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Remembering Edna St. Vincent Millay

photo source: Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress
photo source: Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine.  But the Village was always in her blood; her middle name, St. Vincent, came from the Greenwich Village hospital where her uncle’s life had been saved just before her birth, and she often referred to herself as ‘Vincent.’  Millay moved to Greenwich Village after graduating from Vassar College in 1917, and remained here until 1925. During the time she spent in Greenwich Village, she wrote some of her most famous works, including the poem most people know best:

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!

This is from the 1920 collection “A Few Figs from Thistles,” which was controversial at the time for dealing with subjects such as feminism and women’s sexuality (Millay herself was known as ‘libertine,’ and was fairly open about her bisexuality). In 1923 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.”

The narrow house at 75½ Bedford Street

According The Millay Society, “…In the immediate post-World War I era, Millay emerged as a major figure in the cultural life of Greenwich Village, when the Village served as an incubator of every important American literary, artistic, and political movement of the period. As part of this milieu, Millay’s work and life came to represent the modern, liberated woman of the Jazz age, free of the restrictions of the past…”

In 1924 Millay and others, including her sister Norma and Norma’s husband Charles Ellis, founded the Cherry Lane Theater on Commerce Street, just around the corner from where she lived in the what is often called the “narrowest house in New York City” at 75½ Bedford Street (view historic photos from GVSHP’s image archive here). Millay was one of many creative geniuses who made their mark on the world from Greenwich Village.

In 1925, growing weary of city life, Millay and Boissevain purchased an abandoned blueberry farm in upstate New York. She stopped writing for several years while they worked on making the property habitable. Throughout the 1930s and 40s Millay was a prolific writer, and traveled the world for lucrative speaking engagements. She loved living in the country, having guests, and throwing lavish parties.

Millay was only the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  On October 19, 1950, the great poet died at her country home, Steepletop. Her husband, Eugin Boissevain, had died there the year before.

You can read more about Millay here and here, and see videos of GVSHP programs about Millay here and here.

Edna St. Vincent Millay at the Washington Square Arch, courtesy of The Millay Society

One response to “Remembering Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. What a wonderful capsule about this marvelous poet who lived two blocks from where I have spent all of my life. Thanks, Ted.

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