Rewriting the myth of the woman in love: Edna St. Vincent Millay, her critics and her sonnets
Edna St. Vincent Millay, considered here a major American woman poet, has been almost completely ignored by critics and scholars during the last four decades. This study examines the literary, cultural, and ideological reasons for this neglect, provides a critical analysis of the central themes in her writing, particularly in the sonnets, and advances arguments for re-evaluating both Millay's rank as a poet and her role as spokesperson for a new female consciousness in America during the first half of the century.
Early in her career Millay achieved celebrity status among general readers for tightly crafted lyrics and sonnets that proclaim a woman's right to personal and sexual freedom. At the same time she won high acclaim for her poetic technique from those critics and poets who favored traditional forms and themes over emerging modernist styles and attitudes. By the mid-1940's, however, almost all popular and critical interest in Millay's work ceased.
This study, which begins with a survey of Millay's critical reception from 1912 to the present, suggests that the reasons for her near-disappearance were both objective and subjective. It examines how changing critical tastes accounted for a redefinition of poetry during the 1920's and 1930's, and considers the assumptions (e.g., the notion that "modernist," "masculine," and "intellectual" were somehow synonymous) behind which these changes occurred. It also considers the aesthetic choices available to Millay and her women poet contemporaries and illustrates how Millay's own shift from "feminine" to "masculine" themes precipitated her critical fall from grace.
This critical history lays the groundwork for close readings of Millay's most important work: two sonnet sequences, written in contrasting styles, that illuminate many of the issues heterosexual love raises for women. In Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree, Millay uses domestic, natural, and confinement imagery to convey a woman's response to a failed marriage. In Fatal Interview, she rewrites the traditional romantic love myth by revising traditional male love poetry conventions and sexual protocols in order to include female experience. It is primarily this inventive, courageous poetic treatment of issues related to women's subjectivity that validates Millay's role as "precursor" to contemporary American women poets.
0323: American studies
0453: Womens studies