Celebrating the Life of a Poet Who Defied Convention
On an early, cool fall morning, eighteen students gathered to embark on a field trip to Steepletop, the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Each girl had her own unique reasons for wanting to spend a whole Saturday traveling 163 miles each way to Austerlitz, New York to visit Millay’s home and grounds but the common thread they all shared was an eagerness to learn more about the Pulitzer Prize winning poet and thoroughly modern woman. Ms. Katherine Horgan, an APH Humanities faculty member who organized the trip, gave all of the students a packet with a brief biography of Millay as well as a selection of her poetry. Students also had the option of attending a prep session on Friday afternoon and ten students took advantage of this opportunity. During the nearly three hour drive to Steepletop, the students’ energy was palpable and with each passing mile, they became even more excited about the day ahead.
Upon arrival, the students split into two groups and with a guide, they set off to explore the grounds and Millay’s house. Although Millay died in 1950, her home has been preserved as if she just stepped away for the day. The tissues she blotted her lipstick with are still on her makeup vanity, her boots are still by the front door, and everywhere you look, you see items she collected from her travels both in the U.S. and abroad. The students all agreed that they could feel Millay’s presence there and that it was inspiring but also haunting.
The tour guides from the Millay Society shared the many ways in which Millay defied convention both in her work and in her life. The girls learned about Millay’s activism, including her arrest for protesting the execution of several Italian immigrants. The tour guides also pointed out the little details around the house and property that showed Millay’s keen sense of humor. For example, in her private library, Millay had hung a sign she created that said “Silence” since she said every library had one. She and her husband Eugen also held legendary parties at their outdoor bar and pool. Standing in the area between the bar and pool, the girls felt like they could imagine those parties and hear the guests’ laughter.
A few steps up the hill, the girls got to peer in the windows of Millay’s writing cabin. They smiled when they heard about how if Millay wanted anything while she was writing, she would put a white handkerchief in the window and her husband Eugen would see it from his window in the main house and come out. Some students ventured on in the rain to walk on the Poetry Trail, which has signs that display Millay’s poems. The trail ends in an area where Millay and her husband are buried, along with her mother Cora, and her sister Norma. Molly G. ‘19 said that just as she and some of her friends walked up to Millay’s grave, the rain stopped and the sun pierced through the clouds. It was a deeply emotional moment in an already moving day.
Learning more about Millay’s work and life through reading her poetry, seeing her home, and feeling that she was there with them resonated with the girls. When the tour guides told them that Steepletop may close to the public due to financial issues, several of girls began brainstorming fundraising events. Molly G. ‘19 is collecting donations at the Open Mic Night on Friday, October 26th from 5-8 pm.
Gathering in the visitor center, the students and Ms. Horgan discussed Millay’s poetry and which one(s) they liked best. Students had differing opinions about which poem was their favorite but agreed that knowing more about Millay made them appreciate her poetry and life even more. Many girls left the gift shop having purchased their own collection of Millay’s poems and several spent the ride home reading their new books. Ultimately, what made the trip to Steepletop very special for the girls was sharing the experience with each other. The students’ intellectual curiosity, leadership, and activism would make Millay proud.