Sometimes I think we fall into using certain locutions, because they express our innate desire to be seen as sympathetic, or right-thinking. Sometimes, if we press further into the facts of the matter, those locutions turn out to be simply nonsensical. Here is my current example.
I have been reading American poetry that deals with the seasons: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Most poetry collections include an introduction that offers biographical and critical material, and puts the writer’s work into cultural or historical context. These same themes are also reworked when I visit Wikipedia or Britannica Online for further information. Of Edna St. Vincent Millay, one thing is said repeatedly—I believe I read it in three sources, if not four. ‘Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, only the third woman to win the prize.’ Impressive, no? It is sad, I think, that we continue to count women’s accomplishments by which number each woman who achieves something can claim. Good for Edna to haul in one of those coveted Pulitzers, and only the third woman to do so!
Then I got curious. She won her Pulitzer in 1923. The Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917. The prize for poetry is not given every year. By the time Millay got hers, there had been five winners: Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Widdemer, Edward Arlington Robinson, and Millay. Yes, she was ‘only the third woman to win,’ but at that point, women had dominated the award. Women would go on to do very well, with Amy Lowell, Leonora Speyer, Audrey Wurdemann, Marya Zaturenska, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marianne Moore, and many others winning. Over the years, men have won more, but it would be a challenge to come up with a female poet who has deserved a Pulitzer and not won.
I think it would serve as better history, and indeed give credit to women poets, if the sources on Edna St. Vincent Millay said, ‘Millay won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, the third woman to do so in a field dominated up to that point by women.’
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was notoriously promiscuous, taking many lovers, a practice that persisted unabated after her marriage. She wrote the famous verse:
My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
The idea of a candle burning at both ends is often interpreted to mean that her lovers were both male and female. She had no children, and her biographers note that in her life she had two abortions—in a time when such procedures were terribly dangerous.
She wrote of all seasons, but in a life as unconventional as hers, she was never going to mimic the traditional themes of seasonal literature. In the poem ‘Spring’ she asks, ‘To what purpose, April, do you return again?’ She is unimpressed by the resurrection of life, and the thought that death is never final, because:
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs,
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
More stirring to her is the death of beauty, as exemplified by autumn. In ‘The Death of Autumn’ she writes that when the reeds die and grasses are fetched off by the wind, she feels the weight of the year in her heart.
I know that beauty must ail and die,
And will be born again,–but ah, to see
Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!
Oh Autumn! Autumn!—What is the Spring to me?
As with most poets, Millay concentrates on spring and autumn, but summer also seems to hold special meaning for her. In her poignant ‘Sonnet XXVII’ she writes:
I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year . . .
And in the poem ‘Song,’ she writes of summer:
Gone, gone again is Summer the lovely,
Gone again on every side,
Lost again like a shining fish from the hand
Into the shadowy tide.
Biographers have theorized that Millay’s sense of loss at the passing of another summer is a reference to her own childlessness, another fertile season spent without fecundity. But as far as I can see, there is nothing in her life to indicate she ever longed to have children, and the evidence indicates she was fully capable.
Millay is another example of the fact that the seasons will always be seen as similes for the progress of human life, both its cyclicity and its impermanence. And when that life is unconventional, so is the poetry it produces.