Aria da Capo
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Edna St. Vincent Millay's one-act play Aria da Capo, written at the end of World War I, has often been called an antiwar play. It features a central allegorical story of two innocent shepherds, good friends who are driven to suspicion and then to killing each other. Their tragic story is framed by scenes of two comic characters whose trivial dialogue highlights the indifference that humans feel toward conflict and death. Though Millay is better known for her poetry than for her drama, Aria da Capo is generally considered her most important play. Written early in her career, it demonstrates the command of meter and form, the understanding of music and of theater history, and the social and political concerns that would reappear throughout her work.
The play was first produced by the Province-town Players on December 5, 1919, in the New York City acting company's small theater on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village. It was a simple, low-budget production, with Millay's sister Norma and Norma's future husband playing two of the five roles. By the time it closed two weeks later, the play was recognized as one of the best the small company had put on, and when Millay issued the script as a book in 1920, Aria da Capo had already been performed in several other small theaters. It has been produced steadily ever since, on college campuses and in theater festivals, typically as part of a program of one act plays. The text is available in a 2009 edition from Dodo Press.
Millay was born on February 22, 1892, in Rockland, Maine. Her middle name, St. Vincent, was the name of a hospital where her uncle had been treated well, and the girl was always called "Vincent" within the family. Her parents divorced when Millay was eight, and she and her two sisters were raised by their mother, Cora Buzzelle Millay, who encouraged them to be independent, to appreciate art and music, and to read. As a young child Millay began writing poetry, and it was her mother who suggested she submit her long poem "Renascence" to a literary contest. The poem was published in the 1912 edition of the anthology The Lyric Year, leading to praise, to mentoring from more experienced writers, and to a scholarship to Vassar College.
At Vassar, a college for intelligent and free-thinking women, Millay continued to write poetry, and also wrote and acted in plays. She studied literature and languages, finding ideas, forms and images in classical and world literatures that she would draw on throughout her career. After graduating in 1917 she moved with her sisters to Greenwich Village in New York City, entering a world of liberal politics, feminism, and sexual and artistic freedom. That year she published her first book of poems, Renascence and Other Poems, and began acting with the New York "Little Theatre" company the Provincetown Players. She also wrote plays for the company, the most significant of which was Aria da Capo, first performed by the Provincetown Players on December 5, 1919. Over the next few years she published the play and more volumes of poetry, gaining a wide readership who eagerly accepted her work's provocative and frank descriptions of female sexuality. She spent most of 1921-23 traveling through Europe on assignment for Vanity Fair magazine, and publishing more poetry and plays. Millay was generally better known for her poetry than for her plays, and she was also celebrated for her unconventional bisexual lifestyle.
Returning to the United States in poor health in 1923, Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems. She was the first woman to win the prize. Later that year she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, who encouraged and supported Millay's writing and took care of her business and domestic responsibilities so she could focus on her work, while both also pursued other relationships. Millay was intensely involved in political causes: Aria da Capo is often considered an antiwar play, and Millay joined with other artists to protest the trial and execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927. In the early years of World War II she wrote propaganda poetry supporting the Allies. A nervous breakdown in 1944 left her unable to write for two years, and she and her husband retreated to their farm in Austerlitz, New York. After his death from lung cancer in 1949, she lived reclusively until her own death, apparently from heart failure, on October 19, 1950.
Echoing the form of musical composition that gives it its title, Aria da Capo is structured in three parts, with its third section a variation of the first. It is a one-act play in one scene, written Page 3 | Top of Article in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. As the play opens, a man and a woman, Pierrot and Columbine, are seated at a banquet table on a stage (the stage directions indicate that the setting is "A Stage," not "A Dining Room"). Columbine's first line, which opens the play, demonstrates her character's level of intelligence and the depth of her concerns immediately: "Pierrot, a macaroon! I cannot live without a macaroon!" She is remarkably stupid and incurious, focused on macaroons or artichokes or wine or vinaigrette, or whatever she happens to see at any given moment. She reveals that she is unable to count her own fingers, because she needs her fingers to count. Her dining companion, Pierrot, is somewhat more intelligent, but he has had too much to drink, and when he declares his love for Columbine, neither Columbine nor the audience takes it seriously.
As the two chatter away, Pierrot abruptly announces new identities for himself. "I am become / A pianist," he says, and a few lines later, "I am become a socialist." A moment later he is a philanthropist, and then he asks Columbine whether she would like to be an actress (after all, he says, she is blond and uneducated), because he is now her manager. Columbine responds to it all with confusion, and with more talk of increasingly exotic food, including peacock livers, caviar, and persimmons.
This absurd conversation is interrupted with the entrance of Cothurnus, a large man in a toga and the traditional mask of tragedy. Pierrot, breaking character, orders Cothurnus to get off stage because it is not yet time for his scene. But Cothurnus, tired of waiting, insists on staying, so Columbine and Pierrot leave the stage, and he summons Thyrsis and Corydon, two rustic shepherds, to come on stage and perform their scene. The two shepherds appear and complain mildly that it is too early and the stage is not set for their scene, but as Cothurnus takes his place on a chair at the back of the stage with a prompt-book, Thyrsis and Corydon move the banquet furniture out of the way, recline on the floor, and begin a conversation about their sheep and the clouds.
The language of Thyrsis and Corydon is formal and flowery, reminiscent of the pastoral poetry of the nineteenth century. But this is clearly a scene performed by two actors, and when they occasionally forget their lines, they pause until Cothurnus prompts them. When Corydon proposes the traditional pastoral activity of composing a song about sheep, Thyrsis suggests another game: they should build a wall between them, and not allow each other to cross it. Using the dining room chairs from the earlier banquet as posts, and a supply of crepe paper ribbons as weaving material, they make a low fence down the center of the stage and sit down on their respective sides. Thyrsis, who suggested the game in the beginning, decides almost immediately that he does not like it and does not want to forbid Corydon from coming to his side. "It is a silly game," he says, and proposes that they compose a song after all. But Corydon, believing that Thyrsis may simply be plotting to come over and steal his land, refuses to reunite with his friend.
Now Corydon realizes that while he and some of the sheep are on his side of the wall, the water is on Thyrsis's side. He points this out to Thyrsis and reminds him that both groups of sheep were recently all one herd, but Thyrsis has become suspicious himself and now refuses to let Corydon and his sheep come across. This makes Corydon suspect that Thyrsis suggested the wall in the first place because he was planning to take the water, and anger escalates on both sides. At one point Corydon remembers that they are supposed to be playing a game. The two friends reach for each other over the wall and attempt to smooth things over, but they dissolve into suspicion again. Occasionally throughout this scene the shepherds are interrupted by Columbine and Pierrot, who argue offstage, come onstage to fetch props, and continue their irrelevant and unimportant dialogue. During these interruptions, Thyrsis and Corydon stop all talk and action, but they soon pick up again where they had left off.
Corydon comes upon a bowl of jewels (actually, according to the stage directions, a bowl of confetti and ribbons), and he realizes that, because of the wall, the jewels are his and he does not have to share them with his friend. Thyrsis offers to exchange some water for some gems, but Corydon has lost interest in the sheep and is now willing to let them die of thirst. He gloats over his newfound wealth and imagines what he can buy with it. Looking for jewels on his own side of the wall, Thyrsis comes upon a black weed that he recognizes as poisonous. He chops it and mixes it in a bowl of water and offers the water to Corydon. Meanwhile, Corydon has strung together a necklace, which he offers to Thyrsis. They meet at the wall, where Thyrsis poisons Corydon, who strangles him with the necklace. The friends remember again that they were only playing a game, but it is too late. Breaking through the wall, Corydon finds his friend, and they die in each other's arms.
Cothurnus closes his prompt-book, covers the shepherds' bodies with the banquet table from the opening of the play, and calls "Strike the scene!" He exits, and Pierrot and Columbine reappear. Columbine discovers that there is something under the table, and Pierrot identifies it casually as "the bodies / Of the two shepherds from the other play." For a moment Pierrot worries that the audience will not accept the sight of them resuming their meal with two dead men under the table, but Cothurnus tells them to move the tablecloth to cover the bodies and assures them that "The audience will forget." The two take their seats and begin their scene again, repeating the first lines of the play.
Columbine is a young woman, blonde, pretty and charming, who shares a meal and a conversation with Pierrot. Like the other characters in Aria da Capo, Columbine is modeled on a conventional or stock character found in literature. Columbine and Pierrot are characters that appear and reappear in the plays of Commedia dell'Arte ("the comedy of art or improvisation"), originating in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Plays from the Commedia dell'Arte were still written and performed into the twenty-first century; in fact, Millay herself played the role of Columbine in a Commedia dell'Arte production by the Provincetown Players.
In this play, Columbine is recognized at the outset for her stock character. According to the stage direction, when the curtain rises she and Pierrot are "dressed according to the tradition." In Columbine's case, this means a dress with a tight bodice and a full skirt of many shades of pink. She also wears a hat, which she leaves behind when she exits the stage at the end of the first scene and retrieves in the middle of the shepherds' scene. Columbine appears to be rather stupid: she talks on and on about food, naming small delicacies that she "cannot live without." She coaxes Pierrot to declare his love for her, but ignores him when he does. She is vain and foolish and is unable to follow Pierrot's rambling conversation. In an Author's Note that Millay included in the original publication of the play, she gives detailed instructions about the set, the costumes, and the characters. In the playwright's conception, Columbine exaggerates her empty-headedness, "because she believes men prefer women to be useless and extravagant; if left to herself she would be a domestic and capable person." However, there is little evidence of this duplicity in the text itself.
Columbine, like the other characters, exists on two levels in the play: she is Columbine, the vacuous partner of Pierrot, and she is an actress playing the part of Columbine. Throughout the first banquet scene she remains in character, as she does offstage when she is overheard arguing with Pierrot during the shepherds' scene. But at one point she bursts onstage looking for her hat, interrupting the shepherds and asking Cothurnus, "Is this my scene, or not?" When she and Pierrot return to the stage after the death of the shepherds, she appears as the actress, fussing about to rearrange the furniture and props for their scene and discovering the bodies of Thyrsis and Corydon before she steps back into character.
Corydon, a shepherd like his partner Thyrsis, is a stock character from classical Greek pastoral poetry and stories. Pastoral literature deals with shepherds and their flocks moving about the countryside, enjoying an idyllic life of peace and beauty. In the Renaissance, Italian poets revived the pastoral, and the conventions—including the traditional Greek names for characters—appeared in English poetry and drama until the eighteenth century. In Aria da Capo, therefore, the audience is Page 5 | Top of Article expected to know as soon as Cothurnus interrupts Pierrot and Columbine for the next scene and calls "You, Thyrsis! Corydon! / Where are you?" that the next scene will feature two shepherds.
When Corydon and Thyrsis first come on stage, however, it is not in their roles as shepherds but in their roles as actors about to play shepherds. They argue with Cothurnus about whether it is time for their scene and whether the stage, which has been set up for the farce played by Pierrot and Columbine, can be properly used for their upcoming tragedy. Corydon points out that they need a wall for their scene and complains that they "cannot build / A wall of tissue-paper"—which, as it turns out, is exactly what they do. At Cothurnus's urging, they move the dining room table out of the way and begin their scene.
Corydon is, at heart, trusting and honest, a simple soul who genuinely loves his friend Thyrsis. For a few lines, Corydon and Thyrsis recline and watch their sheep grazing. They utter fanciful similes in poetic language, echoing the conventions of pastoral poetry. After a while, Corydon suggests that the two compose a song about a lamb, but he goes along with Thyrsis's idea that they build a wall instead. When the two tire of the wall game, it is Corydon who becomes suspicious first, but it is not a deep-seated suspicion: the actor playing Corydon forgets his line and has to be prompted by Cothurnus to say "How do I know this isn't a trick?," undercutting the force of Corydon's doubt. Later, it is Corydon who has been cut off from the water and has to remind Thyrsis that the sheep were only recently a single flock, the responsibility of both of them. He acknowledges the reason for Thyrsis's suspicions, but says, "one of us has to take a risk, or else." However, when Thyrsis invites him over to get some water, he fears his friend, who has become a stranger.
He turns greedy quickly when he finds the gold and jewels, making sarcastic remarks to Thyrsis and ignoring his flock's need of water. Not until he is thirsty himself is he ready to make a deal—a bowl of water in exchange for a bowl of jewels—but as soon as the deal is made, he finds he cannot give up even a portion of his jewels, and he plots instead to strangle Thyrsis with a necklace. He does not realize until he is dying that he has let his greed and suspicion separate him from Thyrsis, and he breaks through the wall to die with his friend.
Cothurnus, Masque of Tragedy
Cothurnus is an imposing stage manager, directing the actors to begin and end their scenes and prompting them when they forget their lines. The name "Cothurnus" comes from the Greek word kothornos, referring to a kind of thick-soled boot that was a conventional part of the costume in Greek and Roman tragic theater. The boots were made to different heights, emphasizing the relative importance of the roles in these tragedies. In Aria da Capo, the appearance of Cothurnus is a signal that the farce is over, and the next scene will be a tragedy. However, while he is named in the Cast of Characters, his name is not said aloud in the play until nearly the end; Millay's instructions in her Author's Note indicate that he should wear a toga and "heavy boots … as nearly as possible like the tragic Roman buskin" to indicate his role.
Cothurnus makes his first appearance abruptly, while Columbine and Pierrot are talking, and Pierrot breaks character to ask him why he has come onstage. Cothurnus replies that he is tired of waiting, and his presence is so commanding that the others do what he tells them. He orders Thyrsis and Corydon to come out and do their scene, and he discounts their concerns that the stage is not set properly for a tragedy. It does not matter, he says, whether the props are right or not, just as it does not matter whether they are prepared to say their lines well. Cothurnus, it seems, has seen these scenes many times before and knows that "One wall is like another." He takes a seat on a chair or elevated platform at the back of the stage, and orders the shepherds to begin.
Occasionally, as the shepherds move through their scene, the actors forget their next lines, and Cothurnus, using a prompt-book, gets them going again. At times, it seems that the shepherds—or the actors playing them—forget that they are angry and suspicious, and Cothurnus has to remind each of them to ask, "How do I know this isn't a trick?" Although he appears to force the shepherds to act out feelings of hatred and suspicion that do not arise from within them, the words and the actions played out in front of him have no effect on Cothurnus, and when the shepherds are dead, he simply closes his prompt-book and calls for the next scene. Pierrot and Columbine have no need to worry about staging a farce on a tragic set littered with dead bodies, he says, for "The audience will forget."
Pierrot is a cynical man who dines and flirts with Columbine. Like his partner, he is a stock character from the Commedia dell'Arte, and is expected to be recognized as soon as the curtain goes up. Pierrot traditionally dresses in white silk smock and pants, with a ruff around his neck and a cap on his head; often he has his face painted white and a single teardrop painted on his cheek. The stage directions for Aria da Capo indicate that is he "dressed according to the tradition" except that he wears lilac instead of white.
Following the convention, Pierrot repeatedly declares his love for Columbine, and she rebuffs him. Typically, he is rather stupid and she is smarter; in this play, those roles are reversed. Pierrot is world-weary but cheerful. He has seen it all, and he is bored with the world, but rather than being depressed or angry he is simply indifferent. While Columbine revels in one food after another, Pierrot simply asks for more wine. Pierrot comes the closest to openly stating the themes or the lessons of the play, when he says that he is always wanting "a little more" than what he has, or "a little less," or when he mocks the pretentiousness of modern art and music. At one point he declares himself a socialist, saying, "I love / Humanity; but I hate people." Nothing Pierrot says seems to matter to him or to Columbine.
Like the other characters, Pierrot speaks onstage both in character and also as the actor playing Pierrot. When Cothurnus interrupts his scene, Pierrot even changes his way of speaking, dropping the formal poetic language he has been speaking to ask, "Say, whadda you mean?" He shows no surprise or interest in finding two dead bodies onstage when he returns, and he agrees readily when Cothurnus argues that the audience will soon forget about the bodies if a tablecloth is drawn over them. Showing no concern, he sits down with Columbine and begins the scene again.
Thyrsis is a shepherd who watches over a flock with his partner Corydon. The name "Thyrsis" comes from a book of pastoral poems by the Roman poet Virgil (70-90 BCE), whose poems known as the Eclogues include a singing contest between two shepherds named Thyrsis and Corydon.
In Aria da Capo, Thyrsis and Corydon are alike in their simplicity and in their affection for each other. In her Author's Note, Millay observes, "The personalities of Thyrsis and Corydon are not essentially different." Their actions are slightly different: it is Thyrsis who first suggests they build a wall as a game, and it is he who is the first to regret the separation once the wall is built. But when Corydon asks for water, he begins to think of the water as his, and to think of the sheep on his wide of the wall as his, until his feelings of longing for his friend return and he cries, "It is an ugly game. / I hated it from the first…. How did it start?" In the end, his fear and doubt overcome his affection, and he poisons Corydon.
Struggle and Conflict
While Aria da Capo is frequently discussed as an antiwar play, the struggle and conflict explored in the play need not be identified so specifically. True, in 1919 and 1920, when the play was written and first performed, the United States and Europe were still reeling from the horrors of World War I—a war with so many deaths and catastrophic injuries that for many people it shook the foundations of belief in human decency. But it is not only war that the play argues against. Rather, it demonstrates how easily untempered greed and suspicion can separate friends, coworkers, neighbors and, yes, nations.
When Thyrsis and Corydon begin their scene, their affection for each other is obvious. They refer to the large flock as "Our sheep," they speak the same flowery language, they finish each other's thoughts, they notice the same things. Only minutes after he suggests that they build the wall, Thyrsis misses his friend and regrets his game, and through the scene the shepherds take turns being suspicious or saying "let's drop this." But they are unable to drop it, pushed along by a force they cannot control. At the end, they seem surprised by what they have done to each other, by how the game has gotten out of hand, and even after murdering his friend, Corydon's dying words to Thyrsis include "I want to be near you."
The play demonstrates in several ways that the animosity between the two shepherds is superficial, unimportant. The wall dividing them, after all, is made of crepe paper, and the jewels they fight over are only pieces of confetti. The men are rather simple-minded, clearly not scheming or
malicious, and they are shepherds—symbols of peace and tranquility. Neither feels his anger very deeply; in fact, each actor forgets the line "How do I know this isn't a trick?" and has to be prompted by Cothurnus, emphasizing that they are playing roles, that the lines are artificial, and that the suspicion is imposed from without. As the two remember and forget again, they are only easily recognizable stock characters playing a "silly game," and that game occurs within a scene-within-the-play. As it plays out, of course, it becomes "a pretty serious game," a deadly game. The impression left on the audience is that while the threat feels very real and important at times to Corydon and Thyrsis, it is trivial and not worth the cost of human lives—as is the case generally with the struggle and conflict that divides humanity. Rather than propose a solution for human conflict, the play simply demonstrates its power to destroy.
Perhaps more horrifying than the destruction brought about by struggle and conflict is an apathetic response. People feel sorrow or anger, they die of starvation or preventable illnesses, they kill each other in battle, and yet few people take action to stop it, or even pause to contemplate the destruction. This is the case with Columbine and Pierrot in Aria da Capo; their minds are so filled with the most trivial of things that they barely notice that Thyrsis and Corydon are dead.
As the play opens, Columbine and Pierrot are dining and chattering about artichokes and wine and dresses and persimmons. Columbine never raises a single important issue or idea (she can barely keep track of her own conversation about food), and Pierrot raises them only to mock them. His suggestion "let us drink some wine and lose our heads" sums up his philosophy neatly: rather than engaging with the world, he prefers to distance himself from it. For a brief moment he declares himself a student, ready to "search into all matters," but he moves on almost immediately to another temporary identity. Soon he is a pianist, playing empty, meaningless music "Vivace senza tempo senza tutto" ("lively, without tempo, without anything"), and then a socialist who loves humanity and hates people, a philanthropist, a manager, and a critic who says, "there is nothing / I can enjoy." In every one of his roles, he is ineffectual and detached. He does not take himself seriously when he says serious things, and of course he cannot be taken seriously by Columbine or by the audience, because he is Pierrot, a man in a clown suit.
Cothurnus, the closest thing this play has to a God-like figure (when Corydon says that his scene is not ready, Cothurnus replies, "I am the Page 9 | Top of Article scene"), is another example of detachment. He sees the world as just a series of scenes, and when he tires of one he calls for the next one. He rejects Thyrsis's complaint that a tissue-paper wall will not suffice, replying that "One wall is like another." As soon as Thyrsis and Corydon are dead, according to the stage directions, "Cothurnus closes the prompt-book with a bang" and "arises matter-of-factly." With no show of emotion, he covers the bodies with a table, and calls for the next scene. The deaths mean nothing to him.
Columbine and Pierrot are also largely unaffected by the deaths. Columbine screams when she sees something unexpected, but once Pierrot has calmly explained that it is simply the dead men, she finds it only "curious" that Thyrsis has been strangled with ribbons. Their detachment is again made clear. But the audience cannot sit back and shake their heads over the characters' callousness: they, too, are implicated. Cothurnus has hinted at this earlier when telling Thyrsis that "One wall is like another," and that the actors' feeling behind their lines does not matter so much as the fact of the lines and gestures being delivered. As is made clear at the end of the play, he is describing what matters to the audience. Near the end of the play, almost ready to begin the scene again, Pierrot asks for the bodies to be removed: "We can't / Sit down and eat with two dead bodies lying / Under the table! … The audience wouldn't stand for it!" But he is wrong, as Cothurnus points out, and as Pierrot realizes. The audience cares as little as the actors do: "The audience will forget." So the play includes everyone—not just the characters—in its condemnation of the apathy that allows suffering to continue, year after year, scene after scene.
da Capo Aria Form
Although it is a one-act play without separate divisions called scenes, Aria da Capo is structured in the same way that a form of vocal music called the da capo aria is structured. The da capo aria, popular during the Baroque period, roughly 1600 to 1750, was a song generally performed as part of an opera; often, an aria contains an opera's most beautiful and dramatic material, much like a soliloquy in tragic theater. The da capo aria was constructed in three parts. After an opening section that was often a complete song that might have stood on its own, the middle section was in a different key, with different instruments, and a different dramatic tone. The third section was not written down in detail by the composer; rather, the performers returned to the first section and created ornamented variations on it da capo, or from their heads, showing their ability to improvise and to use their full range of vocal expression.
Millay, who studied music as a child and once considered a career as a classical pianist, constructs her play after the musical form that gives it its name. Thus, the play opens with the farcical dialogue between Pierrot and Columbine, moves abruptly on Cothurnus's command into the tragedy of Thyrsis and Corydon, and then returns to a variation of the Pierrot and Columbine scene. Millay's use of traditional forms is a hallmark of her work. She wrote nearly two hundred sonnets, a fourteen-line form introduced in Italy, mastered by poets including William Shakespeare and John Donne, and largely out of fashion by the time Millay was writing. In addition to Aria da Capo she wrote four other verse plays, or plays written in poetic lines, a form dating back to the ancient Greeks, also used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and little used in the twentieth century.
The opening and closing sections of Aria da Capo, featuring Pierrot and Columbine, are based on the Italian dramatic form Commedia dell'Arte, an improvisational form popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Commedia dell'Arte was performed by troupes of players who performed on street corners and in public squares; they might begin a performance whenever a large enough crowd was at hand. The plays were improvised, but they had several characters called "stock characters" who appeared again and again: Harlequin the clown, Pierrot and Columbine the servants, a miser, a shopkeeper, a braggart, and others, each with a distinctive way of dressing and talking. The audiences knew these characters and how they might behave, and the fun was in seeing what new conflicts or love affairs the actors could dream up, and what references to local people and news they could weave in.
When the curtain goes up to begin Aria da Capo, the audience is meant to know at once that it is about to see Commedia dell'Arte. Pierrot and Columbine are "dressed according to the tradition," Page 10 | Top of Article so that will be recognized at a glance. The stage directions explain that the stage is set for a Harlequinade, a particularly silly variation on the Commedia dell'Arte that was performed indoors with "a merry black and white interior." This is what Pierrot is referring to when he complains to Cothurnus, "The scene is set for me!" and what Corydon means when he says, "this is the setting for a farce." The absurdity of the dialogue between Pierrot and Columbine, their conventional set design, and the history of the Commedia dell'Arte from which they come, emphasize the contrast between the first and third sections of the play and the story of betrayal and murder between Thyrsis and Corydon, both heightening the tragedy and mocking it.
Aria da Capo is a verse drama, or a play written in verse. In this case, Millay has adopted blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, as the form for her lines, following the model set by Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and other important English-language playwrights. All of the speech in Millay's play is in iambic pentameter, or lines of ten syllables, alternating stressed and unstressed. Iambic pentameter is also the meter used by many of the greatest works of English-language poetry, including John Milton's Paradise Lost, the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth, and the sonnets. Some of the play's lines are quite regular, falling naturally into a perfect stressed-unstressed pattern ("I'll teach you how to cry, and how to die"), while others approximate the pattern ("You would be dead by now. And if I were a parrot"). Some of the lines are in what is thought of as poetic language ("What say you, Thyrsis, shall we make a song"), while others are not ("Say, whadda you mean?—get off the stage, my friend"). Whatever the demands of the different characters and sections, the play holds to its blank verse throughout, participating in a rich tradition that reaches back centuries.
In Shakespeare's plays, the high and noble characters, including kings, princes, and warriors, typically speak in iambic pentameter, while commoners, including servants, merchants, and the "rude mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, speak in prose. Millay breaks from this convention in Aria da Capo, having not just Cothurnus, the Masque of Tragedy, speak in verse, but also her clown, servant, and shepherds. This serves the twin purposes of elevating their dialogue, demonstrating the underlying seriousness of the play, while mocking their importance, reinforcing the message that humanity is generally indifferent to the type of conflict being played out on the stage.
In 1919, as Millay was writing Aria da Capo, the United States and Europe were just emerging from World War I, which had begun with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. What started as a conflict between Ferdinand's homeland, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia, the home of his assassin, quickly drew in allies on both sides until most of the larger European countries were involved, and fighting occurred throughout Europe. The United States, which at first was determined to remain isolationist, or to stay out of the war, joined the conflict in 1917, declaring war on Germany after German submarines had sunk seven American merchant ships and a British liner with American passengers aboard.
It would be hard to overstate the devastating effects of World War I on the survivors. Put simply, no one before this war had imagined how terrible warfare could be. New inventions, including airplanes, armored vehicles, submarines, machine guns, long-range artillery, chemical weapons, and flame throwers, made it possible to injure or kill many people at one time, and from great distances. In the five years of the war, more than seventy million people fought, and more than fifteen million were killed. In Europe, millions more were seriously injured, many of them with missing limbs or with disfiguring burns from mustard gas and phosgene gas attacks. Millions also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which was then referred to as "shell shock." Germany, which suffered six million deaths and injuries in battle, had also lost more than half a million civilians to starvation when the British blockaded the country. The Ottoman Empire (occupying what is now Turkey) lost as much as 25 percent of its population during the war, including more than 600,000 Armenians who were killed by the Empire in what is generally considered either an ethnic cleansing or a genocide. People took to referring to World War I as "the war to end all wars," because they believed—or wanted to believe—that humankind would never again Page 11 | Top of Article engage in anything so destructive. They referred to the millions of dead and wounded as the "Lost Generation."
From the beginning, there were people opposed to the war, including religious pacifists, many of whom declared themselves conscientious objectors and served time in prison rather than fight, and various socialist and labor groups, who did not wish to see oppressed workers in different countries fighting each other. In the United States, those opposed to the country entering the war staged public demonstrations, wrote editorials, and created posters and slogans. Once the United States entered the war, opponents were looked at with renewed suspicion, and even prosecuted under new laws intended to prevent anyone from encouraging others not to participate in the war effort. In the world of art and literature, a new pessimism about the human capacity for moral growth emerged, along with a new suspicion of nationalism and of technology as an agent for good, particularly just after the war. The sense that the world was irrational and unknowable led to new artistic movements including Dadaism and surrealism, which were grounded in antiwar sentiment and which used strange juxtapositions and seemingly ridiculous images, tones, and dialogue in an attempt to capture the chaos and disillusionment of the times.
Millay was in college at Vassar during the first years of the war and, according to her biographer Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty, she paid little attention to it. After she moved to New York and after the United States entered the war, and as she came to know people who were
involved in fighting the war or in opposing it, Millay learned more about the conflict and its destructiveness. Millay began writing Aria da Capo in 1919, after the armistice that ended fighting on the war's Western front was signed in November 1918. By the time the play was first staged, in December 1919, the Treaty of Versailles had been signed, formally ending conflict between the Allies and Germany.
As a one-act play, Aria da Capo is often performed, particularly on college campuses, but it has not been reviewed or analyzed as frequently as full-length plays typically are, and none of Millay's drama has received as much attention as her poetry. The Provincetown Players were important enough, however, that Alexander Woollcott reviewed the play in the New York Times shortly after its opening in 1919, calling it "the most beautiful and most interesting play in the English language now to be seen in New York." Woollcott acknowledges that the play might be difficult for "the average unthinking audience" to understand, but points out that no mother who has lost a son in the war could miss the play's antiwar message. Although the play ran for only two weeks in its original production, so many other theater companies began performing the play that when Millay published the play in book form in 1920, she included production notes to answer the questions she was receiving from directors. The first major review of the book, however, seemed to have been based on only a cursory reading: William Lyon Phelps, in a 1921 combined review of Aria da Capo and four other books of Millay's poetry, describes it as a play "in prose," and writes that he wishes he had seen it performed because "the prose dialogue is just what it should be, and the dramatic movement admirable." In a 1924 essay in Poetry, Harriet Monroe calls the play a "masterpiece of irony," saying that Millay "stabs the war-god to the heart with a stroke as clean, as deft, as ever the most skillfully murderous swordsman bestowed upon his enemy." While reviews were generally positive, not all critics have liked the play. In 1937, the poet John Crowe Ransom mocked it as being no more mature than Millay's college plays, or than "the prize-winning skit on the Senior Girls' Stunt Night of an unusually good year," in an essay for The Southern Review.
Later critical analysis of the play has often focused on the structure and techniques Millay used to convey meaning. Mary J. McKee examines the influence of Commedia dell'Arte on Aria da Capo, citing in particular the "spontaneity" and "incongruity" of the Pierrot-Columbine scenes, in a 1966 essay in Modern Drama. Millay's varying levels of language inform a 1985 essay from Tamarack by John J. Patton. Pierrot and Columbine, he notes, speak with a light and contemporary diction that helps the audience understand that "we cannot take these two characters with any degree of seriousness," while the shepherds speak in "a more deliberate measure and more formal level of diction," highlighting the seriousness of their scene. More recently, Barbara Ozieblo explains the allusions to popular culture that inform some of the jokes in the opening scene, and traces the ways the play blurs "the edges between ‘reality’ and ‘theatricality’" in a 2004 essay in the Journal of American Drama and Theatre.
Millay went largely unnoticed by critics through the middle decades of the twentieth century, but she was rediscovered toward the end of the century. Many critics in this new wave have looked at Millay's work, including her plays, through a feminist lens. Agreeing with the common understanding that the shepherds Thyrsis and Corydon are forced by Cothurnus to act out their scene of war, Will Brantley, in a 1991 essay in Colby Quarterly sees a "feminist scorn" in the way the tragic deaths are framed by Pierrot and Columbine, and argues that Millay saw war and conflict as "male destructiveness." In a 1997 essay titled "Millay's Big Book, or the Feminist Formalist as Modern," Joseph Aimone describes the dialogue between Pierrot and Columbine as "gendered byplay" and Millay's task as "working out the gendered politics of the modern."
Cynthia A. Bily
Bily is a freelance writer and editor. In this essay on Aria da Capo, she considers how Marxist theory explains the changes that come over Thyrsis and Corydon.
Thyrsis and Corydon, the two shepherds in Edna St. Vincent Millay's Aria da Capo, seem to have an idyllic life. As they begin their scene, Thyrsis's opening line captures this feeling: "How gently in the silence, Corydon, / Our sheep go up the bank." They contemplate the flock and the landscape for a moment, even noticing the passing of the clouds and the effect of the changing light on the grass, until Corydon suggests, "What say you, Thyrsis, shall we make a song." The idealized image of innocent shepherds reclining on a hillside, making rustic but pretty music as they watch peaceful sheep grazing in the meadow, is at the heart of pastoral literature and art dating back to the ancient Greeks. Writers including the Greek Theocritus (3rd century BCE), the Roman Virgil (70-19 BCE), the British poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), and the American John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) have used pastoral settings to hearken back to a simpler time. The characters in pastoral literature live, as Thyrsis and Corydon do, in harmony with their animals and their landscape, and though they may appear innocent and naïve, they are also cheerful and content.
But it does not take long for the idyll to be disrupted. The "game" of building a wall turns deadly serious, and soon the two friends are suspicious and fearful, gradually becoming killers. Only as death approaches do they remember their fondness for each other, and they die as they began, reclining together. What could make two beloved companions turn against each other this way? What makes them forget their fondness for each other, and for their flock? Why do they build the wall, and why is it so difficult for them to share their water and their wealth?
The German economist and political theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) raised similar questions in the nineteenth century, most famously in his book the Communist Manifesto (1848), written with the economist Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Observing how the Industrial Revolution was creating large groups of factory workers who worked long hours for low wages and a small group of factory owners who earned substantially more, Marx and Engels (and their followers, who came to be known as "Marxists") wondered why poor people around the world—who greatly outnumber people of wealth—did not band together in revolution to improve their lives. Did factory workers not see that a few owners were getting wealthy from the labor of the workers?
Marx argued that a capitalist economic system compelled people to compete with each other instead of working cooperatively. Because capitalist societies use "capital," that is, money and other symbols of wealth instead of relying on most families creating their own useful goods like food or clothing, people start to see everything in terms of monetary value (its "exchange value") instead of looking at whether an item actually helps them or their neighbors live (its "use value"). Instead of using any surplus to help Page 14 | Top of Article others, people in capitalist societies tend to hoard their wealth for themselves. And in an economy in which people do not grow their own food or make their own tools or clothing, people become materialistic and increasingly use their capital to buy useless items that serve only to increase their status.
Although they are not living in an industrialized society, even Thyrsis and Corydon are led to internalize the toxic values that Marxist theorists warn against. They are content to live peaceful lives as simple shepherds until the destructive forces of capitalism lead them astray. One might point out, however, that shepherds do not typically own the sheep they tend; Thyrsis and Corydon are apparently doing a low-paying but sometimes dangerous task to protect someone else's sheep. The first sign that capitalist values are at play in the scene comes when Corydon suggests making up a song and Thyrsis Page 15 | Top of Article replies, "I know a game worth two of that." On the literal level, the reply is ridiculous: There is no logical way in which a game is "worth" two songs, or worth twice as much as a song. Of course, it is clear that Thyrsis simply means that his game would be more fun than the song, but it is significant that he uses such language. To a Marxist, this is an example of "commodification," or assigning an economic value to an abstract thing or quality not generally thought of as being part of the marketplace, and it is a sign that Thyrsis lives in a world where capitalist values are at least in the background.
For a short time after the wall ("a wall a man may see across, / But not attempt to scale") is built, Corydon remembers that he and Thyrsis were friends, and that the flock of sheep, divided into two by the wall, was once one. He still cares about the flock's well-being and begs Thyrsis for water for the sheep, but Thyrsis refuses. Though he did nothing special to earn it, now that Thyrsis has all of the water on his side of the wall (Marxists would say he controls the means of production) he will not share it, even though he has more than he needs, even though it is his friend asking, even though the sheep that are thirsty were recently under his care. Corydon is horrified by Thyrsis's change in attitude—until he, too, acquires a resource. Once Corydon finds the gold and jewels (items that have no use value for a shepherd) he immediately becomes greedy and selfish, celebrating that "the wall / Was up before I found them!—Otherwise, / I should have had to share them." Ignoring the fact that his sheep are dying of thirst, he imagines wasteful and vainglorious ways to spend his money: building a city full of women, erecting a bridge in his own honor. Both men are devoted to each other and to their flock until they are divided irrevocably by the idea of wealth.
Aria da Capo is a one-act play, and the downfall of the two shepherds happens very quickly. It seems illogical that they would turn against each other so easily, just as it seems illogical that very poor people would accept a society in which some people are able to buy expensive cars and watches and vacation homes while others have little or nothing. Marxism describes various internalized belief systems, or "ideologies," that keep poor people content with less, and keep them separated from each other. Why do men and women with below-average income and education join their country's military to fight against relatively low-income people from other countries, instead of joining together to overthrow both governments and seize control of the wealth? Because they have accepted ideologies called "patriotism" and "nationalism"; they believe that their primary loyalty should be to their country, not to other people of their socioeconomic class. Even though many soldiers in many wars do not understand fully what a particular conflict is about, they stand willing to fight and die.
Why, Marx asked, do so many poor people accept their poverty during peace time instead of challenging the system that keeps them poor? He believed it was because members of the working class have internalized another ideology—religion—that teaches them that God is in control, that they will find a greater wealth in Heaven. One of Marx's most famous lines appeared in his book Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right (1844), in which he said that religion was the "opiate of the masses." He meant that religion worked like the drug opium, and that believers acted like opium addicts, living in a cloud of calm acceptance. In the twenty-first century, the author and journalist Thomas Frank looked at another form of ideology in his book What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), in which he asks why low-income Kansans—and people throughout the United States—consistently vote for Republican candidates, even though, he says, the Republican agenda tends to help wealthy people at the expense of the working class. Working-class voters, he argues, have accepted an ideology of cultural solidarity that blinds them to their own interests. In all of these instances, people are not seen as naturally violent or greedy; rather, they behave the way they do because they have absorbed false values from those who have greater wealth and power.
In a similar way, the play emphasizes repeatedly that the destructive actions of Thyrsis and Corydon do not come from within them; rather, they come from forces larger than the two—in this case, from Cothurnus, Masque of Tragedy. From the beginning, the shepherds (or the actors playing the shepherds, or the actors playing the actors playing the shepherds) forget their lines and have to be prompted by Cothurnus before they can continue. When Corydon first suggests that the two make a song, Thyrsis's initial response is to agree eagerly. But he stumbles over his line, and Cothurnus reminds him to suggest the wall game instead. When Thyrsis quickly tires of the game and suggests they sing the song, Corydon forgets his line, and has to be Page 16 | Top of Article prompted by Cothurnus to say, "How do I know this isn't a trick?" Still later, Corydon suggests they drop the game, and this time it is Thyrsis who has to be reminded to say, "But how do I know this isn't a trick …?" In each case, the instinct of the shepherds is to sit together and sing together, and they are prodded apart by the larger forces that Cothurnus represents. Finally, they internalize the fear and suspicion and are driven to kill.
The structure of the play-within-the-play reinforces the play's rejection of capitalist values. By framing the shepherds' tragic scene with the farcical scene with Pierrot and Columbine, by using colored bits of paper to represent of a bowl of jewels, by having Cothurnus insist that a wall of tissue-paper is just as good as one made of rocks, the play emphasizes the flimsiness of the tragedy. In this play, the deaths of two shepherds are no more important than a dialogue about macaroons, gold and jewels have no more value than a bowl of confetti, and the wall that separates the shepherds—the ideologies like nationalism or religion that keep the lower classes at war with each other—have no real substance. Marx and his followers believed that one day the working class would rise up and take control of the factories, mines, power plants, and other means of production. When that day came, they believed, the workers would establish a new order in which people would work as hard as they could, take only as much wealth as they needed, and look after the weak and the sick who could not work. Aria da Capo does not reflect this optimism. The conflict between Thyrsis and Corydon, like the conflicts created to keep the working classes from uniting, is just "a silly game." But by the time Corydon asks, "Why do we play it?—let's not play this game," it is too late.
Source: Cynthia A. Bily, Critical Essay on Aria da Capo, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
In the following excerpt, Clark examines a number of Millay's poems dealing with broad issues, including women.
It is a dangerous lot, that of the charming, romantic public poet, especially if it falls to a woman.
Louise Bogan, "Edna Millay (1939)"
Women writers in the age of modernism discovered a cruel paradox: the more successfully they wrote, both to appeal to a feminized community of readers and to help readers feel part of the literary community, the less they could be considered serious writers. The more clearly they appealed to the shared feelings of a popular community, the more they risked being labeled "sentimental," or merely popular. In the years of the great modernists—Eliot, Pound, Stevens, H.D., Williams—the project of poetry was to turn away from a mass culture, to establish a distance between literature and all other forms of writing. But, as Sandra Gilbert suggests, women writers may have had a different task than men writers in the early twentieth century, involving not alienation from history but the building of agreement, not the tragic vision but the dialogue of human exchange. Furthermore, as Sherry O'Donnell taught me to see, women have long made poetry part of their community-building practice. Embedded in the processes of middle-class history, women's writing has looked different. In the first decades of this century, what was recognizably women's writing was not at all like the new work of writers like Eliot or Stevens. But it was a difference that had no warrant in the project of modernism. This was not a matter of specific cases. Modernist poetics excluded female poets at the level of theory.
Feminist critics today write in a moment of critical history which seems to value difference and marginality and even feminist criticism itself, but our efforts may have some troublesome affinities with the problems of women writers in the heyday of modernist poetry—writers like H.D., Louise Bogan, and even Marianne Moore, as well as the woman Harriet Monroe hailed as the Sappho of our times, Edna St. Vincent Millay. We should not accept without careful distinction modernist claims about the connection of revolution and the new word, the revolution of language. At a moment when the culture produces the separation of disciplines and the commodification of value, alienation is Page 17 | Top of Article not novel. Then, as Baudrillard wants to assert: "He is truly a revolutionary who speaks of the world as non-separated."
Modernism offers its own forms of repression: where will we draw the boundaries of literariness, the definitions of "interesting" texts? Sentimentality has no warrant in the literary history of modernism; whatever is called sentimental has been excluded from the serious, the literary, the tough, the interesting. And the sentimental in the annals of twentieth century criticism turns out to have an uncanny relationship to writing by women. The seemingly a historical critical term "sentimental" represses its historicity, its rejection of a literary history dominated by women. In the following examination of women's situation in literary modernism, I will suggest that we must face the question of the sentimental and its relationship to the history of writing by women. What is at issue, I will argue, in the question of the sentimental is the relationship of literary daughter to literary mother—the very possibility of a female tradition.
In the twentieth century, the horror of the "sentimental" helps define the good male poet much as the prostitute once defined the good woman. When a female literary history arises out of the generations of women writers, it appears as a reviled past: the anxiety of influence appears as the threat of the Mother (nature, love, tongue, muse), powerful in several guises. If the strong male poet may be said to rewrite his literary fathers in a Bloomian act of "misprision," what of the poet's literary mothers? He—and the disguised she—rejects the female literary ancestors altogether, making literary history the legends of warring kings, not a genealogy. Like the principle of the sentimental, the mother is constructed as powerful and dominant, but only in the very gesture of repudiation required for males to define themselves as "different." A woman poet is a contradiction in this history. So, perhaps, is a woman critic. A woman poet is created by this history as a poet-within-history, powerful, and so not really literary. Women's power is separated from poetry, domesticated.
Maturity for modernist critics like John Crowe Ransom as for Freud involved a separation from the sentimental (m)Other. Therefore when Ransom evaluated the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, he found her immature, all too womanly, "fixed in her famous attitudes." The story of the male mind which he rehearses in an essay on Millay seems to him so obvious he needs no argument. It has for him become a matter of biology, not culture or history.
The minds of man and woman grow apart, and how shall we express their differentiation? In this way, I think: man, at best, is an intellectualized woman. Or, man distinguishes himself from woman by intellect, but it should be well feminized. He knows he should not abandon sensibility and tenderness, though perhaps he has generally done so, but now that he is so far removed from the world of the simple senses, he does not like to impeach his own integrity and leave his business in order to recover it; going back, as he is often directed, to first objects, the true and tried, like the moon, or the grass, or the dead girl. He would much prefer if it is possible to find poetry in his study, or even in his office, and not have to sit under the syringa bush. Sensibility and tenderness might qualify the general content of his mind, if he but knew the technique, however "mental" or self-constructed some of that content looks. But his problem does not arise for a woman. Less pliant, safer, as a biological organism, she remains fixed in her famous attitudes, and is indifferent to intellectuality. I mean, of course, comparatively indifferent; more so than a man. Miss Millay is rarely and barely very intellectual, and I think everybody knows it.
At the same time that Ransom would seem to deny that a woman could be anything more than "indifferent to intellectuality," he maintains that a man at his best is "an intellectualized woman." The woman, precisely, is in-different, incapable of entering into the play of differences. Ransom's interests in the feminine seem the reverse of the post-modernist view. In fact, however, they have disturbing resemblances to the interests of Derrida, for example, or Lyotard. To the extent that Postmodernism takes up the modernist move, it defines "difference" as what is interesting. In order to qualify for the avant-garde, the woman must be defined as something new, marginal, other, subversive—different. The woman must not be moralizing and sentimental.
My research on the sentimental has grown out of this historical situation governing our reading as well as our writing. The sentimental, we can probably all agree, is what I call an "unwarranted discourse." Recent work on the sentimental novel, notably Tompkins' Sensational Designs, has argued strongly for the Page 18 | Top of Article literary importance of the genre. Nevertheless, to call writing "sentimental" is still to criticize it severely—whether the writing is rhetorical or literary, novel or poetry. But the sentimental is a tradition, a set of conventions and writing practices, and not just a failure to do something else. The very word "sentimental" came into being in eighteenth-century England, together with the sentimental novel, as a term of approval. It is connected to the pathetic appeal—the appeal to emotions, especially pity, as a means of persuasion.
In his Philosophy of Rhetoric, first published in 1776, George Campbell endorses the sentimental at the same time that he recognizes its connection to ideology, to "the moral powers of the mind." According to Campbell, the sentimental "occupies, so to speak, the middle place between the pathetic and that which is addressed to the imagination, and partakes of both, adding to the warmth of the former the grace and attractions of the latter." Campbell, like Hugh Blair, assumes the importance of appeals to passion. The pathetic works best, he says, "by some secret, sudden, and inexplicable association, awakening all the tenderest emotions of the heart … it will not permit the hearers even a moment's leisure for making the comparison, but as it were by some magical spell, hurries them, ere they are aware, into love, pity, grief, terror." Campbell was the dominant rhetorical text for much of the nineteenth century in America. It was not so bad to be sentimental then. What has happened to the once-positive connotation of the word? Campbell joined two things together that were firmly separated by modernism: he considered poetics to be a "particular mode" of rhetoric, and he considered both reason and passion to be legitimate parts of persuasion. A quick glance at the evening news will confirm our guess that the sentimental has not vanished—that it has pride of place, indeed, in journalism—a persuasive appeal in a genre supposed to be without persuasion. But when we apply the word "sentimental" to a piece of writing, we usually mean something pejorative. In his introduction to A Lover's Discourse, Roland Barthes writes:
Discredited by modern opinion, love's sentimentality must be assumed by the amorous subject as a powerful transgression which leaves him alone and exposed: by a reversal of values, then, it is this sentimentality which today constitutes love's obscenity.
Episodes of love, like eruptions of the imaginary, appear in the modern, rational conversation, the discourse of our times, as something to be gotten over, grown out of, unwarranted. As Foucault has pointed out, it is sex, not love, which has been connected to freedom, subversion, and critical discourses in our time (5). The appeal to feeling has become increasingly suspect, more distant from the rational.
Paradoxically, in an age of elite poetry such as modernism, the poet who writes within conventions shared by bourgeois culture practices a version of difference. Marginality then is a version of the obscurity-in-plain-view women know so well. For women have long been writing in a well-populated solitude, "warranted," as Barthes says, "by no one." And modernist women poets were read with an eye to the gap between popular culture and serious writing. Tompkins has pointed this out in her work on Stowe. The sentimental tradition of women writers is connected to women's power—but also collides with modernist expectations. Ann Douglas, arguing for the "feminization" of American culture, associated this sentimental with the hegemony of consumer culture. But recently critics including Radway, Modleski, and Rabine have taught us to look again at the possibilities of popular fiction by women, arguing in various ways that the love story has been read too narrowly. The Lover's Discourse suggests a stronger adversity: if sentiment is the modern "obscene," has it not suffered the oppression of censorship and disapproval once arrayed against sexual obscenity?
In spite of their dramatic presence at the birth of modernism, the women writers of the moment did not establish an authoritative place for women in modernist literature. There were many women, from Sara Teasdale to Gertrude Stein to Kay Boyle, appearing in modernist magazines and anthologies, and women were powerful editors too: Harriet Monroe of Poetry, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of The Little Review, H.D. of The Egoist, Marianne Moore of The Dial. Yet a list of names resists our collecting and abstracting: the case of Sara Teasdale seems quite unlike that of Gertrude Stein; Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore seem to have little in common even if we wish to say both practice versions of subversion—or compliance. No sense of a women's tradition emerges. The powerful old domestic tradition is denied.
The fact is that for many woman writers in the twenties, poets and novelists alike, the woman's Page 19 | Top of Article tradition was all too coherent. Kay Boyle, whose stories are filled with female heroines, refuses to this day to identify herself as a woman writer and rejects feminist criticism. Like Millay, she early established a reputation for independence of spirit. Boyle has characterized herself as "a dangerous ‘radical’ disguised as a perfect lady" (Spanier Illustration 32). She seems, that is, to want to keep her credentials as a revolutionary modernist—but she also seems to believe that revolution has a problematic relationship to the community of women.
Louise Bogan, writing both as poet and critic, marked her love poetry with the bitter loss of authority, of the very warrant for her subject: woman, love, the lyric. Adopting modernist attitudes, she wrote critically of the sentimental past: "Women, it is true, contributed in large measure to the general leveling, dilution, and sentimentalization of verse, as well as of prose, during the nineteenth century" (Achievement [Achievement in American Poetry] 20). At the same time she argued that "the wave of poetic intensity which wavers and fades out and often completely fails in poetry written by men, on the feminine side moves on unbroken" (Achievement 19). The scorn of Bogan's critical modernism seems more harshly directed against her own work (and the volume of what she accepted is slender) than against the poetry she reviewed as critic for The New Yorker for so many years.
Perhaps this reflexivity itself, this self-wounding, has to do with the "feminine" in her work. She understood that the woman's place as imaginary object of the lyric (stopped, still) became terrible, "dreadful," Medusa-like, if fixed as the mirror image of the self. Her poetry rejected this imaginary. Bogan seemed at once to cite the rejected tradition and to inscribe the feminine into language as estrangement. On the cover of The Blue Estuaries, Roethke approves her "scorn" of what he calls the usual lyric "caterwauling," and Adrienne Rich praises her for committing a "female sensibility" to language. Bogan both constitutes and distances an ideology that is female, situating herself within the contradiction of asserting a lover's discourse which is at the same time a forsaken language. By refusing the "caterwaul," she also accedes to male standards, male codes, male criticism. Like Marianne Moore, Bogan was severe with her own work, pruning mercilessly, and perhaps giving the critical spirit so large a scope that she curtailed her own productivity, unbalancing the relationship between the critical and the assertive. Edna St. Vincent Millay, too middle-class, too "public," may have served her as an emblem of what could go wrong.
When a woman poet like Edna St. Vincent Millay defied the laws of modesty, obscurity, and constraint to reach out for her woman readers, she earned the contempt of critics. It's risky for a writer to appeal to a community of readers that identifies her with the feminine. How in the world, we might ask, could it possibly be a daring political gesture to write "O world, I cannot hold thee close enough?" But the popular appeal was precisely what was risky. Millay had grown so hugely popular by the late 1920's that her kitchen was featured in Ladies Home Journal ("Polished as a sonnet … Light as a lyric … Must be the kitchen for EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY." Only late in the article, at the back of the magazine, did they admit that her husband was really the cook of the household.) I want to argue that the risk of shame is especially daunting when the female readership is middle-class, bourgeois, and sentimental, and when the values affirmed have to do with love and motherhood. That feminine community, however populous, is non-literary and non-authoritative by definition. Therefore what Millay risked by writing poetry of inclusion rather than of exclusion—risked and perhaps lost—was poetry itself.
In certain ways too much the daughters of that bourgeois patriarchy which generated their mythologies, the women poets who wrote and were read in the first decades of the twentieth century, were perhaps also too much the mothers of ourselves as readers. Like our mothers they served to give us the texts for the first rush of poetic feeling ("O world, I cannot hold thee close enough."), the heat of romantic rebelliousness ("I've burned my candle at both ends"), the encounter with "poetic" language ("Little faces looking up / Holding wonder like a cup"), and even the first idea of poem as "image" ("Whirl up, sea—/ Whirl your pointed pines"). Women quickly became textbook poets, schools texts, and they are still there, in the books for school children from elementary through high school: Millay, Wylie, Teasdale, H. D., Moore. The critical history of these women poets, then, has been shaped by the sentimental reader—by indulgent admirers who simply endorse motherhood, country, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but also by ambitious critics who want to be mature and interesting, who feel they have to cast off their youthful memories of poetry in order to grow up.
In the literary world defined by modernism, however, the writer who wrote for women, whose audience included "the ladies," opened herself to the most terrible critical scorn. Morton D. Zabel characterized the awfulness of what he called "Popular Support" for the arts in a "Comment" for Poetry in 1930. Subtitled "Cattle in the Garden," Zabel's piece makes the connection between bad taste and writing for the ladies. An example of "Popular Support" are items from the Herald-Tribune Books, where "week after week, poetry is plucked from every bush that grows by the effusive Miss Taggard, that energetic specialist in Immortality" whose "style (and incidentally her critical standards) derive largely from Queen Marie's testimonials for Pond's Facial Creams" (269). But far worse is the General Federation of Womens' Clubs' fifth annual Poetry week. Zabel quotes from Mrs. Anita Browne, Founder-Organizer:
To the rhythmic beat of humming presses that puncture the air with their poetic metre as each revolution imprints a page of this Poetry Week Magazine, it seems a happy singing, as though the presses sense the harmonies within the printed program of the Poetry Week activities…. The marvel of the printing press! The pillar of education; the historian of all time; the etcher of the poet … the Monarch: the printed Word! So these pages proclaim the fifth annual celebration of Poetry Week, in which the whole nation joins.
There is a terrible innocence on the part of Browne about the great distance between her aims—"happy singing," "harmonies," a poetry "in which the whole nation joins"—and the ambitions of modernist criticism for toughness and excellence. But Zabel knows, and he drives the point home:
But while Mrs. Browne and her loyal cohorts celebrate their victories, "certain of us by nature more sardonic than these: will probably pause to wonder … where meanwhile Poetry was keeping herself … from the uproar and ribaldry while the cattle stampeded the flowers, fruit, and vines of her no-longer sacred-and-unprofaned gardens."
In fact, the scorn heaped on the ladies and their sentimental taste has been so very thick one wonders what it has been at work to create. Clearly, much literature in our century has been written with the idea of refusal, of offense, of violating the readers' expectations. We have grown used to the stories of the heroic author—D. H. Lawrence, for example—who offends the public (the women guarding public morality) with his exposes of love and adultery, his ever-more-graphic representation of sexuality. Refusals like those of Eliot or Williams or Stevens are less obviously gendered. Nevertheless, their rejection of the rhetorical and poetic conventions that might help readers gain access to their work is a rejection of the mass audience and a refusal to meet readerly expectations. The teachers and the cultivated ladies who made it their practice to translate the canon of great literature for children and for the unlettered—the community-building women—were disenfranchised by the practices of modernism, which required a more academic priesthood.
This context helps us to understand the antagonistic critical reception given Edna St. Vincent Millay as she grew in popularity during the '30s and '40s. John Crowe Ransom criticized Millay for her sensibility: "Miss Millay is rarely and barely very intellectual, and I think everybody knows it" (784). Allen Tate said "Miss Millay's success with stock symbolism is precariously won; I have said that she is not an intellect but a sensibility: if she were capable of a profound analysis of her imagery, she might not use it" (335-36). And Cleanth Brooks simply picked up Ransom's theme to conclude that Millay was "immature." She failed to be a major poet because she lacked irony: "Miss Millay has not grown up" (2).
In the age of Eliot, defined by the failure of relationship and the anti-heroics of the poetic loner, Millay was writing most of all about love, and her sentimental subject was only the beginning of her crime: more than that, she was writing in a way that is easily understood, that invites the reader in, that makes community with the reader and tries to heal alienation. Millay was of course flagrantly engaged during the twenties in the Bohemian leftish lifestyle of Greenwich village, with its tenets of free love and support for the working masses. But her radical lifestyle never put off her readers the way a radical poetics might have. Millay's poetic style is founded on commonality: in this it is classic rather than modern. She may shock her audience, but she does not separate herself from them. The accessibility of her work seems from the beginning of her career more important to her readers than her Bohemian attitudes. In Millay, we see that the gestures of social revolt don't always sever ties. She can write "My candle burns at both ends" and Page 21 | Top of Article take a flippant attitude about her lovers, but the fact that she does it in sonnet form kept her credentials as a member of the American middle-class consensus in order. The epithet "bourgeois" or "middle-class" in the mouth of a modernist critic was meant to be as devastating as the charge of sentimentality. But some continuity with the middle class was for Millay as for many other women writers a prerequisite for maintaining a woman's tradition and for creating a community with women readers.
Source: Suzanne Clark, "The Unwarranted Discourse: Sentimental Community, Modernist Women, and the Case of Millay," in Genre, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 133-52.
John Crowe Ransom
In the following essay, Ransom, himself a poet, laments the lack of intellectual interest in Millay's work.
Miss Millay is an artist of considerable accomplishments. She is the best of the poets who are "popular" and loved by Circles, Leagues, Lyceums, and Round Tables; perhaps as good a combination as we can ever expect of the "literary" poet and the poet who is loyal to the "human interest" of the common reader. She can nearly always be cited for the virtues of clarity, firmness of outline, consistency of tone within the unit poem, and melodiousness. Her career has been one of dignity and poetic sincerity. She is an artist….
[The limitation of Miss Millay] is her lack of intellectual interest. It is that which the male reader misses in her poetry, even though he may acknowledge the authenticity of the interest which is there…. It is true that some male poets are about as deficient; not necessarily that they are undeveloped intellectually, but they conceive poetry as a sentimental or feminine exercise. Not deficient in it are some female poets, I suppose, like Miss Marianne Moore; and doubtless many women are personally developed in intellect without having any idea that poetry can master and use what the intellect is prepared to furnish….
Such are Miss Millay's limits…. We come finally to her quite positive talent or, if anybody quarrels with that term, genius. But I still have to identify by restriction the field in which I find it displayed.
The formal, reflective, or "literary" poems fall for the most part outside this field. She is not a good conventional or formalist poet, and I think I have already suggested why: because she allows the forms to bother her and to push her into absurdities….
Then, the young-girl poems fall outside it; and I am afraid I refer to more poems than were composed in the years of her minority. This charming lady found it unusually difficult, poetically speaking, to come of age. "Renascence" is genuine, in the sense that it is the right kind of religious poem for an actual young girl of New England, with much rapture, a naive order of images, and a dash of hell-fire vindictiveness…. But the volume A Few Figs from Thistles is well known as a series of antireligious and Bohemian shockers, and that stage should have been far behind her when she published the work at the age of twenty-eight. The college plays were exactly right for their occasions, but Aria da Capo comes long afterward and still suggests the prize-winning skit on the Senior Girls' Stunt Night of an unusually good year. And then come the poems of Second April, whose author at twenty-nine is not consistently grown up…. [Grandually] the affectations of girlhood in Miss Millay disappear.
When they are absent, she has a vein of poetry which is spontaneous, straightforward in diction, and excitingly womanlike; a distinguished objective record of a natural woman's mind. The structures are transparently simple and the effects are immediate. There are few poems, I think, that do not fumble the least bit, unless they are very short, but she has the right to be measured as a workman by her excellent best. Her best subjects are death, which she declines like an absolute antiphilosopher to accept or gloze, a case of indomitable feminine principle; personal moods, which she indulges without apology, in the kind of integrity that is granted to the kind of mind that has no direction nor modulation except by its natural health; and natural objects which call up her love or pity. I have to except from this list the love of a woman for a man, because, in her maturity at least, she has reserved that subject for the sonnets, and they are rather unconventional in sentiment, but literary, and corrupted by verbal insincerities….
The most ambitious single work of Miss Millay's would be her operatic play, The King's Henchman; ambitious, but suited to her powers, and entirely successful…. Operatic drama lends itself to Miss Millay's scope. Its action is a little brief and simple, and it permits the maximum Page 22 | Top of Article number of lyrical moments and really suits Poe's idea of the long poem as a series of short poems rather than a single consecutive whole. The work does not prove Miss Millay to be a dramatist, but it shows what an incessant fountain of poetry is a woman's sensibility in the midst of simple human and natural situations. It should be remarked that, being tenth century, the properties have the advantage of being a little picturesque, and the tone of the language slightly foreign, like a Scottish or Irish idiom perhaps. But these are the arrangements of the artist, of whom it cannot so fairly be said that she is in luck as that she is a competent designer.
Source: John Crowe Ransom, "The Poet as Woman," in Southern Review, Vol. 2, No. 4, Spring 1937, pp. 783-806.
In the following excerpt, Davison contrasts Millay's plays with her poetry.
… Miss Millay's definitely dramatic work deserves a fuller treatment than the scope of this essay permits. Of the four plays, Aria da Capo and The King's Henchman are the most successful. Two Slatterns and a King, though slight, is delicately wrought and fulfils its description as "a moral interlude." But Miss Millay never wrote anything more rounded and poignant than Aria da Capo, a miniature tragedy whose lyrical irony helps to contradict Mr. Robert Frost's thesis about good fences making good neighbors. It would be an offense to attempt to analyze her tender mingling of poetry and parable, for this ingenious and skilfully wrought little play justifies its author from first to last and will make a friend of every reader.
The King's Henchman, Miss Millay's most recent work, has lately been written about almost ad nauseam in the newspapers and weekly reviews. Considered merely as an opera libretto it has never been matched in English. But on no account must it be considered primarily as an opera libretto. Viewed on its own intended merits as a three-act play, written chiefly in irregular verse, it is curiously unique, a sort of changeling child of poetry. The author treats an exceptionally beautiful story (one that had already served that now forgotten poet William Mason as the theme of a choric tragedy) in a manner that restricts her rather unnecessarily. What is gained in the way of atmosphere, by means of her skilful use of a vocabulary predominatingly Anglo-Saxon, is lost again to a great extent by the persistence of such infelicities (to modern ears) as
Aelfrida: I do not know thy name.
Aethelwold: Nor I thy name. "Aetholwold," I hight.
Aelfrida: I must be gone! "Aelfrida," I hight.
It is not altogether just to find fault with an imitation of the archaic because it succeeds in being archaic. But archaism has no particular virtue in itself; and there are many passages in The King's Henchman where poetry as well as drama is sacrificed to the consistency of the style. On the whole the play is admirable, though chiefly for its merits as a tour de force. Considering all the difficulties it is literally amazing that Miss Millay contrived to sustain its lyrical pulse. That the author set herself such a tough artistic task suggests that she is not now content with the relatively fortuitous triumphs of her earlier work. She is prepared to face the vital problems concerning the intellectual organization of her poetic impulse, prepared obviously to forget some of her lyric facility for a time while she learns to rule it with a firmer head than before. This is the first major means whereby a poet whose work suggests a general drift changes himself into a poet with an attitude. So far, Miss Millay has not evolved an attitude. Her work is not the poetic expression of some more or less consistent scheme of values, like the work of Mr. A. E. Housman, Mr. Robert Frost, Mrs. Browning, Shelley, Keats, Milton, Shakespeare. It has no scale to measure the world. Lacking that, a poet cannot even approach greatness.
Source: Edward Davison, "Edna St. Vincent Millay," in English Journal, Vol. 16, No. 9, November 1927, p. 681.
In the following essay, Monroe contends that Millay is "the greatest woman poet since Sappho."
Long ago … I used to think how fine it would be to be the greatest woman poet since Sappho….
I am reminded by that old dream to wonder whether we may not raise a point worthy of discussion in claiming that a certain living lady may perhaps be the greatest woman poet since Sappho….
[The] woman-poets seem to have written almost exclusively in the English language. Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson—these four names bring us to 1900….
Emily Bronte—austere, heroic, solitary—is of course the greatest woman in literature. Not even Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite … can surpass Wuthering Heights for sheer depth and power of beauty, or match it for the compassing of human experience in a single masterpiece. But Wuthering Heights, though poetic in motive and essence, classes as a novel rather than a poem…. As a poet, she has not the scope, the variety, of Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose claim to pre-eminence we are considering….
"Renascence" remains the poem of largest sweep which Miss Millay has achieved as yet—the most comprehensive expression of her philosophy, so to speak, her sense of miracle in life and death—yet she has been lavish with details of experience, of emotion, and her agile and penetrating mind has leapt through spaces of thought rarely traversed by women, or by men either for that matter.
For in the lightest of her briefest lyrics there is always more than appears. In [A Few Figs from Thistles], for example, in "Thursday," "The Penitent," "To the Not Impossible He" and other witty ironies, and in more serious poems like "The Betrothal," how neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Woman, even while they fought, bled and died for all the Helens and Cleopatras they happened to encounter! And in Aria da Capo, a masterpiece of irony sharp as Toledo steel, she stabs the war-god to the heart with a stroke as clean, as deft, as ever the most skilfully murderous swordsman bestowed upon his enemy. Harangues have been made, volumes have been written, for the outlawry of war, but who else has put its preposterous unreasonableness into a nutshell like this girl who brings to bear upon the problem the luminous creative insight of genius?
Thus on the most serious subjects there is always the keen swift touch. Beauty blows upon them and is gone before one can catch one's breath; and lo and behold, we have a poem too lovely to perish, a song out of the blue which will ring in the ears of time. Such are the "little elegies" which will make the poet's Vassar friend, "D.C." of the wonderful voice, a legend of imperishable beauty even though "her singing days are done." Thousands of stay-at-home women speak wistfully in "Departure" and "ament"—where can one find deep grief and its futility expressed with such agonizing grace? Indeed, though love and death and the swift passing of beauty have haunted this poet as much as others, she is rarely specific and descriptive. Her thought is transformed into imagery, into symbol, and it flashes back at us as from the facets of a jewel.
And the thing is so simply done. One weeps, not over D.C.'s death, but over her narrow shoes and blue gowns empty in the closet. In "Renascence" the sky, the earth, the infinite, no longer abstractions, come close, as tangible as a tree. "The Harp-Weaver," presenting the protective power of enveloping love—power which enwraps the beloved even after death has robbed him, is a kind of fairy-tale ballad, sweetly told as for a child. Even more in "The Curse" emotion becomes sheer magic of imagery and sound, as clear and keen as frost in sunlight. Always one feels the poet's complete and unabashed sincerity. She says neither the expected thing nor the "daring" thing, but she says the incisive true thing as she has discovered it and feels it.
Miss Millay's most confessional lyrics are in sonnet form, and among them are a number which can hardly be forgotten so long as English literature endures, and one or two which will rank among the best of a language extremely rich in beautiful sonnets….
Beyond these, outside the love-sequence, the "Euclid" sonnet stands in a place apart, of a beauty hardly to be matched for sculpturesque austerity, for detachment from the body and the physical universe. Other minds, searching the higher mathematics, have divined the central structural beauty on which all other beauty is founded, but if any other poet has expressed it I have yet to see the proof. That a young woman should have put this fundamental law into a sonnet is one of the inexplicable divinations of genius…. If Miss Millay had done nothing else, she could hardly be forgotten.
But she has done much else. Wilful, moody, whimsical, loving and forgetting, a creature of quick and keen emotions, she has followed her own way and sung her own songs. Taken as a whole, her poems present an utterly feminine personality of singular charm and power; and the best of them, a group of lyrics ineffably lovely, will probably be cherished as the richest, most precious gift of song which any woman since the immortal Lesbian has offered to the world.
Source: Harriet Monroe, "Edna St. Vincent Millay," in World Literature Criticism Supplement, Vol. 24, No. 5, August 1924, pp. 260-67.
Aimone, Joseph, "Millay's Big Book, or the Feminist Formalist as Modern," in Unmanning Modernism: Gendered Re-Readings, edited by Elizabeth Jane Harrison and Shirley Peterson, University of Tennessee Press, 1997, pp. 1-13.
Brantley, Will, "The Force of Flippancy: Edna Millay's Satiric Sketches of the Early 1920s," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, September 1991, pp. 132-47.
Frank, Thomas, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Metropolitan Books, 2004.
Marx, Karl, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1843, translated by Annette Jolin and Joseph O'Malley, edited by Joseph O'Malley, Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848, translated by Samuel Moore, 1888, edited by David McClellan, Oxford University Press, 2008.
McKee, Mary J., "Millay's Aria da Capo: Form and Meaning," in Modern Drama, Vol. 9, September 1966, pp. 165-69.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent, Aria da Capo, Harper and Brothers, 1920.
———, "Author's Note," in Aria da Capo, Harper and Brothers, 1920, pp. 44, 47-49.
Milford, Nancy, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Random House, 2001, pp. 125, 132.
Monroe, Harriet, "Edna St. Vincent Millay," in Poetry, Vol. 24, No. 5, August 1924, pp. 260-67.
Ozieblo, Barbara, "Avante-Garde and Modernist Women Dramatists of the Provincetown Players: Bryant, Davies and Millay," in Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring 2004, pp. 1-16.
Patton, John J., "The Variety of Language in Millay's Verse Plays," in Tamarack: Journal of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1985, pp. 8-16.
Phelps, William Lyon, "Edna St. Vincent Millay, Poet and Dramatist," in New York Times Book Review and Magazine, October 16, 1921, p. 10.
Ransom, John Crowe, "The Poet As Woman," in Southern Review, Vol. 2, No. 4, Spring 1937, pp. 783-806.
Woollcott, Alexander, "Second Thoughts on First Night," in New York Times, December 14, 1919, sec. 8, p. 2.
Britten, Norman A., Edna St. Vincent Millay, Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Part of the Twayne Publisher's United States Author Series, this volume is an excellent introduction to Millay's life and work for the general reader, although it is somewhat out of date and somewhat coy about sexual matters. The book includes a brief analysis of all of the major works, a critical biography, a chronology, and an annotated bibliography.
Cheney, Anne, Millay in Greenwich Village, University of Alabama Press, 1975.
This volume, which the author calls a "psychological biography," examines Millay's years in Greenwich Village just after she graduated from college as her period of initiation and maturation. Cheney devotes particular attention to Millay's changing views of art, religion, and sexuality during this period.
Freedman, Diane P., ed., Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal, Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.
Many of the twelve essays in this collection, published in the one hundredth year after Millay's birth, focus on her poetry, but her dramatic works are also discussed as the writers analyze Millay's approach to four central themes: modernism, love, the female body, and masquerade.
Green, Martin Burgess, and John Swan, The Triumph of Pierrot: Commedia dell'Arte and Modern Imagination, Macmillan, 1986.
This volume explores why so many artists of the early part of the twentieth century turned to Commedia dell'Arte—particularly to images of Columbine and Pierrot and their colleague Harlequin. Painter Pablo Picasso, composer Igor Stravinsky, and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin are among the artists studied.
Meade, Marion, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2004.
A lively account of the 1920s as lived and described by four unconventional women: Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber. This entertaining book focuses on the women's intersecting social lives more than on their writing.
Milford, Nancy, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Random House, 2001.
Savage Beauty is the definitive biography of Millay, written by an accomplished author with full access to Millay's letters and papers and with the support of Millay's sister Norma. The volume is an unflinching look at an important, self-destructive talent.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400012