“It’s just a matter of form”: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s experiments with masculinity
journal contributionposted on 18.11.2019, 14:41 by Sarah Parker
Edna St. Vincent occupies an uncomfortable position in relation to modernism. In the majority of criticism, her work is considered the antithesis to modernist experimentation: as representative of the ‘rearguard’ that rejected vers libre in favour of fixed poetic forms. Indeed, most critics concur that whilst Millay’s subject matter may have been modern and daring – voicing women’s sexual independence, for instance – her form was decidedly traditional. Millay also troubles notions of modernist impersonality by writing seemingly autobiographical lyrics that showcase feminine emotions. In this paper, I aim to challenge this view of Millay by focussing on the two avant-garde works that mark the outset and the zenith of her career: Aria da Capo (1921) and Conversation at Midnight (1937). These works are both formally innovative, blurring the boundaries between poetry and drama, causing Edmund Wilson to complain that Millay had ‘gone to pieces’. Moreover, both works engage in performances of masculinity, with women all but absent. Aria da Capo, first performed by the Provincetown Players in 1919, dramatises the conflict between two shepherds as an allegory for the First World War. Conversation ventriloquises an all male dinner party, ranging through the political issues of the Depression era and foreshadowing the war to come. I use both works to argue that Millay has a more interesting relationship to masculinity and modernism than has been hitherto captured by critics. Millay voices men in innovative ways, radically challenging constructions of both gender and poetic form in the process.
- The Arts, English and Drama
- English and Drama