PLATTER PERSPECTIVE: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Camden/Rockland native Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) has been written about in this column previously.

However, I wish to commemorate her during this Memorial Day week for her switch from being an anti-war pacifist during World War I to supporting the U.S. government’s entry into World War II against the Axis powers. When she shifted her position, she antagonized most of her friends in literary circles but her frequently outspoken independence, integrity and courage to stand for what she believed in was unwavering. One commented that Millay “caught more flak for supporting democracy than poet Ezra Pound did for supporting fascism.”

She wrote essays and patriotic poems for the government propaganda office in Washington DC, and published one deservedly famous 1942 narrative poem, the 32-page Murder of Lidice, her response to the Nazi destruction of the Czech village and the massacre of its inhabitants in 1941, in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard “Hangman” Heydrich.

A Columbia Masterworks three disc 78 set of an abridged reading of the poem by actor Basil Rathbone can be heard via the Internet

In 1943, MGM released a movie Hitler’s Madman, using quotes from the poem and starring John Carradine as Heydrich.

A few lines from the poem-

“The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice
Like the murdered body of a little child…
Oh, my country, so foolish and dear,
Scornful America, crooning a tune,
Think, Think: are we immune?”

Millay and her husband had a home, Austerlitz, in upstate New York, where they lived out most of their later years; and a summer place, Ragged Island, on Casco Bay, near Portland. To label the couple free spirits is an understatement and the curious can begin with Wikipedia for more information.

Camden has a statue of the poet in Harbor Park overlooking Penobscot Bay.

Millay’s youngest sister provided a trove of material to Nancy Milford who wrote critically acclaimed biographies of both Millay and Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and both ones I would like to read eventually.

Millay, by the way, preferred to be called Vincent instead of Edna – shortly before her birth, an uncle’s life was saved at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, in New York City.

A concluding quote from Millay – “It’s not true that life is one d__n thing after another; it’s one d__n thing over and over. Not truth, but faith, it is that which keeps the world alive.”


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