Edna St. Vincent Millay Biography Born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine, Edna St. Vincent Millay grew up with the constant label of being “different,” which in her case, was a good thing. To match her strange individuality, her friends and family called her “Vincent. ” Her mother, Cora Millay, was a singer and encouraged the arts. She recognized Edna’s exclusivity and took advantage of it. By the age of four she had already started learning the power of poetry. Millay’s parents separated when she was young and her dad left them no financial aid.
After raising enough money, in her mid twenties Millay attended Bernard, and then Vassar colleges. In both schools she excelled though her spirit, confidence, and talent. Immediately after graduating, she began writing poems for important magazines such as Vanity Fair, who later hired her full time and got her career in progress. In 1923, Millay became the first female to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding writing. She was the first woman to ever receive an award for poetry. Even during her time where women had a degraded reputation, not once did she bring to an end to her writing.
Historical Perspective Along with Millay’s creativity and simplicity came a commitment to use her fame and talent for causes beneficial to society. One cause she actively participated in was the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were both anarchists who illegally immigrated to America from Italy. They came to America in hopes of financial benefits. Sacco found a job at a shoe factory in Massachusetts, while Vanzetti was employed as a kitchen helper in New York. Once the two revolutionaries met, they instantly clicked.
Sharing the same anarchist principles, one could predict no good would come of this friendship. Political rebels were arrested in May of 1920 for armed robbery at a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, and murder of the factory’s guard and managers. The case became a lot more complex and time consuming than planned once the public got involved. Fellow anarchists stood by the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti until the end while others felt strongly towards them receiving the death penalty.
Millay was deeply involved in defending these two anarchists. She participated in all of the protests held in Boston against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. She used her social authority and originality in writing a letter to the governor of Boston asking him to “…exert the clemency which your high office affords” (Gray 39. ) She helped to spread awareness among the public through speaking at interviews with the media and city council meetings with the locals. Despite Millay’s persevering efforts, Sacco and Vanzetti were ordered to be executed.
Soon after, Millay composed a short Threnody dedicated to them, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts. ” Regardless if the two were innocent or guilty, Millay’s efforts on their behalf show her commitment to social cause. She stood by what she believed in and fought courageously for it, and even though she lost, a beautiful poem flourished out of the experience. Literary Affiliations Millay wrote most commonly about the beauty and magic in ordinary simplicities that most might notice, but never take into creative consideration.
Another quality about her poetry that made it stand out was that she was a lyric poet. Lyric poetry is when the poem incorporates the author’s feelings through a usually highly musical verse. In ancient times, lyric poetry was accompanied with lyre. In modern days, lyric poems are not often sung. Millay could be a risky poet and experimented with lyric poetry a lot in her times. The different and positive flare she gives to her poetry is what makes it so attractive to her audience. Millay was never the generic idea of high-class. She grew up during a time of little woman’s rights.
She is described as a “New woman” which is a successful woman during the 1880-1920’s. She was an outspoken and confident feminist “addressing issues of industrial, racial, and sexual justice at home and promoting world peace” (Smith-Rosenberg 1). Although she ended up with fame, she was able to remain grounded through her writing. Millay grew up with only the necessities, so in order for her and her two sisters to find the pleasure in growing up, they turned towards the arts. This also helped Millay appreciate the magic that ordinary objects of their life.
Life itself was one of her poems greatest themes. Her poem’s meanings were usually associated with integrity, individuality, and a sense of searching for your soul in a world of chaos. Explanation and Analysis of a Work Women are independent beings; however, they always seem to have a longing for a stronger and more masculine figure to lean on in their lives. Once a woman finds a man to fulfill that cliched desire of men always being there to catch them when they fall, it is as if life without them becomes unbearable.
Millay uses allusion, repetition of words and imagery, connotation, and an informal first-person speaker in her poem “An Ancient Gesture” to support her theme that women have a deeper fear of being left alone than men do. To some it may seem a bit clingy, but it’s the deeper feeling of abandonment that women dread. The ancient gesture that is repetitively illustrated is stated in the first line, “I wiped my eyes” (Millay l. 1. ) Millay later affiliates her poem’s actions with the Greek mythological character, Penelope.
Penelope is infamous for waiting alone for twenty years for her husband, Ulysses, to return. Ulysses’ is the Roman name for the epic hero Odysseus. In Millay’s poem, Ulysses’ “cry” is only a gesture that he learns from Penelope, whose actions have true emotion. The allusion to Penelope’s work, weaving, is also powerful. In Homer’s version of the ancient Greek story, Penelope said that she would not pursue her life with any of her suitors until she had finished weaving her tapestry, when in reality it was just a way for her to buy time until Odysseus returned home.
Her faithfulness and dedication shows that she cared more about her husband than he did about her. The commitment that Penelope has for her husband proves that she cares deeply about him, and does not want to leave him. Unfortunately, Ulysses’ desire to stay devoted to each other is not as profound and obvious and Penelope’s is. Women want to keep loved ones close to their heart although it is not always reciprocated. Millay repeats the image of wiping tears to emphasize that it is not only a gesture, but has sentimental value behind it.
In the poem, Millay illustrates that the she is “[wiping] tears from [her] eyes with the corner of her apron” (Millay l. 1. ) When one hears the word apron, immediately the thought of women’s attire for house work comes to mind. The reoccurring image of the apron in the poem represents that Penelope engaged herself in her work to try and relieve the loneliness. Millay also describes Penelope’s weaving as work to fill her time. In the poem, Millay writes “Weaving all day/ and undoing it all thought the night;/ your arms get tired and the back of your neck gets tight” (Millay l. 3-5. Weaving is thought to be a tedious and time consuming activity for women. The fact that it is being done all through the day leads one to believe that to Penelope it was less of work and more of a distraction from worry and stress even though it still yields exhaustion. Some women try to take the subject of being left behind off their mind by throwing themselves in another activity. Millay uses an informal first person to express her theme that women have a deep fear of being abandoned. The informality sets a causal tone to the poem in order to help a female audience relate.
Millay uses the casual approach to set the poem on a lower scale to help her audience comprehend it better, rather than giving the poem a speaker of authority who uses formal language. She speaks in first person to give the poem a more personal background since these emotions are felt amongst most women throughout time. Setting an informal first person speaker helps the readers feel sympathetic to Penelope’s situation in the poem. Women like to isolate themselves from the rest of the world when it comes to feelings.
Being able to see that this is a reoccurring feeling gives women, not only hope, but a sense of strength. Millay’s choice of informality makes the speaker seem as though she is speaking to friend, almost as though she is giving friendly advice to the audience. This helps the female readers feel more comfortable and able to understand that it is natural for women to worry over being left Millay applies allusions, repetition, connotations, and an informal speaker in her poem prove her theme that women are more in touch with their feelings about being left by men then men have about being left by woman.
Millay’s reference to the Odyssey supports women’s devotion to their partners. Repetition of the tears and apron images reinforces the depth of the feelings that the speaker has. Lastly, Millay chooses a casual tone to the poem to help a female audience relate to theme of women’s fear of abandonment is deeper than men’s. Women’s feelings are sensitive and deeper than some may interpret. Men have less of an emotion about any situation, but their talent to express artificial feelings based off of women’s genuine ones can be very convincing, as Ulysses’s “gesture” in Millay’s poem indicates.
Women’s obsession or infatuation with someone can be easily mistaken for love. In the perspective of a woman, losing your love is the most horrific obstacle one can endure which explains why the speaker in ”An Ancient Gesture” speaks of the fear of losing love. Conclusion Edna St. Vincent Millay achieved some outstanding accomplishments in her life time. She was asked to take a position of authority by writing for Vanity Fair in Europe as one of her first jobs. Also, she was the first woman, not only to receive a Pulitzer Prize, to be awarded anything for poetry.
Millay was a bold and confident writer. She grew up in a time where women had little rights, so for her to become a writer with such power is an impressive achievement. Millay cared about her audience enough to help out with their social causes, such as the Sacco and Vanzetti case that she actively participated in. Using many of her talents, Millay proves to be a special writer. Her writing for her time period was very experimental and helps her stand out among other authors. Millay never surrendered her childhood’s imagination and hopeful spirit.
Her ability to explore the beauty of the lesser things in life provided her and her audience with determination and strength to concur anything that interfered with happiness. Works Cited Brittin, A. Norma. Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967. Print. Gray, James. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967. Print. Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “An Ancient Gesture. ” Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Ed. Prentice Hall. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc, 2000. 926. Print. “Millay, Edna St, Vincent (1892-1950). Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Gale, 1988. Academic One file. Web. 12 May 2011 “Sacco and Vanzetti ((? )-). ” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Gale, 1998. Academic OneFile. Web. 24 May 2011 Schoonmaker, Frances. Introduction. Edna St. Vincent Millay. By Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Sterling Publishing Co. , 1994. 4-7. Print. Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The New Woman. ” The Reader’s Companion to U. S. Women’s History. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1998. Academic OneFile. Web. 25 May 2011.