Edna St. Vincent Millay on Ragged Island. (ROCKLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO)
Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of the most notable women of the early 20th century. She also was one of the most troubled.
A Maine native, Millay and her husband owned Ragged Island in Harpswell. It was where she could escape the public’s eye and attempt to recover from multiple addictions —to alcohol, morphine, barbiturates and cigarettes.
“Dealing with addictions was important to her on Ragged Island. It helped her heal,” said Gary Lawless, co-owner of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. A poet himself, Lawless spoke about Millay last month at the Orr’s-Bailey Yacht Club on Orr’s Island.
Millay’s “is essentially a sad story,” said Lawless. “Sometimes sad stories created beautiful art. In every profession people are struggling and still create beautiful things.”
In 1923, Millay became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Described as beautiful with bright red hair and green eyes, Millay was independent, a free spirit, a feminist and social activist. She had multiple relationships with both men and women.
Born in Rockland, Millay was a 1909 graduate of Camden High School. Known as “Vincent” or “Vince,” she was named after St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, where her mother’s brother had recovered after being pinned below deck on a ship.
“Renascense” was published in 1912 and won fourth place in a poetry contest. Judges claimed that “no little girl could have written that,” said Lawless.
That year, while working at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Millay read “Renascense” to a group that included Caroline B. Dow, head of the YWCA Training School in New York. Dow was so impressed she helped raise funds for Millay to attend Vassar the following year.
As her poems and plays were published, Millay gained celebrity status. In 1923 she married Dutch businessman Eugen Jan Boissevain. They lived in New York but she had always wanted to return to Maine. A decade after their marriage, they were visiting friend Tess Root Adams on Bailey Island. Early one July morning she spotted Ragged Island 4 miles out to sea.
To Millay, it was the most beautiful island she’d ever seen. Two weeks later her husband bought the island for $750.
She was “a girl who all her life loved the tideline of the sea,” said Lawless.
The Harpswell cottage, with no running water or electricity, became their haven. She was “part mermaid,” said Lawless, and everyone on the island swam in the nude. She wrote: “We think bathing dress of any sort is indecent, and so do the waves and so do the seagulls and so does the wind.”
“The way she describes Ragged Island is her interior,” said Lawless. “Her inner world was troubled a lot of the time but she wrote beautifully about it.”
Millay never recovered from an auto accident in 1936 and became addicted to morphine. Her husband died of lung cancer in 1949. A year later, Millay tumbled down steep stairs in her nightclothes at their Austerlitz, N.Y. home. Her body was found the next morning; she was 58.
Millay’s poem “Ragged Island” was published posthumously in 1954. Its last stanza reads: “Oh, to be there, under the silent spruces / Where the wide, quiet evening darkens without haste / Over a sea with death acquainted, yet forever chaste.”