WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Millay found inspiration in Austerlitz

IN 1925, AT THE HEIGHT of her literary career, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1896 – 1950), who also wrote plays and librettos, retreated from New York City’s Greenwich Village to a 700-acre farm in Austerlitz. The Columbia County sanctuary was named “Steepletop” after the pink-flowered steeplebush that grew wild in the fields and meadows.

Soon after moving, Vincent, as Millay was called by family and friends, wrote to her mother and sisters in Maine, “Here we are, in one of the loveliest places in the world… having chimneys put in, & plumbing put in, & a garage built…. I have so many things on my mind… that I hardly know if I am writing with a pen or with a screwdriver….”

Her mother, Cora, who worked as a day nurse after divorcing in 1900, steeped her three children in literature and music, and encouraged them to be “free thinkers,” and Vincent’s talent was evident early. At age 19, her poem “Renascence” was anthologized in The Lyric Anthology, 1912. Her recitation of the poem before guests at a Camden inn where a sister worked as a waitress caught the attention of Caroline Dow, head of the YWCA National Training School in New York. Dow offered to finance Millay’s college education. Vincent chose Vassar.

The opening lines of “Renascence” suggest the influence of nature on Millay’s poems:

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….

After graduation in 1917, Vincent settled into the bohemian lifestyle of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The poet acquired a coterie of friends, fans and lovers—male and female—among the city’s literati. She mused in “First Fig”:

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!

Millay’s poems were published in the popular magazines of the time, Vanity Fair, Ainslee’s, and the Forum. In 1921,Vanity Fair contracted Millay, as a foreign correspondent for two years, to write two prose pieces a month. In 1923 Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She, also, met her husband to be, Eugen Boissevain.

In 1924, following an eight-month world-wide tour of public readings of her poetry and a postponed honeymoon, Millay remarked to a reporter about New York City, “It is awfully exciting there and I find lots of things to write about and I accumulate many ideas, but I have to go away where it is quiet.”

Steepletop satisfied the need. The defunct dairy farm was transformed into an elegant, European-style estate by Millay and her husband. It boasted multiple flower, herb, fruit and vegetable gardens, guest houses, badminton and tennis courts on the New York-Massachusetts border on the edge of the Berkshire Mountains and a spring-fed swimming pool. Boissevain built a Sears & Roebuck barn from a kit and used it for horses and other livestock. Millay loved riding.

Surrounded by nature, a primary source of inspiration, Millay claimed a small outbuilding in a blueberry field as her writing cabin. After a fire in 1928, another cabin was constructed of unpainted pine boards. When her mother died, in 1931, Millay surrounded the cabin with 31 white pines and planted Narcissus poeticus, also known as the poet’s daffodil.

Her writing was prolific at Steepletop. She wrote the libretto for “The King’s Henchman,” an opera set in 10th Century England. At the work’s Metropolitan Opera House opening in 1927, the production received 17 curtain calls. The New Yorker review called it “the greatest American opera so far.” Ten thousand copies of the libretto sold in a few weeks.

Millay, also, composed and assembled many of her poetry collections including: The Buck in the Snow, Fatal Interview, Wine from These Grapes and Conversation at Midnight. She wrote boldly and with a feminist flair about female sexuality in I, Being born a Woman and Distressed (Sonnet XLI)

I, being born a woman and distressed

By all the needs and notions of my kind,

Am urged by your propinquity to find

Your person fair, and feel a certain zest

To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:

So subtly is the fume of life designed,

To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,

And leave me once again undone, possessed….

Electricity reached Steepletop in the late 1940s, when Ladies Home Journal and Millay struck a deal to remodel the kitchen with electric stove, refrigerator, freezer and porcelain sink, in exchange for a feature profile of Millay called “Poet’s Kitchen.” Unknown to the publisher, it was Eugen who cooked, ran the kitchen and, overall, the household.

A car accident in 1936, when Millay was pitched from a moving car and rolled into a ditch, marked a dramatic decline in her tenuous health. She became habituated to morphine to relieve extreme back pain. Artistic pain came in 1940, when a book of “propaganda poems” reversing long-held pacifist beliefs, was poorly received even by ardent supporters. The ultimate devastation followed nine years later when her husband died suddenly after lung cancer surgery.

One year after Eugen’s death Millay resumed writing until her own death from a fall down a flight of stairs at home.

Steepletop is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The non-profit Millay Society operates the site.

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