Why bittersweet beats SOUR

Early twentieth-century poet Edna St Vincent Millay's laconic verse is an antidote to modern pop's cult of heartbreak.
American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) poses for a portrait among magnolia blossoms. Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) poses for a portrait among magnolia blossoms. Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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In one of the most famous photos of Edna St Vincent Millay – taken whilst she was at Vassar College by Arnold Genthe – Millay looks ponderously out of the side of the frame. She is standing in the blossom of a tree, her body framed by branches and flowers. It’s a near-stereotypical image of the romantic poet; the temptation is to guess which man or woman has made Millay look so melancholy.  

But to read Genthe’s photo as such would be flawed. While Millay does indeed appear to be thinking deeply, this is not the gaze of forlorn heartbreak. Millay was a prominent Greenwich Village bohemian and poet of astronomical success: she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1923, and was a co-founder of New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Millay was – and is – known for her fleeting, carefree romantic attractions. Book-blurbs laud her ‘unconventional lifestyle’ and ‘many love affairs,’ while  her 1927 New Yorker profile says her poems are ‘about loves, rather than love’ and have the taste of ‘footloose youth.’   

Millay is often derided for being a party girl for whom romantic entanglements are inherently transient, fleeting, and leave few scars. A femme fatale for who few things, if any, are fatal. But her poetry reveals another side. In 1912, aged 20, Millay came to poetic fame with her long poem Renascence. Imagining the death of a beloved, Millay’s first-person speaker declares  

part of my heart lies chilled   
In the damp earth with you. I have been torn  
In two, and suffer for the rest of me.

As the New Yorker profile notes, Millay’s ‘only genuine surrender is to death;’ the near-Shakespearean image of ‘a ship whose star has guttered out’ is one of more intensity than one might associate with the poet of ‘flaming youth.’ This emotional force continues beyond her early adolescent writing. In 1923, over a decade after Renascence, Millay published a long series of sonnets on romantic entanglements. The first sonnet opens with an awareness that the speaker’s beloved will leave:     

When you, that at this moment are to me  
Dearer than words on paper, shall depart,   
And be no more the warder of my heart.   

At this imagined future moment, Millay’s subject admits she will allow herself to ‘weep somewhat’ as if she were a flower ‘dismayed’ by the knowledge the wind will take their petals. The imagery is overwhelmingly ephemeral, but contained within this transience is a knowledge of the more permanent marks such distress might leave: while the flower ‘droops’ only for a ‘moment’, the de-petaling destruction of the wind is irreversible – if only for a season.   

This is not to say that Millay is a poet of absolute romantic commitment and destitution; she is no Astrophil spending thousands of lines dwelling on the brilliance of one Stella, nor is she Keats idolising his one ‘bright star’. She holds such traditions of amorous writing up to a scrutinising light: her instruction in her 1920 collection A Few Figs from Thistles to ‘think not I am faithful to a vow!’ is more an echo of Shakespeare’s brilliant satire of love-vows in Love’s Labour’s Lost than it is any true romantic statement.   

Rather, Millay’s writing is suffused with an awareness of the depth of emotion in the moment. In a sonnet from her 1912 collection, she declares ‘If I should learn … / That you were gone’… ‘I would not cry aloud’ but would instead would ‘watch the station lights rush by’. This description of emotional repression – a turn to the mundane to distract from discomfort – is not a description of a lack of feeling, but rather a means of dealing with it. In a sonnet from her 1923 collection, Millay recounts

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,   
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain   
Under my head till morning.

The lilting anaphora of ‘and where, and why’ brilliantly evokes the variety of Millay’s sexual experiences, but the poem is not simply a fourteen-line catalogue of conquests. Millay goes on to note a ‘quiet pain’ for ‘unremembered lads that not again / Will turn to me at midnight with a cry’, before ending the poem with   

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. 

There are few more beautiful recognitions of the brilliance – and depth – of momentary affection. Some 60 years before Jonathan Richman’s hymn to ‘That Summer Feeling’, Millay was able to capture the same heady combination of nostalgia and freedom.   

Even Millay’s paean to the messiness of a semi-relationship – ‘We talk of taxes, and I call you friend’ – is saturated with a recognition that the growth of affection is impossible to avoid: ‘those subtle weeds no man has need to tend’ which have the power to ‘overthrow / Our steady senses.’   

There are, of course, still poems of Millay’s which stress fleeting emotion above all else. ‘Thursday’, from A Few Figs From Thistles, opens with the lines   

And if I loved you Wednesday,   
Well, what is that to you?   
I do not love you Thursday –   
So much is true. 

But contained within these quotable, self-mythologising poems of sexual voracity are playful elements of burgeoning romantic theory. Millay’s poetic freedom is a remarkably prescient forerunner to the difficulties of relationships; Millay recognises ‘love is a conflict’ with both danger and freedom, but seems to sometimes choose perfect passivity in the face of this skirmish. She makes few claims – if any – on the ‘others’ of her affections.

Millay is not referenced in Anne Carson’s brilliant 1986 essay on love, Eros the Bittersweet, but I can’t help but think her work is both the perfect exception – and proof – of Carson’s statement ‘Who ever desires what is not gone? No one.’ Millay’s desire is predicated on continual comings and goings but, rather than being tortured by this instability, she is seemingly delighted by it.   

Whilst the early twentieth century had Millay’s sonnets on transience circulating – in the New Yorker profile there is a brilliant description of Americans in Paris reciting her lines from memory – the twenty-first century has anthems on heartbreak, unrequited love, and painful jealousy. The sound of the summer is likely to be Olivia Rodrigo’s breakthrough album SOUR, also written by a young woman about the subtleties of romantic and sexual relationships. SOUR is a brilliantly concentrated tour of emotional turmoil, but there is something undeniably dispiriting about the fact that – from Taylor Swift to Mitski to Lana Del Rey  – contemporary culture about women’s romantic lives is preoccupied with narratives of despair and heartbreak. Perhaps there’s something to be said for Millay’s laconic calm in the face of lovers changing like days of the week: ‘I loved you Wednesday,  – yes – but what / Is that to me?’

Francesca Peacock

Francesca Peacock is a member of the Engelsberg Ideas editorial team.

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