President MacCracken Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay
President Henry Noble MacCracken had come to know one of his students, the poet Edna St. Viincent Millay, as both an outstanding campus personality and a frequent campus rogue. A member of the Class of 1917, "Vincent" became both a friend and a nuisance to the new president, who had taken office in the fall of 1915. Millay died in October 1950, at the age of 58, and in 1967, on the 50th anniversary of her graduation, a student representing the Vassarion, the college yearbook, asked the president emeritus and his wife Marjorie to recall her life and times at Vassar.
The class of 1967 has known two College Presidents, Sarah Gibson Blanding and Alan Simpson. The Vassarion visited Miss Blanding’s predecessor, President Emeritus Henry Noble MacCracken (1915-1946) on November 16, 1966. We took this opportunity to get acquainted with Dr. MacCracken and with Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was graduated from Vassar fifty years ago this year.
Vassarion Tell me about Edna St. Vincent Millay. Everybody reads her poetry. There is always a quest to find out what a poet or an artist is really like. You taught her English drama?
MacCracken Yes, I did but of course I knew her much better outside than in.
Vassarion I heard she cut a lot of classes.
MacCracken She cut everything. I once called her in and told her, “I want you to know that you couldn’t break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don’t want to have any dead Shelleys on my doorstep, and I don’t care what you do.” She went to the window and looked out and she said, “well on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole.” That’s correct isn’t it?
Mrs. MacCracken That’s what I heard.
MacCracken She did break one of the most serious and sacrosanct of the rules here, which was about staring at the college the senior vacation. Why I don’t know. They were supposed to finish all their exams and have nothing to do—kind of a purification period before they graduated and went out to the wicked, stained world. Vincent went off on a walking tour with a lot of boys and girls in the Catskills. As I recollect, none of us knew where she was until she came back. The faculty was just in a rage about it. It was here Senior year and they voted her indefinite suspension. I didn’t do anything at the time, because I thought their heat would die down.
Marjorie Dodds MacCracken
I quietly slipped a word in to the President of the Senior class that I thought a petition for her reinstatement might be favorably considered. You know that the feeling of the Vassar students against her was very strong; she mas the kind of person one couldn’t be neutral about. You either liked her or you didn’t.
Mrs. MacCracken And yet at Commencement the students really wanted her to graduate with them.
MacCracken Yes, they changed their opinion. The President of the Class got a petition signed by practically every girl in the class. I then had it manifolded an sent it out and sent out to the Faculty. I did not insult them by insisting on a special meeting over Vincent. I knew that would make them so mad they would vote something worse. When you just get a letter which says something to this effect: I have received the enclosed petition and the undersigned request an immediate answer; after all they’re all certified to graduate and I think their opinions should receive your consideration. Under the circumstances I recommend that the petition be granted but please express your own thoughts about the matter on the enclosed blank. A large majority of the faculty signed and I immediately cancelled the suspension. By that time the hymn she had composed for the baccalaureate Sunday had been sung. But she came back for Commencement. Vincent stayed as our guest before Commencement because I thought it was better not to provoke some insult or other by having her stay in the dormitories.
Vassarion Why was there such strong feeling against her personal ideas?
MacCracken Oh, I don’t know.
Vassarion Vassar is one of the places for liberal ideas, so I understand.
MacCracken Supposed to be, yes, but every once in awhile you can go berserk on anything. We all do.
Mrs. MacCracken Tell them about the time she failed to come to one of your classes because she was ill.
MacCracken Oh yes. In those days students could absent themselves whenever they pleased and just send in a sick excuse. I stopped her in the hall one of those times and said, “Vincent, you sent in a sick excuse at nine o’clock morning, and at ten o’clock I happened to look out the window of my office and you were trying to kick out the light in the chandelier on top of the Taylor Hall arch, which seemed a rather lively exercise for someone taken so taken with illness.” She looked very solemnly at me and said to me “Prexy, at the moment of your class, I was in pain with a poem.” What could you do with a girl like that? It was a pity in a way I think that she knew and liked Miss Haight so well because Miss Haight was a born classicist and Vincent got to love Latin quite as much as she did English. I think she would have been quite glad to write in Latin; she could have done it. I think she took a course in every language then taught at Vassar. Have you seen her card? I think Miss Bacon would show it to you.
Vassarion She particularly loved Greek and Latin?
MacCracken I don’t know. I know that the professor of Latin was her very warm friend. She was at that time for the most studying poetry . . . she just dug in deep to do it; she punished herself unnecessarily, and I think if she’d have been more at ease, she would have written poetry with an even wider appeal than it has.
Vassarion Was she the type to write poetry in class? Was she a daydreamer?
MacCracken She wasn’t a daydreamer, she was much too lively for that: it’s rather absurd. It was like a volcanic explosion when she got an idea.
Mrs. MacCracken Tell them about The King and Two Slatterns.
McCracken In this course of lectures (it was a rather large class, I approve of lectures much, the room was full, it was one of those amphitheatrical rooms in Rockefeller) I was talking about the morality plays and what the morality play was, and that from the point of view of the history of dramatic art it was an excellent device. It is just as good now and it was then and it could easily be revived; in fact, some of the poetry we get is of the moralistic type. And on that hint she acted; at that instant it came to her that she would do a poem about herself. She had always wanted to do that, so she wrote The King and Two Slatterns.
You see she was two persons: she was very slatternly most of the time; she looked as if she ought to be thrown in the ash can and on the other hand, she was neat and exquisite and fantastic in her makeup. Both by turn; just so in this play she wrote in my class. (She didn’t listen to my next two or three lectures. She just dashed off this play.) It was acted of I think four characters in a half dozen or more cities and raised huge sums for the endowment fund that was being raised at that time. It was a great success in New Haven with an audience entirely of Yale students. It was about a king who lives and a country and hasn’t married because he is so tidy, and he feels so bad about the lack of neatness in his kingdom.
President Emeritus Henry Noble MacCracken
There is a Vice in the play (that’s one of the features in a morality play) who is called Chance: “I am aweary of this life the king says, and the Vice whispers in his ear “That’s because you have no wife.” He keeps on hinting and finally the king gets the point and issues a proclamation that he will marry the tidiest maid in all the land. It happens that the tidiest maid been boiling fruit of some sort, and it boils over just as the king comes into the kitchen. The king reads her a frightful lecture about the untidy life and departs in anger.
Just a little way down the street, there is a girl named Slut who never kept herself clean, but once in a great while she’d wash just to see how it felt. This particular day she’d cleaned up her kitchen and everything looked all right. In walks the king and says, at last, the most beautiful kitchen in all my land, and he marries Slut. A year later you see the poor broken-down old man who is suffering the miseries of the damned with the miserable Slattern that he has, and Tidy is sitting alone all unmarried in her beautiful kitchen. The king comes in and expresses his pleasure to be there and she says to him, “I thank you for your favor but, they tell me you have married Slut.” Curtain, that’s the end of the play. It was a great success. I don’t know why it shouldn’t be acted once in a while—it has enough of a moral to be pleasant but not hurt your feelings.
People ought to be sensible enough not to bother about people like that. Why make college classrooms a complete unreality by inserting antiquated disciplines in them[?]
Vassarion You mean like Vincent writing a play in your class?
MacCracken Yes, and talking around. You see while you lectured she would interrupt you and say “Prexy, I don’t think that paragraph goes that way, it goes this way.” One of my schemes for writing in the class was to write a prop book to any twelve lines in Shakespeare: write a study of those lines write a study of the lines in the form of instruction to an actor or actress as to how this should be said and performed. She did a scent from Twelfth Night in which Viola, dressed as a man, comes to call as an agent for a count on a very wealthy lady, Olivia, and an interview takes place.
Vincent was never ambisexual; she certainly was not homosexual. But she was interested in the problem in a sort of intellectual way, I think, and I think you can find a good deal of reference to it in her poetry. She had always been told that women could never have good friendships, one would prove untrue to the other. She lived in a place where people thought women were false. She wrote the play The Lamp and the Bell as a reply to that myth, and it was performed by the alumnae at Vassar in the open air theatre as a means for raising funds. It was a very successful, very charming play; you know the play The Princess Marries the Page? She wrote that for college consumption. In that play there is a woman acting as a man. In the play it was really a man; but it was written by Vincent for a higher degree of delicacy and tenderness of sentiment than is common or natural to most men. It is one of a series in which I was very much interested.
Vassarion I’m interested in what you said about the other girls disliking Vincent for her liberal ideas. The Senior class, just the other night, voted to have liquor in their rooms. I don’t know if the administration will pass it. What do you think those girls would have said about our having liquor in our rooms, or about Vincent.
MacCracken (laughs) Some would have been shocked, others pleased. The custom grew up of having a good deal of liquor on campus on Senior Night for the ceremony of transmission. When I was at Yale, it wasn’t permitted in the Yale rooms; a man was expelled if he was found with it, so things of that kind did not go so very far ahead. Things of that kind are just incidents in a long degenerative process. The men have gone through a good deal; it has injured what seems to me to be a true scholar’s attitude towards his work. It isn’t that I have any objection to liquor as such, but when it becomes a habit in which people indulge as they do nowadays, too much, it is injurious to them. It is just that much more good scholarship going to waste at a very high price. You can get liquor a good deal cheaper than that—living on the Bowery you can get all you want.
Vassarion They say it would bring back the homey atmosphere of Vassar College.
MacCracken (laughs) Oh my . . . isn’t it funny . . . As if you cared a hoot about home. It’s a little hard on the parents to abandon them in the first place and slander them afterwards. As the poet said, “Perhaps you do right to dissemble your love, but why did you kick me downstairs? Did you ever read Vincent’s poem about the tree and the rock? It’s one of the few I know of Vincent’s. It is a very interesting one because it was a sort of pledge to herself that she was going to keep; she was going to dig for the rest of the year and cut out everything else. She had to get to the bottom of things. She came from Maine, which has a great deal of granite, pine trees that grow in the rocks, and firs. She said:
Grow not too high, grow not too far from home
Green tree, whose roots are in the granite’s face!
Taller than silver spire or golden dome
A tree may grow about its earthy place,
And taller than a cloud, but not so tall
The root may not be mother to the stem.
Lifting rich plenty, though the rivers fall,
To the cold sunny leaves to nourish them.
Have done with blossoms for a time, be bare;
Split rock; plunge downward; take heroic soil,—
Deeper than bones, no pasture for you there:
Deeper than water, deeper than gold and oil:
Earth’s fiery core alone can feed the bough
That blooms between Orion and the Plough.
It is a classical poem, a complete poem, I think, of the Shelley type, although the rhythm is Shakespearian.
But you see, her education at Vassar had been made possible by somebody in oil. I think perhaps she did learn of another woman’s interest in her, because I know Vincent stayed at her home once or twice. So that I think the oil refers to the one and the gold to the other. The water was the casual kindness of this or that particular person who wante to help her impulsively, and then forgot it.
It is a symbol sonnet, and the whole thing is to see that the New England tree, the green tree, has got to cut out everything except to get her roots deep in the poetic mood. So that she would be able to participate as a composing artist and forget everything else: all thought of marriage and all gaiety and take on all the “conventions,” clothes and all, of a person who was in a convent. She thought Vassar was—and it was in a way—being more shut in. She was always making solemn resolutions like the “Slut” and then breaking them whenever the strength and the impulse surged up. She was a girl with a very brilliant mind and a physique that was almost incapable of taking care of it, she was so feeble. She overdid constantly; she did not overeat, she didn’t overdrink, her inclinations were not that way. But it was in the imagination that she lived richly and fast.
Mrs. MacCracken I just spoke to a lady on the phone who lived near Vincent in college, and she said, “She was in revolt but she had a very warm personality.” In all the times I saw Vincent, she was very, very charming.
MacCracken She did not seem to have a flesh-like impulse; she was not pawing you; she was not for kissing or anything like that; she was not flirtatious in that way. Her flirtations were primarily intellectual. She was the kind of person who would go all night on the ferry. Remember that poem? “We were very tired, we were very merry.” That is the kind of thing she did do. It was an idea that struck her and was somehow symbolic of hither and yon.
She did not have that fleshly allure that many people have. She was not gifted in that direction; but she was a beautiful actress, with a beautiful voice, and she had an excellent carriage.
Mrs. MacCracken But she attracted men very, very much. When she came and spent those nights with me, there was a young professor: he was a poet; he had lectured at the college. He was just taken with her, and he couldn’t stay away from her. She played him like a cat with a mouse.
MacCracken You see, Vincent was a classicist of the tribe of Ovid rather than of Horace or Virgil. There was about as much real passion in anything she wrote as there was in Ovid which is pretty near down to the zero mark. Except for the language, the words. But she was a rewarding person; she gave of the senses; she knew a good deal more than you did about the music of rhythm and the treatment of language. Her poetry did not sound studied, but it must have been very carefully studied because it is so very accurate. I think when she lost her temper completely, and felt outraged, her poetry wasn’t nearly as good; she didn’t stop to correct. I figure if she has only been stimulated to go her own gait in the beginning she would have been one of our greatest poets and she was a very decent one as it is. She’s been much underrated, especially by know-it-alls who are writing the present criticisms.
Vassarion What did the rest of the faculty think?
MacCracken They were very indulgent to her. I don’t think there was any real irritation, but they became exasperated at her flouting rules at the very end, just deliberately that way. But I never heard any complaints, did you?
Mrs. MacCracken Just irritations.
MacCracken She got A in her courses at times. It was Vincent who wrote that remarkable essay in Psychology. Mrs. Washburn, who is one of the most fair-minded women you ever saw, and a great teacher—one of our really great teachers—came into my office and threw this essay on my desk and said “Read that. Look at that. That young scoundrel has cut my classes all the semester, practically, yet she lives on strong coffee for the last four days and comes in and get as A+ on her exam; and this paper—you can’t give it any less than that. I don’t know how much time she spent on it, but there it is.” She was just outraged, but she was fair-minded enough to admit that it was a good piece of work. Up to that moment, Vincent had written a prize poem about, “where I stood there were three tall mountains and a wood.” There wasn’t so much to go on, but you could see that she was a genius.
Vassarion 1967, pp. 51-55