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Edna St Vincent Millay Biography | Poet

Photo of Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay, or E. Vincent Millay, was born on February 22, 1892, in Rockland, Maine, and died on October 19, 1950, in Austerlitz, New York, at the age of 58. She was an American lyrical poet, who also wrote under the pseudonym, Nancy Boyd. As a child, she referred to herself as Vincent, hence, that was her nickname, so all acquaintances addressed her by that name in her lifetime. She won the Pulitzer Prize For Poetry in 1923. Millay is one of the best known and most respected American poets of the 20th century. She is also known for the phrase, "My candle burns at both ends", from the poem, First Fig.

Major Achievements

In 1906, Millay's poem, Forest Trees, was the first of many poems published in the St. Nicholas Magazine. When Millay was 14, she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge For Poetry. Before she turned 15 years old, her poetry had been published in the illustrious collection, Current Literature. In 1912, she entered a poetry competition, The Lyric Year, submitting her poem, Renascence. The poem placed fourth in the competition, although, it was claimed by the first place winner and the second place winner of that same competition, that Millay's poem should have been awarded first place. A large dispute evolved which gained Millay some publicity and in the wake immediately following the dispute, an affluent arts patron Caroline B. Dow was so impressed by Millay's abilities as a poet that she offered to pay for Millay's college education at Vassar College. In 1923, Millay received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver: A Few Figs from Thistles: Eight Sonnets in American Poetry, (1922). The Harp Weaver, is the first volume by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. For recognition as a brilliant poet, she was awarded the gold medal of the Poetry Society of America. She also became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1940. For her lifetime contribution to American Poetry, she was awarded the Frost Medal in 1943. She was the sixth person to win this award and the second woman to receive it.


While Millay attended Camden High School, from 1905 to 1909, she wrote for and served as editor-in-chief of the school magazine. She enrolled in Columbia University’s preparatory Barnard College, for one semester, before entering Vassar College in 1913. At Vassar College, she studied literature and languages. She also wrote poetry and plays for the college’s magazine, Vassar Miscellany. She even acted in the play she wrote, called The Princess Marries the Page. She completed her college education and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1917.

Millay's Family Life

While attending Vassar College, she met Eugen Jan Boissevain whom she married in 1923. Boissevain was a Dutch businessman, who supported her feminist views and was also a self-proclaimed feminist. Boissevain gave up his career to manage Millay's, which was unusual for a man to do at the time. In 1938, he also purchased for her, Ragged Island, which is off the coast of Maine. They didn't have any children. Both Millay and Boissevain had a few extramarital affairs throughout their twenty-six-year marriage. Millay's most significant affair was with the poet, George Dillon, who was fourteen years younger than she, and for whom she wrote a number of her sonnets. Millay and her husband later resided in Austerlitz, New York, on a 700-acre farm called Steepletop. Boissevain died of lung cancer in 1949. After her husband's death, Millay turned to alcoholism to cope with his death. A year later, Millay died on October 19, 1950, at home. She had fallen down the stairs and was found at the bottom, eight hours after her death. After an examination, her physician concluded that she had died from a heart attack following a coronary thrombosis, which is blockage of a coronary artery. She was 58 years old. She was buried on the grounds of Steepletop which is now a museum and national historic landmark.

Work Facts

Millay read her poems with passion and often included in them, her opinions regarding politics and women's issues. This frequently caused controversy, like the poem she wrote supporting the Allied war effort during World War II. In 1917, she published Renascence and Other Poems. In 1920, she published A Few Figs From Thistles. This collection deals with the controversial issues of female sexuality and feminism. In the same year, she wrote poems for the magazine, Vanity Fair. In 1921, Second April was published. In 1932, Millay performed her first radio poetry reading, which was nationally broadcasted. In 1936, she wrote with George Dillon, translating Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1936). Further collaborative works include: Fatal Interview (1931), Conversation At Midnight (1937), and Make Bright The Arrows (1940). Her writing was cut short when she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1944, and she was hospitalized.

The Significance of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay was the first woman poet to popularize poetry for mass audiences. Like her peer Robert Frost, Millay was one of the most skillful writers of sonnets in the twentieth century. Also similarly to Frost, she was able to write about modern attitudes using traditional forms, which created the distinguishable form of American poetry. Millay was known for her activism and her many love affairs, with men and women, because she was openly bisexual, and those aspects heavily influenced her poetry. She had gained popularity for her captivating readings and performances, her reformist political viewpoints, unrestricted depiction of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and her personification of ultramodern female understanding and representation. She represented the liberated woman's view. Millay was the champion for the new modern woman, which was basically unheard of in that time period, and she gave women the courage to become as she was, and write as she did. 

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