Brain Pickings

June 6, 1917: Edna St. Vincent Millay Almost Gets Banned from Her Own Graduation

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“I always said … that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way.”

Anne Sexton’s recently rediscovered report card revealed that the celebrated author barely made it through school. During her last week of college, Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — found herself in a similar conundrum, though for very different reasons. On June 6, 1917, the vivacious, life-loving 25-year-old Millay sends her family a letter from Vassar, which she had entered late, at the age of 21, after taking several classes at Barnard College and, dissatisfied, deciding to transfer. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), it informed them of the consequences of Millay’s youthful mischief with charmingly self-conscious faux-nonchalance. Underpinning her words is her signature blend of irreverent pride and genuine sensitivity, and her unrelenting ability to seek and find, above all else, that which is beautiful and worthy of cheer.

Dear Mother & Sister –

In a few days now I shall write myself
A.B.
& send home my sheepskin for you to frame & hang up unesthetically in a conspicuous position. Everything is all right. My bills are paid.

But I must tell you something unpleasant but quite unimportant which has just occurred. — Because I was absent-minded & stayed away out of town with three other girls one night, forgetting until it was too late that I had no right to be there because I had already lost my privileges for staying a couple of days in New York to go to the Opera, — the Faculty has taken away from me my part in Commencement. — That doesn’t mean just what it says, because my part in Commencement will go on without me, — Baccalaureate Hymn [which Millay composed], for instance, or the words of Tree Ceremonies, which we repeat — & it all seems pretty shabby, of course, after all that I have done for the college, that it would turn me out at the end with scarcely enough time to pack and, as you might say, sort of “without a character.” — The class is exceedingly indignant, bless ‘em, & is busy sending in petitions signed by scores of names, & letters from representative people, & all that. It will do no good. But it is a splendid row.

I always said, you remember, that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way. — Well, that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t pretend that I don’t feel badly. I do. — I have wept gallons — all over everybody. — Terribly nervous, you know, because I had sat up three whole nights during exams, to get my topics done, — & no sleep in the day-time. … It isn’t a disgrace, you see, folks, — it’s just a darned unpleasant penalty for carelessness of college rules, occurring at a darned unfortunate time.

But I never knew before that I had so many friends. — Everybody is wonderful.

So wonderful were her legions of friends, in fact, that they steered things in Millay’s favor. The following Sunday, she writes her sister:

Dear Norma –
Tell Mother it is all right, — the class made such a fuss that they let me come back, & I graduated in my cap & gown along with the rest. Tell her it had nothing to do with money; — all my bills have been settled for some time. — Commencement went off beautifully & I had a wonderful time. Tell her this at once if you can. . . .

But, to be sure, Millay was no careless party girl — during her time at Vassar, she had already sold a number of poems to various publications and was about to launch into adult life with full force. She writes Norma in the same letter:

I’m staying here & just looking around for a job. If I get one soon enough, & it doesn’t begin for a short time perhaps I shall come home when Kathleen does, but otherwise I shall just stay on here until I get something to do, probably. YOu see I have to start right in working as soon as I can get a job, — & I may not be able to come home at all. We mustn’t be foolish about these things.

I have sold October-November to The Yale Review, a fine magazine.

If I got an engagement for the fall then I could come home & do some writing, which I am very anxious to do, this summer. But I can’t come home unless I have something sure here to come back to, — you understand.

I am feeling much rested, — & all keyed up to go to work — but, oh, I am so homesick to see you, dear, & Mother, — & the garden & everything! — Never mind, if I have good luck I shall come home, — unless I have to begin work at once.

She excitedly signs the letter with her newly earned academic degree:

Vincent
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.B.!)

Millay, in fact, donned the cap and gown not once but twice in her lifetime. Exactly twenty years later, she received an honorary degree from NYU.

1937 Honorary Degree Recipients with Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase. Edna St. Vincent Millay appears in front row, center.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a treasure trove in its entirety, full of timelessly delightful wit and wisdom from one of literary history’s most remarkable figures.

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