On June 14, 1940, German troops entered Paris. That same day, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in New York City, readers of the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and the Daily News were surprised to find in their papers a sonnet written by America’s foremost female poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. A pacifist during World War I, in the years leading up to World War II she had watched with growing alarm the events in Europe and Asia and experienced a growing distaste for the isolationism still gripping much of the nation. The tipping point for her occurred in early 1940 when she read The Wave of the Future by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famous aviator and isolationist Charles Lindbergh. Arthur Schlesinger said that the book posited that “democracy is dying and the wave of the future is coming. Nazis and Fascists and Communism are all expressions of the wave. . . . [Lindbergh] concludes the book by saying that there is no resisting the wave of the future. . . .” Millay had had enough. Her response was a sonnet whose title and subtitle threw down the gauntlet in a clarion call to action:
There Are No Islands, Any More
Lines Written in Passion and in Deep Concern for
England, France and My Own Country
In it, Millay proceeds to chide, shame, and expose the shortsightedness and moral bankruptcy of the isolationists’ “quibbling and squabbling” position. And she cogently asks: “Of grave concern to free men all: Can Freedom stand? – Must Freedom fall?” And after calling for her countrymen to send arms and supplies to the allies, she concludes with the warning:
Lest French and British fighters, deep
In battle, needing guns and sleep,
For lack of aid be overthrown,
And we be left to fight alone.
Millay authorized the poem to be printed and distributed “free of royalty, all proceeds of sale being turned over to the Red Cross or some similar war relief agency.”
“She seems to have caught more flak from the literary critics for supporting democracy than Ezra Pound did for championing fascism.”
—Book critic Merle Rubin
Born in 1892, Millay’s early years were one of extreme poverty. Millay spectacularly debuted on the literary stage in 1912 with her coming-of-age poem “Renascence.” A graduate of Vassar, she was openly bisexual and led a bohemian life among the literati in New York City’s Greenwich Village starting in 1917. In 1923, at age thirty-one, she received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. By then one biographer noted that Millay, an ardent feminist, had “led a life of personal and sexual freedom generally reserved only for men in our society.”
Newspaper editors and the general public acclaimed “There Are No Islands, Any More” to be “a landmark of literary history” and “the first important poem” of World War II.” This and other war poems she wrote were collected and published later that year under the title Make Bright the Arrows.
“If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”
Prior to Make Bright the Arrows, literary critics were effusive over her poetry. This time, their response was brutal. Critics called the volume “unrepresentative” and “minor.” One of the few favorable reviews was by Peter Monro Jack of The New York Times Book Review who observed, “Miss Millay may have written more nicely, but she has never written more strongly, with absolute belief and accuracy.” Professor Irwin Edman reviewing for the Herald Tribune wrote, “But it is a sad obligation to report that the tragedy of the present hour has not wrung great poems out of Miss Millay, nor, with the exception of a few sonnets and possibly the opening poem, even notably good ones.” Close friend and literary critic George Dillon wrote that Make Bright the Arrows “was a book containing several poems I had advised her not to publish. After trying [Make Bright the Arrows] on two well known critics, who annihilated it, and on two others who refused it, I printed what seemed to me at the time a just and respectful review.” Years later, after re-reading that review, he realized it had been “ruthless.”
Millay knew there was a risk in publishing her war poetry, but she accepted it. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook . . . what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman? … I used to think it very important to write only good poetry. Over and over I worked it to make it as flawless as I could. What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and their ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.” She repeated that message in a January 1941 letter to former Vassar roommate Mrs. Charlotte Babcock Sills, writing, “And though I have no sons to be caught in this war, if we are caught in it, I have one thing to give in the service of my country – my reputation as a poet.”
Millay joined the Writers’ War Board, a private organization founded in 1942 that contained prominent writers from all fields, who donated their work in support of America’s war effort. The strain of working under deadlines proved too much for Millay, who resigned in 1943 following a nervous breakdown. Unlike her other volumes of poetry that can be easily purchased to this day, Make Bright the Arrows soon went out of print and has been all but forgotten. Millay died of a heart attack in 1950.