16 pages 32 minutes read

Edna St. Vincent Millay


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1921

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Summary and Study Guide


Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lyrical poem “Ebb” is a part of her 1921 collection, Second April. The poem features a speaker who must deal with the consequences of departed love. Like a lot of Millay’s love poems, the speaker focuses on how love can lead to melancholy and other forlorn states, as “Ebb” brings out the precarity and pain that manifests after the end of a relationship. Formally, “Ebb” represents Millay’s penchant for melodious lyrics and carrying traditional sounds into the 20th century. What informs “Ebb” is Millay’s appreciation for sonorous poems and her dynamic personal life. Biographies of Millay, like Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty (Random House, 2001), document her sundry, often tumultuous love affairs. In her diary, Millay confided, “I do not think there is a woman in whom the roots of passion shoot deeper than in me” (Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Rapture and Melancholy, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein, Yale University Press, 2022). “Ebb” is not the most well-known work among the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s canon, yet the poem reflects her deeply passionate personality and her knack for creating modern poems in a traditional form.

Poet Biography

Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, February 22, 1892. Her mother, Cora, divorced her father, Henry, early in her life and raised Millay and her two younger sisters with the help of family members. Without support from Henry, Cora worked as a nurse to provide for her daughters. Like her mother, Millay was strong and independent. A champion of the arts, Cora encouraged her children to express themselves. As a young teen, Millay published poems in the magazine for children, St. Nicholas. In 1912, an anthology, The Lyric Year, published Millay’s poem “Renascence.” The poem received plenty of praise and attracted the notice of many people, including Caroline B. Dow, the head of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Training School in New York. Dow helped Millay find the money to attend the prestigious all-women's college Vassar.

At Vassar, Millay wrote and acted. She had romantic relationships with other students and almost didn’t graduate as she regularly flouted the rules and left campus without authorization. However, at the last minute, Vassar’s president, Henry Noble MacCracken, changed his mind and let Millay graduate.

After Vassar, Millay moved to a bohemian part of New York City, Greenwich Village. In 1917, she published her first book of poems, Renascence and Other Poems. She also acted in The Angel Intrudes—a play by the socialist Floyd Dell. The two had an affair, but in 1918, America charged him with sabotaging its role in World War I. Soon, Millay and the poet Arthur Davison Ficke began a romantic relationship.

In 1920, Millay published A Few Figs from Thistles. A year later, she put out Second April, which featured “Ebb,” and, in 1922, she published The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems. A year after that, Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The year Millay won the Pulitzer, she married a wealthy importer, Eugen Boissevain. The couple bought a farm in Austerlitz. Boissevain took care of the farm and the domestic chores as Millay wrote and traveled. Aside from publishing books, Millay published in distinguished magazines like Vanity Fair. Her husband didn’t stop her from forming romantic relationships with other men, including the editor of Poetry magazine, George Dillon—the inspiration behind the sonnets in her 1931 collection Fatal Interview.

Millay’s dynamic personal life didn’t preclude her from engaging in political issues. In 1927, she protested the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The two faced charges of killing the paymaster of a shoe company in Massachusetts. A fair amount of people, including Millay, believed the evidence against them was weak, and their radical views were why they were confronting the death penalty. Years later, as World War II approached, Millay inveighed against isolation and encouraged America to join the war and defeat the Nazis.

During her life, Millay maintained a prolific work schedule—publishing and giving readings at a furious pace. She drank often and labored to the point of exhaustion. In 1950, a year after Boissevain died, Millay, finished proofreading translations of Latin poetry, fell down the stairs in her Austerlitz home and died.

Poem Text

I know what my heart is like

     Since your love died:

It is like a hollow ledge

Holding a little pool

     Left there by the tide,

     A little tepid pool,

Drying inward from the edge.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Ebb.” 1922. Poetry Foundation.


The title of Millay’s poem, “Ebb,” provides a critical hint about what the work is about. If something ebbs, it goes away or diminishes, so Millay’s poem centers on something that has vanished.

Indeed, in Lines 1 and 2, Millay’s speaker announces, “I know my heart is like / Since your love died.” Millay’s speaker is addressing a past lover. The love between them “died” (Line 2), or ebbed.

The ebbing love leads to the ebbing of the speaker’s heart. The diminished love leads to an attenuated heart for the speaker, who describes her heart as a “hollow ledge / Holding a little pool” (Lines 3-4). The “little pool” that is the speaker’s heart was “Left there by the tide” (Line 5), or the rising and falling of the sea.

The body of water that compromises the speaker’s heart is a “little tepid pool” (Line 6), so her heart has undergone a reduction in size and a decrease in warmth. To add to the picture of the speaker's struggling heart, the speaker suggests it's shriveling, or “Drying inward from the edge” (Line 7). Slowly, the speaker’s heart withers away and ebbs due to her lost love.