16 November 1998
Normal Covers a Wide Range: The Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay
The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is a composite of her own unique history: she thinks about it, reflects upon it, and recognizes how things happen in life and why. As a result, her poetry has a cause and effect quality, as though shaped by the people, events, and relationships influential to her thinking and behavior. However, Sigmund Freud says that the drives and impulses behind behavioral forces are internal. [comment1]He defines normal behavior as equilibrium in the trilogy of interactions among pleasure (the id), reality (the ego), and social constraints (the superego). Both the analyst and the poet create controversy by discussing the functionality of sex; the former analyzes its subtle motivations, and the latter uses it to contradict the social norm of female asexuality. Unlikely to be wholeheartedly approved of by either Freudians or feminists, Millay's poems: [I, being born a woman and distressed], [What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why], and [Women have loved before as I love now], explore a female-centered artistic vision which turns the table on the prevailing male-centered expectations of women.
Applying both psychoanalytic criticism and feminist criticism to the work of Millay results in a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. Psychoanalytic criticism applied to the behavior of Millay's speakers may lead us to view their feminist leanings and the poet's creativity as imbalance, possibly neurosis. The pleasure-seeking-id surfaces in [Women have loved before as I love now]. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the neurotic world of fantasy-escape is exemplified in lines thirteen and fourteen: "When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread, / Heedless and wilful, took their knights to bed." Freud might classify the speaker as unbalanced due to an overactive id. Perhaps the speaker seeks refuge in fantasy because of an inability to cope with reality. On the other hand, the use of strong female images from mythology would, most likely, give the feminist critic an entirely different spin on the same poem. [comment2]It is a widely accepted feminist belief that characterizations of stronger women in literature and mythology have been ignored while submissive and demure representations of women have flourished. Images of two powerful women are conjured up by the speaker. The speaker compares herself to a woman of the past in line three; [comment3]"Of Irish waters by a Cornish prow" refers to Cleodhna, a supernatural female of Irish mythology, who lures young men away for sexual purposes. Akin to the sirens in Classical culture, she emits a wail or call that none can resist.Additionally, line four "Or Trojan waters by Spartan mast" refers to Helen, who maddened with lust for a Trojan man, follows him to Troy, leaving at home her child and husband. Although her true nature is the subject of ongoing debate by scholars, generally Helen is blamed for the war which devastated both Greece and Troy. While neither character exemplifies the most illustrious traits of women, still their imagery subverts the common idea of passivity associated with women's sexuality.
Millay's poems maintain that the sexual freedom formerly commandeered by men is equally valid for women. This feeling is particularly obvious in the sonnet beginning "What lips my lips have kissed" (1); the speaker's love life is characterized by a series of convenient relationships.Given lines seven and eight for analysis, "For unremembered lads that not again / Will turn to me at midnight with a cry," Dr. Freud might suggest that the impulsive sex serves the double purpose of sabotaging a promising relationship while feeding the needs of thespeaker's ego.Feminist and other  critically-oriented literary scholars who have learned how to identify objectification in their sleep certainly would not miss it in this poem. [comment4]But because convention is twisted by the poet's gender, this tactic seems fresher, less hurtful, and more amusing.There is novelty and irony in a woman using what may be considered the male gaze to scrutinize her own capriciousness.The use of analogy in the sestet ties together the transience of nature's beauty with the loss of magnetism that the aging speaker feels: "Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, / Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one" (9-10). Cyclicly, in nature, beauty which perishes will renew itself, but this speaker does not believe her last lover will be followed by another.As winter marks the ending of a year, so the speaker feels her beauty has faded with age and, as a result, her active love life has reached its end. Line twelve "I cannot say what loves have come and gone" at once illustrates a certain selfishness in the speaker's attitude towards her former lovers and also gives the impression that there were quite a few of them. [comment5]With tenderness, the closing lines whisper remembrance and regret: "I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more" (13-4). But, as a whole, this poem and more obviously the next poem resists sentimentality.
The double standard that restricts women while compelling men to be overtly sexual is ridiculed in Millay's [I, being born a woman and distressed]. The tone of the poem is detached and unemotional, stereotypically masculine. In contrast, the choice of diction keeps the sexual expressions subtle and indirect; the word choice in lines three through five, "Am urged by your propinquity to find / Your person fair, and feel a certain zest / To bear your body's weight upon my breast," is purposely and stereotypically feminine. Concluding physical attractiveness and the convenience of nearness to be practical catalysts for sexual liaisons is part of a logic that has long been associated with males  exclusively. The speaker exercises her femininity in a tongue-in-cheek fashion to undo her opponent with the etiquette based on this masculine logic. Using direct dialogue, albeit one-way, the speaker makes it clear to a past conquest that she is not only uninterested in resuscitating their former affair, but coldly adds that she would like this conversation to be their last:
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
(Millay, [I, being born a woman and distressed] 11-4)
[comment6]By aligning her emotions so closely with that of the opposite sex, Millay would most likely find criticism from Freudians and feminists to be at opposite ends of an approval spectrum. Freudians may see the poet's literary imitation of male behavior as a manifestation of the inferiority complex known as penis envy. However, the feminist critic might applaud the poet for exposing the love'em and leave'em system of behavior practiced by too many males. Sharp contrasts in criticism would likely please Millay because her poetry is replete with contrasts.
Comparing the poems [Women have loved before as I love now] and [I, being born a woman and distressed] to one another we see a consistent style that unifies both works, but we also see contrasting emotions that explore relationships from different vantage points. The speaker in "I, being born" has no memory of the past and no prevision of the future; she is not bitter, but objective and in total control of her emotions. [comment7]Her blasé attitude is in sync with her dispassionate actions. In contrast, "Women have loved" offers a protagonist of intense, even tragic vitality; this vitality expresses itself in ferocious, violent activity: "I find some woman bearing as I bear / Love like a burning city in the breast" (7-8). In like manner, the choice of the women of antiquity to which the speaker compares herself leads us to visualize her passion as a mighty and destructive force. Because of the intensely dissimilar overt attitudes, Freudians might have their work cut out for them in discovering a single covert meaning underlying these two poems. Likewise, feminists may scratch their heads in confusion because of the poet's refusal to fit her ideas neatly into a feminist package. Another interesting contradiction made obvious by comparing these two poems is: by the use of standard sonnet form, Shakespearian in "Women have loved" and Petrarchan in "I, being born," the poet's unorthodox views may receive the legitimacy of tradition while the content simultaneously mocks tradition. [comment8]Unable to fully know the poet's intent, we may only speculate that perhaps Millay is attempting to reconcile with, rather than distance herself from, convention.
It is doubtful that either Millay's mental health or her politics can be evaluated on the basis of three poems. While her poetry has a feminist essence, most modern feminists do not believe that using the methods of patriarchal oppression against men will further the cause of equity for women. Furthermore, many of Freud's opinions and the [comment9]judgements of psychoanalytic criticism based on his opinions seem laced with sexism; this leaves the value of these judgments open to debate. Yet, examining these poems from both psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives allows greater insight into the complexities of Millay's mind and greater appreciation for the independence of her spirit. Today, in the world of feminism and psychoanalysis there is no single system of thought to describe the female experience - normal covers a wide range. In this age, as women and men continue to redefine the standards of moral and proper behavior for both sexes, Edna St. Vincent Millay's ability to look beyond the status quo is a rare and much sought after gift.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. [I, being born a woman and distressed]. The Norton Introduction to
Literature. Eds. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 1998. 1190.
_ _ _. [What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why]. The Norton Introduction to Literature.
Eds. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 1998. 817.
_ _ _. [Women have loved before as I love now]. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds.
Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 1998. 1181.
Best known for her poetic chronicles of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, Millay's work opened a range of new subject matter to women authors. Her writings also helped popularize a new, more liberated way of life for women in the 1920s and 1930s. Though Millay's content was considered radical for its time, the style of most of her poetry is formal, employing traditional meter and rhyme schemes. She has frequently been deemed one of the most accomplished sonneteers of the twentieth century. Several critics have asserted that Millay's devotion to traditional forms, combined with her move to more philosophical and political subjects in her later verse prompted her work to fall from favor in the mid-twentieth century, but increasing attention has been focused on her poetry in recent decades, particularly by feminist critics.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine. At the age of eight, her parents divorced. Millay and her two sisters remained with their mother who encouraged Millay's artistic inclinations. Millay began composing verse during her childhood, and several of her poems appeared in the children's magazine St. Nicholas. She was first noted as a poet at age twenty when her poem "Renascence" was published in the anthology The Lyric Year. With a scholarship obtained partly through the notoriety she gained from the poem, Millay attended Vassar College, where she studied literature and theater and created a stir by rebelling against the school's code of conduct. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Millay lived in Greenwich Village, where she continued to write and worked as an actress. During this period, she gained a reputation as a free-spirited and rebellious social figure whose poetry reflected her celebration of love and life. Her image and verse proved extremely popular, and by the early 1920s she was among the best-known female poets in the world.
In 1923, following a psychological collapse and a two-year sojourn in Europe, Millay published The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. That same year she married Eugen Boissevain, and the couple bought a farmstead in Austerlitz, New York, where they lived the rest of their lives. Beginning in the late 1920s, Millay became increasingly involved in political issues, initially campaigning against social injustices and later warning of the growing militarism of Nazi Germany, both of which were addressed in her poetry. In 1944 Millay suffered a second psychological breakdown, and stopped writing for several years. Her final volume, Mine the Harvest, was completed shortly prior to her death following a fall down the stairs at her home in 1950. The work was published posthumously in 1954.
Millay's first entrance into the literary world occurred in 1912 with the poem "Renascence," an exploration of spirituality as revealed in nature. The poem's tetrameter couplets signaled Millay's devotion to traditional poetic forms, which she maintained throughout most of her career. With A Few Figs from Thistles (1920) and Second April (1921), both published in the wake of World War I, Millay emerged as the poetic spokesperson of the Jazz Age. Her brash, flippant, and witty poems from this period evoke women who live and love freely, valuing passion and adventure over long-term relationships. The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, published in 1923, continued to focus on similar themes. One of the most noted is the untitled sonnet that begins "I, being born a woman and distressed," wherein the female speaker dismisses her lover after an impromptu coupling. The volume also considers other topics, such as the sequence "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" which features the story of a woman who returns to care for her estranged husband before he dies.
With The Buck in the Snow, and Other Poems, published in 1928, Millay began addressing political issues in her poetry. The volume includes "Justice Denied in Massachusetts"—her consideration of the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case in which two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder during the Red Scare of the 1920s—a conviction that has been controversial over the years. Millay's sonnet sequence "Epitaph for the Race of Man" contains a similar historical and political focus, tracing human history and warning of impending disaster. In two collections published during the 1930s, Fatal Interview (1931) and Conversation at Midnight (1937), Millay undertook additional new innovations in her poetic voice. Fatal Interview, a collection of fifty-two sonnets, drew on the traditions of love poetry and classical myth but used them to present a narrative of a love affair from the female point of view. Conversation at Midnight took another approach, and is voiced by a group of male characters who discuss a range of contemporary issues at a late-night gathering.
Critical reaction to Millay's works has widely varied. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, her poetry was generally praised for its lyricism, wit, and engaging representation of the postwar period. By the 1930s, however, her literary stature had begun to decline. Some critics denounced her allegiance to traditional poetic forms, finding them outdated in comparison with the more experimental approaches of modernist poets. Another criticism leveled at Millay's work was that her earlier, popular writings failed to address serious issues. Critics who faulted her later poetry that focuses on political, social, and philosophical topics believed her personal works more emotionally moving and appealing. Some commentators have averred that collections such as The Buck in the Snow (1940), are less successful than Millay's earlier personal verse, and the latter works have been viewed by some as an indication of her declining talents. World War II-era works such as Make Bright the Arrows (1940) were commonly criticized as being propaganda more than poetry. In the decades following her death, Millay was often relegated to the role of a minor lyric poet studied for her Jazz Age lifestyle rather than the artistic works she produced.
More recently, however, Millay's work has received critical accolades, especially from feminist critics. Her poetic redefinition of women's roles has elicited praise. Some of this attention has been directed at her early portraits of liberated women, and Fatal Interview has been lauded as a revolutionary reconfiguration of lyric love poetry to include a female perspective. The charge that Millay's verse is intellectually superficial has also been challenged. Some critics have suggested that even the poet's more exuberant works include images of vulnerability, suffering, and victimization. Some commentators have claimed that Millay was a victim of sexual and political bias on the part of mid-century critics who dismissed her work in favor of modern poets who were male and relatively apolitical. Though Millay's poetry has yet to reclaim the widespread acceptance it once enjoyed, her writings are assuming a larger role in debates involving the literary canon.