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Edna St. Vincent Millay and the poetess tradition.

It is taken for granted today that Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry detailed the sexual and social liberation of the modern woman. But why, critics ask, does she represent the emergence of modernity in such distinctly un-modern poetic forms? While the work of her female contemporaries, such as H. D. and Marianne Moore, distances itself from the nineteenth-century conventions of the genre, the majority of Millay's poetry evoked them; her work was conservative in the sense that she conserved past traditions. A number of critics, among them Robert Johnson and Jane Stanbrough, have attempted to make sense of the apparently problematic opposition between her subversive ethos and her traditional forms. They have thus concluded that Millay exercises a healthy poetic restraint, containing modern emotional unruliness and vulnerability within self-imposed and protective formal limitations. (1) Millay's poetic self-discipline assuaged and explained the conflict between innovative content and conventional form.

I want to suggest that such an approach insists upon a conflict where none exists. Millay's conservative forms communicate rather than confine a modernist affect and intuition. She taps into a poetic tradition that has always expressed emotional insight through conservative poetic conventions, Her poetic restraint derives from her literary lineage as a practitioner of the poetess tradition, which emerged in eighteenth-century England, achieved immense popularity in the nineteenth-century United States, and persisted, as Millay demonstrates, within twentieth-century modernism. In this essay I situate Millay's early poetry collections, Renascence and Other Poems (1917) and A Few Figs from Thistles (1921), within the tradition of antebellum American poetess poetry. In doing so, I engage many of the interpretive challenges this tradition has incurred, most notably the conflation of the woman poet with her poem. (2) The poetess was published and popular in the nineteenth century because she appeared to offer her private thoughts to a reading public. This profession constituted both the poetess's allure and her greatest difficulty, however. Her poems had to convincingly communicate to readers the thoughts and feelings of a woman who was moral, sincere, and idealized. In other words, the poetess publicly performed her privacy, which ultimately rendered her consumable and forgettable because she relinquished the interiority that would otherwise establish her as an abiding, autonomous literary figure. (3) This vexed poetess tradition inflects Millay's modernism; she redeploys the faulty expectation that women poets profess privacy in order to disrupt the ideal intimacy associated with women's poetry.

While scholars have recovered and analyzed poetess poetry from the nineteenth-century United States, the lasting influence of this poetic tradition on later works has not yet been established. It is time to start drawing lines from the nineteenth-century poetess onward. In "The Poet as Poetess," Virginia Jackson addresses the difficulty of studying this literary figure. As a "trope in a rather pure sense, as definite and slippery as a turn of phrase, the trope of the Poetess worked differently at different moments over the course of the nineteenth century" (57). In this essay I offer a historical solution to the problem that Jackson identifies: the practice of ahistorically idealizing the poetess "as a hologram of readerly desire" (54). By investigating shifting notions of women's poetic privacy, I trace historical iterations of the poetess in order to draw her beyond the nineteenth century and into the modernist period. By overtly writing within the poetess tradition, Millay, more than other comparable women modernists, made explicit the problems of private female expression in the early twentieth century. She highlighted and reclaimed the woman poet's specific inheritance in her conservative approach to modernist quandaries. In a sense, American modernism was underpinned by the poetess's problematic privacy. (4) An awareness of people's alienation despite urban proximity and the question of personified versus objectified private emotion as a potential means of reconnection led modern poets to examine the authenticity and feasibility of interiority and to question the existence of actual privacy. By the twentieth century, the woman poet's problems with privacy were blended or dissolved amid the larger investigations of the movement. Where other modernists employed innovative practices to investigate the line between the inner self and the external world, Millay depicted an alternative mode of modernist inquiry that engaged a tradition consumed and created by public figurations of interiority and the ideal of privacy. In a period noted for its artistic experimentation, she attested to the presence and relevance of this conservative practice. By mobilizing the poetess to confront the problem of modern selves and souls, Millay unveiled the problem that faced the woman poet: the impossible and self-diminishing practice of professing privacy.

Consider Millay's poem "The Penitent," which characterizes a freewheeling femme's failed attempt at self-revision according to traditional propriety. Here she depicts a girl seeking seclusion in order to trouble the relationship between privacy and ideal womanhood. The poem thus undercuts the ethical soul-baring associated with women's public poetry. The speaker "had a little Sorrow/Born of a little Sin," and she mandates that she, along with Sorrow and Sin, will atone for being "bad" (lines 1-2, 8). She therefore shuts herself up with them in "a room all damp with gloom" to work on "pious planning" (3, 9). But Sorrow will "not weep," Sin simply "go[es] to sleep," and the speaker cannot keep her "graceless mind" on the task of saving her "soul" (13, 14, 16, 15). In the final stanza, she surrenders to wickedness:
So up I got in anger,
  And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
  To please a passing lad,
And, "One thing there's no getting by--
I've been a wicked girl," said I;
"But if! can't be sorry, why,
  I might as well be glad!" (17-24)

The speaker performs the role of the poetess by professing personal conflict in terms of ideal feminine morality, which she resolves to restore in the privacy of her room. Rather than purge impropriety, this exercise renders the speaker a "wicked girl," a shifting, fickle female, as demonstrated by the tiny tantrum at the poem's end. The conflict between the speaker's inherited ideals about moral femininity--the expectation that privacy will rectify the components of her self--and the reality of her public, provocative persona cannot constitute any sustaining "soul." Such a problem of inner moral integrity emerges because the speaker, as a poetess, was always already public: She was available for and constructed according to adoring observers and readers. The speaker shows that a sincere, sustaining spirit is bound to fail when constituted by public expectations of feminine privacy and propriety.

The fantasy of women's privacy that Millay exploits in this poem has its roots in the nineteenth-century poetess. Thus, I begin this essay with a discussion of the work of Frances Sargent Osgood, whose poetry modeled the conventions of the poetess tradition while simultaneously addressing that Figure's paradoxical and problematic privacy. Her seemingly private poetry gave readers what they wanted: the pious, pure woman combined with the coy, sexy sprite. However, Osgood attested to the poetess's complete consumability; she could .not establish herself as a literary presence because she had to sell or offer up her so-called spirit in order to be published. I then map Osgood's example onto twentieth-century women poets who inherited the expectation that they would profess intimacy and sincerity, examining Millay's early work in order to illuminate how ideal privacy was taken up and adapted to a modern environment. Echoing Osgood's flirty, fanciful, and clever female personae, Millay purposefully made murky the emotional objectivity of modernism in order to trouble the sanctity of the woman poet's privacy. By performing the private self, Millay revealed that the public profession of privacy was a fantasy. She illustrated the emptiness of personal expression in a genre that staked itself on being a public presentation of the private.


Poetess poetry has been a highly popular genre because it has been understood to express women's private thoughts; it provided imaginary public access to a poet's idealized interior, and therefore to her presumably inviolable and pure soul or spirit. Critical concern with the term "poetess" has focused on this collapse between poet and poem. While I concur with Paula Bernat Bennett's suggestion that it might "be more accurate as well as less confusing to speak of Poetess poems or Poetess thematics, rather than of Poetesses per se," the association of public women's poetry with the fictional poetess figure means that a strict distinction between the empirical author and imagined poetess persona is difficult to maintain ("Was Sigourney a Poetess?" 270). In this section I will explore how Osgood and Millay understood the equation of a female poet's interiority with the content of her poetry in order to add nuance to "poetess" as a term and as a tradition.

Scholars argue that the figure of the poetess validated an ideal of nineteenth-century womanhood that granted some women an inborn and insular piety, purity, and morality. According to Eliza Richards, "women were imagined to be receptacles of emotion untainted by worldly concerns"; antebellum women who wrote poetry therefore "were portrayed as fonts of unmediated emotion. ... Their poems were cast as identical offspring, incarnations of the poetess' intimate feelings" (16). However, what some scholars have labeled as "true womanhood" was neither a reality for antebellum women nor a stable literary trope. (6) By collapsing the real and ideal, the poetess both performed the true woman and simultaneously called attention to the figure's impossibility and unreality. Because she supposedly allowed readers access to an emotional and physical interior, the poetess afforded a glimpse inside herself that was often perceived as erotic. But because the poetess was understood to profess purity, the erotic charge she allowed could be seen to derive from innocent, accidental exposure.

Ostensibly hiding nothing, the nineteenth-century poetess was an utterly open and consumable figure, the product of a literary marketplace. By serving as this public figure for privacy, the poetess ironically retained no privacy for herself. Antebellum culture expected a public person to have a private side: "[N]ineteenth-century self-definitions ... locate the individual in his or her interiority, in his or her removal from the marketplace" (Brown 3). While female identity was equated with private and domestic development, male identity was established and nurtured in private but extended into the public sphere. Men's publicity hinted at their private side; even in revealing their souls, men were always able to give the impression of reserving some essential self. Meanwhile, any hint of concealment in the poetess indicated her personal deceit and corruption, so she created the impression of transparency in order to be published. Rather than possess an interior, the poetess had to perform it with sufficient sincerity to suggest that she was not solely acting. But since a concealed core was necessary in the construction of antebellum autonomy, these women poets never became memorable authorial presences like some of their male contemporaries. The poetess was popular and generic, transient and forgettable. This problem was not limited to the poetesses' heyday, however. Privacy was a gendered poetic practice with different historical iterations that continued to burden later public women poets such as Millay. Antebellum understandings of the poetess and her transparent soul supplied the preconditions for the twentieth-century women poets who were expected to offer access to their private selves in order to have a public poetic presence.

The poetess's problem with privacy encompassed both her projected emotional interior and the physical interiors she inhabited; in other words, women's privacy was articulated through tropes of the private sphere, or the home. (7) The home was characterized as a private realm of protection and refuge, removed from public exposure and economic exchange. However, antebellum figurations of the domestic actually indicated a larger reciprocity between public and private, despite the superficial separation of the two. Private life had very public effects. The domestic was defined by public, nationalist, and gendered ideologies that infiltrated and influenced an individual's concept of interiority. Despite the cultural values associated with and within the home, women lacked a perfectly private space even within the ostensible realm of the private. Milette Shamir argues, "What the records of domesticity often reveal ... are the psychological pressures brewing within middle-class women, who did not have at their disposal such backstage areas, ironically, at the very moment when they were figured as icons of privacy" (41). This notion of a "backstage" is especially pertinent for the poetess, who performed a public persona of privacy. The antebellum woman may have had no backstage in her domestic life, but the poetess purposefully constructed a backstage for public exposure.

Poetic representations of the home attested to antebellum women's paradoxical lack of privacy while serving as an apt analogy for the poetess's dilemma. Women poets such as Osgood created a relationship between the domestic woman and the poetess, demonstrating how women's problems mapped onto poetic practices. Osgood depicts the problems with privacy in her 1850 poem "'Happy at Home," in which a female speaker proclaims the virtues of the home but registers the psychic burden of a life with no backstage. The poetic speaker creates a removed, satisfying, domestic space for everyone in her life but herself:
  At home! oh, how thrillingly sweet is that word!
  And by it what visions of beauty are stirr'd!

  One bright little room where the children may play,
  Unfearful of spoiling the costly array;
  Where he, too--our dearest of all on the earth,
  May find the sweet welcome he loves at his hearth[.]
 (lines 11-12, 21-24)

There is a space in the home for not only children but also the husband and father, who is referred to solely by the pronoun "he." The term "welcome" suggests that "he" has been outside the home and returns looking for relief. The husband has his "sweet" spot, the hearth with "[t]he fire blazing warmly--the sofa drawn nigh" (25), but the second meaning of "hearth" as a metonym for the home denotes the entire interior as the husband's domain. Thus the home is a space that nourishes everyone but the speaker, whose own body and own space are never mentioned. She proffers her backstage so her family members can create theirs, paralleling the poetess's practice. Osgood renders the inside of the home the same as the inside of the speaker; she is available to all who enter--or all who read--this paradoxical private sphere.

In order to criticize this practice of domestic self-sacrifice, Osgood undercuts the sanctity of the home through metrical and formal conventions. She employs anapests, typically associated with the limerick, and end-stopped tetrameter couplets, typically associated with comedy or satire, in an argument about the superiority of home, suggesting that the speaker's assertion is a big joke. Each stanza ends with an endorsement of the refrain "happy at home"; however, the phrase remains in quotation marks throughout the poem, as it does in the title (10, 20, 32, 42). Perhaps the speaker is picking up on a popular saying of the day or quoting someone else, but these scare quotes create a sense of insincerity. The phrase becomes disruptive and suggests the speaker's need. to convince herself that she is truly "happy at home." The refrain's anapestic pattern stresses the first syllable of "happy" along with "home," yet its repetition raises questions about the purpose of this emphasis: Is it endorsement or parody? The poem could be a celebration, but by using the recurring, unrelenting rhythm, Osgood suggests that the meter's comforting chant may lull anxieties to convince the speaker that she is truly "happy at home."

While Osgood does not overtly overcome the image of the ideal woman and her pure interior, she posits a strategy for the retention of privacy through such formal subversions. She ends all four stanzas with the rhyming of "roam" and "home"; their association creates the kernel of a doubt that punctures the hermetic ideology of the domestic. Since privacy could not exist in the domestic space, perhaps public places could provide the opportunity to procure a private, hidden self. Through this question of roaming, the poem highlights the female figure who actually does roam: the publicly circulating "maiden" of the first stanza who puts on a facade of joy to cover up her own sorrowful interior (5). Osgood writes:
Let the gay and the idle go forth where they will,
In search of soft Pleasure, that siren of ill;
Let them seek her in Fashion's illumined saloon,
Where Melody mocks at the heart out of tune;
Where the laugh gushes light from the lips of the maiden,
While her spirit, perchance, is with sorrow o'erladen;
And where, 'mid the garlands Joy only should braid,
Is Slander, the snake, by its rattle betray'd,
Ah! no! let the idle for happiness roam,
For me--I but ask to be "happy at home!" (1-10)

Osgood offers antebellum women, who perhaps also hide a "spirit ... o'erladen" with "sorrow," a model in this maiden. She poses public, social spaces as the setting for women's potential self-possession. While entirely exposed, one might hide a private side here, even if that hidden self is unhappy. Yet despite Osgood's poetic efforts, the speaker inadvertently demonstrates that concealing any core "spirit" was not a possibility. In declaring the maiden's private side, the speaker negates her opacity; instead, the maiden becomes transparent and available to others, such as the speaker who sees through her. Publicly disclosing a private self still makes this self consumable and transparent. The speaker offers up the maiden as an example of such a scheme, but she demonstrates that a woman's interior is inevitably, radically public. The woman poet, like the maiden, might strive to have private feelings, but she cannot overcome public exposure; women inevitably offer recognizable and possessable pieces of their spirit.

In "Won't you die & be a spirit," a manuscript poem from 1845, Osgood shifts her focus from the spirit associated with domestic women to the imaginary and disembodied spirit associated with the poetess figure. (8) Her attempts to locate female privacy are imported into the poetics of the poetess. Writing could verge on indecency, even prostitution, for the poetess who revealed too much. In order to impart a publicly appropriate female intimacy, Osgood presents disembodied, imaginary speakers, fairy-like spirits, or capricious coquettes to articulate erotic love and desire while conforming to true womanhood's conventions. (9) However, "Won't you die & be a spirit" further proves that even the poetess's spirit was not her own possession.

One of the striking similarities between Millay's and Osgood's poetess poetry was how it created erotic intimacy with readers through innocent ignorance; their figures blurred the line between sexual and moral appeal. Osgood created purity-professing speakers who accidentally exposed their interiors; this appearance of propriety excused the inadvertent display of erotic desire. "Won't you die & be a spirit" plays with this fine line between desire and decorum:
Won't you die & be a spirit
  Darling, say
What's the use of keeping on
  That robe of clay
If you only were a spirit
  You could stay. (1-6)

By reversing gender roles and making the male the disembodied figure, Osgood takes sexual propriety to its absurd extreme. The speaker wants to spend the night with her lover; if only he were a spirit then it would be safe for them to pass the night in the same bedroom. However, if he were a spirit, then they could not have sexual relations.

Formal qualities assist in alluding to the contradictory nature of this plea. The poem's affinities with ballad form--longer odd lines and shorter even lines, the single b rhyme in every stanza--suggest an oral tradition; its meter--alternating between four and two stresses per line--resembles popular song. These oral effects enhance the poem's wide-ranging, public availability. Thus, the content of the poem--at its core a plea for physical rather than emotional intimacy--is couched in a public, popular form. Osgood was able to write such a risque poem due to the medium: It was not published in widely available newspapers or literary journals but instead circulated as a manuscript poem among friends or in literary salons. (10) Oddly, it is the purity of privacy that permits the eroticism of this poem. Because a woman's interior was ideally so spotless, confessions from this private space were presumably chaste. The glimpse of something suggestive may be excused under the pretense of guilelessness, an assumption Osgood exploits in this poem. As a result of the speaker's seemingly authentic appeal, the sexual and murderous potential of such an utterance is effaced.

According to Dobson, Osgood "plays off ... a popular perception that death unites those lovers who have in life been kept apart" (634). While a traditional love poem features a male lover lamenting the absence or death of a woman, "Won't you die & be a spirit" presents a female speaker, not lamenting the death of a lover but begging this male lover to drop dead. The request is repeated in different variations at the beginning of each stanza, from requesting--"Won't you die & be a spirit"--to demanding--"Oh! die & be a spirit"--to persuading--"If you'll die & be a spirit" (1,7, 13). How can he bear to leave "a being so delightful/And so true"? If he died, then he could touch "the cheek that lips of clay/Shall n'er caress" (11-12, 17-18). The fictional speaker declares her sincerity and chastity, but Osgood gestures to these ideals to parody them: When a woman speaks "so true," morbid impulses are instead understood as signs of superior morality. Thus a speaker could plead with her lover to die and appear innocent, not malicious or potentially threatening. Osgood strains the relationship between sincerity and feminine morality to depict its paradoxical outcome: Female desire is acceptable in a disembodied fantasy that achieves intimacy through death. This poem suggests that the cultural conventions of feminine propriety were ultimately problematic if someone has to die just so lovers can enter the bedroom.

The final stanza of "Won't you die & be a spirit" concludes with the speaker imagining how lovely it would be if her lover could gaze upon her; she wishes for her own objectification:
Just think how nice 'twould be
  To come & beam
Like a star about my pillow
  Or to seem
A vision--I should love
  To love a dream! (25-30)

Osgood's depiction of the feminine figure determining, instead of obeying, the terms for possession and consumption overturns social roles. While she may offer these reversals as criticism, the poem still collapses back into the circular logic of the poetess's privacy. The poem models the creation of the poetess, a figure whose "spirit" is actually constituted by public circulation. In this final stanza, the apostrophe drops out, as does the request, and the poem becomes a solipsistic musing, not on retaining authority, but on becoming the disembodied and objectified spirit the poetess was popularly believed to be. The speaker desires to be spiritualized by a spirit, to constitute herself through cultural circulation. She confesses that she wants to be generic, public, and ideal; she would love to love an ideal, and, in another layer of emphasis, she wants to be objectified, gazed upon by an ideal. In wishing for her lover's gaze and loving him for his disembodied, idealized qualities, this speaker--and, by extension, the poetess--is a figure crafted around generic and consumable signs of the female spirit.


Osgood's model sheds new light on Millay's work when we read the two comparatively. Osgood's strategies for contending with the problems of poetic privacy illuminate Millay's attempts at poetic self-possession. Although there has not been a direct comparison of these two poets, they shared similar practices. This might indicate influence, but at this time no relationship between the two has been documented. (11) Yet Millay could not help but be aware of the poetess tradition, if not of Osgood in particular, through her mother. Cora Buzzell Millay clipped poetess poetry from newspapers throughout her daughter's youth, pasted poetess poems into scrapbooks, and even published her own feminine, sentimental, didactic poetry in northeastern newspapers beginning in the 1890s. (12) Her bookcases contained collected works by poetess poets.such as Felicia Hemans and Jean Ingelow (Milford 41). (13) I am arguing that the connection between Osgood and Millay was the result of the unavoidable inheritance of the poetess's popular tradition rather than a direct, author-to-author influence. The poetess was powerfully pervasive beyond the nineteenth century: Women poets continued to write as poetesses, and poetess poetry was taught and anthologized well into the twentieth century. (14) The examples of Osgood and Millay depict the reception of women's poetic privacy as it developed over time.

In her iteration of this tradition, Millay inherited a legacy under which to labor, one with an absolute lack of privacy for the poetess. In writing this figure, she practiced a conservative poetry in a time of innovation and experience mentation. Modernist poetry was inflected by gender, and twentieth-century women poets were part of a lineage that had associated women's public expression with complete availability and exposure; they implicitly grappled with the problems of the nineteenth-century poetess as they grappled with modernity. (15) Men poets did not work within the same lineage, although male modernists certainly concerned themselves with the figure and figuration of the feminine poet and the diminishment or fantasy of a private self. Millay's poetry redeployed the conventions of the poetess to intervene in strategies of modernist literary expression.

While other women engaged problems of privacy in modernism's innovative poetic forms, Millay staged a direct confrontation by writing in the very tradition that was founded on privacy's utter publicity. For example, Marianne Moore and H. D. addressed the poetess's privacy, but in a modernist context. While Moore's poem "The Fish" extends strict metrical rhythms into original poetic forms, she engages the poetess's self-abnegation in order to explore the objective surface of life. The last lines--"it can live / on what can not revive / its youth. The sea grows old in it"--represent the poem's unenlivened biological imagery, akin to the absent or deflated physicality of the poetess (38-40). A sense of stagnation, used to explore objective existence, replaces and revokes the living self. This poem echoes the poetess's subjective retreat in favor of generic conventions and public availability, as the poetic subject must withdraw or sacrifice herself in order to make sense of the world. H. D. similarly explores a poetic lack of autonomy in her poem "Helen," wherein the ideal woman is culturally acceptable in generic, objectified form. "All Greece hates" Helen when she "remember[s] past enchantments/and past ills" (1, 10-11). When the public female figure, be it Helen or the poetess, reserves some part of her self in order to create a backstage, she is "revile[d]" (6). But if she were dead, "laid / white ash amid funereal cypresses," Helen would be accessible, beautiful, and beloved (17-18). H. D. thus expresses concern that culture was "unmoved" by the autonomous public woman (12). If Helen were to be cremated, literally objectified and culturally possessable, Greece "could love [this woman] indeed" (16). Moore and H. D. grappled with gendered privacy in a modern context by departing from and experimenting with traditional verse. Conversely, Millay specifically engaged the poetess's conservative forms in order to target female publicity, privacy, and possession.

Millay used the poetess's conventions and their inherent problems to make the poetess's lack of privacy work for, not against her. Through moments of pause in the profession of privacy, she indicated that the seemingly present, confessional figure had taken herself elsewhere, proffering a mere surface instead. While Osgood proved that her backstage had dissolved into the public sphere, making women poets available, generic, and consumable, Millay demonstrated how to hide in plain sight. This was not the blatant obscurity of modernist poetics--Millay could not write with modernism's complexity because she invoked the poetess's availability. But through moments of unarticulated reasoning, or of contradictory confession, or other such intimate yet obscure indicators, she professed privacy while both disallowing access to a consumable core and questioning its very existence. By emphasizing surface sincerity, she offered generic femininity while indicating that the real or the authentic female soul existed elsewhere, if at all. Millay may offer the poetess's reproductions of privacy, but through a coy obscurity she asserted that these reproductions were not wholly her. These shadowy spots did not exist in any backstage, but on the surface: They were on display, but they were not transparent.

Millay's poems that discuss travel (or lack thereof) and the boundaries of women's freedom are predicated on the poetess's understanding of privacy's radical publicity. "To the Not Impossible Him," from A Few Figs from Thistles, depicts a female speaker confessing her inner turmoil. Millay intensifies Osgood's techniques to question the value of the domestic or local. As in "'Happy at Home," this speaker contemplates roaming, taking idealized insularity to its ridiculous extreme:
How shall I know, unless I go
  To Cairo and Cathay,
Whether or not this blessed spot
  Is blest in every way?

Now it may be, the flower for me
  Is this beneath my nose;
How shall I tell, unless I smell
  The Carthaginian rose?

The fabric of my faithful love
  No power shall dim or ravel
Whilst I stay here,--but oh, my dear,
  If I should ever travel! (1-12)

The speaker considers travel and experience in order to determine the sincerity of her love: Unless she actually goes to "Cairo and Cathay," how will she know "Whether or not this blessed spot/Is blest in every way?" The speaker's candor makes the question seem innocuous, not promiscuous. As does Osgood's speaker in "'Happy at Home'" Millay's speaker questions her private, insular experience against the possibility of public travel and exposure. While the contrast with roaming might have bolstered the supposed superior sincerity found at home, Millay reverses the connection: Here it is publicity that will determine honesty, and this poem demonstrates just how "impossible" privacy and authenticity are. Thus, its final ironic apostrophe--"but oh, my dear, /If I should ever travel!"--points to the contingency of the speaker's feelings in the first place; if she should ever leave the blessed spot "beneath my nose," her "faithful love" could possibly be ruined. Since her lover is "not impossible" and the possibility of traveling remains just that, a possibility, then her feelings will remain constant. However, this conditional reasoning and the assertion of doubt belies the ironic flimsiness of her love.

The poem's metric repetitions and rhymes call attention to the questionable sincerity of private feelings. In the first and third line of each stanza, the repeated rhyme in the second and fourth stresses lends the poem its bubbly, playful quality, while also suggesting an almost forced cheeriness, like that of Osgood's repetitive speaker. The trochaic first foot of lines one and three, echoed in the second stanza (lines five and seven), helps the speaker firmly to enter into her mock-serious tone, transforming earnest inquiries about love and experience into flippant hypotheticals. The final stanza shifts the pattern. Here, the first line is iambic tetrameter, with no trochaic first foot, and the second line is trimeter but with a dangling unstressed syllable. This variation from the pattern set by the first two stanzas, along with the drawn-out a vowels ("of," "love," "power"), lowers the prior energy and volume, suggesting a turn to solemnity. Millay's speaker appears to be playing, in the sense of both performance and amusement, until this moment of intimacy disrupts the poem. Without the trochaic stress on the first syllable and the uneven quality of the second line, these two lines become a quieter, more regular statement whose performative quality is deemphasized. Flirty brightness is dimmed by the stress on "dim"; "ravel" unravels, split into two different feet with its extra half-foot at the line's end. The speaker seems to be confessing a sober moment of sincerity. The fact that the poem is upset, in both metrical pattern and content, by a new figuration of sincerity points to the problem of the poetess: The profession of privacy actually renders sincerity questionable, although the entire poetic utterance is ostensibly sincere. This brief moment of sobriety jars the rest of the poem's brightness, as if the speaker forgot her character and let another, more authentic self break through. While Osgood emphasized the insincerity of the refrain "happy at home" in order to disrupt the speaker's supposedly sincere profession, Millay uses sincerity to disrupt the performance of sincerity.

This sober interlude, however, is swept away as quickly as it came along, leading into the comical apostrophe of the last two lines. This glimpse is as much a part of the performance as the rest of the poem. Millay uses this moment of confession to highlight the impossibility of privacy. Since even private moments are inadvertently offered to the public, sincerity is always questionable. Osgood could not overcome public belief in feminine sincerity, despite foregrounding its performance. But Millay employed the poetess's performance to question the place of sincerity in the twentieth century. She may declare that there was nothing to overcome, no struggle, because there was no point: Ideal, authentic female purity was a fantasy, an unreality. There was no privacy or sincerity to begin with.

While the resolution of this poem points to a lack of freedom, Millay calls upon the conservative position of the poetess in order to access a larger audience, free from the high modernist criteria that made a poem accessible to a learned few. Modernist aesthetics split poetic practice into two categories, according to Sandra Gilbert: "'Bad' verse was stereotypically 'feminine' (i.e., formally conservative, sentimental, lacking in aesthetic or intellectual ambition), while 'good' poetry was stereotypically masculine (i.e., formally innovative, 'hard', abstract, ambitious)" (299). Millay wrote "bad" verse by invoking the poetess, but the poetess's poetry remained utterly accessible due to its sentimental theme, its traditional Meter, and its privacy-rendered-public. Her poetry may have depicted generic and formal limitation, but her techniques and choices constituted an open address.

Like "To the Not Impossible Him," "The Unexplorer," also from A Few Figs from Thistles, engages these elements of restriction in order to open the poem; here the emphasis on confinement alludes to all the unexplored implications beyond the scope of the poem. Only six lines long, "The Unexplorer" describes a figure confined to the domestic space, her innocence generated by a lack of world experience that keeps her naive and ostensibly honest:
There was a road ran past our house
Too lovely to explore.
I asked my mother once--she said
That if you followed where it led
It brought you to the milk-man's door.
(That's why I have not travelled more.) (1-6)

The speaker's ignorance suggests that she is a child, if not in years, then in experience. The mother, an idealized woman in her domestic-tutelary role, is the singular resource for this speaker beyond her self. As we saw with "Won't you die & be a spire innocence translates to interiority: The speaker's simplicity, her naivete, and her passivity suggest that there is no more to this figure, no public, performed persona. Millay presents an open, unadulterated soul whose innocence collapses the line between interior and exterior.

The poem closes with the speaker confiding to her audience, "(That's why I have not travelled more.)," but she leaves open numerous interpretations for this vague parenthetical explanation. Something is not fully revealed in the speaker's reasoning: The road is too beautiful, the road leads to the milk-man, hence I have not traveled. Perhaps this is a scandalous tale--the road once led the mother to the milk-man and the speaker is his child, but she must never meet him. The sexually suggestive readings of this poem connect it to "Won't you die & be a spirit," in which innocence enabled innuendo. Readers glimpse the domestic, private self and its inadvertent eroticism through what appears to be naivete. However, Millay extends this logic; while Osgood's speaker made herself tantalizingly available for public consumption through the innocent exposure of her interior, Millay manages to obscure the privacy her speaker offers. The speaker may similarly have no backstage, but by publicly offering an oversimplified, inconclusive, childlike logic, she puts forth a part of herself that cannot be penetrated or fully ascertained. Her innocence contains obscurity, and the speaker is not fully available for public consumption.

The poem's stripped-down rhetoric and unraveling meter do not provide enough information to judge the speaker's explanation for "unexplor[ing]." Like "Won't you die & be a spirit," "The Unexplorer" couches private profession in popular form; it establishes itself as ballad form in straightforward iambic tetrameter followed by iambic trimeter. But the poem just as quickly conceals its structure, much like the speaker conceals her logic: Line three rhymes with line four instead of line two, as it would in a traditional ballad, and while the first two lines alternate between four and three beats, the fourth and sixth lines are four syllables instead of three. While this recursiveness--back-to-back rhymes and proliferating four-syllable lines--suggests a lengthening of the poem, the extra material provides less information. This speaker does proffer two explanations, but within both of these ostensible accounts are holes in mental and metrical logic. The first comment, "Too lovely to explore," is the traditional three-syllable line of ballad form, but the rest of the poem's four-beat lines highlight the missing feet and potential content of this line. The second explanation, the parenthetical closing line, appears as an aside that would presumably contain a more direct form of address from speaker to audience, hence a more substantial reason. However, the line is a mark of absence, the outline of a confession; the "I" here is no closer or more available than the "I" in line three. Millay suggests that something is present--ghost feet, ghost lines--but still unavailable and withheld.

Gesturing to missing pieces, the speaker proffers a public explanation that only emphasizes what is missing. It is this speaker's innocence that compels her to both reveal her interior and obscure it at the same time. She is too pure to hold her tongue yet too simple to explicate, and thus offer up, her own reasoning. In "The Unexplorer," Millay revises the conventions of the innocent, pure, and accidentally erotic poetess by offering an interior that simultaneously disallowed sexualization or possession of the figure's spirit. The speaker professes privacy, but what she does reveal is not very consumable. Millay suggests that what the reader gets is not really her, or is not really there.

Millay further develops these points in the sonnet "Bluebeard" from Renascence. Despite its ostensibly masculine title, "Bluebeard" may be read as poetess poetry. As such, the poem is particularly striking because it provides access to the backstage of a publicly performed persona. The fable, in which Bluebeard kills his wives and stores their bloody bodies in a hidden chamber, was widely referenced in turn-of-the-century US poetry; poets such as Rose Terry Cooke, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Fawcett, Bret Haile, James Russell Lowell, and Edwin Arlington Robinson alluded to the tale to describe something wondrous, hidden, or deadly. (16) These poems approach the Bluebeard story as a parable, a moral tale about hidden, private conditions within us or within society. By placing her speaker inside Bluebeard's secret chamber, Millay empties the space of its horrible crimes, nevertheless using the chamber as a symbol of corrupted female identity.

When its speaker is read as female, "Bluebeard" connects the poetess's problematic privacy to modern women poets. The sonnet returns us to the false promise of privacy and the pressures of a nonexistent backstage, reflected in the room discussed in the poem and the sonnet's own rooms or stanzas. (17) The speaker discusses performing a public persona while maintaining some private, unaccessed space for herself. But this "backstage" is penetrable by the public:
This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed. ... Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for Truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress;
But only what you see. ... Look yet again:
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.

Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room tonight
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place. (1-14)

This speaker's public persona suggests some withheld treasure or scandal, enticing the "greed" of "you" to pry beyond her performance. Thus, the speaker's last vestige of privacy, and not the public's perception of the private, has been given up: "Yet this alone out of my life I kept/Unto myself, lest any know me quite." She laments that invasion has irreparably violated her privacy; the room was a touchstone for self-preservation, and she has been so "profane[d]" that the entire operation must be abandoned. The speaker professes sincerity by lamenting the invasion of privacy, and here Millay encourages the association of privacy with sincerity, poet with poem. However, she uses the equation to foreground emptiness.

The speaker explains, "Here is no treasure hid, /No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring/The sought-for Truth, no heads of women slain." There is nothing shocking in this private life, but what is shocking is that the private is so "empty" and barren. By discussing not just a private but an empty room, the speaker concedes the shell of privacy to an expectant, prying public while concealing herself somewhere else. Like "The Unexplorer," empty privacy obscures the subject and allows her to "seek another place." Millay's performance of the poetess preserves authorial autonomy in order to make the room and the poem the site of a vanishing act. Whereas Osgood's "maiden" publicly declared a private side that proved transparent and consumable, Millay publicly declares a private space to entice the reader into its emptiness. No one was ever there, not Bluebeard or the woman poet; the room was occupied only by a fictional speaker who scolds her reader for invading a fictional place. The speaker thus leaves us with a form full of fiction, an empty stanza or "room" where we expected to see "Truth" or "heads of women slain."

When read from the position of a female speaker, "Bluebeard" demonstrates that the sonnet is a disappearing act. Millay avoids an invasion of the female interior by staging an invasion of the female interior, in turn revealing the emptiness of ideal privacy. Rather than invoke the domestic woman who cannot overcome public consumption, or the innocent girl who inadvertently reveals her private side, Millay moves beyond the poetess by making corruption part of the female figure. Invasion or penetration of the woman's idealized interior creates her identity; Millay demonstrates that the purity and privacy associated with the public woman is a contradiction and a fantasy. In order to move beyond the expectations that adhere to the figure, Millay offers her own fantasy: a fictional space for a fictional identity, an invited invasion where the intruder confronts himself rather than an inner sanctum of privacy and purity. Effacing the woman from the site of the poem while offering up her stanza or "room," Millay preserves the poetess, demonstrating that she is one step ahead, looking back at us and not the other way around. Even though the poetess's poetic space becomes "profane[d]," Millay nevertheless speaks to the "sought-for truth" pursued in "another place," the need for personal reconciliation between self and the world despite the failed fantasy of privacy--a project that aligns the poetess genre with modernist investigation.


By the early twentieth century, representations of poetic selfhood based on an isolated, ideal privacy could no longer hold, raising questions about the relationship between personhood and personal space. If, as J. Hillis Miller suggests, the "twentieth-century poem" constituted an arena "in which things, the mind, and words coincide in closest intimacy," then poetry had to overcome a tension between the private expression associated with nineteenth-century verse and a sense of its disconnection from the external world and its people (8). The conflict outlined a crucial concern for the modernist poet: how to reconcile personal, private emotions with a depersonalized poetic utterance.

Millay redeployed the poetess's conventions and expectations in order to parry the problems of modernity. She grappled with the issues that surfaced in overtly modernist texts but did so by way of an alternate historical practice. By blurring the line between poetic persona and the objective expression of private emotion, she created a radically public poetic self that acknowledged the division between self and world while exposing that very self to the world. Because Millay has been read through canons and criticism formed by modernist influence, the majority opinion on her work posits modernist models of interrogation and knowledge as problems that she does not or cannot address. Yet Millay in particular provides the means to recover a poetry overlooked by the American modernist continuum--the often-ignored, non-canonical poetry of the early modernist period, itself an area that is currently receiving greater critical attention. (18) She forges a link between the antebellum poetess and modernist modes of inquiry because both poetic practices were constituted and troubled by ideal privacy.

I place Millay in relation to nineteenth-century women's poetic conventions as a way to continue destabilizing the rigid dichotomies and oppositions that have long characterized high modernism. In other words, the poetess offers a strategy for expanding critical understandings of modernist poetry. (19) As a widely circulating figure constructed by and for the literary marketplace, the poetess embodies a paradoxical privacy. This contradictory formulation registers the horizons of a mid-nineteenth-century culture coping with industrial, technological, and urban expansions that reconstituted the meaning of the private. By the early twentieth century, the prominent stylistic innovations of the modernists register the continuation and consolidation of such economic, industrial, and social shifts, along with their attendant issues and anxieties. Consequently, the presence of the poetess tradition in the twentieth century illuminates modernist practice by charting a history of privacy, demonstrating how poetry grappled with its status and stability in a time of emerging modernities. While the abandonment of tradition may be the qualifying characteristic of modernism, the nineteenth century persists in modernist poetics: Its specter hovers as a presence that Millay and other modernists choose to invoke or revoke, and in ways that need not imply retrograde aesthetic or political practices. Millay and the high modernists shared a common lineage, but differed in how they envisioned and reacted to their inheritance.

Millay is valuable in part because her poetry offers a range of considerations with which to widen conventional readings of modernism. By displaying and disputing nineteenth-century poetic practices, she foregrounded the circumstances unifying her traditionalism and American modernism's iconoclasm. Through a twentieth-century iteration of the poetess, she depicted another means of modernist investigation, an alternative method to its experimentation, innovation, and rejection of tradition. Millay took modernism's concern with surfaces and depth, the real and the artificial, and elaborated their conflicts and connections through poetess poetry, a practice that similarly questioned form and freedom, public and private availability, artificiality and authenticity.


(1.) Johnson suggests that Millay's sonnets "reflect the artistic problems of her age. ... [T]hey often balance the urgency of human emotional responses and the concomitant need to name what one feels against the limitations of attempting to describe the felt moment" (117). Stanbrough argues that Millay's public image hides internal anguish, "an overwhelming sense of personal vulnerability ... to victimization by uncontrollable conditions in her environment" (214). Thus Millay avoids modernist "freedoms of form" and favors the sonnet, "a fit vehicle to convey her deepest feelings of woman's victimization" (227).

(2.) To discuss the poetess is to enter into a web of tautologies, associations, and contradictions. Critics and readers understand "poetess" to mean a genre, a trope, a universal tradition, a figure, a subject, as well as an author. Works by scholars such as Bennett ("Was Sigourney a Poetess?"), Jackson ("The Poet as Poetess"), Loeffelholz, Prins, Richards, and Walker (American Women Poets and Masks Outrageous and Austere) have been instrumental in recovering the archives of poetesses and reconstituting the meaning of the poetess figure.

(3.) See Rosenbaum 1-24,93-126.

(4.) Modernism's concern with the private and public, the subjective interior and objective exterior, echoes the poetess's problem of public privacy and a poetic self created for public consumption. Popular access or availability was a key modernist issue; in A Survey of Modernist Poetry, Riding and Graves comment that modernist poetry "seems to say: 'Keep out. This is a private performance" (9). They explain that "what we have to do, then, is to discover whether or not the poet means to keep the public out" (10). T. S. Eliot contemplates the place of private feeling in public poetry, famously arguing that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." In the words of J. Hillis Miller, Eliot determines that "an act of self-surrender has expanded the private mind of the poet into the universal sphere" (172).

(5.) All of Millay's work quoted in this essay comes from Collected Poems.

(6.) Responding to scholarship on the "cult of true womanhood," McCall has examined the popular and widely circulating nineteenth-century magazine Godey's Lady's Book, destabilizing the supposed dominance of the "true woman" ideal in antebellum, popular culture. She finds that "the categories historians have formulated to describe the ideal woman were not prevalent in either the fiction or the editorials of Godey's" (235).

(7.) Kerber and Tonkovich, among others, have pointed out that the separate spheres concept was more of a rhetorical and ideological construct than a reality.

(8.) This poem was discovered by Joanne Dobson among the Frances Osgood Papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard University (648n11). Here I quote from the poem as it is reprinted in her American Literature article. The poem is also reprinted in Bennett, Nineteenth-Century 62-63.

(9.) See Richards 65-72.

(10.) Dobson explains, "The forum of the salon, with its urbane constituency, allowed Osgood to go further than she would--or could--in her published work" (634).

(11.) Milford's biography is the primary source documenting Millay's early influences, and it provides few details on what the poet may have read at school or at home. The Edna St. Vincent Millay Society ( recently opened Steepletop, Millay's upstate New York home, to visitors. The site contains her library, but the archive is not yet open to the public.

(12.) See Cora Buzzell Millay's poetry clippings and published poetry clippings, along with her daughter's scrapbooks, in the Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers, Library of Congress.

(13.) In her 1910 diary, Millay mentions reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Pa'grave's Golden Treasury, whose 1907 edition contained work by various poetesses.

(14.) For example, The Home Book of Verse, published by Henry Holt in 1918 and "twelfth on a list of two hundred books selected by the National Council for Better Homes in America to comprise the 'Ideal Library,'" contained work by Sigourney and Osgood, along with many other women poets (Rubin 247).

(15.) Cristanne Miller points out that "one of the most revolutionary aspects of modernism" was that "it was the first literary and artistic movement in which women played major roles both nationally and internationally, not just in writing modernist prose and poetry but in developing its foundational ideas and in shaping literary production" (69).

(16.) In brief, the story follows these lines: No women want to marry the nobleman Bluebeard because he has an ugly blue beard. Despite the disappearance of his seven former wives, he convinces an eighth wife to marry him. The young woman joins him in his castle, but shortly thereafter he leaves for the country. Bluebeard gives his wife the keys to the castle, including a key to a small room she is forbidden to enter. Curiosity overcomes her, and she enters the room, discovering the bloody bodies of the former seven wives. Bluebeard returns, discovers the entry, and tries to kill her, but her brothers save her at the last moment. The website SurLaLune Fairy Wiles provides an excellent, annotated version of Charles Perrault's tale.

(17.) Millay's work with the sonnet form further links her to the poetess tradition. The sonnet became the culturally appropriate form for women's public expression in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in both England and the United States. It "signified a generic role for sincere feeling, a gendered cultural script" (Rosenbaum 100). For further discussion on this point, see Curran and Robinson.

(18.) See, to name a few, recent and forthcoming works on turn-of-the-century poetry and literary culture by Bentley, Cavitch, Jackson (Before Modernism), and Renker.

(19.) For other works that expand the scope of modernist interpretation, see Cutler 1-21 and 168-79, Huyssen vii--xii and 44-62, and Rainey 1-10.


The Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers are held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. They include the poet's scrapbook (Box 36, folder 2) and her diary (Box 94, folder 13). The papers of her mother, Cora Buzzell Millay, are held in the same collection and include her poetry clippings (Box 35, folder 4) and published poetry clippings (Box 47, folder 9). Previously unpublished material copyright 2012 by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society. Printed with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Peppe, Literary Executor, The Millay Society,

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Author:Zellinger, Elissa
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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