Edna and Florence

By Eva Murray | Mar 01, 2012

Feb. 22 was the birthday of renowned local poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. We call her Edna. She didn’t call herself Edna, she called herself Vincent. People around here idolize her, I think, largely for being from this area and for being a free spirit, being a rebel, maybe for delivering a bit of Maine to Greenwich Village. I’m not convinced our love for her has as much to do with her poetry as it does her life story. That’s okay.

Edna was born in 1892 in Rockland. Her parents divorced when she was a young child. In those days, that was a big deal, and her mother and sisters were impoverished. According to the Camden Public Library, Edna lived in Camden from 1903 to 1913. The Whitehall Inn’s website offers this bit of local history:

Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of America's greatest poets, grew up in Camden. Her sister, Norma, worked in the Whitehall Inn dining room.

At the end of every season, the mostly long-term guests invited staff to a party in the employee's honor, a masquerade ball in 1912. Norma brought along Edna, who entertained the guests and staff with her singing and playing the Steinway piano that is still in the inn lobby.

Her friends prompted her to recite a poem for the first time in public, and her reading of the poem "Renascence" enthralled everyone. The poem was written atop Mt. Battie, just above the back side of the inn. One well-heeled guest arranged for Millay to get a scholarship to Vassar College and introduced her to literary people in New York, the launching pad for Millay's meteoric rise as poet and playwright.

Everybody has heard of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not everybody has heard of Florence Rackliff Monroe.

Florence was born in 1890 in Westbrook. Her mother died when she was one, and as in those days you couldn’t both work and keep an eye on toddlers as a single parent, her father sent both Florence and her brother, Scott, to live with his uncles in South Thomaston, where there have been Rackliff relatives for hundreds of years. The pair of uncles and their wives were named Foster — true “foster parents.”

Florence moved to Camden to work after she graduated high school in South Thomaston (in “the ‘Keag”) as the valedictorian, presumably 1907 or 1908. In Camden, she met Frederick Freeman Monroe, whom she married in 1910. In 1916, or thereabouts, the Monroes moved back to South Thomaston.

Florence Rackliff Monroe was my great-grandmother. In my grandmother’s written recollections, we find: “My mother liked Camden. She enjoyed art and music, going to plays and reading. For some reason she did not care for Edna St. Vincent Millay. They lived in Camden at the same time.”

The Camden Public Library website tell us that, “Although the Millay family did not have much money they did place a great value on culture and literature.... The young writer had an active life in Camden and belonged to several clubs including the ‘Huckleberry Finners’ (Reading Group), the ‘S.A.T.’ (Saturday Afternoon Tea), and Genothad (Sunday School). Her family worshiped at the Congregational Church in Camden.”

My grandmother wrote of her mother, “(She) missed living in Camden,” and talked about Florence’s love for books. I wonder if anybody has records of the membership of those literary groups; I’d be interested to know whether Edna and Florence might have met at a book club.

The Poetry Foundation adds, “New England traditions of self-reliance and respect for education, the Penobscot Bay environment, and the spirit and example of her mother helped to make Millay the poet she became.”

Well, maybe, but the Academy of American Poets assures us that “Millay then moved to New York's Greenwich Village, where she led a notoriously bohemian life.”

From my grandmother’s recollections I suspect my great-grandmother might have thought about a notoriously bohemian life every now and then herself. She didn’t go in for the drinking and smoking — she was fairly strict about things like that — but my grandmother told me years ago that her mother wanted to be an artist, that she wondered about an artist’s life, a life off the farm. Instead, she married a man who raised animals and cut wood. She had children, worked the farm, and fought with tuberculosis. She drove the horse wagon, raised ducks and chickens, churned butter, and scrubbed children’s white dresses to keep them white. She grew winter vegetables and pickled and canned and made baked beans on Saturday and managed to bake pretty cakes for Valentine’s and Washington’s Birthday and St. Patrick’s and any other holiday her children would know about. She didn’t have the personality to throw over her sense of responsibility. Every day she read to her children, offering them a good deal more cultural exposure than many barefoot dirt-road kids get. She raised five intelligent, articulate children.

I can’t help but wonder whether Florence may have been just a tiny bit envious of Edna’s — of Vincent’s — rebellious spirit, and willingness to go tearing off to Vassar College and Greenwich Village to live among the artists and raise a little hell and hang the expense. Hard to say.

Edna St. Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, the first woman ever to do so, but in Camden it’s all about "Renascence," her earliest widely-recognized poem, written (or at least conceived) on Mt. Battie and published in 1912. On Matinicus, she is remembered for Sonnet #36. In honor of Millay’s birthday, I offer the piece that rings true with us:

 

 

Hearing your words, and not a word among them

Tuned to my liking, on a salty day

When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them

Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,

I thought how off Matinicus the tide

Came pounding in, came running through the Gut

While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,

And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;

There in the autumn when the men go forth,

With slapping skirts the island women stand

In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,

With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:

The wind of their endurance, driving south,

Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

 

Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Isle.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Lynette Walther | May 01, 2012 15:00

Looking for Eva's voice in the pages of the "Camden Herald"…

 



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