Edna St. Vincent Millay! Renascence of the soul
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
"The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through."
Edna St. Vincent Millay gained her reputation as an outstanding poet with the magnificent poem Renascence, which secured her literary fame and marked the beginning of her writing career. In this week's ZiNger, we will take a closer look at the life and work of one of the most respected American poets of the twentieth century.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 - October 19, 1950) was an American lyrical poet and playwright. In 1923, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, becoming the third woman to win a poetry prize by then. Her opera The King's Henchman was the most popular opera of its time, and after it was published in print, it was equally successful. Apart from her literary achievements, Edna was also known for her turbulent private life.
She was born in Rockland, Maine. Her mother Cora Lounella Buzelle divorced her father, Henry Tolman Millay when Edna was twelve, and Edna subsequently moved from town to town with her mother and sisters, living in poverty. Cora was determined to provide her daughters with a good education and wherever the family moved she always carried with her a suitcase full of literary classics like Shakespeare and Milton, which she read to her daughters. She also encouraged them to write poems and stories. The family eventually settled in Camden, Maine, and there Edna went to high school and began developing her literary talents, starting with the school’s literary magazine. At the age of fourteen, she won a poetry award, and by the age of fifteen, she had published poetry in children’s literary magazines and anthology Current Literature.
When she was nineteen, her mother persuaded her to apply for a literary competition and Edna applied with the poem Renascence for which she was inspired while looking out from the summit of Mt. Battie in Camden (where a plaque now commemorates the writing of the poem). Although the poem was considered the best submission, it only won fourth place which caused a real scandal, and one of the winners even offered his cash prize to Edna, believing that she deserved the victory. It was because of the poem Renascence that Edna received a scholarship to Vassar College, which she then enrolled at the age of twenty-one and completed four years later with a degree in art. After graduating, in 1917, she published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. The equally successful collections A Few Figs From Thistles and Second April followed, and the author's popularity continued to grow. Soon the first recognitions came; for the collection The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver she received the Pulitzer Prize and it was in that collection that Edna coined the popular phrase “My candle burns at both ends”.
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.
"Jazz Age’s most famous poet" was known for her tumultuous private life, alcohol and morphine addiction, and affairs with men and women (regardless of her marital status). She had many suitors, some of whom were poets Floyd Dell and Arthur Davison Ficke and editors of Vanity Fair magazine; John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson. Wilson even proposed to Edna, but she refused. By all accounts Arthur Davison Ficke was the one who won her heart. From their correspondence it is evident that Edna nurtured strong emotions for the American poet (https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/22/edna-st-vincent-millay-polyamory-love-letters/):
"Arthur, my dearest,
I must write you, or you will think I did not get your letters. But when I start to write you all I can think of to say to you is — Why aren’t you here? Oh, why aren’t you here? — And I have written that to you before… I have nothing to say but that I long to see you. — I take the photograph with me everywhere, the big one. I love it."
"Do you remember that poem in Second of April which says, “Life is a quest & love a quarrel, Here is a place for me to lie!”? — That is what I want of you — out of the sight & sound of other people, to lie close to you & let the world rush by. To watch with you suns rising & moons rising in that purple edge outside most people’s vision — to hear high music that only birds can hear — oh, my dearest, dearest, would it not be wonderful, just once to be together again for a little while?"
"Arthur, I am glad that you love me. Your letters have hurt me & healed me. Such sweetness, to be loved like that. But to be loved like that by you — how shaking & terrible besides… You were the first man I ever kissed without first thinking that I should be sorry about it afterwards… Arthur, it is wicked & useless, — all these months & months apart from you, all these years with only a glimpse of you in the face of everybody."
Their relationship began and ended with correspondence, and stretched over a period of over three decades. They met six years after the first correspondence and it was love at first sight, but they were soon separated because Arthur had to go to war. During this time the poet wrote many sonnets to Edna, which prompted her to write some of her most beautiful sonnets in the Second April collection. Arthur was suffering from cancer towards the end of his life and in his last moments he sent Edna his last letter (https://blog.oup.com/2009/04/millay/):
“I like to think that your and my very strange, very fluctuant, profound love for each other has, in all these many years, been evocative of the very finest things in each of us, many a time.”
At Arthur's funeral, Edna read a sonnet that she had written for him thirty years earlier:
And You as Well Must Die, Beloved Dust
And you as well must die, beloved dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell,—this wonder fled.
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how beloved above all else that dies.
Their relationship is thought to have been devoid of an intimate aspect, unlike Edna’s other relationships with men during her marriage to Eugene Jan Boissevain. Edna and Eugen were married for twenty-six years, until Eugene's death in 1949. Eugen was a loving husband who cared for Edna and forgave her for her affairs with other men. When Edna suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to write for two years, Eugen took care of her the whole time. Their love, like everything else in Edna’s life, was not classic, but it was enduring, and after his death Edna was inconsolable.
Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain,—
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
Neither stop nor start.
People dress and go to town;
I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
Or what shoes I wear.
She died a year after him, on October 19, 1950, of a heart attack, alone on the steps of their house in Austerlitz, called Steepletop.
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Only a question less or a question more;
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!
After her death, Edna’s sister Norma and her husband, painter and actor Charles Frederick Ellis, moved to Steepletop and founded the Millay Colony for the Arts. Interestingly, the poet Mary Oliver visited the Steepletop house at the age of seventeen and became close friends with Norma and eventually moved into the house for a period of seven years and during that time helped Norma with the organization of Edna’s papers. Mary Oliver herself won the Pulitzer Prize and was greatly inspired by Edna's poetry, as can be seen from the following poem:
I have sat in the circle of the storyteller,
Spellbound by the legends,
Grieving for every ill-starred name
Defeated in battle, defeated in love,—
Yet I leave as hopeful as I came.
History has no counsel for the wanting blood;
Among the syllables of the storyteller’s voice
I hear the tick of the clock in the hall;
And quickly, my love, ride to me, over
This landscape where the heroes fall and fall.
Edna’s life was dramatic, and her behavior caused outrage of the public, but in the end, what really matters are the poems that this gifted poet left to the world. Of all the things she wrote, Renascence is her best work, and after reading that poem one is left with the feeling that if by some chance that poem was the only thing she ever wrote, it would in itself be enough to secure her the title of one of the best poets of the twentieth century. We bring you this truly magnificent poem in its entirety:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I'll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And—sure enough!—I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I 'most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,
Bent back my arm upon my breast,
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The Universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense
That, sick'ning, I would fain pluck thence
But could not,—nay! But needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till I had drawn
All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn!
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire,—
Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl;
Perished with each,—then mourned for all!
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
Long had I lain thus, craving death,
When quietly the earth beneath
Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
At last had grown the crushing weight,
Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,
And sank no more,—there is no weight
Can follow here, however great.
From off my breast I felt it roll,
And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust
That all about me swirled the dust.
Deep in the earth I rested now;
Cool is its hand upon the brow
And soft its breast beneath the head
Of one who is so gladly dead.
And all at once, and over all
The pitying rain began to fall;
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatched roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before.
For rain it hath a friendly sound
To one who's six feet underground;
And scarce the friendly voice or face:
A grave is such a quiet place.
The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
I would I were alive again
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine
Of every slanting silver line,
To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun
Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
Until the world with answering mirth
Shakes joyously, and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
How can I bear it; buried here,
While overhead the sky grows clear
And blue again after the storm?
O, multi-colored, multiform,
Beloved beauty over me,
That I shall never, never see
Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
That I shall never more behold!
Sleeping your myriad magics through,
Close-sepulchred away from you!
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
Upset each cloud's gigantic gourd
And let the heavy rain, down-poured
In one big torrent, set me free,
Washing my grave away from me!
I ceased; and through the breathless hush
That answered me, the far-off rush
Of herald wings came whispering
Like music down the vibrant string
Of my ascending prayer, and—crash!
Before the wild wind's whistling lash
The startled storm-clouds reared on high
And plunged in terror down the sky,
And the big rain in one black wave
Fell from the sky and struck my grave.
I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things;
A sound as of some joyous elf
Singing sweet songs to please himself,
And, through and over everything,
A sense of glad awakening.
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain's cool finger-tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see,—
A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,—
I know not how such things can be!—
I breathed my soul back into me.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.
About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e'er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!
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.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.