Friday Hoyden: Edna St Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

It gives a lovely light!

I have seen this poem reproduced twice on merchandise, attributed to two different male poets.

Millay, called Vincent by her friends, is the kind of example I often feel I need of a person who was able to live a successfully feminist, queer, artistic life. By which I don’t mean that her life was without its struggles or its sorrows, but that she found a way to continue to be herself, when that self did not fit the accepted template. There is a short biography at with links to all kinds of other material.

“Pity me that the heart is slow to learn / What the swift mind beholds at every turn.”

Millay’s poems have a simplicity that has probably contributed to their neglect as works of art. Reading them can feel effortless, not like the hard work we expect experiencing poetry to be. Of course, what that really shows is the care with which they are crafted. You can look up many of her pieces here at Poem Hunter. She combines the grace of Christina Rossetti with the wit of Ogden Nash.

At the time of hurricane Katrina I remember reading verse X of her “Epitaph for the Race of Man” and thinking about the way literature probably intended metaphorically can sometimes fit the literal situation so keenly. Being an Australian woman this past few weeks, I am now feeling the metaphorical impact of the same poem:

The broken dike, the levee washed away,

The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,

Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground,

And nothing left but floating disarray

Of tree and home uprooted, – was this the day

Man dropped upon his shadow without a sound

And died, having laboured well and having found

His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?

No, no. I saw him when the sun had set

In water, leaning on his single oar

Above his garden faintly glimmering yet…

There bulked the plough, here washed the updrifted weeds…

And scull across his roof and make for shore,

With twisted face and pocket full of seeds.

B&W photo of Millay as a young woman in a garden with magnolia blossom

Millay while at Vassar College, 1914

She also wrote the most perfect post-coital brush-off, in sonnet form, no less. It seems just the thing to sign off with:

I, being born a woman and distressed

By all the needs and notions of my kind,

Am urged by your propinquity to find

Your person fair, and feel a certain zest

To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:

So subtly is the fume of life designed,

To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,

And leave me once again undone, possessed.

Think not for this, however, the poor treason

Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,

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.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, history

2 replies

  1. I’ve always been fond of Millay’s work; I have some examples of it in my Norton Anthology, of which my favourites are her two “figs from the thistles” – the first of which you reproduce above. I like her style, and the restrained snarkiness of her writing (she’s not quite as outright acidic as Dorothy Parker, but there’s still that lovely edge to what she’s saying) appeals to me. Plus she writes like she has a sense of humour, which a lot of poets don’t.

  2. I love her. I enjoyed teaching her poems when I still taught Intro to Lit. She has a lot of nice, tight sonnets which make great instructional tools for that form as well as other techniques like internal rhyme. But also, as I note on a post from a few months ago, my students were always shocked that these ancient poems (almost a hundred years old now!!!) depicted a female narrator as openly sexual, even lightly mocking the former beaux who she can barely remember.

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