An April tribute to a half-forgotten poetess named Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ray Harvey
Lit Up



Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) — nom-de-guerre Nancy Boyd — American poetess and playwright, who at thirty-years-young won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (then only the third woman ever to do so), was, at age nineteen, catapulted into worldwide fame after her mother Cora encouraged her to enter a poem Edna had written — called “Renascence” — into a contest held by the magazine Lyric Year.

Renascence” ultimately won fourth place in the contest, but her poem was widely considered the best submission so that upon being awarded fourth place, a certain scandal ensued — a scandal which thereby launched Edna St. Vincent Millay into a literary life rife with love affairs, liquor, lasciviousness, and fame. The first-place winner, one Orrick Johns, was among those who thought “Renascence” the best submission, and he even stated publicly: “The first-place award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph.” The second-place winner offered Edna St. Vincent Millay his $250.00 prize money.

Like Wolfgang Mozart, like Felix Mendelsonn, like so many others before her, Edna St. Vincent Millay was by her own description a workhorse and not a prodigy, as she, like them, was often characterized all throughout her fame-filled youth.

The literary critic Floyd Dell described Edna St. Vincent Millay as “a gifted young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.”

Time has disclosed Edna St. Vincent Millay to be a brilliant yet uneven poetess — one of America’s all-time best sonneteers, without any doubt — and in many of her less formal poems, too, Ms. Millay shows blinding flashes of greatness.

The following is one such:


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only underground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), RIP



Ray Harvey
Lit Up
Editor for

Creative director of all things delightful.