Edna St. Vincent Millay: Poems Background

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Poems Background

Edna St. Vincent Millay is the very definition of the poet as rebel. At least as much Shelley and maybe even more than Keats, Millay fully inhabits the role of the writer in society as the caretaker of its continued progression forward. She was a feminist during the Jazz Age when the word really meant something; used around the wrong crowd and it could get you hurt. While the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay do not draw upon the conventions of this era of pushing the limits of conventional society with quite the same ferocity as the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it can be suitably argued that as a person she is a more appropriate standard-bearer of the times than the creator of Gatsby.

Indeed, her sonnet sequence “Epitaph for the Race of Men” proved she was not stuck in the heady Prohibition liquor fueled fantasia that lived, breathed and died. By 1934, Fitzgerald was already half-forgotten and Hemingway was halfway to self-parody, but Edna St. Millay was crafting poetry with images that presciently foresaw the horrors awaiting the world on the other side of the Great Depression.

Her 1923 collection The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver and Other Poems earned for her the distinction of becoming the first woman to ever the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The money her 1928 collection The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems earned went straight into a fund to continue defending alleged anarchist murderers Sacco and Vanzetti after they had already been executed by the state. Reviled by many for this action and the inherent stain it supposedly left upon the demure image of the female poet, Millay’s unshakable belief that the two were railroaded by the system for their political beliefs rather than any criminal actions when new investigation concluded 50 years after their deaths that they had been unfairly tried and wrongly convicted.

What is perhaps most interestingly about Millay’s legacy as one of the most poets America has yet produced is that her radical politics and unshaking embrace of feminism are only rarely exhibited through her verse. In fact, the bulk of her most beloved and well-known poems only indicate the depth to which feminism defined her life by virtue of the unusual and idiosyncratic emotional detachment from her subject when she writes of love and romance.

Ultimately, however, Edna St. Vincent Millay does wind up being the female counterpart to Fitzgerald, though less as exemplar of Jazz Age sensibilities than through an unwarranted lack of respect. Like Fitzgerald, the consensus among scholars and academics still seems to be that she is more an example of great promise unfulfilled than actual greatness. And, also like Fitzgerald, she is routinely lumped into the category of Minor Poets. If this judgment be worthy, then she is almost without question one of the most widely read and beloved Minor Poets of all time.

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