Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950) was an American lyrical poet and playwright and the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was also known for her unconventional, bohemian lifestyle and her many love affairs. She used the pseudonym Nancy Boyd for her prose work.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine to Cora Lounella Buzzell, a nurse, and Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher who would later become superintendent of schools. Her middle name derives from St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, where her uncle's life had been saved just prior to her birth.
In 1904 Cora officially divorced Millay's father for financial irresponsibility, but they had been separated for some years prior. Struggling financially, Cora and her three daughters — Edna (who would later insist on being called "Vincent"), Norma, and Kathleen — moved from town to town, counting on the kindness of friends and relatives. Though poor, Cora never traveled without her trunk full of classic literature — including William Shakespeare, John Milton, and more — which she enthusiastically read to her children in her Irish brogue. Finally the family settled in Camden, Maine, moving into a small house on the property of Cora's well-heeled aunt. It was in this modest house in the middle of a field that Millay wrote the first of the poems that would catapult her to literary fame.
Cora taught her daughters to be independent and to speak their minds, which did not always sit well with the authority figures in Millay's life. Millay preferred to be called "Vincent" rather than Edna, which she found plain — her grade school principal, offended by her frank attitudes, refused to call her Vincent — instead, he called her by any woman's name that started with a V.
At Camden High School Millay began nurturing her budding literary talents, starting at the school's literary magazine, The Megunticook, and eventually having some of her poetry published in the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas, the Camden Herald and, significantly, the anthology Current Literature, all by the age of 15.
Millay’s career and celebrity began in 1912 when she entered her poem “Renascence” into a poetry contest in The Lyric Year. The poem was so widely considered the best submission, that when it was ultimately placed fourth, it was quite the scandal for which Millay received much publicity. The first place winner, Orrick Johns, was among those who felt that “Renascence” was the best poem in the volume, and stated that “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." One of the second prize winners even offered her his $250 prize money. In the immediate aftermath of The Lyric Year controversy, a wealthy woman named Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poetry and playing the piano and was so impressed that she offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College. After her graduation in 1917, she moved to New York City.
In New York she lived in Greenwich Village. It was at this time that she first attained great popularity in America. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, for The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems. She was the first woman to be so honored for poetry. Her reputation was damaged by poetry she wrote in support of the Allied war effort during World War II. Merle Rubin noted: "She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism."
In 1943 she was awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. She was the sixth recipient of that honor, and the second woman.
Millay had relationships with several other students during her time at Vassar, then a women's college. In January 1921 she went to Paris, where she met sculptor Thelma Wood, with whom she had a romantic relationship. During her years in Greenwich Village and Paris she also had many relationships with men, including the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who unsuccessfully proposed marriage to her in 1920.
In 1923 she married Eugen Jan Boissevain (Amsterdam, 20 May 1880 – Boston, MA, 29 August 1949), then the 43-year-old widower of labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland. Boissevain greatly supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. They lived near Austerlitz, New York, at a farmhouse they named Steepletop.
Millay's marriage with Boissevain was an open one, with both taking other lovers. Millay's most significant other relationship during this time was with the poet George Dillon, fourteen years her junior, for whom a number of her sonnets were written. Millay also collaborated with Dillon on Flowers of Evil, a translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal.
In 2006, the state of New York paid $1.69 million to acquire of Steepletop. The land will be added to a nearby state forest preserve. Proceeds from the sale are being used to restore the farmhouse with plans to turn it into a museum. Parts of the grounds of Steepletop, including a Poet's Walk that leads to her grave, are now open to the public. Millay bought Steepletop with her husband in 1925, two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Her best-known poem might be "First Fig" from A Few Figs from Thistles (first published in 1920):
However, many consider "Renascence" and "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" to be her finest poems.
Also, she wrote five verse dramas early in her career, including Two Slatterns and a King, The Lamp and the Bell (written for Vassar College), and The King's Henchman (originally an opera). Her most famous verse drama is the often anthologized One Act play Aria da Capo, written for the Provincetown Players.