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10 of the Best Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the important American poets of the 20th century. She was the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1923. Millay published her first poem “Renascence” in 1912 for a poetry contest. Though it was considered as the best submission, it failed to capture the first three places. But, this piece launched her career as a poet.

From that time, Millay went on to produce some of her most popular works including the collection A Few Figs From Thistles and the poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver”. On this list, we are going to present to our readers 10 of the most famous poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. What are you waiting for? Let’s dive into the list of Millay’s best-known poems.

Best Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay


Renascence

“Renascence” is one of the finest poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She wrote this piece in 1912 for a poetry contest. It won fourth place. This led to a controversy which somehow brought Millay to fame and wide recognition. So, writing this poem was a turning point of her career.

It is a lyric that explores the relationship of a speaker to humanity as well as nature. The speaker narrates the scene from the top of a mountain. Being overwhelmed by nature, she thinks of human suffering and death. In simple words, nature’s calm and serene beauty brought about the renascence in the speaker’s heart. Here are some memorable lines from the poem.

All I could see from where I stood

Was three long mountains and a wood;

I turned and looked another way,

And saw three islands in a bay.

(…)

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky,—

No higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push the sea and land

Farther away on either hand;

The soul can split the sky in two,

And let the face of God shine through.

But East and West will pinch the heart

That can not keep them pushed apart;

And he whose soul is flat—the sky

Will cave in on him by and by.

Source: Renascence


What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

It is one of the best-known sonnets of Millay. This piece is about aging and one speaker’s longing for her youthful days. Once she was admired and loved by several men. As she grew older, her life turned into a tree, standing alone in the winter landscape. The birds of love no more sing the heartwarming songs.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.


The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver

Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this poem in 1923. It is one of her best-known poems. This ballad is about a poor woman and her son. She laments for her child as she cannot provide a good dress for him. As the winter approaches, she grows sadder. Then comes the turning point in the poem.

She weaves not only regal clothes for her son but sings some melodious songs by playing the harp with a woman’s head. At the end of the poem, the nineteen-year-old mother dies. But, she leaves the clothes of a king’s son behind for her beloved son.

“Son,” said my mother,

   When I was knee-high,

“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,

   And not a rag have I.

“There’s nothing in the house

   To make a boy breeches,

Nor shears to cut a cloth with

   Nor thread to take stitches.

(…)

There sat my mother

   With the harp against her shoulder

Looking nineteen

   And not a day older,

A smile about her lips,

   And a light about her head,

And her hands in the harp-strings

   Frozen dead.

And piled up beside her

   And toppling to the skies,

Were the clothes of a king’s son,

   Just my size.

Source: The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver


Love Is Not All

It is one of the best-known sonnets of Millay that speaks of a speaker’s dejection in love. This poem is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. Here, Millay describes how a heartbroken speaker feels. For her, love is not everything. Yet she cannot even trade love for something better. Let’s explore the poem below.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain; 

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink 

And rise and sink and rise and sink again; 

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath, 

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone; 

Yet many a man is making friends with death 

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone. 

It well may be that in a difficult hour, 

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release, 

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power, 

I might be driven to sell your love for peace, 

Or trade the memory of this night for food. 

It well may be. I do not think I would. 

Watch: Edna St. Vincent Millay reads “Love Is Not All”


Conscientious Objector

A conscientious objector is one who has refused to go to war for the sake of freedom of conscience. In this poem, Millay applies the term to a horse that does not inform the rider of the upcoming dangers. It knows death is inevitable. This poem is best-known for its portrayal of death and the metaphors used to portray life as a whole.

I shall die, but

that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;

I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.

He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,

business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.

But I will not hold the bridle

while he clinches the girth.

And he may mount by himself:

I will not give him a leg up.

(…)

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends

nor of my enemies either.

Though he promise me much,

I will not map him the route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of the living,

that I should deliver men to Death?

Brother, the password and the plans of our city

are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

Source: Conscientious Objector


I, Being born a Woman and Distressed

“I, being born a woman and distressed” is one of the best-loved poems of Edna Millay. It appears in The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923). This piece imitates the Italian sonnet form. In this poem, Millay presents a speaker who craves intimacy with her partner. She knows sometimes it is better not to hear the calling of her “stout blood”. The mental scorn originating from her bodily frenzy makes this speaker sad and distressed. Let’s read this emotionally charged sonnet below:

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:

So subtly is the fume of life designed,

To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,

And leave me once again undone, possessed.

Think not for this, however, the poor treason

Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,

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.


First Fig

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!

This short, four-line poem appears in Millay’s 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles. The book drew controversy for presenting the theme of female sexuality openly. It is filled with Millay’s feministic views. This short poem “First Fig” is about a fragment of a speaker’s feminine desires. The brevity of the poem keeps the doors of interpretations always open.

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:

Penelope did this too.

(…)

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:

This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,

In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;

Ulysses did this too.

But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied

To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.

He learned it from Penelope…

Penelope, who really cried.

Source: An Ancient Gesture

This piece delves into a mythological gesture that speaks for the mental state of the speaker. She is sad but cannot reveal her true feelings. It is customary to hide feminine emotions aside. As Millay says, this gesture is ancient, authentic, and unique. She thinks Penelope might be the first woman to start this custom.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

As the title hints at, this sonnet is about a speaker’s disgust over the fact that every scar of the past heals with time. She rejects this idea as she talks about her heartbreak. No matter wherever she goes or whatever she does to forget her partner, she fails. The thoughts keep coming, making her sadder than before.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied   

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!   

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;   

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,   

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;   

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.   

There are a hundred places where I fear   

To go,—so with his memory they brim.   

And entering with relief some quiet place   

Where never fell his foot or shone his face   

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”   

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.


Apostrophe to Man

This poem is addressed to humankind who was preparing for another war after the end of the First World War. In this piece, Millay expresses her disgust over the way everything starts to deteriorate. She strongly detests the actions that kill the very essence of humanity. It is one of her well-known poems. Let’s read the poem below.

Detestable race, continue to expunge yourself, die out.

Breed faster, crowd, encroach, sing hymns, build

bombing airplanes;

Make speeches, unveil statues, issue bonds, parade;

Convert again into explosives the bewildered ammonia

and the distracted cellulose;

Convert again into putrescent matter drawing flies

The hopeful bodies of the young; exhort,

Pray, pull long faces, be earnest,

be all but overcome, be photographed;

Confer, perfect your formulae, commercialize

Bacteria harmful to human tissue,

Put death on the market;

Breed, crowd, encroach,

expand, expunge yourself, die out,

Homo called sapiens.


FAQs

What is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s most famous poem?

“Renascence” is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s most famous poem that she wrote in 1912 for a poetry competition. Though it did not make it to the top three, this poem boosted her writing career.

What is Edna St. Vincent Millay best known for?

Millay is best known for her sonnets. Her “Renascence” and “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” are considered her best-known poems.


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