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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Born in Rockland, Maine, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the eldest of three children of Henry Tolman Millay, a school superintendent, and Cora Buzzelle Millay, a practical nurse. Mrs. Millay provided a home environment rich in literature and music. Evidently a gifted child, Millay wrote her first poem at the age of five. When she was twelve, her poems first appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine, which two years later awarded her a gold badge for poetry. She contributed poems to her high school magazine and appeared in high school plays and in local productions by touring acting companies.

When at the age of twenty she recited her poem “Renascence” as entertainment at a local hotel resort, she was “discovered” by a visiting official of the New York City YWCA, who sponsored Millay’s entrance into college. While at Vassar College, she wrote poetry and plays for the campus magazine, composed her class’s baccalaureate hymn, and drew considerable attention when she acted in college plays. Millay lived for eight years in Greenwich Village, during which she appeared as an actress at the Provincetown Playhouse, where her popular one-act play Aria da Capo was first produced, and devoted herself to writing. After marrying Eugene Boissevain, a Dutch American importer, in 1923, she resided permanently at her estate, Steepletop, in eastern New York State. In addition to being the first woman poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize (1923), Millay was the recipient of five honorary degrees and numerous awards for poetry. She was hailed in the 1940s as “one of the ten greatest living women.”

Edmund Wilson, the famous critic, characterized her as a female intellectual. Early reviews ran the gamut, calling her “a romantic idealist” and “an urban pagan.” Although at first a few critics were inclined to treat her too lightly, most recognized her as a truly gifted poet who wrote artistically crafted verse about serious matters of the human heart and mind. Though she was taken to task for being flippant and self-indulgent with her second book, A Few Figs from Thistles, Second April was generally well received. This volume also contains twelve sonnets, a form in which Millay was to work with much distinction. She is arguably one of the great sonnet writers in English and without peer in the sonnet form among all American poets. Subsequent volumes saw her called uneven, lacking in intellectual force, and ill disciplined, but at the same time she was named “America’s finest living lyric poet” and “among our foremost twentieth-century poets.”

Although many poems in earlier volumes are touched with humor and satire, the mood of the later poetry darkens and deepens as Millay’s artistry grows more complex and the ideas more profound. Her treatment of romantic love, for example, grows graver and more reflective. She became a writer very much involved in social issues, an activist and feminist long before these terms were popular. She is outspoken about personal integrity and freedom, which is really the major theme of her work. For a brief time, she also wrote of subjects related to the ongoing war. She is a memorable nature poet, rivaling her contemporary Robert Frost in a fine delineation of natural detail. Millay’s range as an author is demonstrated by her periodical short stories, her volume of prose “dialogues,” a libretto for a distinguished American opera, and half a dozen dramatic works.

Although Millay published nothing in the last ten years of her life, she wrote constantly. Much of this work appears in the posthumous Mine the Harvest. The past thirty years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in Millay, with academic symposia, a growing number of articles, several dissertations, and ten books in whole or in part about her. An artists’ colony and a literary society have been established in her name.

John J. Patton
Atlantic-Cape Community College

In the Heath Anthology
Spring (1921)
[Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare] (1923)
Sonnet xli (1923)
The Spring and the Fall (1923)
Dirge Without Music (1928)
Justice Denied in Massachusetts (1928)
[Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink] (1931)
Sonnet xcv (1931)
[Here lies, and none to mourn him but the sea] (1934)
The Return (1934)
[His stalk the dark delphinium] (1939)

Other Works
Renascence and Other Poems (1917)
A Few Figs from Thistles, Aria da Capo (1920)
Two Slatterns and a King, The Lamp and the Bell, Second April (1921)
The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1923)
Distressing Dialogues (published under "Nancy Boyd") (1924)
Three Plays (1926)
The King's Henchman (1927)
The Buck in the Snow (1928)
Poems Selected for Young People (1929)
Fatal Interview (1931)
The Princess Marries the Page (1932)
Wine from These Grapes (1934)
Conversation at Midnight (1937)
Collected Sonnets (1941)
Murder of Lidice (1942)
Collected Lyrics (1943)
Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1952)
Mine the Harvest (1954)

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Academy of American Poets
A biography, links, and poetry texts.

Modern American Poetry
Biographical information and criticism of some of her works.

Secondary Sources

Elizabeth Atkins, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times, 1936

Norman Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1967

Norman Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Revised ed., 1982

Anne Cheney, Millay in Greenwich Village, 1975

Joan Dash, A Life of One's Own, 1973

Diane P. Freedman, ed., Millay at 100, 1995

Jean Gould, The Poet and Her Book, 1969

Judith Nierman, Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide, 1977

Rosemary Sprague, Imaginary Gardens, 1969

William B. Thesing, ed., Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1993