A Lovely Light

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some bathtub-gin-spiked birthday cake
for a Jazz Age poet.
** Linger to ponder poetry’s lasting effects on one impressionable youth.
** Savor a last ½ cup pondering the well-stocked library of a hideaway in the Berkshires.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


First Sip:

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

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.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay, 1934
by Charles Ellis
National Portrait Gallery
gift from the artist and Norma Millay Ellis


Slice of Cake:

The America of the 1920s
made two major contributions to the world.
One was skyscrapers.
The other was the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay.

– Thomas Hardy1

In 1920, a small 4-line poem
about a candle burning at both ends
was tossed—like a match in a kerosene drum—
into a crowd of restless youth, eager to forget the years
of war, epidemic, and economic downturns.

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!

First Fig
a poem by
Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay was wildly free, a gleeful rule-breaker—
a poet who looked back at loves she’d left
with nostalgia, but no regret.
She sought out adventure and freedom,
and went on to write about it all.

Her poetry…will always give the lie
to any too-respectful biography.

– Edmund Wilson2

She was called a ‘literary tigress of the Jazz Age.’ 1

** 5 Verses in the Lyrical Life **

Edna St Vincent Millay

The Hotel

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide

– from Renascence
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

When she was 18, Millay took part in a talent show.
It was her sister who had roped her into the gig—
Norma had been working as a waitress in a hotel in their town of Camden, Maine.
The hotel always asked the staff to give an end-of-the-summer show for the guests.

To begin, Millay played some piano pieces for the audience.
Then someone who knew she wrote poetry suggested
that Millay recite something.

I don’t know what all the audience was expecting—
Most likely something short and sweet.
(Millay certainly looked small and sweet.)

Instead she turned on her piano stool to face the audience and—
without hesitation, without any notes, and with a
theater-trained, well-modulated, and loudly-projected voice—
she launched into an original, 214-line, tour de force of a poem.1

The title of her poem is Renascence. And it has it all:
Life, death, God, Nature.
The audience didn’t know what hit them.

Afterward, a woman named Caroline Dow, approached Millay’s mother, Cora.

Dow was the dean of the training school at the YWCA3
and she wanted to know what Vincent’s future plans were.
Hearing their situation, Dow offered to help get her into college.

Cora—who had educated her daughters toward just such a chance—
leaped at the opportunity.

The Hospital

The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand

– from Renascence
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Despite being a single mother without much money,
Cora Millay had provided her three daughters with piano & French lessons,
and encouraged their participation in local theater productions.1

She also made sure there were plenty of books to read and learn from—
their house contained more books than the town’s public library.1

I cannot remember once in my life
when you were not interested in what I was working on,
or ever suggested that I should put it aside for something else.

– letter from Edna St. Vincent Millay
to her mother Cora Millay

To her oldest daughter, Cora also gave something else:
A very unusual middle name.

When Cora was pregnant for the first time,
she got news that her brother Charlie was seriously ill
in a hospital in New York City.

Charlie had been working as a stevedore on a ship headed
down the Atlantic coast. After a night out drinking in New Orleans,
Charlie staggered back to the ship and fell asleep on some cotton bales.3

When Charlie woke, the ship was at sea—and he was trapped in the hold,
down where no one could hear his shouts for help.
Eleven days went by.

Finally the ship docked in New York City.
The crew found Charlie unconscious and rushed him to St Vincent Hospital.
A week and a half later, Charlie wrote his sister, saying:
“Don’t worry…I am feeling all right now…It’s hard to kill yours truly.”3

That same week that Cora gave birth to a baby girl.
She gave her daughter the middle name St Vincent,
in honor of the hospital that saved her brother’s life.

Vincent became a favorite name for her family and friends to call her,
and the name she preferred and used her whole life.4

By the time Vincent was nine years old, she had
two younger sisters, Kathleen (five) and Norma (eight years old).
And their mother and father were divorced.

Cora worked as a hairdresser, a wig-maker and a nurse,
but money was scarce and the family moved from one rented house
to another in the poorer neighborhoods of Camden, Maine.

After Vincent graduated high school,
her mother sometimes had to travel to find work.
It was up to Vincent to care for the house & her younger sisters.
It was tiring and frustrating work—when what she wanted was to have fun,
and to work on her poetry.1

The Poetry Contest

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.

– from Renascence
Edna St Vincent Millay

Starting at the age of 14, Vincent had poems accepted for publication
in popular children’s magazines. But once she’d turned 18, she was no longer eligible.3

One day Cora saw a magazine ad calling for 100 American poems
to be published together as a book. There would be a $1000 prize for the three best poems.
Cora showed the ad to Vincent. ‘Here is your chance,’ she told her. ‘Make a good try.’ 1

Vincent sent in her long poem, Renascence (the title is French for Renaissance),
along with several shorter poems.

Renascence was accepted for the book, which was published in 1912
with the title The Lyric Year.

Vincent did not win the prize money.
Much to her whole family’s surprise and disappointment.

However, Vincent’s poem got quite a lot of attention.
Some doubted that Millay really wrote it.3

No sweet young thing of 20
ever ended a poem where this one ends:
it takes a brawny male of forty-five to do that.

– poet Arthur Ficke
in a note to
The Lyric Year editor3

Dozens of both critics and readers called Renascence the
best poem in the book.4

Millay is the poet who became famous
by not winning the prize.

– Daniel Mark Epstein,
Millay biographer

Then came the show at the hotel: Vincent recited Renancence.
And a very impressed Dean Caroline Dow pledged to help get her into college.

And she did.

With Caroline Dow’s help, Vincent not only was accepted into college—
she was offered full scholarships at two universities: Smith and Vassar.3

Lots of Maine girls go to Smith; very few to Vassar.
I’d rather go to Vassar.

– Millay in a letter to her mother3

Next Dow told Vincent that she’d need some extra preparation to be ready to start Vassar in the fall. So in Spring 1913, Vincent moved to New York City to take some classes from Barnard College.5

Loose in New York! How did
your mother come to let you do it?

– Arthur Ficke,
in a letter to Millay

I left all my bad habits at home—
bridge-pad, cigarette-case, and cocktail-shaker…
I am prudent to the point of Jane Austen.

– Edna St Vincent Millay,
in a letter to Arthur Ficke

Loose in New York is right. Millay was in heaven.

She went out to the opera for the first time and saw Madam Butterfly.
She was feted by famous poets: Out to tea with Sara Teasdale;
Invited to lunch by Louis Untermeyer & Jean Starr.
Literary editor Jessie Rittenhouse gave a party in her honor.

Then, just a few weeks into her stay in New York,
Millay received a letter from the magazine The Forum, saying that
two of her poems (Afternoon on a Hill and Journey) were accepted for publication.
And they enclosed a check.

$25.00!!! O, girls!!!!

– Edna St Vincent Millay
in a letter home to her sisters

It was the first money Millay had earned from poetry since the
days she wrote for children’s magazines.
She sent her check home to her mother.3

Promise me, please, that with some of this…
you’ll make something easier for yourself.
Shoes, dear—or have your glasses fixed.
…I’d like it so much if each one of you would get
some little tiny silly thing that she could always keep.

– Edna St Vincent Millay
in a letter to her mother

Vassar College

Vassar, in the early 1900s, was a place which encouraged
their genteel scholars to conduct themselves with modesty and decorum.

When Millay entered Vassar in 1913, she was already 21 years old
and a published poet, with a bit of fame, and some big-city polish.1
The 18-year-old freshmen at Vassar didn’t know what hit them.

Important people in the literary world found her fascinating.
She was extraordinary looking. She was very witty and charming,
and she became the talk of the town in New York.

By the time she arrived at Vassar, she was a celebrity.
It would be almost as if Bob Dylan had decided to go
to college at age 22, when he was already world-famous…

Millay turned the place upside down.

Daniel Mark Epstein
Millay biographer

Millay had many friends and lovers among her fellow students.
By her sophomore year, she landed the lead role in the theater production.
She attended lots of parties, and often came late to her classes.
She found the institutional norms of this all-women college confining—
and she often broke the rules.

They trust us with everything but men.
– Millay, in a letter to Ficke4

One night, just before graduation,
Vincent stayed out all night. And got caught.
She was told she would not be able to attend graduation ceremonies.

The students and several teachers rallied for her, however, and the administration gave in. Millay graduated Vassar College in Spring 1917 with her class.

After graduation, Millay was offered work as a private social secretary
in the beautiful country home of a fashionable woman.3

She believes in me as a poet…
would pay me a salary &…
is exceedingly anxious to have me do it—
but I just don’ wanna!

– Millay,
in a letter to a friend3

Millay turned down the job and hopped on a train for New York City.

The Village

What lips my lips have kissed,
and where, and why,
I have forgotten…

– from What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
Edna St Vincent Millay

Vincent moved into Greenwich Village, planning to
live on her poetry & acting jobs.

She soon gathered her sisters there—first Kathleen, then Norma—and the three shared a third floor walk-up apartment. Parties, speakeasies, poetry, and theater: That was the life. Vincent worked on her poetry, and also wrote plays, as well as acting in them. Kathleen was publishing poems of her own,3 and Norma had a successful career acting on the stage, including on Broadway.6

Three sisters:
Norma, Vincent, & Kathleen

A few years later, in 1924, Millay helped found a new theater
called the Cherry Lane Theatre, whose mission was to encourage ‘experimental drama.’7

Side note:
Today, the Cherry Lane Theatre is New York’s
oldest continuously running off-Broadway theater.

(Their current show Coal Country opens March 3, 2022.)7

But it was in 1920 that Vincent’s book of poems,
A Few Figs From Thistles was published—to great acclaim
and greater controversy.

How neatly she upsets
the carefully built walls of convention
which men have set up around their Ideal Woman.

– Harriet Monroe,
editor of Poetry Magazine

In 1923, Edna St Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Happy 130th Birthday
** Edna St Vincent Millay **

– born February 22, 1892
in Rockland, Maine


Linger Awhile:

Imitation is
the sincerest form of flattery that
mediocrity can pay to greatness.

– Oscar Wilde,

expanding on an old proverb

I’ve been thinking this week about how quietly and deeply
this one poet has influenced my life.

Starting in grade school!

I remember my 6th grade teacher scaring our whole class by telling us how
we’d be expected to memorize 100 lines of poetry by the end of the year.

But at this point, the only poem I can remember reading in elementary school
(and I surely didn’t memorize this one!) was a strange,
haunting story about a woman who made clothes with her harp—then died.

Even as a 9-year-old I questioned how appropriate this poem was for children!

A decade or two later I came across that poem again:
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver by Edna St Vincent Millay.

“Son,” said my mother,
when I was knee-high,
“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.”

“Little skinny shoulder-blades
Sticking through your clothes!
And where you’ll get a jacket from
God above knows.”

– from The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver
by Edna St Vincent Millay.

I began writing poetry of my own when I was a teenager.

Now, looking over some my high school poetry,
I can see that much of it was inspired by (if not derivative of) Edna St Vincent Millay.

Funny, though I remember reading e e cummings,
and I remember reading E A Robinson,
yet I have no memory of reading E Vincent Millay.

But she’s there,
Like a ghost, haunting my poetry.

With your patience, I’ll share some poetry of my 15- and 16-year-old self.
Because—speaking of ghosts—I’m sure I’d have never written this:

…Grey wisps of clouds and
Ghosts, in from the sea,
Thread the green mountains
And the rain speaks to me.

in 1979

If I’d never read this:

…the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply…

– Millay
in 1920

And, similarly, here’s teenage me:

how can I…
let you, Sweet April, pass away
without a song to your

your infant buds smothered with symbolism,
weights of metaphoric alliteration trip up
your soft winds…
One year will come
and on your own whim
you’ll pass unheralded
into gentle May
in 1978

And here’s Millay:

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.
I know what I know…
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
– Millay
in 1921

I can see that Millay helped bolster my inner narrative.
Her words were like a soundtrack for my dreams of freedom and adventure.

She was energized and enthusiastic. She loved nature.

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.

– from Afternoon on a Hill
Edna St Vincent Millay

She had a restless sense of adventurewhich I certainly shared!

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

– from Travel
Edna St Vincent Millay

In my ideas of independence,
I believed the future I strived toward would not be defined by men.
So when a romance (or two) seemed primed to put me off my path,
I had this:

Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad,
And love me if you like!
I hardly hear the door shut
Or the knocker strike…

– from The Betrothal
Edna St Vincent Millay

In some ways, I had to defy convention and make my own way
into a future I couldn’t really see, but knew I wanted.

I feel very grateful to Millay for keeping me company along the way.


“Half Cup More”

Edna St Vincent Millay’s poetry would never again reach the popularity
it held during the 1920s.

Stranger, pause and look;
From the dust of ages
Lift this little book,
Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die!
Search the fading letters, finding
Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

– from The Poet and His Book
Edna St Vincent Millay

Millay went on to marry
and she and her husband bought a beautiful piece of land called Steepletop
in the Berkshire Mountains of New York.9

Millay reading in her library at Steepletop
Edna St. Vincent Millay Society

Popular or not, I love Millay’s poetry.

And I hope someday to visit Steepletop—the house and the gardens
all carefully preserved by the Edna St Vincent Millay Society.9
Including Millay’s library with over 3000 books!
Her mother Cora would be so proud.


Take-Away Box

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
Edna St Vincent Millay


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

notes & footnotes

Burning Candles: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay Edna St. Vincent Millay
a documentary written & directed by
Robert Duncan

Eavan Boland Reads the Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
a lecture by
Eavan Boland
presented by The Poetry Society of America and
The New York Botanical Garden

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay
Nancy Milford

Millay at Steepletop
by Holly Peppe
for the Archives & Special Collections Library
at Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York

Biography of Edna St Vincent Millay

Poetry Foundation

obituary of Norma Millay Ellis, 92; Arts Colony Founder
New York Times
May 16, 1986

Cherry Lane Theatre

To quote from the Cherry Lane Theatre website:
In 1923, a group of theater artists
led by Evelyn Vaughn, William Rainey, Reginald Travers & Edna St. Vincent Millay,
commissioned famed scenic designer Cleon Throckmorton to convert
a box factory into Cherry Lane Playhouse.
Some of the most ground-breaking experiments in the chronicles of the American Stage
took root here; including, The Downtown Theater movement, The Living Theatre,
and Theatre of the Absurd.
From this Greenwich Village jewel streamed a large succession of plays by:
* F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Elmer Rice in the ’20s.
* Clifford Odets, WH Auden, Eugene O’Neill, Gertrude Stein,
T.S. Eliot, William Saroyan in the ’40s and ’50s.
* Beckett, Albee, Pinter, Ionesco, LeRoi Jones in the ’60s.
* Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson,
Jean-Claude van Itallie, Joe Orton in the ’70s and ’80s.

Biography of Harriet Monroe
Poetry Foundation

Harriet Monroe was founder and editor
of the literary journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse,
first published in 1912 and continuing in print and online today.
A poet herself, Harriet Monroe created a forum to
help poets and poetry gain exposure and was instrumental
in the American poetry renaissance of the early 20th century.

Edna St Vincent Millay Society at Steepletop


Please note:
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

5 thoughts on “A Lovely Light”

  1. Thanks for the education on Vincent! I’ll admit my ignorance prior to reading this, and her proto-feminism reminds me of some of the Yankee women in my family (although mostly being introverts, none of them were quite so “free spirited”).

    Have you memorized Renascence? 🙂

    1. Thanks, Tom! I hadn’t thought about her in the New England Yankee tradition—that’s interesting.
      And ha—No! A 14-line sonnet is about as long as I’ve been able to memorize.

  2. Well, we visited Cherry Lane Theatre when last you came to NYC, Kelly,
    so come again and let’s see an actual play there!
    Also, Steepletop awaits!
    your sister Patricia

    1. We sure did! I’m hunting down a photo of Cherry Lane Theater from that day—
      on our literary tour of NYC!
      And, yes, let’s go find Steepletop. I can’t wait!
      xox – Kelly

  3. Thanks Kelly, your posts seem to open up a new world for me. I always learn so much. Loved the side by side with your own teenage poetry.

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