A Sampling of Edna St. Vincent Millay

One of the first books I read in the summer that I moved to New York was “Savage Beauty”, a biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. As was often the case with artists of the Jazz Age, Edna lived a rather tempestuous life: she had many lovers, drank heavily, and eventually died at a relatively young age from a heart attack, though she suffered from the symptoms of alcoholism and morphine addiction. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer, however, and her talent and influence remain uncontested.

Edna is most well known for poems such as “Renascence” and “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver”, and many of her verses were penned in taverns and cafes in Greenwich Village, the exclusive, beautifully historic neighborhood where Dave resided (and where I was fortunate enough to join him once we married). That first summer in New York, the biography and a street map provided me many enjoyable afternoons. I strolled through Greenwich Village, seeking out Edna’s former apartment and Chumley’s, a speakeasy well known for the attraction it held for writers and artists. Chumley’s is still serving, believe it or not! I loved stepping in, for despite the dinginess and faint smell of smoke, it is truly incredible to be sitting or standing in the same spot as a famous writer of the 20’s.

“First Fig” is one of Edna’s most oft-quoted poems:

“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.”

A sonnet I particularly enjoy:

“Love is not all; it is not meat or drink
Nor slumber, nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And risk and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolutions’ power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.”

Finally, a simple poem that I hold very close to my heart. I have sent this poem to a very few precious people in my life, changing the color of the eyes to match them individually. The poem embodies the kind of person that I want to be, someone who seeks out the wisdom of loved ones, who provides for her family and friends a warm and comforting haven, who knows the value of spending time with each other (preferably with food and drink 🙂 ), and the simple pleasures of life.

“Tavern”

I’ll keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest
Wherein all grey-eyed people
May set them down and rest.

There shall be plates a-plenty
And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
Who happen up the hill.

There sound will sleep the traveler
And dream his journey’s end
But I will rouse at midnight
The falling fire to tend.

Aye, ’tis a curious fancy-
But all the good I know
Was taught me out of two grey eyes
A long time ago.

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3 Responses to “A Sampling of Edna St. Vincent Millay”

  1. J & Co. Says:

    you are beautiful! i am soo blessed to have you as my friend and as a receiver of “tavern”! love you!

  2. Hanne Tidnam Says:

    Oh my gosh! I am working my way back through your archives and just saw this post after writing the other comment. We have such similar book taste!!!

  3. Hanne Tidnam Says:

    Oh my gosh! I am working my way back through your archives and just saw this post after writing the other comment. We have such similar book taste!!!

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