Edna St. Vincent Millay was a 22-year-old Vassar student on May 4, 1918 when she wrote a letter thanking her friend Corinne Sawyer for a basket of flowers. She was already famous for a poem she wrote when she was 19.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on Feb. 22, 1892, in Rockland, Maine. Her father left the family when she was six, and her mother, Cora, moved her and her two younger sisters around until they settled in Camden, Maine. Cora was a night nurse and frequently left for days. She relied on her oldest daughter, who she called ‘Vincent,’ to run the household from the time she was around 12.
When Edna St. Vincent Millay was 19, her mother suggested she enter a poetry contest. Her poem Renascance won fourth prize. Anyone familiar with midcoast Maine will recognize the references of the opening lines:
ALL I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line 5
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood. 10
Over these things I could not see:
These were the things that bounded me;
The poem won national acclaim.It also caught the attention of wealthy philanthropist Caroline Dow, who offered to raise the money for the young poet’s college tuition. Edna St. Vincent Millay spent a semester at Barnard College, then in 1913 she transferred to Vassar, where she raised hell. She smoked cigarettes, cut classes and took illicit midnight walks in the woods. Finally she left Vassar in 1917 for the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village.
Edna St. Vincent Millay would win tremendous critical acclaim for her poetry and fame for her feminism and her many love affairs with both men and women.
All that was still before her when she wrote from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to her friend Corinne Sawyer:
Dear old chum –
Bless your heart! You
don’t forget me, do you? A May Basket! Why
it made me a little girl again.
It got here in wonderfully good condition
nothing smashed – nothing spilled. And its
perfectfully dear so sweet outside as in —
I love you a keg-ful, Corinne of Camden, and when
I get home we’ll talk as ever.
Member me to your folks.
– Vincent of Vassar
With thanks to All-night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930, by Andrea Barnet.