Perhaps you’ve heard of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was a lyric poet of great renown during the 1920 and until her death in 1950, known mostly for her sonnets. Her fame as a poet was of a magnitude difficult to understand today because there’s no equivalent. Part sprite, part sexual magnet (her candle burned at both ends, with a vengeance), part intellectual—ethereal, earthy, fragile, strong, and brilliant all at the same time—she was an essentially romantic figure.
She was political, too, as poets sometimes are. She opposed the First World War and picketed against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
But something happened to her right before World War II. During the late Thirties, she became alarmed, enraged, and activated by what was happening in Europe, including the appeasement that led to the fall of Czechoslavakia, and the anti-Semitism of Kristalnacht. Millay was moved to speak out publicly and loudly [the following excerpt is taken from the Millay biography by Nancy Milford, entitled Savage Beauty]:
I used to be a most ardent pacifist, but my mind has been changed. I am afraid the only hope of saving democracy is to fight for it…[There are people in power who are] not human beings in the sense that we have been brought up to understand that term. We have beasts in control of human beings. I am not speaking of the German people themselves, but if we have a wild animal to deal with we cannot be pacifists forever. Whatever we do, we cannot keep aloof from the general world situation, and it would be silly to think we can.
Words such as this were not going to sit well with the crew Millay usually hung out with. But in living her rather shocking life until then (lots of sex with men and women, inside and outside of marriage), courage is one thing Millay always had in abundance. She showed it now by stating:
Persons who begin writing lyric poetry at a young age are deeply concerned with themselves…As they mature, they begin to grow out of themselves and they feel a concern for others. Lyric poets who continue writing lyric poetry are likely to go into a dry rot and just say the same thing over and over again.
One impulse motivating Millay seems to have been a fear for the end of freedom of speech, a right she prized highly. She correctly saw that freedom as being imperiled far more by the threat from without than from within. The following passages from the Milford book concern a radio broadcast Millay made in October of 1939:
What we had to fear most, she said, was the menace of the “most loyal and idealistic Communist, and the most loyal and idealistic Fascist.” If we love democracy, then “We must love it in England and France. In Germany we must love it, if only we could find it there”—and here she paused for a long time—”but we have not found it there.”
Why, then, should we be so afraid to say that as regards the war between a Germany whose political philosophy is repugnant to us and an allied Britain and France whose concepts of civilized living are so closely akin to our own that we hope with all our hearts that Great Britain and France may win this war and Germany lose? [We must avail ourselves] as partiotic Americans, of this fine free speech of ours.
Her 1942 poem “The Murder of Lidice” was highly controversial, and many of her friends were highly critical—not just of its poetic value (I have no way to judge this, not having read it) but of its politics. No surprise there; we’ve seen this sort of thing before and since. Merle Rubin noted, “She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism.” And in his journal, her old friend Arthur Ficke wrote:
…this is so bad for her, so false to her real nature…
As a lyric poet, she was superb, unsurpassable…I cannot, I will not, believe that this war is an ultimate conflict between right and wrong: and although I do not doubt for a moment that we are less horrible than the philosophy and practice of Hitler, still I think we are very horrible: and I will not, I must not, accept or express the hysterical patriotic war-moods of these awful days.
This was written in 1942, in the middle of the horror of World War II. It’s the familiar typical stuff; the difference is that, today, most poets would probably say we are more horrible. But after all, this was the Nazis Ficke was talking about. And still, still, this poet called those such as Millay “hysterical,” a practitioner of kneejerk patriotic jingoism rather a clear-sighted observer of an intense conflict between morality and immorality.