Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Tradition of Domestic Poetry

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Author: Jeannine Dobbs
Date: Spring 1979
From: Journal of Women's Studies in Literature(Vol. 1, Issue 2)
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 4,917 words

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[In the following excerpt, Dobbs asserts that although Millay's domestic poems have suffered critical neglect, they are among her best works.]

Despite the quality and quantity of Millay's domestic poetry, her reputation was built on poems expressing disillusionment with people and on those celebrating sexual freedoms for women. Two of her sonnet sequences, “Epitaph for the Race of Man” and Fatal Interview typify these concerns. The former is abstract philosophizing on the folly of humankind; the latter a proficient but somewhat academic exercise in the tradition of the courtly love sonnet sequence.

Many of Millay's New Women type poems are successful and interesting; but the speakers usually are not portrayed as real, individualized women. They are witty and clever and sexually emancipated, but as women they are a stereotyped abstraction. The speaker of the following sonnet, for example, is a disembodied voice:

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body's weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity,—let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
The Harp-Weaver, 1923

The impersonal speaker works here because she represents all women: “I, being born women ...” There is no personality here. There is no environment, no dramatic interplay. There is no real man involved, only a “person fair,” a “body.” There is not even any particularized emotion, just generalities: a “certain zest,” a “frenzy.” When the speaker is stereotyped and the situation generalized in this way, identification with the speaker must be made totally on an intellectual level. Many of Millay's burning-the-candle-at-both-ends type poems portray only a voice, and all portray the same voice.

In more successful poems, Millay places the speakers in a setting or in a situation with which women can identify. “The Fitting” (Huntsman, What Quarry?, 1939) is such a poem. Here the speaker's body is portrayed as being impersonally, even roughly handled by dressmakers, “doing what they were paid to do.” As this activity proceeds, the woman thinks of her lover. The brief mention of the lover invites comparisons between the present touch of the dressmakers and the anticipated evening with the lover, when his touch, as [Norman A. Brittin in his Edna St. Vincent Millay] notes, will not have to be paid for.

It was these kinds of love poems—love poems declaring or illustrating women's independence in the face of social conventions—which most interested Millay's public. Many of these poems appear to be autobiographical, confessional. Therefore, as much attention was paid to guessing the identity of the lover(s) as to the poems themselves. With the appearance of this type of heroine and this kind of love poem (especially in A Few Figs from Thistles), Millay began to be encouraged to write for all the wrong reasons: shock, titillation, idle speculation. “Gossip and scandal ... enhanced her sales,” Dorothy Thompson reports [in “The Woman Poet” in Ladies Home Journal, January 1951]. The fact that Fatal Interview describes an illicit affair may help to explain the popularity of that sonnet sequence. Also, it was undomestic, academic, and abstract. It was, therefore, pronounced “intellectual” and “masculine,” a superior work according to Millay's critics. Thus, Millay's public, her editors and critics have emphasized and praised some of her less successful and actually less important work and have neglected or ignored work that best reveals her talent, her domestic poetry.

Millay was one of the number of bright, young women who converged on New York and the capitals of Europe in the early 1920s to pursue the new liberated life women felt they had won along with suffrage. By this time, Millay was a published and recognized poet; and, for a while, she undertook a simultaneous career as an actress. During this time, she half-heartedly agreed to marry two or three of her numerous suitors; meanwhile she practiced her belief in free love. She feared marriage because she thought it might kill her creative voice. Floyd Dell, one of the rejected lovers, recalls “that she was probably afraid that by becoming a wife and mother, she might be less the poet. She wanted to devote herself exclusively to her poetry and did not want to `belong' to any one except herself. She did not want to spend her energies on domestic affairs.” In spite of her fears, Millay married Eugene Boissevain in 1923. She was thirty-one; he was forty-three. He gave up his career in order to take up the household duties and free Millay for her writing. When Allan Ross MacDougall interviewed Boissevain for an article in the Delineator some years after the marriage, Boissevain recalled: “When we got married I gave up my business. It seemed advisable to arrange our lives to suit Vincent. It is so obvious to anyone that Vincent is more important than I am. Anyone can buy and sell coffee—which is what I did ... But anyone cannot write poetry.”

In the same year as her marriage, Millay published a sonnet that warns a husband what may happen if he scorns his wife's intellect and insists instead on subjugating her to stereotyped wifely roles—to being submissive, non-intellectual and vain:

Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard,
“What a big book for such a little head!”
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink!
Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more:
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.
The Harp-Weaver, 1923

Perhaps because Millay was so aware of the potential threat to her career posed by her marriage and certainly because of Boissevain's willingness to accept an untraditional domestic situation, the marriage endured until his death twenty-six years later.

Although some of Millay's domestic poems seem clearly autobiographical, it is difficult to discern any over-all correlation between the events of her life and the periods when she wrote on domestic subjects. She alternates between writing some domestic poems and writing none at all, but for no apparent reasons. She wrote about marriage before she became a wife, culminating with “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree.” After her marriage, domesticity virtually disappeared from her work until the 1939 volume Huntsman, What Quarry?, a rather strange mixture of war and domestic concerns. During the war years, propaganda held her captive; but the poems collected posthumously in 1954 in Mine the Harvest reveal that she ultimately returned to her more basic subjects: nostalgia for childhood, nature, and domesticity. Hence, it is more useful and enlightening to see her domestic poetry not in terms of chronological progression, but in terms of certain recurrent themes.

The same domestic themes run through all three of the periods of Millay's career in which she wrote about her own or other women's experiences. The “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” sequence deals with one of the most common: the relationship between husband and wife. This sequence appeared in the May 1923 issue of Harpers before it was collected in The Harp-Weaver volume. Millay did not marry until August 30th of that year. Thus, the poems were written before she herself could have had any actual experience as a wife. This fact makes the sequence all the more remarkable since it is one of the most striking portraits of a wife's situation in twentieth-century American poetry.

These sonnets tell the story of a wife who returns to the deathbed of her estranged husband. The wife Millay creates or describes here is a woman whose body has trapped her into marriage with a man she knows to be her intellectual and spiritual inferior. The woman was aware that her husband was “not overkind nor over-quick in study / Nor skilled in sports nor beautiful” when she met him in school, but she married him anyway. Apparently even his physical passion did not prove to be a match for hers. In Sonnet IV, the woman's “desolate wish for comfort” and her intense efforts at starting a fire among “the sleeping ashes” seem a metaphorical experience suggesting the woman's frustrated efforts to kindle a physical passion in her past marital relationship. The woman is “mindful of like passion hurled in vain / Upon a similar task in other days.” She brings her whole body to bear upon the “hilt” of the coals.

The woman's story is told primarily through such small domestic actions, rather than through explicit statements. We are told that the man does not measure up to the woman's dreams, that she married him because she was “so in need.” But we are not told explicitly how their previous life together progressed or why they separated. What we are given are subtle insights into the woman's character and flashes of what her life in the house once was. Thus, we see her in Sonnet I in the past, presumably a new wife, “bigaproned, blithe, with stiff blue sleeves... plant[ing] seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming.” There is something promising and maternal in this picture of the woman planning ahead to a distant crop. In contrast are the geraniums, the “rotted stalks” of the present. She has not provided the necessary care to ensure that her plants survive the winter season. She abandoned them when she left her husband.

Sonnet I provides a further contrast with the woman's actions later in the sequence. Her figure, “big-aproned” and “blithe” in a past spring is contrasted to her discovery in Sonnet XI of an apron which she had lost in a long ago snowstorm. Finding the apron, she is struck “that here was spring, and the whole year to be lived through once more.” It is as if the resurrection of the apron represents not a new year at all, but only the same year to be lived again. In fact, none of the promise of the image of the woman from her past is fulfilled. She comes back only to mother her dying husband and to muse, in the end, upon his corpse.

These poems do not reveal what has motivated the woman to return to care for her dying husband. Perhaps it is a sense of guilt or perhaps a sense of duty— certainly it is not love that has brought her. Her behavior, her desire to remain invisible to the eyes of the neighbors, suggests guilt. Her instinct is always to flee. She leaves only the fanning of a rocker to the eyes of the grocer, just as the small bird she thinks she may have seen has left only its flash among the dwarf nasturtiums (shades of Emily Dickinson!). And the train's whistle at night brings her magic visions of cities that call to her as the whistle must have done when she first lived with the man as his wife.

The woman immerses herself in housekeeping as a distraction from her dying husband's “ever-clamorous care.” She discovers that there is a “rapture of a decent kind, / In making mean and ugly objects fair.” (It is to this kind of rapture that her desires have come.) She polishes the kitchen utensils, changes shelf paper, and replaces the table's oilcloth; but she is now only a visitor to the kitchen that once was hers. She has not been the one to position the soda and sugar; thus, they seem strange to her.

It is unclear whether or not the woman views domestic chores as a part of the trap of marriage. Perhaps it is only her disillusionment with the man and not her functions in the house which have caused the estrangement. The clean kitchen seems to give her pleasure; on the other hand, she finds saving the string and paper from the groceries a routine that is “treacherously dear” and “dull.” And this is a woman who needs magic in her life, a woman for whom the common and everyday must be transformed.

As a girl she was blinded by a reflected light in a mirror held by the boyfriend, not by the vision of the boy himself. When it occurs to her that his dazzling her with a mirror is unmiraculous, she persists in viewing him by moonlight rather than by the clear and truthful light of day. The unsuccessful outcome of her marriage has not disillusioned the woman in general; she is still affected by the magic of the train's whistle. Only in matters concerning her husband has she given up hope of magic or surprise. She anticipates that in death he will be “only dead.” But there is irony here. In Sonnet XVII, the last and perhaps the finest of the sequence, the woman is surprised by her dead husband. Considering him as “familiar as the bedroom door,” she is surprised to discover in him a new dimension. In death he has a mystery about him that, in life, he had long since lost, or that she had only pretended was his.

These sonnets are serious, quiet, delicate pieces of work. Except for the epiphany in the final poem, the grand emotions of these characters are over. But the work is not slight or trivial. Much of Millay's work is uneven; however, except for the somewhat weak concluding couplet to Sonnet IX, this sequence is extremely well-written. Also, the sequence reveals a remarkable degree of imagination and insight into the female condition. Even though the essence of the story is said to be true [according to Jean Gould in her The Poet and Her Book], and even though Millay had done some housekeeping as the eldest daughter of a divorced and working mother, her understanding of the woman's emotional responses toward her husband—especially the epiphany in the concluding sonnet—is unaccounted for by what we know of her actual experience.

Whenever Millay writes about marriage, it is usually in the sad tone of “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree”, or in a disillusioned or cynical voice. A person is trapped, biologically, into marriage, or, like the husband in “On the Wide Heath” (Wine from These Grapes, 1934), trapped out of loneliness. This husband goes home “to a kitchen of a loud shrew” and

Home to a worn reproach, the disagreeing,
The shelter, the stale air, content to be
Pecked at, confined, encroached upon,—it being
too lonely, to be free.

Also, the married person is one who resists being totally possessed. The speaker of “Truck-Garden-Market Day” (Mine the Harvest) for example, is happy to remain at home while her husband takes the produce to town because solitude gives her relief from his “noises.” The time she is left alone represents to her the small part of herself she keeps from giving to him. She has already given him so much: “More than my heart to him I gave,” she says, “who now am the timid, laughed at slave.” But she must not allow him to see how she feels, because:

He would be troubled; he could not learn
How small a part of myself I keep
To smell the meadows, or sun the churn,
When he's at market, or while he's asleep.

The woman is portrayed as preferring even a small housekeeping chore to the man's company. The woman's experience is different from her husband's, but by choice; and it is not necessarily inferior.

Perhaps Millay's most successful poem about marriage is one titled, “An Ancient Gesture” [from Mine the Harvest]:

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once; you can't keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years,
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope ...
Penelope, who really cried.

This combining of the classic and the homely is surprising but perfectly appropriate. The poem expresses the universality of domestic experience for women as well as the differences in the nature of experience between women and men: Penelope, the stay-at-home, the weaver, contrasted with Ulysses, the venturer, adventurer, orator. Penelope's weaving, which according to myth never gets done, is a perfect symbol for woman's condition. Ulysses learns something from his wife but then uses it superficially—to further his own ends. The sincerity and suffering of the woman are contrasted effectively with the political expediency of the man.

“Menses” (Huntsman, What Quarry?) is another poem that deals with marriage and with the differences between the sexes. The speaker is a man who humors the woman in a patronizing way. When the woman attacks him brutally, however, he forgives her, thinking to himself merely that she is “unwell.” (She says at one point: “ord, the shame, / The crying shame of seeing a man no wiser that the beasts he feeds— / His skull as empty as a shell!”) The poem ends with the woman's denunciation of her own weakness: “Just heaven consign and damn / To tedious Hell this body with its muddy feet in my mind!” Thus, it seems that the woman is as much or more concerned with the effect psychologically of her menstrual period on her intellect as with the effect on her relationship with the man.

The relationships between women and men and the differences between the sexes are thematically important to Millay's work. Maternity as subject or theme concerns her much less, although “The Ballad of the” Harp-Weaver, the poem for which she won the Pulitzer, tells the story of a mother's sacrifice for her child. In other poems, Millay oddly enough envisions herself (or her speakers) in strangely intense, maternal relationships with nature. Sometimes these visions are bizarre. In the apocalyptic poem “The Blue-Flag” in the Bog (Second April, 1921) she adopts a maternal posture toward the last flower left on earth. In “The Little Hill” (also Second April), she pictures herself as the mother of the hill where Christ died. But these conceits are mere oddities. Millay, although she had no children, could and did write successful poems about them. One example is an untitled poem [included in Mine the Harvest] in which she identifies with a child rather than with its mother. This poem deals with an adult's perception of birth as a betrayal. The second half reads:

If you wish to witness a human countenance contorted
And convulsed and crumpled by helpless grief and despair,
Then stand beside the slatted crib and say
There, there, and take the toy away.

Pink and pale-blue look well
In a nursery. And for the most part Baby is really good:
He gurgles, he whimpers, he tries to get his toe in his mouth; he slobbers his food
Dreamily—cereals and vegetable juices— onto his bib:
He behaves as he should.

But do not for a moment believe he has forgotten Blackness; not the deep
Easy swell; nor his thwarted
Design to remain for ever there;
Nor the crimson betrayal of his birth into a yellow glare.
The pictures painted on the inner eyelids of infants just before they sleep
Are not pastel.

The sentiment almost inherent in this subject—baby in its pretty crib—is played off effectively against the strong ending of the poem. Removing the child's toy, which to the child is incomprehensible loss, signifies the incomprehensible losses and terrors life holds. The child still recalls the “betrayal” of its birth; and thus its dreams are not, as we might sentimentally like to believe, “pastel.”

Another major theme, although not a familial one, is the preference for nature to housekeeping. One early (1920) and possibly autobiographical poem entitled “Portrait by a Neighbor” describes this preference. The poem begins:

Before she has her floor swept
Or her dishes done
Any day you'll find her
A-sunning in the sun!
A Few Figs from Thistles

And the same subject is more effectively treated in a late (1954), untitled poem in which the speaker recalls the discovery of nature's beauty and wonders how as mere child she could have withstood “the shock / Of beauty seen, noticed, for the first time.” The speaker, now adult, still is staggered by the experience of encountering natural beauty—to the extent that she finds it impossible to turn from it to mundane, domestic chores:

How did I bear it?—Now—grown up and encased
In the armour of custom, after years
Of looking at loveliness, forewarned
And face to face, and no time
And too prudent,
At six in the morning to accept the unendurable embrace,

I come back from the garden into the kitchen,
And take off my rubbers—the dew
Is heavy and high, wetting the sock above
The shoe—but I cannot do
The housework yet.
Mine the Harvest

“Cave Canem” (Mine the Harvest), another seemingly autobiographical poem (probably written after Boissevain's death), also reveals her preference for nature as well as continued concern over the encroachment of domesticity on her writing. In this lyric, the speaker complains that she must “throw bright time to chickens in an untidy yard”; and that she is “forced to sit while the potted roses wilt in the case or the / sonnet cools.”

In “The Plaid Dress” (Huntsman, What Quarry?), Millay uses something feminine in much the same way that Edward Taylor used the homely and commonplace as an emblem through which to treat larger concerns:

Strong sun, that bleach [sic]
The curtains of my room, can you not render
Colourless this dress I wear?—
This violent plaid
Of purple angers and red shames; the yellow stripe
Of thin but valid treacheries; the flashy green of kind deeds done
Through indolence, high judgments given in haste;
The recurring checker of the serious breach of taste?

No more uncoloured than unmade,
I fear, can be this garment that I may not doff;
Confession does not strip it off,
To send me homeward eased and bare;

All through the formal, unoffending evening, under the clean
Bright hair,
Lining the subtle gown ... it is not seen,
But it is there.

The speaker's violently-coloured dress is used as a metaphor to represent her emotions—her “purple angers and red shames.” She can suppress these, but she cannot purge them from her personality.

Millay's letters to her editors reveal her own opinions about some of her work. They indicate that she preferred poems such as “The Plaid Dress” to what she called her more “modern” poems, poems of “the revolutionary element” concerning “the world outside myself today.” It is revealing that she felt it necessary to defend her more personal, feminine poems, almost to apologize for them. The reason for her attitude undoubtedly lies in the critical reception to her work: when she wrote in the male tradition—that is, “abstract” and “intellectual” poetry—or when she wrote “shocking” verse, she was praised; when she wrote outside that tradition—the domestic poems—she was usually ignored or downgraded.

Of course Millay's “feminist” verse is important. It was flippant, fresh, and fun. It was popular with the public and helped gain her fame, and it was widely imitated by Dorothy Parker and other women poets of the period. But a reassessment of Millay suggests that her greater contribution and achievement have been in the poems she wrote of a more personal, more immediate nature, poems out of her own experience as a woman and out of her understanding of that experience on the part of other women.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420016631