There is an old joke among writers that nobody likes to write but everybody likes to have written. Nothing could have been further from the truth for poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (1889-1950). Her love affair with words began in her childhood and lasted a lifetime. She enjoyed nothing more than coining just the right phrase to express her feelings. During her lifetime, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 and the Robert Frost Medal in 1943.
Millay — called “Vincent” by her friends and family — first became recognized as a poet at the age of 20 when a poem she had written took fourth place in a prestigious contest. As a result, Vassar College offered her a scholarship, which she eagerly accepted. Her years at Vassar were heady ones. Millay developed lifelong interests in theater and feminism. She also experienced several intimate relationships with women. Much of her poetry dealt with these romantic friendships.
One of her poems during this period of her life was titled “Memorial to D.C.” Nothing is known about the mysterious D.C. except that she was probably a student at Vassar. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote the poem in 1918. It was published in her collection “Second April” in 1921.
“Memorial to D.C.” is written in six brief parts. After a short introduction, Millay launches into an epitaph which asks mourners not to bring flowers to the grave: “Why bewilder her with roses that she cannot see or smell?”
Next is The Prayer to Persephone, probably the most touching and best known part of the poem. Here, Millay prays to the queen of the underworld to comfort her friend.
“Be to her Persephone
All the things I might not be…
Take her head upon your knee;
Say to her, ‘My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.’”
Millay then moves on to a chorus section about giving away the beautiful clothes and shoes that her friend will never again need for dancing. In the elegy section, she mourns her friend’s lost voice.
“For the beauty of that sound
That in no new way at all
Ever will be heard again.”
Millay finishes with a dirge that encourages her classmates to come together in mourning. “All you loved of her lies here,” she reminds them.
With “Memorial to D.C.,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a truly moving poem to honor her lost friend. Her pain and sense of injustice at a young life being taken so quickly scream from every word. Her grief reflects the feelings so many of us experience when a loved one dies, from practical matters to philosophical questions.
Ultimately, Millay moved beyond her loss. She graduated from Vassar and went on to live a bohemian existence in Greenwich Village, in New York City. In 1923, she married widower Eugen Boissevain. They decided to have an open relationship, and this arrangement worked well for them until Boissevain’s death in 1949. Unfortunately, Millay herself died in 1950 after suffering heart failure. She was just 58 years old.