12 Iconic Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Milay in a suit

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950) has long been regarded as a major twentieth-century figure in the genre of poetry. Here is a selection of 12 poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay from some of her earlier collections.

Vincent, as her family and friends called her, was introduced by her mother to great works of literature from an early age.She read Shakespeare, Keats, Longfellow, Shelley, and Wordsworth.

At age of sixteen she compiled a dozen or so poems into a copybook and presented them to her mother as The Poetical Works of Vincent Millay.

In 1912, encouraged by her mother, Vincent, then nineteen, entered her poem, “Renascence” to a poetry magazine that was sponsoring a contest.  It would publish winning entries in a book to be titled The Lyric Year.

“Renascence” came in fourth and didn’t win the cash prizes offered to the top three entries, (which created quite a literary scandal). Still, the poem garnered her a great deal of attention, launched her writing career, and led to a full scholarship to Vassar College.

The poems included this listing:

  • Tavern
  • Sorrow
  • Ashes of Life
  • First Fig
  • Ebb
  • Song of a Second April
  • What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
  • Departure
  • The Betrothal
  • Dirge Without Music
  • Love is Not All
  • The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver

A Few Figs from Thistles (1921) explored female sexuality, among other themes. Second April (also 1921) dealt with heartbreak, nature, and death.

In 1923, Millay’s fourth volume of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer, and only the second person to receive the prize for poetry.

Edna St. Vincent Millay achieved the status of superstar status, something that was — and still is — rare for a poet. Throughout the 1920s, she recited to enthusiastic, sold-out crowds during her many reading tours at home and abroad. An essay by Holly Peppe, Millay’s literary executor, encapsulated her appeal:

“For the disillusioned post-war youth who considered her their spokesperson for women’s rights and social equality, Millay represented the rebellious spirit of their generation. 

Indeed, though she favored traditional poetic forms like lyrics and sonnets, she boldly reversed conventional gender roles in poetry, empowering the female lover instead of the male suitor, and set a new, shocking precedent by acknowledging female sexuality as a viable literary subject.”

Perhaps she did burn her candle at both ends, as described in one of her most famous poems, “First Fig” (which is included in this post) — as she didn’t live a long life. 

More poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay on this site

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Edna St. Vincent Millay at Steepletop

Learn more about Edna St. Vincent Millay 
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I'll keep a little tavern
   Below the high hill's crest,
Wherein all grey-eyed people
   May set them down and rest.
There shall be plates a-plenty,
   And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
   Who happen up the hill.
There sound will sleep the traveller,
   And dream his journey's end,
But I will rouse at midnight
   The falling fire to tend.
Aye, 'tis a curious fancy—
   But all the good I know
Was taught me out of two grey eyes
   A long time ago.

(from Renascence and Other Poems, 1917; analysis of "Tavern")

Edna St Vincent Millay poem fragment



Sorrow like a ceaseless rain
   Beats upon my heart.
People twist and scream in pain,—
Dawn will find them still again;
This has neither wax nor wane,
   Neither stop nor start.
People dress and go to town;
   I sit in my chair.
All my thoughts are slow and brown:
Standing up or sitting down
Little matters, or what gown
   Or what shoes I wear.

(from Renascence and Other Poems, 1917; analysis of "Sorrow")

Ashes of Life

Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike;
Eat I must, and sleep I will, — and would that night were here!
But ah! — to lie awake and hear the slow hours strike!
Would that it were day again! — with twilight near!

Love has gone and left me and I don't know what to do;
This or that or what you will is all the same to me;
But all the things that I begin I leave before I'm through, —
There's little use in anything as far as I can see.

Love has gone and left me, — and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse, —
And to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
There's this little street and this little house.

(from Renascence and Other Poems, 1917; analysis of “Ashes of Life”)


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Edna St. Vincent Millay - young

Renascence (1912 poem) by Edna St. Vincent Millay
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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!

(from A Few Figs from Thistles, 1921; analysis of "First Fig")

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I know what my heart is like
      Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
      Left there by the tide,
      A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.

(from Second April, 1921; analysis of "Ebb")

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Song of a Second April

April this year, not otherwise
   Than April of a year ago,
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
   Of dazzling mud and dingy snow;
   Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.
There rings a hammering all day,
   And shingles lie about the doors;
In orchards near and far away
   The grey wood-pecker taps and bores;
   The men are merry at their chores,
And children earnest at their play.
The larger streams run still and deep,
   Noisy and swift the small brooks run
Among the mullein stalks the sheep
   Go up the hillside in the sun,
   Pensively,—only you are gone,
You that alone I cared to keep.

(from Second April, 1921)
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What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

(from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, 1923; analysis of "What Lips my Lips Have Kissed")
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It's little I care what path I take,
And where it leads it's little I care,
But out of this house, lest my heart break,
I must go, and off somewhere!

It's little I know what's in my heart,
What's in my mind it's little I know,
But there's that in me must up and start,
And it's little I care where my feet go!

I wish I could walk for a day and a night,
And find me at dawn in a desolate place,
With never the rut of a road in sight,
Or the roof of a house, or the eyes of a face.

I wish I could walk till my blood should spout,
And drop me, never to stir again,
On a shore that is wide, for the tide is out,
And the weedy rocks are bare to the rain.

But dump or dock, where the path I take
Brings up, it's little enough I care,
And it's little I'd mind the fuss they'll make,
Huddled dead in a ditch somewhere.

"Is something the matter, dear," she said,
"That you sit at your work so silently?"
"No, mother, no—'twas a knot in my thread.
There goes the kettle—I'll make the tea."

(from The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, 1923)
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Savage Beauty
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The Betrothal

Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad,
   And love me if you like!
I hardly hear the door shut
   Or the knocker strike.

Oh, bring me gifts or beg me gifts,
   And wed me if you will!
I'd make a man a good wife,
   Sensible and still.

And why should I be cold, my lad,
   And why should you repine,
Because I love a dark head
   That never will be mine?

I might as well be easing you
   As lie alone in bed
And waste the night in wanting
   A cruel dark head!

You might as well be calling yours
   What never will be his,
And one of us be happy;
   There's few enough as is.

(from Poetica Erotica; Boni and Liveright, 1921)
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Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

(From The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems, 1928; analysis of "Dirge Without Music")
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Love is Not All

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

(From Fatal Interview, 1931; Analysis of "Love is Not All")

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The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver

“Son,” said my mother,
   When I was knee-high,
“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
   And not a rag have I.

“There’s nothing in the house
   To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with
   Nor thread to take stitches.

“There’s nothing in the house
   But a loaf-end of rye,
And a harp with a woman’s head
   Nobody will buy,”
   And she began to cry.

That was in the early fall.
   When came the late fall,
“Son,” she said, “the sight of you
   Makes your mother’s blood crawl,—

“Little skinny shoulder-blades
   Sticking through your clothes!
And where you’ll get a jacket from
   God above knows.

“It’s lucky for me, lad,
   Your daddy’s in the ground,
And can’t see the way I let
   His son go around!”
   And she made a queer sound.

That was in the late fall.
   When the winter came,
I’d not a pair of breeches
   Nor a shirt to my name.

I couldn’t go to school,
   Or out of doors to play.
And all the other little boys
   Passed our way.

“Son,” said my mother,
   “Come, climb into my lap,
And I’ll chafe your little bones
   While you take a nap.”

And, oh, but we were silly
   For half an hour or more,
Me with my long legs
   Dragging on the floor,

   To a mother-goose rhyme!
Oh, but we were happy
   For half an hour’s time!

But there was I, a great boy,
   And what would folks say
To hear my mother singing me
   To sleep all day,
   In such a daft way?

Men say the winter
   Was bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
   And food was dear.

A wind with a wolf’s head
   Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
   And sat on the floor.

All that was left us
   Was a chair we couldn’t break,
And the harp with a woman’s head
   Nobody would take,
   For song or pity’s sake.

The night before Christmas
   I cried with the cold,
I cried myself to sleep
   Like a two-year-old.

And in the deep night
   I felt my mother rise,
And stare down upon me
   With love in her eyes.

I saw my mother sitting
   On the one good chair,
A light falling on her
   From I couldn’t tell where,

Looking nineteen,
   And not a day older,
And the harp with a woman’s head
   Leaned against her shoulder.

Her thin fingers, moving
   In the thin, tall strings,
Were weav-weav-weaving
   Wonderful things.

Many bright threads,
   From where I couldn’t see,
Were running through the harp-strings

And gold threads whistling
   Through my mother’s hand.
I saw the web grow,
   And the pattern expand.

She wove a child’s jacket,
   And when it was done
She laid it on the floor
   And wove another one.

She wove a red cloak
   So regal to see,
“She’s made it for a king’s son,”
   I said, “and not for me.”
   But I knew it was for me.

She wove a pair of breeches
   Quicker than that!
She wove a pair of boots
   And a little cocked hat.

She wove a pair of mittens,
   She wove a little blouse,
She wove all night
   In the still, cold house.

She sang as she worked,
   And the harp-strings spoke;
Her voice never faltered,
   And the thread never broke.
   And when I awoke,—

There sat my mother
   With the harp against her shoulder
Looking nineteen
   And not a day older,

A smile about her lips,
   And a light about her head,
And her hands in the harp-strings
   Frozen dead.

And piled up beside her
   And toppling to the skies,
Were the clothes of a king’s son,
   Just my size.

(from The Harp Weaver and Other Poems, 1923; analysis of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver")


More about the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

More of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry on this site:

13 Responses to “12 Iconic Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay”

  1. heartfelt and so poetic for all ages to savor and repeat whenever you need an arm to rest on : Thanks , Bill

  2. There is a mediocre film called “The Hero” staring Sam Elliot about an aging actor coping with the news that he has cancer. Near the end of the film, a woman friend reads a poem to him by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dirge Without Music. The poem is much, much better than the film. I am 82 and I Do Not have cancer, but I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

  3. I first came across Edna St. Vincent Millay almost 70 years ago when I was an underdergrad. studying literature in Bombay, India. Today, at 87, after teaching literature at a midwest university all thgese years, I still enjoy her poetry and just bought a vinyl disc of her poems. Among my favorite are “On First Hearing A Symphony by Beethoven” and “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”.
    Thank you for this selection.

  4. My favourite of hers is “time does not bring relief: you all have lied” = every time I read it I end up in tears – what a wonderful poet.

  5. She was well before her time, but the Ballad of the Harp Weaver, brought tears to my eyes. So true, of early America, but also today!!! She was seldom mentioned when I attended school, to graduate 1958. I missed those lovely charming stories. Will enjoy them now. Thank you. Saw her story in The Pittsburgh Post_Gazette, this Sunday Pg. D-7. Pittsburgh PA

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