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Hello again! We are pleased to be telling the #polyam / #nonmonogamous (hi)story of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), the American poet, feminist, and playwright.
Millay is very well-known among #polyam communities today due to a number of articles that @brainpickings wrote about her “polyamorous” love letters: brainpickings.org/2016/02/22/edn…
Along with this beautiful biography of Millay by @Ballad_BobDylan: amazon.com/What-Lips-My-H…
Epstein notes that “She was America’s foremost love poet, a poet of the erotic impulse and erotic condition...modernist temperament of Eliot, Moore, Frost, and Stevens shrank from such outpourings” and we believe it to be true
As one of the first women to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, she is best known for her lyrical love poetry, but she also wrote sonnets, essays, letters, librettos, poetic drama, political poetry and translation.
Previous historians have made much of Millay's 'promiscuity,' and 'affairs' but we intend to take a critical look at what is meant by that. Part of reexamining history is to see what happens when we look at things in a a new, lovely light:
While #twitterstorians might have some bones (brains?) to pick about calling Millay polyamorous, as she died a few decades before the term #polyamory was invented, we sympathize those who would call her so, because it is so important to find predecessors
Love was a central concern of her life, and she both reveled in it and turned from it, as some of our favorite poems show
If you are unfamiliar with her poetry, we envy you the new discovery! Due to the wonders of #digitization we can listen to her reading her poetry. Here she is reading “I shall forget you my dear”
Millay was born in @CityOfRockland , in 1892, which was (and still rather is) a quaint, small New England town. But it was even more so then: it was captured in a series of painted postcards made while she was in her teens:
Her parents were Cora Lounella Buzelle and Henry Millay, a nurse and schoolteacher respectively, and they chose for her the strange middle name of St. Vincent, as her uncle’s life had just been saved by the staff of Saint Vincent’s Hospital, formerly of Greenwich Village in NYC
It is probably better known today as the hospital that was on the front lines and at the epicenter of the #HIV/#AIDS crisis—a legacy that affects how we see queer people today and in the past--including Millay.
The fact that she was named after the saint for lost articles, prisoners and spiritual health is perhaps fitting. It is also perhaps worth noting that Millay herself would live near (and go to) St Vincent’s Hospital many times; it seems to have been a powerful draw in her life.
Although Millay’s father Henry proved to be a powerful influence on her poetry, he was not around for much of her childhood—Cora divorced him under what was officially called “financial irresponsibility” due to his gambling habit.
One should not brush over this face lightly: this was a significant move for a woman at the time. Cora however, in all the records we have about her, seems to have been a firebrand of a woman, unwilling to settle for a situation that made her unhappy.
Breaking from tradition, she chose to raise three daughters by herself while working full time, which was a remarkable feat for the time.
Her three daughters were all similarly-hard-headed and unfiltered--as Millay demonstrated, quitting eighth grade in disgust at her classmates and a teacher who refused to call her by her chosen name (Vincent).
Instead, she taught herself enough to skip straight to highschool. It was then, at the age of 20 (highschooler age varied much more then than today) that she had her first love affair with a woman four years her senior, Ella Somerville.
Setting a trend that would carry through all of her relationships, Somerville was obsessed to sickness by Millay: “she never loved anything on this earth as much as the red-haired fairy poet from Camden”

Here is Millay, around that time, emphasizing her spriteness:
They met when Millay was staying at her house for a number of weeks. Ella offered to share her bed with Millay, as was common during that time, central heat not being what it is today and wood being expensive.

Millay responded that she preferred Ella to come to her bed
Ella duly complied.

Millay’s departure would leave Ella heartbroken to the point of sickness and her surviving letters are...revealing to say in the least:

(here's ella, far later in life)
Did you think Lovey had forgotten her own precious poppy laden canoe? Not so! [...] it is awfully lonely without you. No one to play with me, no one to call me ‘grapefruit,’ no one to roll on at night.
one thing is certain old girl; when you make a place for yourself in someone’s heart, no one else can fill it.”
Somerville’s letters talk about kisses ‘serpertine’ and others that were ‘butterfly tongues’ and give details about the pair’s inner sexual life that simply does not survive elsewhere.
The pair likely would not have thought of themselves as #lesbian or #bisexual--such categories didn’t really work or exist in a widespread manner at that time.
Indeed, they both describe being boy-crazy: Millay wrote letters to her sisters at home--who, like all sisters, shared them with mother, and Cora immediately demanded that Millay return home.
Still spinning from the highs of her first relationships Millay poured her soul into her first published poem: “Renascence.” It would go on to bring her international fame--but not at first. (read and listen here: poetryfoundation.org/poems/55993/re…)
A little side note -- here's an inscribed copy owned by her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain held at @IULillyLibrary. He has mounted her autograph and a picture of her inside, making it a truly personalized copy. We had chills when examining this copy!
Her first prize for the poem was just an honorable mention. She wrote it under the name E. Vincent St. Millay, and shocked the judges when she revealed her gender
Despite the male judges, however, the poem was recognized immediately as a stunning accomplishment -- the winner of that competition skipped his own award ceremony in protest!
It was re-published in newspapers and catapulted her to to fame and to a scholarship to @Vassar College for Women, where we will leave her for today & return soon.

And dear readers, we leave you with sonnet XXX
hello all! we return today with what your heart desires -- more Edna St. Vincent Millay -- who is here in Greenwich Village.
In general her time at Vassar was passed short, powerful, and intense relationships with men and women and she would often write about those experiences. esp. with women, home and to male lovers and it would be accepted and those women welcomed on school breaks.
But In the words of her biographer, she was a rebel in all the senses:

“she smoked cigarettes in the cemetery, she drank spirits, she cut classes when she pleased, she played hooky from compulsory chapel, she led classmates in insurrections...
she was late for classes, and went absent without leave again and again. She broke every rule in the manual and then turned in papers and exams that were so brilliant that her teachers, furious, had no choice to give her good grades.”
At Vassar, Millay truly grew into what might be called a polyamorous identity. That powerful rush of love, where everything seems so tender and possible--that was the central driving force of her life, as one poem written at that time shows:
she kept over a thousand love letters that she had received in her life, all of which survive @librarycongress. Many of her lovers would go on to become lifelong friends, like the subject of the poem above, Arthur Davison Ficke, who she met in 1918 after her @Vassar graduation
Ficke, also a poet and playwright, had been a long-time correspondent with Millay, but they had never met in person until he stopped in New York, enroute to fighting WWI in Europe.
They had a brief and intense love affair that affected them both for the rest of their lives. Here he is reading to her:
And another of her, Ficke, and her future husband Jan Boissevain
As well as Weeds, she also dedicated " And You as Well Must Die, Beloved Dust" to Ficke:
Even though the poem seems to end on a sad and bitter note, it belies her sadness, as she wrote years later to Ficke to say that she often thought of him:
I must write you, or you will think I did not get your letters. But when I start to write you all I can think of to say to you is — Why aren’t you here? Oh, why aren’t you here? — And I have written that to you before… I have nothing to say but that I long to see you
I take the photograph with me everywhere, the big one. I love it. I think we might have a few days together that would be entirely lovely. We are not children, or fools, we are mad. And we of all people should be able to do the mad thing well.
If each of us is afraid to see the other, that is only one more sympathy we have. . If each of us is anguished lest we lose one another through some folly, then we are more deeply bound than any folly can undo… What ever happens, I want to see you again! —
But oh, my dear, I know what my heart wants of you — it is not the things that other men can give."
She also carried on another long term relationship with the poet, editor and novelist, Arthur Dell, who is pictured here. Through all this, she managed to continue writing (putting us, dear readers, to shame with her productivity!)
All three men seem to have known of each other and she would often write about them to each other: (letter from @brainpickings):
All three of these men proposed to her and were rejected--she refused to be tied down, rejecting one marriage proposal with (a favorite line of us both):

"Never ask a girl poet to marry you."
Here she is with two other partners, in 1914 George Sterling, and Bliss Carman. 1914.
And here is a photo of her and her lover Thelma Wood, the American sculptor, from her time in the south of France:
The person she did end up marrying was Eugen Jan Boissevain, who was a very interesting person. This is one of the only photos that survives of him alone, most other photos are of him and Millay or his previous spouse Inez Milholland
Despite being the spouse of two very prominent and notable women, not much is known about Eugen Jan Boissevain. He came from a Dutch Hugenot family, and was a coffee importer, who imported and popularized coffee from Java in Indonesia--why we call coffee java today.
He was well off--and the family remains generally well off, as you can see from their foundation website: members.ziggo.nl/boissevain/Boi….

The family’s motto, is perfect, as we shall see: "Ni regret du passé, ni peur de l'avenir" (Neither regret for the past, nor fear of the future)
He met Inez Milholland on a cruise, and in a notable change from the time’s standards, she proposed to him after a month of dating. Either due to his first wife, or his genuine beliefs, Boissevain was an ardent feminist and supported both Milholland and Millay in their passions.
Although Milholland is not our focus here, we cannot help but to pause on her briefly. She was a powerful and pivotal figure in the women’s rights movement in the United States.
A labor lawyer, when women were rarely lawyers, she first came to public notice with her dramatic entrance into a 1911 parade where she held a sign that read "Forward, out of error, / Leave behind the night, / Forward through the darkness, / Forward into light!"
And she continued to organize and protest following-- her most famous role was as the Herald of the Light in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession in the US:
More from the march. This was dramatized in the film Iron Jawed Angels, which is absolutely wonderful:

When Milholland and Boissevain arrived in London they were married.
We would note here that in a very strange turn of description, Wikipedia describes their relationship as “not perfect” because they did not have children and “because Milholland did not stop flirting with other men and often wrote to Boissevain to tell him.”
This is especially strange when Boissevain’s and Millay’s relationship is considered.
Perhaps--we dare suggest--perhaps this was their perfect?
Milholland passed away from pernicious anemia in 1916 while campaigning for women’s right to vote in the West. Her last words were "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” and her famous banner made an appearance at her funeral
About a decade later, Millay and Boissevain met and were married. Millay had met Milholland when she was a student at Vassar, and was inspired to engage in politics as a result of the encounter. Here is an image of her protesting Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial
And a wedding photo:

He was famously dedicated to both Milholland and Millay. After their marriage, he left his work as a coffee importer to take care of Millay; cooking, cleaning, managing finances and their large property.
This included driving her to New York City for an operation on the very day of her wedding -- she was suffering from an intestinal problem that was quickly fixed.
The couple traveled around the world for a number of months on honeymoon, and then returned to New York to buy Steepletop in Austerlitz, an old blueberry farm (which is now a museum that one of us intends to visit this summer!). @MillaySociety
Here are some pictures:
Over the next several years, Millay and Eugen transformed Steepletop with herb and vegetable gardens, a sunken garden, badminton and tennis courts and hedges.
Their recreation areas included a bar area with stone benches and a spring-fed swimming and wading pool, which you can see Millay in here, along with an image of Millay, Boissevain and two friends and lovers:
Here they both are surveying the land
Both Millay and Boissevain had a number of other lovers throughout their 26 years of marriage --but some of that will have to wait a few days, when we return again here. Today, we will leave you with Millay reading "I shall forget you presently my dear:"
hello friends!

welcome to our final section on millay for now!
Both Millay and Boissevain had a number of other lovers throughout their 26 years of marriage--Millay described their life this way:
He built her a bedroom and writing cabin so she would have many places to write as she would like, and would prepare her food for her: “His self-proclaimed mission in the marriage was to protect her from mundane tasks that would distract her from writing poetry
which included handling business details associated with publishing and readings as well as running the household…. [he told a reporter],
“It is more worthwhile for her to be writing, even if she only writes one sonnet in a year, than for me to be buying coffee for a little and selling it for a trifle more.”
Millay’s favorite room was a library of hundreds of books that she consulted in writing her poetry, and above it all, she hung a hand-painted sign reading “SILENCE” in red letters. This thread began with a picture of her her writing in it
Her separate bedroom was nearby, with its own fireplace, and served as a study as well, we believe this picture was taken there:
Although it was not uncommon for couples to have two seperate bedrooms, Millay and Boissevain deliberately chose it, in order to cultivate independence.This independence allowed them to have long and short term relationships, which were still inspiring Millay
--one of those was with George Dilon, who inspired a number of poems in Fatal Interview:
According to the Poetry’s bio (poetryfoundation.org/poets/edna-st-…) , Fanny Butcher reported in Many Lives: One Love that after Dillon’s death a copy of Fatal Interview in his library was found to contain a sheet of paper with a note by Millay: “These are all for you, my darling.”
The final years of her life, as is often the case, were challenging. In 1936 two of her manuscripts went up in flames when a hotel burned down in Florida, and she was forced to return to New York and write them all from memory.
The following year, she was in a terrible car accident where she was thrown clear and injured her spine--she was forced to undergo surgeries for the rest of her life and a stint of painkiller addiction.
The following years saw the decline and then death of Boissevain in 1949, which completely undercut her emotional stability
The result was a spate of heavy drinking, and checking herself into a hospital for safety. But then, rallying as always, she returned to Steepletop to live alone, mourning and writing about grief:
“Never before, perhaps, was such a sight! / Only one sky, my breath, and all that blue! / … / Handsome this day, no matter who has died.”
Unfortunately, working late on a new collection of poetry, and translating Latin, she took a sleeping pill and slipped, falling down the stairs to her death. She was 58.
Her New York Times obituary reads: “Critics agreed, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time.
Both Boissevain and Millay are buried at Steepletop together, a peaceful ending to their near three-decades of marriage:
Marriage was something Millay had thought about deeply and profoundly:

"Marriage, if not abused is one of the most civilized institutions... but swimming is one of the most wonderful sports, and yet
there are always some people who cannot swim who insist on going into the water and getting frowned. Many people spoil marriage in lime manner. One should be sure she knows how to be married before rushing into it."
She would also note that "anyone who is a real person would never lose his or her identity [in marriage]. But as in any partnership, where one member has a stronger mentality and will [they] eventually tends to submerge the other. So it is in marriage.
It isn't the fault of marriage. It is a matter of the human equation."

Millay and Boissevain, over the course of nearly three decades, were perfectly equated with each other and each of their lovers. It may not have been #polyamory as we understand it today, but it was love.
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