Review: Everyman's Library Pocket Poets - Edna St Vincent Millay

This poetry anthology, Everyman's Library Pocket Poets' edition of selected poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, came to me as a Christmas present from someone who kindly picked it off my Amazon wish list. It had been on there for a while, an anomaly amongst the more modern stuff, as I knew a few poems of hers from other anthologies and was desperate to read more. This Everyman volume is a beautiful slim volume that is as attractive and lovely as the poetry inside.

And what's lovely about Millay's poetry is that it's not that lovely at all - it's sad and happy and cynical and witty - and it's defining characteristic is Edna herself: hers is a clear, defiant voice that rails with humour against love, loss and the realities of her life, whilst speaking about relationships, mortality and the world at large in the most tender and insightful way.

She's the type of poet who I read and think, 'yes, if there were none of the obvious difficulties of time and distance, we could be friends.' This is obviously not true of all poets - I can't imagine a night down the pub with Larkin would be much fun, Rilke is the scariest man ever (see this previous post) and sadly the majority of other poets would probably be too busy killing themselves and wringing their hands with loneliness and despair to have much of a liking for long walks by the seaside or a good film or a friendly drink. Edna and I could be buddies though - that's probably why time spent in this book, in her company, leaves me feeling so satisfied, with a real sense of the interesting person behind the page.

Hers is an iconic life story too. By all accounts tremendously precocious, she started writing poetry at a very young age, winning the St. Nicholas Badge for Poetry at 14 and finding fame on entering The Lyric Year Poetry Prize with the splendid 'Renascence' at just 20, sparking controversy after her poem was only awarded fourth place, in the awkward circumstance of everyone, including the winner, knowing that it was the best. After that she entered Vassar College at 21, sponsored by Caroline B. Dow, who was moved to pay for Edna's education after hearing her read and hearing her play the piano, and then moved to Paris in 1921. All this time she was red-haired, beautiful and openly bisexual, with a multitude of scandalous and flagrant relationships and a vast number of very interesting, very arty friends. The climax of this time in her life came when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for 'The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver', making her only the third woman to win the prize at the time. She died in 1950, having become only the second woman to win the Frost Medal for her contribution to American poetry, at her home, which is now a museum in Austerlitz, New York, at the age of 58.

It is difficult to choose a favourite from this collection to give as an example of her work here, but I'm going to go for two - 'Travel' and 'Sonnet III' from 'A Few Figs from Thistles' - because they showcase the clear-sighted honesty of her work, which I think has presented much of it from really ageing, and also her pro-feminist insistence on independence from both men and convention, and also her tremendous energy and optimism and curiosity for the world. If you're new to or slightly resistant to poetry, Millay might be a good place to start, especially if you're a woman trying to establish an independent footing in relationships and in the world.


The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear it's whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming
But I see it's cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

'Sonnet III'

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love's self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger's rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you - think not but I would! -
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more change full than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I am most true.

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