Yesterday was the birthday of Edna St. Vincent Millay, American lyrical poet, playwright and feminist. Born in 1892, she was named, not for a Catholic saint (as it would seem), but for a hospital. Just before her birth, her uncle’s life was saved at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York; in appreciation of the uncle’s recovery, her family made “St. Vincent” her middle name.
From her youth, Millay’s talent for writing was evident: As a student at Camden High School, she wrote for the school’s literary magazine, The Megunticook. At age 14 she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry; and by 15, she had published her poems in the popular children’s magazine St. Nicholas, as well as in the Camden Herald and the anthology Current Literature.
Millay was nothing if not colorful. She was famed for her activism and her many love affairs with both men and women.
I ran across her poem “Penitent.” “Cool!” I thought. “I can use this as a Lenten meditation.”
But no. It seems the point of her well-crafted but ill-conceived poem is that when conscience makes one uncomfortable, the best course of action is to just fuhgeddaboudit.
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”
Alas for pious planning —
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My Little Sorrow would not weep,
My Little Sin would go to sleep —
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!
So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by —
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”