When I was in Camden, Maine, in late May, I took the Edna St. Vincent Millay walking tour.
Granted, more than 100 years after this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet left the town where she grew up, there isn’t much left to see of her. The small house where she lived on Chestnut Street, a block away from the lovely Camden Harbor, is gone. The house across the street, then called the Cushing Mansion, where she studied piano under John Wheeler Tufts, has been replaced by another house that is home to a financial company. (She inherited the Cushing Mansion in 1945 but never lived in it.) However, the First Congregational Church, where she attended Sunday School, is still on Elm Street, as is the Camden Opera House, where her high school graduation was held on 1909. Only three years after her graduation, one of her most famous poems, “Renascence,” was published in The Lyric Year.
Millay read this remarkable poem at a staff party at the Whitehall Inn, where her sister Norma worked as a waitress. Caroline Dow, head of the New York YWCA, heard it and offered to pay Millay’s tuition to Vassar. The Whitehall Inn, an uphill walk from the Camden Public Library, is still a handsome working inn surrounded by trees and a garden.
Her talent and her interest in poetry emerged at an early age. The library contains the Edna St. Vincent Millay Archives, where I found a copy of her first poem (or known poem) written at age seven:
One bird on a tree
One bird come to me
One bird on the ground
One bird hopping around
One bird in his nest
One bird took a rest
Not bad for a seven-year-old.
Millay was born in nearby Rockland, Maine, on Feb. 22, 1892, to a family full of strong, independent women. In fact, the New York Times wrote of her: “To rebel has been for her as natural as to breathe; it is as personal as an act of faith.” Her mother, Cora Lounella Bouzelle, a nurse, divorced Millay’s father, Henry Tollman Millay, a schoolteacher, in 1904 for financial irresponsibility after several years of separation. Cora and her three daughters moved from town to town and finally settled in Camden, where they lived from 1903 until 1913. Cora traveled with a trunk full of classic literature, including Shakespeare and Milton, which she read to her daughters Vincent, as Millay was called, Norma, and Kathleen. Listening to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and Milton’s poetry and living amidst the beauty of coastal Maine must have had a huge influence on Millay’s own poetry and plays.
She wrote several poems in high school, which were published in St. Nicholas Magazine (a children’s publication), including “The Land of Romance,” which won the publication’s first prize in 1908 when she was about sixteen. While in school, she also published her poetry in the Camden Herald and in Current Literature, a New York City-based magazine that closed in 1925. But Millay was a well-rounded student who also played on the school basketball team, served as class correspondent, was editor of the school publication Megunticook, and participated in many amateur plays. She also eventually learned to speak six languages.
Camden is a charming town with quaint tourist shops, good seafood restaurants, a farmers’ market on Saturdays, fine old homes, and a beautiful harbor filled with sloops, ketches, and fishing boats. The library is a short walk up the hill on Main Street, as one leaves the downtown area, and it backs up to a serene park with bushes and trees and benches overlooking the harbor. Mountain Street runs off Main Street and has a view of mountains in the background. According to the Camden website, it is one of only two places on the Atlantic seaboard where the mountains meet the sea.
In “Renascence,” Millay writes:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Millay left Camden when she was twenty and entered Vassar College at age twenty-one, graduating in 1921 with an A.B. degree. Renascence and Other Poems was her first published book, but she went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 at age thirty for her fourth book, The Ballad of the Harp Weaver, becoming the third woman to receive the award.
She eventually settled near Austerlitz, N.Y., on a 635-acre farm called Steepletop after her marriage to Eugen Jan Boissevain. Both were feminists, and he supported her career. While she did not return to Camden to live, her early years there with the meeting of the sea and the mountains clearly influenced many of her writings until her death in 1950 at Steepletop. She was only 58.
How have your formative years influenced your own creativity?
Thanks, Brenda, for this terrific post! I’d like to add that any readers interested in knowing more about Edna St. Vincent Millay should consider reading “Savage Beauty,” Nancy Milford’s engrossing biography.
Thanks, Chris. I do want to read “Savage Beauty.”
I am assembling a photo journal of a recent trip to far northern Canada. This poem perfectly recaptures the 360 degree landscape of mountains and sea and when not above the tree line of woods and of course returning to where I started from with a better sense of nature. Thank you for making me aware of the work, I may just work it in to the recap.
Thanks too Christina for mentioning the biography. ARRR one more on my to be read list!
Thanks for your comment, Sounds like a wonderful trip and one I’d like to make sometime. Millay’s poem “Renascence” is beautiful and thoughtul and has encouraged me to read more of her poetry.
Well done, Brenda. Have never given Millay the attention her writing deserves. Thanks for bringing this poet (and the landscape which helped form her sensibility) to life.
Re: your question – my poetry is often inspired by dreams. And, like dreams, the poems are a combination of events in the moment and all that has gone before.
Thank you, Eve. I’d love to read your poetry sometime.
I want to go on this tour! I’ve had a fascination with ESVM since I was young because my mother talked about her poetry all the time, even recited the Ballad of the Harp Weaver to my sister and me—and oh, how we cried! So of course, I read Savage Beauty when it came out in 2002. Re my formative years, I’m sure my current love of poetry comes from my mother’s love of recitation. She knew many poems by memory from her school years and recited them to us in bits and pieces as they applied to our daily affairs. But the heart wrenching ballads were her favorites, and consequently ours. Boohoo!
What a lovely story about your childhood. My mother was a book lover (like me!) and read a lot, but I don’t recall that she recited poems to us when my brothers and I were growing up. You experience was very special.
Great post Brenda. I love reading about poets, and Millay is one of my favorites. Who could not love a Pulitzer prize winning rebel? My childhood definitely influences my writing. Like Millay, I wrote poems as a child. I still have the handmade booklet of poems I gave my mama and daddy for Christmas when i was 12 years old, and I once won an award in elementary school for writing a poem about citizenship. It is inspiring to learn I have something in common with one of my favorite poets.
Thanks for your wonderful comment. I’m sure your parents loved your Christmas gift, and it makes me wonder if Vincent did something like that for her own mama. What a great talent she had – and a fiery spirit.
Do you still write poetry?
As a Maine native, with my father’s coming from Rockland, I so enjoyed this piece. Reading about Ms. Millay inspired me to return ‘home’, and pick up some of her works. Great write up!