She died much too young, this poet, this lesbian, this dramatist, this icon of early 20th century intelligentsia. At 58 years old she was discovered in her home alone, dead from a heart attack.
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!
(“The First Fig” from “A Few Figs from Thistles”)
Edna St. Vincent Millay lived life on her own terms. She found love with both men and women, and was quite open about it, both socially and in her writing.
Her affairs with women began at Vassar. Her first lover was Wynne Matthison, a British actress. In one of her letters to Matthison, Millay wrote, “When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to You.”
There were many other lovers. Even when she formally married, Millay insisted on an open marriage. While she and her husband lived “like two bachelors”, little is actually known of her affairs during this time. It is known that she continued her correspondence with assorted women during the time she was married. Millay’s husband died in 1949; she died a year later, leaving us a legacy of brilliant poetry.
Edna St. Vincent Millay — A Passionate Woman
She is neither pink no pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hand in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.
She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.
Millay’s passions of youth transformed into passions for the world as she matured. She was a pacifist, even going to murder trials to read soothing poetry to the accused.
In 1922 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1927 she was arrested as one of the “death watch” for Sacco and Vanzetti, and worked to raise money for their defense. The collected letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay contain one missive that wrote to the Massachusetts Governor, Alvan T. Fuller, pleading for the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. Excerpts are here.
During World War II Millay was struck by the Nazi massacre at Lidice writing
The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice,
Like the murdered body of a little child,
Innocent, happy, surprised at play.
Edna St Vincent Millay’s cavalier attitude toward love is well recorded, and even she mocked how unfaithful she was:
Millay was raised by her mother in “gay and courageous poverty”, as described by the novelist Floyd Dell. I would have liked to read poetry from her more mature years. Any lesbian poet with this much passion could only have brought goodness to the world. We are grateful that she was with us as long as she was.