A century ago, as darkness loomed over the Western world, a young poet moved to Greenwich Village. Everyone called her Vincent, but her full name, embellished by the name of the hospital that had saved her uncle, was Edna St. Vincent Millay. She would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and be a major figure in American letters, but that winter, at the age of 25, she taught a grieving world to dream.
1918 began in fear and ended in devastation. That spring, after a year of mobilization, American troops finally poured into the trenches of France. Joining the bedraggled, mutinous Allies, the "doughboys" ended the “Great War,” but victory cost 115,000 American lives in just five months. While bodies piled up, civil war broke out in revolutionary Russia, and in Finland. Then that spring, a deadly influenza began to spread around the world. Before it ran its course, the "Spanish flu" would be the worst pandemic since the Black Plague, killing 50 million people, including a half million Americans. 1918. A century ago. Infant survivors of the war, the plague live among us.
We turn to poets for inspiration, but 1918 was too tough for most. Wallace Stevens wrote little that year. Robert Frost, teaching at Amherst College, wrote a poem that winter comparing squawking blue jays to soldiers. William Carlos Williams was haunted by the war. "Damn it," he recalled, "the freshness, the newness of a springtime which I had sensed among the others... was being blotted out by the war. . . My year, my self was being slaughtered."
With America's major poets in despair, hope was left in the hands of "a frivolous young woman," as one acquaintance described her, "with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine." "Vincent" proved equal to the task.
Raised in mid-coast Maine, Edna Millay had battled sorrow all her life. Her eccentric mother had thrown her father out of the house, taking on the task of raising three feisty girls, Edna the oldest. While their mother toiled as a seamstress, the sisters acted in plays, wrote poems, and tormented teachers unaccustomed to girls standing their ground. But the eldest soon broke out of the pack, dazzling teachers with her poems.
The world and I are young!
Never on lips of man—
Never since time began,
Has gladder song been sung
By the time she graduated from Vassar, Edna Millay was a published poet. And just before she moved to the Village, her lengthy and lilting "Renascence," in which she imagines her own burial and resurrection, was published in book form. One critic wrote: "I had not known that there was so much beauty in the world."
Yet the world of 1918 was aligned against beauty. Along with the war and the first specter of flu, it was the coldest winter in memory. Vincent had invited her sister Norma to come to New York. They were “bound to succeed—can’t keep us down—I’m all enthusiasm & good courage about it. So come on out, my dear old sweet Sister—& we’ll open our oysters together.” But by February, despite Vincent's fresh love affair and their own renewed bond, the sisters were struggling. "Well, the gas main froze," Norma recalled. "She put a bouquet of violets on the window sill and they froze. We stayed in bed together for two days once just to keep warm."
Spring brought a thaw but more news. German guns shelling Paris. German troops launching a desperate offensive. Vincent fought back in verse.
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough
Long have I known a glory in it all
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart -- Lord, I do fear
Thou has made the world too beautiful this year.
A friend remembered seeing her red hair flying as she ran down MacDougal Street, “flushed and laughing like a nymph.” She would soon fall out of love, bluntly answering a marriage proposal: "Never ask a girl poet to marry you." Yet all spring, the sisters drew closer, finally inviting their mother to live with them. And in mid-June, Poetry published more Millay poems, including a single stanza that would define joy for generations.
No one knows when, during those grim seasons, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote "First Fig." There is no rough draft, no tangle of lines. The poem emerged, like the poet herself -- eloquent, inspired. A century later, as another foreboding year looms, her anthem of hope still glows.
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!