Edna St. Vincent Millay's family knew that they were in for some excitement as soon as Edna decided at a very young age that she'd rather be called Vincent, thank you very much. Raised by a single working mother in Maine (Millay's father, a teacher, left the family when the girls were very young), Vincent and her two sisters grew up in near-poverty but always had plenty of books on hand.
Always audacious—and always a writer—Vincent got into Vassar College with the help of a literary patron, Caroline Dow. Her exploits nearly got her kicked out of college, time and again, but her literary laurels piled up even more quickly than her disciplinary reports. By the time she graduated from Vassar in 1917, she was already an established poet. She was also an established lover, with a romantic history that included several women and men who fell, hard, for the witty and vivacious poet.
We may think of the 1920s as the birth of Modernism, with all of its impersonality and epic gestures (think of The Waste Land's hundreds of mythic allusions, for starters), but Millay managed to craft a poetic voice that was insistently personal and often devilishly modern. She was a New Woman—a fast-talking, smoking, drinking, loving, reading life of the party. Her poetry catalogues that life in fascinating detail.
"First Fig" is one of Millay's first sallies into the publishing world: the first poem of her second book, A Few Figs From Thistles, published in 1920. In some ways, it's the perfect announcement of her brash style and brilliant success. In others, though, it's a telling prophecy of her frequent mental illnesses and early death.
Who doesn't want to feel like they're living now? Like they're taking every chance they're offered, risking everything that they can risk, and burning just as brightly as they possibly can?
Want proof? Well, we all know that '90s mega-bands are the true troubadours of the soul, and they all sung some song about living hard and partying even harder. From Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge" to Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" and, of course, the Beastie Boy's epic anthem, "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)," bands with big hair knew that life was best when it was lived fast and furious. Hey, come to think of it, even Fast and Furious could learn something from Millay.
See, back in the 1920s, Edna St. Vincent Millay was the go-to-girl for living life as if there were no tomorrow. But unlike the rockers with big hair, Millay's poetry knows the consequences of big living. She's just made the choice to go hard, no matter what the cost. It's the knowledge of costs and consequence, though, that makes this poem so striking. Anyone can take risks when they don't know the costs of those choices. It's knowing the costs and then doing it anyway which makes the brilliance so dazzling.
All the Millay You've Ever Wanted
Want to read more? Check out UPenn's digital library, which has a full collection of Millay's works.
Become an Official Millay Fan
Just can't get enough? Become part of the Millay society and spend all your time communing with her other fans.
Millay co-wrote the screenplay for Hitler's Madmen, a movie depicting the assassination of one of Hitler's captains, Reinhart Heydrich. Watch a key scene here.
All Millay, All the Time
Captivated by the promise of burning candles and other excitement? Check out the trailer to a Millay biopic here.
Check out the poem as a short film.
The Poetry Foundation Thinks with Millay
In a lecture entitled "Poetry's Adventurous Valentine," learn about the life and legacy of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Millay Feels the Seasons
Ah, Poetry Foundation. How smart you are. How we love your lectures. Here's another one on the poetry of winter—featuring, of course, Millay.
The Pensive Poet
Ah, flowers. Springtime. What better way to capture the beauty of youth? And poetry? Don't say that Vincent didn't know how to create a stunning image.
The Serious Thinker
Okay, so you've seen the poet in trees and flowers. Now here's the full-front face shot. An actor today couldn't ask for better. Couple this face with a biting wit, and you can see why Millay was the talk of the town.
What's the big deal with figs? Well, for one thing, they've been described since time immemorial as looking something like female reproductive organs. Don't believe us? Well, click on this link and then compare it to the charts in your biology classroom.
Suicide? Natural death? While the public verdict is still out, you can read the New York Times' oh-so-polite obituary here:
As you might guess from "First Fig," Millay lived a pretty exciting life. You can learn all about it in this rollicking biography.
Funny, smart and in-your-face? That's exactly the sort of poetry that kids might love—which is why lots of children's collections include Millay's work. Here's one, for starters.
Art & Activism
Millay kept up a very active political profile throughout her life and was especially committed to activism around the two world wars. In fact, she even contributed to the screenplay for a film called Hitler's Madmen. The title pretty much speaks for itself.
In The House
You could think of this as an older version of MTV's Cribs. This video shows us around Millay's estate in upstate New York. Who doesn't like to peer through the windows of the rich and famous?