The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

About the Book

An indispensable collection of the groundbreaking poet’s most masterful and innovative work, celebrating a bold early voice of female liberation, independence, and queer sexuality—featuring a new introduction by poet Olivia Gatwood, author of Life of the Party
 
Edna St. Vincent Millay defined a generation as one of the most critically acclaimed poets of the Modernist era. Her work pushed boundaries within the literary canon for its lyrical expression of female embodiment and progressive feminist politics, and she was honored as only the third woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. 
 
The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay demonstrates Millay’s legacy and influence on contemporary poetry. Sometimes satirical, often sharp, and always striking, the poems in this collection span Millay’s remarkable career, from the success of Renascence and Other Poems to the sting of A Few Figs from Thistles, and Second April, as well as “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” and eight sonnets from the early twenties. Millay’s incandescent poetry continues to inspire today as broadly and deeply as during her lifetime.
 
The Modern Library Torchbearers series features women who wrote on their own terms, with boldness, creativity, and a spirit of resistance.

AMERICAN INDIAN STORIES • THE AWAKENING • THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY • THE HEADS OF CERBERUS • LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET • LOVE, ANGER, MADNESS • PASSING • THE TRANSFORMATION OF PHILIP JETTAN • VILLETTE • THERE IS CONFUSION • THE SELECTED POEMS OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
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Praise for The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

“Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to me one of the only poets writing in English in our time who have attained anything like the stature of great literary figures.”—Edmund Wilson
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Excerpt

The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Renascence and Other Poems

Renascence

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.

Over these things I could not see;

These were the things that bounded me;

And I could touch them with my hand,

Almost, I thought, from where I stand.

And all at once things seemed so small

My breath came short, and scarce at all.

But, sure, the sky is big, I said;

Miles and miles above my head;

So here upon my back I’ll lie

And look my fill into the sky.

And so I looked, and, after all,

The sky was not so very tall.

The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,

And—sure enough!—I see the top!

The sky, I thought, is not so grand;

I ’most could touch it with my hand!

And reaching up my hand to try,

I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity

Came down and settled over me;

Forced back my scream into my chest,

Bent back my arm upon my breast,

And, pressing of the Undefined

The definition on my mind,

Held up before my eyes a glass

Through which my shrinking sight did pass

Until it seemed I must behold

Immensity made manifold;

Whispered to me a word whose sound

Deafened the air for worlds around,

And brought unmuffled to my ears

The gossiping of friendly spheres,

The creaking of the tented sky,

The ticking of Eternity.

I saw and heard, and knew at last

The How and Why of all things, past,

And present, and forevermore.

The Universe, cleft to the core,

Lay open to my probing sense

That, sick’ning, I would fain pluck thence

But could not,—nay! But needs must suck

At the great wound, and could not pluck

My lips away till I had drawn

All venom out.—Ah, fearful pawn!

For my omniscience paid I toll

In infinite remorse of soul.

All sin was of my sinning, all

Atoning mine, and mine the gall

Of all regret. Mine was the weight

Of every brooded wrong, the hate

That stood behind each envious thrust,

Mine every greed, mine every lust.

And all the while for every grief,

Each suffering, I craved relief

With individual desire,—

Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire

About a thousand people crawl;

Perished with each,—then mourned for all!

A man was starving in Capri;

He moved his eyes and looked at me;

I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,

And knew his hunger as my own.

I saw at sea a great fog bank

Between two ships that struck and sank;

A thousand screams the heavens smote;

And every scream tore through my throat.

No hurt I did not feel, no death

That was not mine; mine each last breath

That, crying, met an answering cry

From the compassion that was I.

All suffering mine, and mine its rod;

Mine, pity like the pity of God.

Ah, awful weight! Infinity

Pressed down upon the finite Me!

My anguished spirit, like a bird,

Beating against my lips I heard;

Yet lay the weight so close about

There was no room for it without.

And so beneath the weight lay I

And suffered death, but could not die.

Long had I lain thus, craving death,

When quietly the earth beneath

Gave way, and inch by inch, so great

At last had grown the crushing weight,

Into the earth I sank till I

Full six feet under ground did lie,

And sank no more,—there is no weight

Can follow here, however great.

From off my breast I felt it roll,

And as it went my tortured soul

Burst forth and fled in such a gust

That all about me swirled the dust.

Deep in the earth I rested now,

Cool is its hand upon the brow

And soft its breast beneath the head

Of one who is so gladly dead.

And all at once, and over all

The pitying rain began to fall;

I lay and heard each pattering hoof

Upon my lowly, thatchèd roof,

And seemed to love the sound far more

Than ever I had done before.

For rain it hath a friendly sound

To one who’s six feet underground;

And scarce the friendly voice or face:

A grave is such a quiet place.

The rain, I said, is kind to come

And speak to me in my new home.

I would I were alive again

To kiss the fingers of the rain,

To drink into my eyes the shine

Of every slanting silver line,

To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze

From drenched and dripping apple-trees.

For soon the shower will be done,

And then the broad face of the sun

Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth

Until the world with answering mirth

Shakes joyously, and each round drop

Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.

How can I bear it; buried here,

While overhead the sky grows clear

And blue again after the storm?

O, multi-colored, multi-form,

Beloved beauty over me,

That I shall never, never see

Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,

That I shall never more behold!

Sleeping your myriad magics through,

Close-sepulchred away from you!

O God, I cried, give me new birth,

And put me back upon the earth!

Upset each cloud’s gigantic gourd

And let the heavy rain, down-poured

In one big torrent, set me free,

Washing my grave away from me!

I ceased; and through the breathless hush

That answered me, the far-off rush

Of herald wings came whispering

Like music down the vibrant string

Of my ascending prayer, and—crash!

Before the wild wind’s whistling lash

The startled storm-clouds reared on high

And plunged in terror down the sky,

And the big rain in one black wave

Fell from the sky and struck my grave.

I know not how such things can be;

I only know there came to me

A fragrance such as never clings

To aught save happy living things;

A sound as of some joyous elf

Singing sweet songs to please himself,

And, through and over everything,

A sense of glad awakening.

The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,

Whispering to me I could hear;

I felt the rain’s cool finger-tips

Brushed tenderly across my lips,

Laid gently on my sealèd sight,

And all at once the heavy night

Fell from my eyes and I could see,—

A drenched and dripping apple-tree,

A last long line of silver rain,

A sky grown clear and blue again.

And as I looked a quickening gust

Of wind blew up to me and thrust

Into my face a miracle

Of orchard-breath, and with the smell,—

I know not how such things can be!—

I breathed my soul back into me.

Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I

And hailed the earth with such a cry

As is not heard save from a man

Who has been dead, and lives again.

About the trees my arms I wound;

Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;

I raised my quivering arms on high;

I laughed and laughed into the sky,

Till at my throat a strangling sob

Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb

Sent instant tears into my eyes;

O God, I cried, no dark disguise

Can e’er hereafter hide from me

Thy radiant identity!

Thou canst not move across the grass

But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,

Nor speak, however silently,

But my hushed voice will answer Thee.

I know the path that tells Thy way

Through the cool eve of every day;

God, I can push the grass apart

And lay my finger on Thy heart!

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky,—

No higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push the sea and land

Farther away on either hand;

The soul can split the sky in two,

And let the face of God shine through.

But East and West will pinch the heart

That can not keep them pushed apart;

And he whose soul is flat—the sky

Will cave in on him by and by.

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About the Author

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in Maine in 1892 and died in New York in 1950. A popular poet and playwright, she was also known for her unconventional lifestyle and her many love affairs. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923, and in 1943 she was awarded the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry. More by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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About the Author

Olivia Gatwood
Olivia Gatwood is the author of two poetry collections, New American Best Friend and Life of the Party, and the co-writer of the film The Governesses and Adele’s music video for "I Drink Wine." She has received international recognition for her poetry, writing workshops, and work as a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery. Her performances have been featured on HBO, MTV, VH1, the BBC, and more. Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and The Missouri Review. Originally from Albuquerque, she lives in Los Angeles. More by Olivia Gatwood
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About the Author

Nancy Milford

Nacy Milford’s Zelda spent twenty-nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in hardcover, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was translated into twelve languages. Nancy Milford was a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey in 1999, and an Annenberg Fellow at Brown Unviersity. She has taught at the University of Michigan, at Vassar College, and will be in the American Studies Program at Princeton University this fall. She is a founder of the Writers Room, has held a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is a Literary Lion at The New York Public Library. She lives in New York. More by Nancy Milford
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