realm. Yet her critical reputation has been contested for a variety of reasons, all of them inflected with the complexities of occupying a female body in a field historically dominated by men. In particular, her status as a popular poet has sometimes been viewed as antithetical to serious literary attainment, and various scholars have deemed her adherence to traditional forms and emotional subject matter, amidst the rise of modernism, as an artistic failing. Peppe and Jackson seek to turn down the volume on the decades-old critical debate about Millay, which has long crackled in the background of her work like radio static, and turn up the powerful sonic register of her actual poetry.

Through the poems they’ve chosen to feature in the book, contextualized by their introductory material and Jackson’s illuminating annotations, they urge us to experience Millay in a more complete way than ever before. Readers who explore this new edition will come away with a resonant understanding of why, as Peppe notes in her introduction, “Millay’s work has had extraordinary staying power with the general reader, despite the fluctuating literary and cultural tastes of the last century.” Millay’s best poems combine story and song, two of the greatest human pleasures, in ways that refuse to be forgotten. Her language reminds us of poetry’s essence as an art form that ultimately lives its fullest life as an echo in our inner-ears, a realm beyond classrooms, scholars, and critics. Recalling the first time he saw the young Millay recite her poems in a Manhattan literary salon, Louis Untermeyer said: “There was no other voice like hers in America. It was the sound of the ax on fresh wood.” In the pages of this new Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, we can still hear the wood splitting.