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Edna St. Vincent Millay


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1923

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Summary and Study Guide


Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Lament” first appeared in print in 1921 in her collection Second April (1921). The poem portrays a widow’s explanation to her children about their father’s death. The speaker does not seem in despair, and instead is trying to help her children come to terms with their father’s death. The poem examines both hidden and expressed grief. The poem also explores how society’s cliches and expectations about death may differ from an individual’s experience with the grieving process, loss, and death. The poem’s female perspective also plays into Millay’s reputation as a feminist poet. The speaker is now a widow, a single mother, who must provide not only for herself but also for her children. At the same time that the mother must support her children, she must also cope with the loss of her husband. The poem appeared in Collected Poems, which Millay’s sister, Norma, edited in 1956. Harper Perennial published the collection in 2011.

Poet Biography

Born on February 22, 1892 in Rockland, Maine to a nurse and a schoolteacher, Edna St. Vincent Millay grew up in a home riddled with conflict and domestic abuse. Her parents divorced when she was young, with her mother citing financial irresponsibility and domestic abuse as the grounds for divorce. Millay and her sisters were outspoken young women, and their rebellious attitude did not often endear them to authority figures in their lives. Throughout her young life, Millay’s teachers were offended at her frank attitudes. In high school, Millay began developing her literary talents, and by age 15 she had published her poems.

Millay’s poetry fame began in 1912 when her poem “Renascence” won the contest The Lyric Year. The poem was controversial, and two of the three contest judges did not feel that the poem addressed social relevance–one of the contest’s criteria. Millay initially placed fourth in the contest because of this, but a major controversy ensued, and one of the other poets actually felt that Millay’s poem was the better one. One of the other winners eventually offered Millay their prize money. In the same year, a wealthy patron named Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poem and playing the piano. Millay impressed Dow, and Dow offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College. In 1913, at the age of 21, Millay entered Vassar College. Millay found Vassar’s rules too strict, and the liberal homelife with which she had been raised conflicted with Vassar’s restrictions. The school expected its students to be refined and embrace being young ladies. During her time at Vassar, Millay had several relationships with other women, including Edith Wynne Matthison.

In 1917, Millay moved to New York City, and she lived in a variety of areas, including Greenwich Village. During her New York years, Millay lived an openly bisexual lifestyle. As she worked to establish her poetry career, Millay also worked with the Provincetown Players and the Theater Guild.

In 1923 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,” becoming the third woman to win the prize. That same year she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, who supported her career and took on many of the domestic activities. They had a relatively open marriage that lasted 26 years.

In 1924, she and others worked to found the Cherry Lane Theater, which focused on experimental drama. During these years, Millay used her poetry as part of her feminist activism, and she often focused her poems on taboo subjects, such as wives leaving their husbands in the middle of the night.

In the 1930s, Millay’s reputation declined despite the high sales of her books. In 1936 she was injured when a car door swung open and she fell out, resulting in significant nerve damage that led to a morphine addiction. She was later able to overcome her addiction, and some published some of her best poetry in the 1940s, winning the Frost Medal in 1943. Constant medical bills as well as her responsibility for her mentally ill sister, Kathleen, dwindled Millay’s financial stability. In fact, by the time of her death, Millay owed money to her publisher. Her final collection of poems, Mine the Harvest (1954). Millay died on October 19, 1950 after falling down the stairs. Her body was found eight hours after her death. She was 58 years old.

Poem Text

Listen, children:

Your father is dead.

From his old coats

I’ll make you little jackets;

I’ll make you little trousers

From his old pants.

There’ll be in his pockets

Things he used to put there,

Keys and pennies

Covered with tobacco;

Dan shall have the pennies

To save in his bank;

Anne shall have the keys

To make a pretty noise with.

Life must go on,

And the dead be forgotten;

Life must go on,

Though good men die;

Anne, eat your breakfast;

Dan, take your medicine;

Life must go on;

I forget just why.

St. Vincent Millay, Edna. “Lament.” 1921. Poetry Foundation.


The poem opens with the speaker, presumably a mother, commanding her children to “Listen, children” (Line 1). The speaker then makes the announcement that the children’s father is dead. The mother states that she will make the children “little jackets” (Line 4) from their father’s “old coats” (Line 3) and “little trousers” (Line 5) from their father’s “old pants” (Line 6). The mother tells the children that in the pockets of the coat and trousers they will find things their father owned. The speaker describes the “Keys and pennies” (Line 9) as “Covered with tobacco” (Line 10), and she also begins designating which child will receive what memento from their father. The speaker begins naming the children, stating that “Dan shall have the pennies” (Line 11) and “Anne shall have the keys” (Line 13). The speaker tells the children how each will use their gift. Dan will save the pennies “in his bank” (Line 12), and Anne will have the keys to “make a pretty noise with” (Line 14). After telling each child what they will inherit from their father, the speaker declares that “Life must go on” (Line 15), emphasizing that the family must continue to live and exist without the father. Though the speaker does not seem to be in despair, the speaker hints that society requires the family to move on from their grief. The mother repeats that “Life must go on” (Line 17), and she begins commanding the children to move forward by eating breakfast (Line 19) and taking medicine (Line 20). The poem concludes with the speaker repeating “Life must go on” (Line 21) a third time, admitting that she forgets why life must continue after the loss of her husband.