Timothy F. Jackson—
These letters represent Edna St. Vincent Millay’s written correspondence from 1900, when she was eight, until 1950, the last year of her life. Readers of these letters will discover endearing and revelatory insights about this prolific though often underappreciated literary figure, who was a bestselling poet in her day. We learn about the vast range of Millay’s interests—music, gardening, cooking, fashion, visual art, world literature, travel, horse racing, and astronomy, as well as her strong commitment to social justice. Recipients of her letters include family, friends, lovers, other writers, publishers, and politicians. In the beginning we meet her mother Cora and her sisters Kathleen and Norma. Other early correspondents include the poets Jessie B. Rittenhouse, Arthur Davison Ficke, Witter Bynner, the editor Arthur Hooley, and the critic Edmund Wilson. She wrote love letters to Ficke, Hooley, Wilson, and the poet George Dillon, among others. She expresses deep appreciation for her friendships in correspondence with the poet and novelist Elinor Wylie; Sister Ste. Hélène, dean of the College of St. Catherine when they first met; her Latin professor from Vassar College, Elizabeth Haight; the composer Deems Taylor and his wife Mary Kennedy; the poet Robinson Jeffers; and the horse trainer Bill Brann. She also wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe, whom she’d met at one of O’Keeffe’s art exhibitions, and Walt Kuhn, whose painting Mario she and her husband Eugen Boissevain purchased in 1939. Paying attention to politics, she sent telegrams to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, including one “in favor of the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill.”
Her letters are frequently marked by endearing and playful language in her closing lines and signatures: “your loving daughter,” “[one of ] three very interested sisters,” “your friend,” “your hbl. svt.” [your humble servant], “LENOX AVENUE MOLL,” and “Sefe” (her childhood nickname; her sisters Norma and Kathleen often were called “Hunk” and “Wump,” respectively). Her closing salutations alone illuminate the many different ways she engaged with others.
Enda St. Millay—
To Georgia O’Keeffe
June 15, 1931
Dear Miss O’Keeffe:
You have forgotten long ago that I promised to send you my new book.—I am sending it at last, & The Buck in the Snow as well, for I think you said you hadn’t seen that.1 Please don’t trouble to acknowledge them.—I just wanted to give you something; you have given me so much.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
1.Fatal Interview (1931) and The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (1928). Millay had met Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), the American artist, at Lake George in 1931 (Milford, Savage Beauty, 340).
To Jessie B. Rittenhouse
449 West 19th Street, New York City
April 7, 1920
If your bulletin of which you spoke to me is not already gone to press, and you wish to include therein any information as to my recent illustrious activities, then these are um!
I went out to Cincinnati in February and gave a lecture and reading from my own published and unpublished poems before the Ohio Valley Poetry Society. (Last year they had Amy;1 wherefrom I deduce the system as being: one year a fat girl, next year a thin girl; however, this is not offi- cial and need not be included in the bulletin.) I went out there just to read for this one society, because they wrote me last summer and urged me to, setting the date way ahead. It never occurred to me before to do things like that, but I find it is rather nice to do,—people are lovely to one, aren’t they? And this spring I have read before the Macdowell Club here, and at the Sunwise-Turn, and made my first real after-dinner speech,—at the dinner given by the Society of Arts and Sciences in honor of John Drinkwater and St. John Ervine.2
But the most interesting thing I shall have done this year is to have three books of poems published: one, named, after fearful imaginative struggles, simply POEMS, which will be out in about two weeks; the sec- ond, my one-act play ARIA DA CAPO, also in about two weeks; and the third, FIGS FROM THISTLES, sometime next fall. Mitchell Kennerley is publishing all three. ARIA DA CAPO has already been produced by several little theatres among them the Provincetown Players of New York, the Community Players of Boston, and the Vagabond Players of Baltimore, and published in the March 18 issue of Reedy’s Mirror. Probably the extremely favorable review of the play in the New York Times, in which Mr. Woollcott spoke of it as being the most beautiful and the most interesting play in the English language at that time being played in New York, accounts for the wide publicity which has been given it; at any rate, the amount of my correspondence has been about doubled this year, all due to the letters, etc., which I receive concerning arIa da caPo, and there is scarcely a little theatre or literary club in the country, so far as I can see, that isn’t going to produce it or give a reading of it. Somebody gave a reading of it at Columbia University a few days ago.3 I find myself suddenly famous, Jessie, dear, and in this un-lookedfor excitement I find a stimulant that almost takes the place of booze!
“Land, how I do run on!”—as they say in the little stories of real life.
Forgive this expansiveness. Would I had time to convert it all into an epigram.
1. Amy Lowell (1874–1925) was an American author; her first book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1912.
2. John Drinkwater (1882–1937) was an English poet and playwright. His poetry appeared in all five of Edward Marsh’s anthologies titled Georgian Poetry, published from 1912 to 1922. St. John [Greer] Ervine (1883–1971) is the pen-name of John Greer Irvine, an Irish playwright and novelist. Both Drinkwater and Ervine contributed to Vanity Fair in the early 1920s.
3. Gertrude Workman, on Friday, March 26, 1920 (Columbia Spectator, March 29, 1920, p. 3).
To Arthur Hooley
[December 27, 1915]
My dear friend,—
I have learned from you to write letters at night and destroy them in the morning.—Yesterday was the fourth day I had been ill in bed, and the letter I wrote last night—is destroyed.
I am very glad to have the book you said—yes, I remember the line— I have not been able to forget it. I have been reading the poem today. It is an unusually beautiful thing, I think.—Do you remember the sonnet about the swallows in the osiers?1
. . . .
Friday night Mother noticed that there were three envelopes ad- dressed to me in the same hand.—“Who are these letters from?” she asked,—and I said, “From Arthur Hooley, Mother.”—Last night when she saw another letter from you she said, “Are you going to marry that Englishman?” And I answered, “No, Mother.—I love him,—but I don’t want to marry him.”—It is such a pleasure to say things that are quite true so that others will think them false—in such a way, I mean, that others will think them false.—(I have a feeling that you once remarked the same thing to me.)
Arthur, was your birthday Thursday, a week ago?2—Please tell me.— Be good to me, my dear, because I am ill.—Are you not sorry I am ill?
. . . .
Let me tell you something—(with my head against your knee)—I did not really want you to be miserable.——
The little picture I am sending is a snap of me as Marie de France in the pageant we gave this year at college.3 I had a photograph for you, and I almost sent it.—At the last minute I could not, somehow.—I thought you might not like it.—And I gave it to someone else. But I will send you one, before so very long.——
It was most courteous—not to say cordial—of Charles Vale to send his love to Vincent Millay.—“God rest you, Merry gentleman.”
. . . .
Arthur, do you know who said, “I sometimes think that all great passion is like a kiss in mid-battle,—a difficult peace between oil and water, between candles and dark night”? Do you not think it very beautiful?—“a difficult peace”!4
. . . .
Was it the night of the 5th or the 6th of January—two years ago— that I last saw you?—Do you remember?—
I am asking you many questions, but they are not questionings of the soul,—so you must not give me “dusty answers,” dear.
I thought today, “How strange if I should be very ill, and die.”—It would show you, Arthur, would it not?—I wish I were going to see you the night of the 5th—or 6th,—I forget which.—(I could stand it both!)—E.
1. George Meredith’s Sonnet 47 from Modern Love (1862), which begins “We saw the swallows gathering in the sky, / And in the osier-isle we heard them noise.”
2. According to his World War I draft card, Arthur Hooley’s birthday was December 9, 1874.
3. Millay played Marie de France (a twelfth-century French poet who wrote while in England) in Vassar’s Pageant to Athena, in October 1915. According to Vincent & Vassar: An Exhibition, “Vincent’s most vivid performance may have been that given as part of an elaborate dual observation on October 10–13, 1915, of Vassar’s 50th anniversary and of the inauguration of its fifth president, Henry Noble MacCracken” (Published by The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society and the Vassar College Library, , 25.)
4. A close quotation from an early edition of On Baile’s Strand, a Play, by W. B. Yeats. Cuchullain (Cuchulain in later editions) says these words: “I think that all deep passion is but a kiss / In the mid battle, and a difficult peace / ’Twixt oil and water, candles and dark night . . .” (The King’s Threshold: and On Baile’s Strand: Being Volume Three of Plays for an Irish Theatre [London: A. H. Gullen, 1904], 82.) At least by 1906, Yeats modified the wording, such as re- placing “peace” with “truce.”
From Into the World’s Great Heart: Selected Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Edited by Timothy F. Jackson, with a foreword by Holly Peppe. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) was a poet and playwright. Her poems include the iconic “Renascence” and the Pulitzer Prize–winning “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.” Timothy F. Jackson is associate professor of English at Rosemont College and editor of Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay: An Annotated Edition. Holly Peppe, Millay’s literary executor and editor of the Penguin Classics edition of Millay’s Early Poems, has written and lectured widely about the poet’s life and work.