The scrapbook my mother made for me reminded me that when I was there in 1973, I played chess by the fire, was fascinated by a glass-topped table that displayed shells, had “superatious” blueberry pancakes for breakfast, and stayed in room 6.
Those are the highlights of my visit to the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Maine, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was discovered.
While attending a party at the inn on August 29, 1912, Millay recited “Renascance,” her recently published poem she had written on the top of Mount Battie, her favorite getaway, rising in the distance behind the inn. A guest was so taken with the young poet that she paid for her education at Vassar College.
“All I could see from where I stood was three long mountains and a wood. I turned and looked another way, and saw three islands in a bay,” “Renascence” begins.
Those lines are inscribed on the wall of the Camden Public Library’s rotunda. They come to mind again, after passing the U-shaped Camden Amphitheatre on the grounds of the library and crossing Atlantic Avenue to Harbor Park. There, a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Millay gazes beyond the boats in Camden’s harbor.
Camden had established itself first through shipbuilding and later through woolen mills, which were active when the 11-year-old Millay, her sisters and her mother moved to Camden in 1903. She lived in Camden for the next ten years, inventing games and songs to entertain her and her sisters as they tidied their home, swimming in the bay, picking blueberries, keeping a diary she called Rosemary, and writing the first examples of the easy-to-memorize, relatable and understandable poetry that would make her famous.
Despite living in New York in later years, she maintained her fondness for Maine and the sea. As she wrote in “Exiled,” “I should be happy! – that was happy/All day long on the coast of Maine;/I have a need to hold and handle/Shells and anchors and ships again!”
Camden was just as charming this time around. Once again, I shopped at The Smiling Cow, but I also discovered Swans Island, a Maine craft business. Skeins of yarn — as well as handwoven blankets, throws and Maine balsam-filled sachets — are all made from local New England fibers, hand-dyed to signature rich tones using natural pigments.
The movie Peyton Place was filmed in Camden. Between Camden and Rockport, see grazing Belted Galloway cows and a statue of Andre, the seal who swam home to Booth Bay in Maine every summer. For more on Andre, watch the movie Andre with Keith Carradine and read A Seal Called Andre, by Lew Dietz, and Andre: The Famous Harbor Seal, by Fran Hodgkins.
For more on Edna St. Vincent Millay, read Poetry for Young People: Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Frances Schoonmaker. While reading Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford, I discovered that in 1939, Millay was under the care of Dr. Connie Guion for three weeks in New York Hospital. Guion, a graduate of Wellesley College, was a chemistry and physics teacher at Sweet Briar College from 1908 to 1913. For more on Dr. Guion, click here.