But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And — sure enough! — I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
And reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
– “Renascence” (1912), st. 3 Renascence and Other Poems (1917)
American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine. When Millay was eight years old her parents separated. She was raised by her mother, Cora Millay, who influenced her interest in literature and poetry. In her twenties she attended Vassar, funded by a benefactor, before moving to New York City. Millay lived in Greenwich Village in the years following 1917 and was part of the same social circle as Theodore Dreiser. Millay was one of the most popular poets of her time and in 1923 won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Millay’s personality and the themes she explored in her poetry personified the spirit of America’s Bohemia. The nymph of Greenwich Village, she defied convention and was determined to discover and declare a distinct identity for herself. The theme of social and artistic revival that characterized the Bohemian Village can be seen in Millay’s poem “Renascence,” which she wrote at the age of 19. It was first published as a contest winner in the 1912 anthology The Lyric Year and became the centerpiece of Millay’s first collection, Renascence and Other Poems in 1917. Her second volume of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles, was published in 1920. This collection includes the poem “Macdougal Street.” Shortly thereafter the collections Second April (1921) and The Ballad of the Harp Weaver (1922) were published. Later volumes include The Buck in the Snow (1928), Fatal Interview (1931), and Wine from These Grapes (1934).
In addition to being a poet, Millay was a playwright. Her productions all took the form of poetry. Her most popular play, Aria de Capo, debuted in 1919 with a performance by the Provincetown Players. Through this play, written shortly after World War I, Millay expressed her pacifist stance. The Provincetown Players, like Village troupes the Washington Square Players and the Theatre Guild, initiated and developed America’s “new theater.” Two years later, the Provincetown Players performed Millay’s Two Slatterns and a King. Before writing several plays, Millay acted for the first time with the Provincetown Players in Floyd Dell’s The Angel Intrudes.
Along with her poetry, Millay was famous for her activism and her bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. Though some of Millay’s earlier works, such as Aria de Capo, contain political themes, her work became increasingly political as she got older. Additionally, she became involved in contemporary issues such as the Sacco-Vanzetti case in 1927. Her many love affairs during the period in which she lived in the Village included Dell and the poets Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner. In 1923 she married Eugen Jan Boissevain. Together they bought their home “Steepletop” in Austerlitz, NY, where Millay died at the age of 58.