On the night of Aug. 22, 1927, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts executed Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the robbery and murder of two employees of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree. Sacco and Vanzetti were widely believed to be innocent, and the public had seen much evidence that they were wrongly accused because of their Italian ancestry and anarchist political affiliations. Despite the mounting evidence of their innocence, multiple judicial appeals and gubernatorial commissions had refused to clear them. On the night of their execution, a crowd of 20,000 people gathered on Boston Common, across from the State House, to protest their wrongful killing. The police cracked down on the crowd, arresting hundreds. Among those arrested was a 35-year-old poet from Camden, who risked a successful career and a comfortable marriage to express her outrage in the face of oppression.

Her name was Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was born in Rockland and grew up in Camden. She left to see the wider world, but the beauty of Penobscot Bay was always the landscape of her poetry. You can see her statue in the harborside green behind Camden Public Library. It’s a fine sculpture, but it has a bit of cartoonish whimsy to it, as if she were a waifish romantic, which she was not.

Her life was picturesque and jazzy, but she herself was a clear-minded intellectual who admired deep thought and dispassionate action. A Millay biography might read like a manic combination of Little Women and The Great Gatsby, but she was much more than just a New England Reformer or a flapper. She was one of the original Greenwich Village bohemians. She was an anti-Nazi propaganda writer during World War II. She was never a full-blown Communist, but she supported the rights of socialists and anarchists to speak their minds and organize. She was a performer and a composer, a free-lover and a wife, an activist and an addict, a big-city intellectual and a quiet country gardener; she was a lovely mess and a monster of a poet.

Her mother was a single mom — a divorcee long before it was cool — who worked long thankless hours to provide for her kids. But she wasn’t just a tired provider; she ensured the children’s education by carting around a large trunk full of books everywhere they moved and making sure the kids got music lessons to enrich their hearts and minds. Even when Edna turned out to be an unruly rebel of a student, her mother supported her attitudes and helped her develop as an artist. The poet would remember this and honor it throughout her career.

She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and her earliest poems appeared in these very pages when she was a student at Camden High School. Her true notoriety began with “Renascence,” a rollicking 214-line lyrical poem that was published in The Lyric Year in 1912.

“Renascence” is a gale of a poem. It crashes in with a description of the Midcoast:

“All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way
And saw three islands in a bay.”

But then it quickly becomes something else. It is a story of dying and being resurrected. It is a story of the limited self being joined with the boundless oneness of the universe. It is a crazy, gothic pastoral about being yourself even if nature would stop you. Maybe you had to read it in high school. It’s worth a second read if you haven’t perused in it in a while.

“Renascence” is one of those energetic youthful poems that is beautiful for its perfect simplicity and musical appeal. But it wasn’t the peak of her career. She managed to grow and change with each collection she published, moving deftly between politics and romance, analytical philosophy, and impressionism. And it makes me sad because I feel like she’s been pigeonholed as a girlish love poet. (“We were very tired, were very merry— / We had gone back and forth all night on the / ferry.) In addition to being feminist and romantic and elegiac, she was also a purveyor of the American Gothic tradition started by Poe and continued by her contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft.

Her short poem, “Low Tide,” begins simply, as a descriptive nature poem. It paints an image of sea-weeded stones in the tidal zone. The seemingly innocuous stones quickly, terrifyingly, become a “giant’s empty house,” and “no fit place for a child to play.” This quick displacement from the comfortable, and the horror at nature’s indifference to humanity, are squarely within the wheelhouse of the period’s Cosmic Horror scene.

And even though romantic love does occupy a large swath of her work, Millay’s approach to love in life was intellectual and distant. In “I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear,” she explains her feeling that true love can only really be held when it is left behind. She wanted her love distilled on the coolness of the page, where she could keep it forever and it would never change. She believed the best way to honor a lover was to love them fiercely and briefly and then be done with them. She would love them forever but couldn’t be with them.

There was also a place she couldn’t be but would never forget, and it was right here. Although she never returned to Maine to live — she and her husband would set up a home in upstate New York after they chose to leave the city — she never stopped writing about it either. The landscape around us and memories of her mother would haunt her poetry throughout her life. She was the quintessential “New Woman,” a worldly and towering author, and she was made right here in Maine.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

filed under: