Past the brick rowhomes that have come to define Baltimore, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, established in 1854, sits on the corner of Read and Cathedral Streets. At street level, only the abrupt appearance of rubble stone from brick indicates that there is a new building at all. That is, until the lucky passerby looks up. Towers soar above a progress of granite to white limestone, punctuated by lancet windows and tempered with light refracted through stained glass windows.
A striking example of Gothic architecture in Baltimore, the church was designed by Niernsee & Neilson (the same partnership behind the Green Mount Cemetery Chapel and Clifton Mansion.) The towers and archways invoke a time long past, of feudalistic morality and rigid social structures of the separation of the few from the struggles of the many... and yet, it was these very towers that looked down upon one of the twentieth century's most controversial and feminist writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay.
The first woman in history to receive a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or "Vincent" as she preferred to be called, is remembered by scholar Robert Gale as the "poetic voice of eternal youth, feminine revolt and liberation, and potent sensitivity and suggestiveness." Born in 1892 and raised by an independent mother in New England, she published her first poem, Renascence, in 1912. Continuing on to Vassar College in 1913, she pursued acting and writing, flouting the rules and societal prescripts by smoking, drinking, and dating freely among the all-female population. After graduation, she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where she was surrounded by artists, actors, and other bon vivants. She promptly became a name in the bohemian village. It was in this time that she penned her most famous quatrain: "First Fig" from A Few Figs from Thistles (1920):
"My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!"
She spent the next two years in Europe writing for Vanity Fair, producing upon her return the work that would win her the Pulitzer, The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1923). In this and her other works, in a time when women still were fighting for the right to vote in much of the United States, Millay championed the plight of women and the oppression of traditional gender roles. She loved freely, marrying Eugen Boissevain in 1923 on the understanding that she would not be faithful, and let him manage her tours.
It was in 1925 on one of her tours that Mrs. Sally Bruce Kingsolver asked her to read at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church for the Poetry Society of Maryland. What poems she read is not recorded but she surely read with the passion of one who rubbed so far against the grain. She was the absolute embodiment of the hedonism of the 1920s, as she did what she wanted, defied convention at every turn, and presented herself to life with a passion that swept up those around her.