Dorothy Parker wrote about Edna St. Vincent Millay, “We all wandered in after Miss Millay. We were all being dashing and gallant, declaring that we weren’t virgins, whether we were or not. Beautiful as she was, Miss Millay did a great deal of harm with her double-burning candles … (she) made poetry seem so easy that we could all do it. But of course, we couldn’t.”

Who was the dashing poet from Camden, Maine, who made it look easy? Two recent collections of Millay’s letters and diaries reveal a writer fully engaged in literature and the wider world. “Into the World’s Great Heart” compiles her letters from 1900, when she was a precocious 8 year old, to her death in 1950. Millay was a prodigious letter writer – to family, friends, editors, lovers – and her formidable wit and intellect are on display. She was a charmer from the get-go, involved in arts and letters from her earliest years – one of the first letters here is to the editor of a children’s magazine.

The correspondence ramps up in 1912, when Millay enters her poem “Renascence” in a national verse competition; its acceptance into an anthology brings her to the attention of editors, writers and a reading public soon smitten. Her rise from that point was meteoric – a poetic rags-to-riches tale that’s almost inconceivable today. (Though there are a few contemporary comparisons: think of Amanda Gorman, the young poet who rocketed to stardom – or as close as a writer gets to it – when she read at President Biden’s inauguration.)

Millay’s confidence and social aptitude are striking. She swiftly enters into correspondence with influential writers and editors (mostly male, mostly older), engaging in the kind of literary conversations she’d clearly yearned for. She comes across as bright, vivacious, flirtatious, funny – a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the Jazz Age. It’s no surprise she was embraced by the New York literati, who must have been astonished that such a brilliant comet sprang from remote Camden. To poet Arthur Davison Ficke, “I will send you some manuscripts as soon as I get them back from (ahem!) the Poetry Society of America, where they are to be read Friday night. (I shake in my shoes.) If you please, I have been elected to membership in the aforesaid Society. I could hardly believe it; but it’s true.”

As her career progresses and fame grows, she’s less of a people pleaser but no less pleasing, sharing opinions and critiques with a rapier wit. Those lucky enough to receive a Millay letter must have felt a thrill on opening the mailbox. Numerous letters to editors and publishers display bracing assuredness in her voice and vision. She was generous to other writers, serving on the Guggenheim Award committee and advocating for those whose work she admired, and didn’t pull punches when excoriating the writing establishment’s insularity and requisite hoop-jumping (a critique just as valid today). Her letter declining to serve on the Academy of American Poets is a master class in skewering fusty institutions: “… In return for his freedom … from poverty, this ‘poet of proven merit’ must conduct himself, throughout the period of his fellowship, precisely as if he were a prisoner on parole.”

She lent her voice to political causes. A letter to FDR in 1935 denounces the Senate filibuster, which aimed to scuttle an anti-lynching bill: “Must forever the time of high executives and the money of the tax-payers be wasted in order that a person with nothing to say should be permitted to say it indefinitely, with the sole and admitted purpose of preventing from speaking a serious representative of the people with a problem to present?”


Millay recognized the coming threat to democracy and wrote poems of dubious artistic merit aimed at shoring up support for U.S. involvement in World War II. This took a toll. In 1946 she wrote to her friend and ex-lover, the writer Edmund Wilson, “Your letter reached me at a time when I was very ill indeed, in the Doctor’s Hospital in New York. I was enjoying there a very handsome – and, as I afterwards was told, an all but life-size – nervous breakdown. For five years I had been writing almost nothing but propaganda. And I can tell you from my own experience, that there is nothing on this earth which can so much get on the nerves of a good poet, as the writing of bad poetry. … I cracked up under it.”

She was acutely aware when her star began to fade. A letter to a former lover, George Dillon, in 1938: “I have been for a long time without anybody to talk with about my poetry, any other poet I mean. Most of the other poets who are my friends or good acquaintances dislike my new stuff and loathe the work of the new poets I think highly of.”

Because her letters are collected without the recipients’ replies, the nuance of two-way correspondence is absent. Millay’s biographers seem a little stumped by the depth of her passion for Dillon, the younger man who never matched her devotion. The reader remains stumped, too, because we don’t hear George’s voice in response.

This collection suffers from inconsistent footnoting. Some letter recipients are identified in the footnotes, others aren’t. Millay’s college friend Elaine Ralli, biographers agree, was also her lover. Holly Peppe mentions this in the book’s foreword, but it isn’t footnoted in letters mentioning Ralli – important context that’s unnecessarily buried. Other examples of missing context might prove frustrating for readers who aren’t already Millay scholars.

While male editors appreciated the raw talent in her early work, it was wealthy, socially connected women who offered the practical assistance (a scholarship to Vassar) that catapulted Millay into society with other writers. “Rapture and Melancholy,” Millay’s collected diaries, charts the head-spinning pace of her ascent to literary darling.

As with the letters, the diary entries deepen in complexity and interest as she matures. (“Algebra” is the single-word entry on both August 14 and August 16, 1913, raising the question, who will care about this humdrum dailiness, other than the most avid Millay scholar?) Mention of an affair with a college friend: “Tonight Katharine and I came together with a crash that smashed us all up, and when we picked up the pieces we put them together as they should be, and now everything is quite wonderful…” abruptly cuts off. Some sensitive entries were likely excised by her sister after her death, or by Millay herself.


Yet many entries reveal Millay’s textured inner world – and are as charming, funny and acerbic as she must have been at countless parties. Dismayed by the coffee and lack of cream on a trip to Paris in 1920: “Of the two white pitchers one contains a steaming black fluid, one a steaming white fluid. They sit side by side on the tray, brought together by force, sullen partners & a nefarious deed. They hate each other.–I pour them into a cup, & stir them angrily. They mix, but they do not communicate. … It is puddle-grey,–the grey of despair.”

As her poems suggest, she was a lover of nature and many entries illustrate her close observation of her garden and the natural world. Her snobbery is disappointing – she held a contempt for servants that’s ironic considering her humble origins. But on another trip to Europe, in 1934, she gives the last of her traveling cash to a young working-class woman that her husband, the devoted Eugen Jan Boissevain, had saved from drowning years before.

The diary entries slow during her most productive writing years. She was more irritable than she let on publicly, expressing fatigue at the drunken shenanigans, demands and piques of her social circle. Most gut-wrenching are the later entries, which chart her escalating dependence on alcohol and opiates. In 1942: “Exercise Will Power in all things, big or little. Don’t become self-indulgent, don’t become sloppy in anything, in your thinking in your dress, in anything. … Never let the other person see you using the hypodermic, or know that you are about to do so, or have just done so. Never leave the syringe about where you see it.” The final entries are logs of her drug intake.

Millay imbued her work with feeling, and fell out of favor as tastes turned to modernism’s cool intellectualism. But feeling was her strength – and her best poems beckon the reader, inviting us in:

“Such as I am, however, I have brought
To what it is, this tower; it is my own;
Though it was reared To Beauty, it was wrought
From what I had to build with: honest bone
Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;
And lust is there, and nights not spent alone.”

For additional context, readers can turn to Nancy Milford’s cracking good biography, “Savage Beauty,” or Timothy F. Jackson’s annotated “Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.” But within the limitations of their formats, these new collections offer valuable insights. Emerging poets might find inspiration in the way Millay saw her chance and seized it – she didn’t wait in the wings, she actively exchanged work and struck up friendships with a wide-ranging group of thinkers and writers. Even as a youth, Millay claimed her place among them, always dedicated to reading and studying the greats and engaging with the broader world. She jumped into literary life with gusto. For a long time, it paid off.

Genanne Walsh is the author of a novel, “Twister,” and a nonfiction chapbook, “Eggs in Purgatory.” She lives in Portland.

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