She was once deemed ‘the greatest woman poet since Sappho’ and won a Pulitzer – but Millay’s legacy has been overshadowed by her sexuality and addictions
When pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s identity was reportedly revealed in 2016, she reflected on the dangers of an author’s life dominating their work. “The book functions like a pop star’s sweaty T-shirt,” she wrote, “a garment that without the aura of the star is completely meaningless.”
Ferrante’s sentiment could easily be applied to Edna St Vincent Millay, another incandescent literary talent who lived decades before (born on 22 February, 1892). For far too long, Millay’s work has been overshadowed by her reputation. A party girl poet. A sexually adventurous bisexual. A morphine addict. But then Millay also won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1923; the following year, literary critic Harriet Monroe called Millay was “the greatest woman poet since Sappho”. In a review of a 2001 Millay anthology, the Atlantic proclaimed that “the first rule of modern literary biography is that the life renders the work incidental” – but what happens when the life begins to obscure the richness of the work? Focusing on Millay’s relationships with both men and women has been de rigueur for the last half century – so it is high time that her words were allowed the limelight again.