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Millay, Edna Saint Vincent (1892-1950)  
page: 1  2  

In an Elizabethan set, The Lamp and the Bell (1921) unfolds around the characters Bianca and Beatrice, step-sisters (a relationship that allows fierce female attachment without an incestuous blood tie) who remain devoted primarily to each other even while Bianca is manipulated into marrying Beatrice's suitor.

Easily read as thwarting homosexual desire, the male character serves to distract the attentions of the sisters from each other until he is accidentally killed by Bianca. The two women are reunited just prior to Bianca's death. Although certainly not Millay's chef d'oeuvre, the play is an interesting reflection on the poet's own conflicted sexuality.

The sonnets Millay penned certainly reveal much more readily the poet's talent, conveying in even and controlled verse the tensions and conflicts not so containable in real life. In these a reader will find much of Millay's inner struggle with heterosexuality and her own sexual desire, as, for example in the sonnet from Huntsman, What Quarry (1939) that begins "I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex." Coming to grips with erotic desire seemingly inappropriate for a lady, Millay in bitter tones hints at the difficulty of owning that "shadowy" part of herself both teased out and critically judged by curious women, boys, and girls.

A woman is the object of her sexual yearnings in the sonnet from Fatal Interview (1931) that opens "Night is my sister, and how deep in love." Unconventional and headstrong in her wants and needs, Millay felt uncomfortable in a heterosexual world of female passivity, yet she was also unwilling to embrace an alternative, lesbian reality of different or less defined roles.

Millay is better known for her philandering with men during her Greenwich Village years than for her relationships with women. She refused a proposal from Dell, who wanted to cure her of her " tendencies," believing that marriage would confine her to traditional female roles. She had a series of love affairs, expressing not only her belief that love was temporary but also her unwillingness to commit to a man.

But in 1923 she married Eugen Boissevain, a businessman and self-proclaimed feminist. Boissevain expected their relationship to be open; however, the number and sexual orientation of Millay's affairs are unrecorded. Once at a cocktail party, Millay discussed her recurrent headaches with a psychologist who asked her about her attraction to women. Millay exclaimed, "'Oh, you mean I'm homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual too, but what's that got to do with my headache?'"

Biographers have speculated that Millay found in Boissevain the mother she had yearned for since childhood; however, Boissevain, though attending to Millay's needs, did not foster the independent spirit typical of her younger years.

Millay continued through her life to write prolifically, publishing about thirty books in all, and Boissevain managed her personal life and career with an almost suffocating devotion, nursing her during frequent illnesses and arranging for her numerous readings and public appearances. She remained with him until his death in 1949. She died at home of heart failure on October 19, 1950.

The importance of Millay to lesbian and gay literary studies still needs to be assessed and the lesbian content of her work further explored. As a well known and respected poet, Millay is an important figure whose self-acknowledged bisexuality is highly significant for positioning homosexuality as part of the mainstream. Moreover, a full appreciation of her work necessitates seeing her lesbianism in it.

Jennifer S. Wilson

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Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village. University: University of Alabama Press, 1975.

Dash, Joan. A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: G.K. Hall, 1993.

Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.


    Citation Information
    Author: Wilson, Jennifer S.  
    Entry Title: Millay, Edna Saint Vincent  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 2, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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