She Was the Toast of the World

The dramas and diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay

At a time when modernism was leaning away from both love poetry and the verse form, Millay wrote some of her best sonnets. (Wikimedia Commons)
At a time when modernism was leaning away from both love poetry and the verse form, Millay wrote some of her best sonnets. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pretty, petite, and polyamorous, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the “it girl” of American poetry in the Roaring Twenties. Like many other adolescent literary aspirants, I read her work—especially her sonnets—with wonder and adoration in the not-so-fiery late ’40s and early ’50s. I’m not sure that I knew she was still alive in 1949, and I don’t remember hearing of her death in 1950. No, she was a dream poet, glamorous, eloquent, always alive, and always in love. My friends and I memorized her lines, such as,

Oh, sleep forever in the Latmian cave

Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon!


Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!

Give back my book and take my kiss instead. …

Some sane day, not so bright and not so stormy,

I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

Internalizing her romantic defiance of outworn Victorian strictures and structures, we mooned and moped around Greenwich Village, pretending to be her, and some of us (myself included) drafted countless love-struck sonnets of our own, addressed to real or, more likely, pretend lovers.

As I gobbled up selections from Millay’s diaries, published earlier this year for the first time and meticulously edited by Daniel Mark Epstein, I was astonished to discover that the 19-year-old Millay also had a pretend lover. If nothing else, the critical and biographical importance of her diaries’ publication rests in introducing us to this “Beloved,” for whom the lonely girl, caught in a hardscrabble life in Camden, Maine, periodically sat ritualistic “vigils.” Consider this extraordinary entry, dated June 3, 1911:

The love of you lies on my heart now like a sunbeam and I could laugh with the joy of it. Oh, darling! Goodnight. Goodnight, sweetheart! Beloved. If there was a word more beautiful than “Beloved” I would call you it. When I have found a way to express the inexpressible then will I tell you how I love you. Goodnight, oh wonderful thing that has come into my life. If you were here I would say it over and over to you: Beloved, oh Beloved, Beloved!

Millay’s early diaries include quite a few of these vigils, and they are almost theatrically prophetic in dramatizing the direction in which the poetry of young “Vincent” would go. Epstein himself, in What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, his 2001 biography of Millay, called her “America’s foremost love poet”—and a love poet she certainly was, at a time when modernism in English was leaning away from both love poetry and the verse form in which she was to become most accomplished: the sonnet. The consequences of this passionate proclivity for romance were profound, and two-fold. On the one hand, such volumes as Second April, Fatal Interview, and The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems rewarded her richly, not only with the Pulitzer Prize (which Millay won in 1923, for The Harp-Weaver) but also with annual publishing royalties equivalent to six figures today. On the other hand, through the ’20s and beyond, as the aesthetics of modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams came to dominate, Millay’s works began to seem mawkish and sentimental. High school English classes recited Eliot’s eerily sardonic “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” rather than any of Millay’s elegantly lush love sonnets. Her work was barely included in the received canon of American poetry until the 1990s, when feminist theorists began to reappraise her writing.

Millay was brilliant, and had she gone to Harvard, as Eliot, Conrad Aiken, and Wallace Stevens did, she might well have written poetry more like theirs. As it was, her poetic choices were determined by her very different environment: a lively but impoverished household of three sisters (Vincent, Norma, and Kathleen) and their divorced mother, Cora Millay, who was away working as a nurse for much of the time, leaving Vincent to cook, clean, and care for her younger siblings. Cora treasured books—her library featured a leather-bound volume of Robert Browning’s verse—as did her daughters. But Vincent’s domestic responsibilities made her a latter-day Cinderella—and how much time does Cinderella have to read when she’s always got to black the stove? Millay wrote her widely admired poem “Renascence” in 1912 at age 20 and the following year was sent to Vassar by a wealthy admirer. There Cinderella found herself being courted by a thousand princesses. Not only was she a talented actress with a magnetic presence, she was also preternaturally lovely—slim, fair, redheaded, green-eyed. Her lesbian amours at Vassar (only obliquely presented in the diary) were legendary, as were her madcap escapades on and off campus, even while she was meditating and composing such Browningesque dramatic monologues as her early “Interim” and “The Suicide.”

By the time she graduated and moved to the Village, she had metamorphosed into a Cinderella with a thousand princes. What literary critic Edmund Wilson called her “extreme promiscuity” meant that her horde of lovers, in addition to Wilson himself, included such well-known literary men as Floyd Dell, Arthur Davison Ficke, Witter Bynner, John Peale Bishop, John Reed, Max Eastman, and on and on. There were afternoon trysts and evening trysts and what a late sonnet refers to rather ironically as “nights not spent alone”—yet none of this energetic sexual activity kept her from producing polished poems and an acclaimed play, Aria da Capo, which premiered in 1919 at the Provincetown Playhouse, where she and her sisters all acted. In the early 1920s, she left New York for Europe, becoming “the toast of Paris,” as Epstein writes, just as she had been “the toast of New York,” and Cinderella, now expensively gowned in designer clothing, found yet more admiring princes.

And what did all this signify for her poetry? Well, while Eliot was dryly muttering, “Let us go now / you and I, / through certain half-deserted streets,” only to have his neurotic speaker end up at a tea party where he’s intimidated by the women who “come and go / talking of Michelangelo,” Millay was exulting in her eroticism:

I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex,

Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat,

Leaving the lofty tower I laboured at

For birds to foul and boys and girls to vex

With tittering chalk; and you, and the long necks

Of neighbours sitting where their mothers sat

Are well aware of shadowy this and that

In me, that’s neither noble nor complex.

Such as I am, however, I have brought

To what it is, this tower; it is my own;

Though it was reared To Beauty, it was wrought

From what I had to build with: honest bone

Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;

And lust is there, and nights not spent alone.

As Floyd Dell wrote, Millay was always frank about her urges—and often curiously eager to transform erotic relationships into eternal friendships.

In a way, we might speculate that she was lonely. Certainly, as a 20-year-old stranded in Camden, she often confided to her diary that she was “jest so lonesome” in the ironic words of a country girl. Where was she to go and what was she to do without the kind of imaginary lover that Beethoven had called the ferne Geliebte, or distant beloved? The seriously philosophical Harvard that shaped Eliot, Aiken, and Stevens might have redirected her (although there was in fact no place for her there), and Radcliffe never became a possibility. But Vassar, with its plays and promenades and schoolgirl crushes and lesbian experimentation, was no place for a budding intellectual. Although Millay received an excellent background in classics there, and went on translating Catullus all her life, Vassar infantilized her, feminized her, laid the groundwork for the “it girl” she was to become.

Yet she survived and thrived in her own way, to do reading tours in beautiful gowns and to produce sonnets that may be archaic but are also of unmatchable brilliance. Even at the height of her fame, she was scorned by those modernist intellectuals who had not been her lovers. In 1917, for instance, Stevens wrote a play titled Bowl, Cat, and Broomstick in which three 17th-century, quasi–commedia dell’arte characters brood on the portrait of a beautiful “poetess” named Claire Dupray, with whom they are vaguely in love until they discover that she is not the 22-year-old writer who insists that she will “love as long as she lives” but an unglamorous 53-year-old. Dupray is surely a parody of Millay, not merely because of her youthful beauty or the rhyme of their names, but because the three critical protagonists decide that Dupray is “not herself in her day.” Rather, she is of an earlier day: she writes sonnets when she should be writing free verse; she is traditional when she should be innovative and experimental. (Stevens very likely knew Millay because her sister Kathleen had acted in another one of his plays, and he doubtless resented the poet when her Aria da Capo got far more attention in New York than his own dramatic efforts.)

The Millay we remember is forever lovely and lyrical, yet her diaries give us a fuller picture of the poet—in all of her vivacity, yes, but also in her painful decline.

Despite Stevens’s veiled criticism, Millay did mature, though never into modernism. But as she grew up, her diary entries became wittier and more thoughtful than the romantic schoolgirl excerpts I’ve quoted here. Walking along the Seine in 1920, she mused: “After all, it is a French river, and it is to be expected it would speak in a different tongue. After all, it is a French river. It speaks no English. With the best of my French, I cannot catch what it is saying.” Later, the diary records trips to England and most notably Albania, where Millay produced some fine travel writing and was photographed wearing an Albanian costume in an echo of the extremely promiscuous poet who preceded her in scandalous popularity—George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Reading the diaries, I felt some relief when, in 1923, Millay married the wealthy Dutch importer Eugen Boissevain and finally settled down at Steepletop, a secluded country estate near Austerlitz, New York. As she had confided to the Beloved for whom she kept girlish vigils, the famous poet had become physically frail and needed someone to take care of her. Eugen, whom Millay often calls “Ugin” in the diaries, the widower of the famous suffragist Inez Milholland, was only too glad to take on this burden. The first six years of their marriage unfurled a tapestry of contented domesticity—gardening in the nude, building a bar by the swimming pool, hosting former lovers and their wives (the Wilsons, the Fickes, the Dells). Then came Millay’s mad love affair with a younger poet, the bisexual George Dillon, which produced a painful rejection and a notable book of sonnets: Fatal Interview. Afterward, Millay undertook more readings around the country in fabulous velvet and chiffon gowns. (I once visited Steepletop and was urged by Elizabeth Barnett, the resident curator, to look at the closet full of “her gowns”—and they were indeed fantastic.)

But ultimately, as if in a Grimm fairy tale, for all this pleasure there came a punishment, not warranted but nonetheless dealt out. In 1936, while the Boissevains were out motoring, the car door opened and the poet was flung into a ditch, seriously injuring her shoulder. The ensuing pain kept on ensuing: already by this time an alcoholic, Millay became addicted to morphine. Among the more troubling diary excerpts is a selection of daily charts noting Millay’s consumption of gin rickeys at breakfast, bottles of claret at dinner, and all-day-long hypodermic injections of morphine, as well as intermittent doses of codeine, Benzedrine, and Nembutal. It took several hospital stays to wean her from morphine, the worst of her drugs. In time, she conquered the habit, but the end of her life was sad. In 1949, Eugen died of a brain hemorrhage after surgery for lung cancer. A little more than a year later, Millay was sitting at the top of the Steepletop staircase, drinking white wine and correcting some proofs, when she evidently stood up, slipped, and tumbled to her death of a broken neck.

By that time, she had begun to look like a caricature of herself. Visiting her after a separation of several decades, Edmund Wilson was taken aback at what he found:

[I]f I had met her unexpectedly somewhere, I am sure I should not have known her. She had become somewhat heavy and dumpy, and her cheeks were a little florid. Her eyes had a bird-lidded look that I recognized as typically Irish, and I noticed for the first time a certain resemblance to her mother. She was terribly nervous; her hands shook; there was a look of fright in her bright green eyes.

Of course, the Millay we remember is forever lovely and lyrical, as she searches for the passionately imagined Beloved. Yet her diaries give us a fuller picture of the poet than we have ever seen—in all of her youthful vivacity, yes, but also in the painful decline that marred her final years. They end poignantly with a short description, written in May 1949, of a rabbit trying to escape from one of the dogs on the Steepletop estate. It “was gray, not brown at all and looked sort of mortified and moth-eaten.”

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Sandra M. Gilbert is the author of nine books of poetry and of Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions. With Susan Gubar, she wrote The Madwoman in the Attic and Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1950-2020.


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