Millay's Life Part IIThe Poet At Steepletop

Edna St. Vincent Millay: 1892-1950, continued

by Holly Peppe, Literary Executor

Millay’s desire for a quiet life...

... may have surprised the thousands of devoted readers who considered the bestselling poet a free spirit who belonged to Greenwich Village, forever living the bohemian life touted in her iconic four-line quatrain:

“My candle burns at both ends;
it will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!”

For the disillusioned post-war youth who considered her their spokesperson for women’s rights and social equality, Millay represented the rebellious spirit of their generation.  Indeed, though she favored traditional poetic forms like lyrics and sonnets, she boldly reversed conventional gender roles in poetry, empowering the female lover instead of the male suitor, and set a new, shocking precedent by acknowledging female sexuality as a viable literary subject:

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
. . .
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

When she wasn’t writing...

...Millay spent hours gardening, collecting and pressing hundreds of species of wildflowers and, in true writer fashion, keeping lists of all the birds she sighted and detailed notes on her gardening activities. “Did all my weeding without a stitch and got a marvelous tan,” she wrote in her garden diary and “We pulled up the lilacs by the roots of their hair!!” She and her mother and aunt exchanged flowers and plants, keeping one another up to date on their progress. She also shared news about their kitchen garden’s bounty with her mothers and sisters:

We had a marvelous garden this summer, and haven’t bought a vegetable for goodness knows how long. Let me tell you, just for fun, what we had from our garden: Potatoes, cabbage , cauliflower, squash, peas, string beans, shell beans, lima beans cucumbers radishes, turnips, carrots, pumpkins, sweet corn, tomatoes, eggplants, fennel, parsley, garlic, and CANTELOUPES!

The kitchen, more Eugen’s domain than hers...

...was a typical farm kitchen with a wood burning cook stove and an icebox dependent upon blocks of ice. Steepletop did not have electricity until the late 1940’s when, as Millay described in her poem, “Men Working,” she watched a crew “putting in the poles: bringing the electric light.”  Soon afterward the Ladies Home Journal offered to remodel the kitchen—adding an electric stove, refrigerator, freezer and porcelain sink, in exchange for full photo coverage and a feature profile of Millay aptly called “Poet’s Kitchen.”

The renovation included painting the walls a fashionable sky blue and adding a breakfast nook with salmon-colored Naugahyde cushions. Millay refused to be photographed for the article, with its well-meaning but unfounded “observations” about her domestic life.  The writer claims that the poet “washes dishes and scours pots and pans,” noting “How hard to think of the couplet to close the sonnet when there wasn’t a place to put clean dishes!” And there was more: “And now Miss Millay can wash her woolies in this beautiful kitchen watching the birds!”

That line was certainly accurate:  Millay loved birds, and in her large living room, called the “withdrawing room,” she often sat at her “bird window” near the brick fireplace and admired the feathered creatures who came looking for food. “She feeds them!” Eugen told a visitor. “She runs a hotel for birds.  She’s up and at it every day before dawn.”

Her New York Times obituary reads:

“Critics agreed, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time.”

The following year Norma and Charlie moved to Steepletop and Norma devoted the rest of her life to preserving and protecting her sister’s legacy. In 1954 she published Mine the Harvest, a collection of unpublished poems and excerpts from Millay’s journals. She also rescued unfinished poems the poet had left in her writing cabin, including these lines:

I hear the rain, it comes down straight;
Now I can sleep, I need not wait To close the windows anywhere.
Tomorrow it may be, I might
Do things to set the whole world right.
There’s nothing I can do tonight.

Historic Steepletop

Explore Steepletop Today
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A National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Steepletop is now the home of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. The Society’s mission is “to illuminate the life and writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay and to preserve and interpret the character of Steepletop, her home and gardens, places where nature inspires the creative spirit.” Steepletop is not currently open to visitors. Occasional events may be held, however, to raise much-needed funds.

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