Books October 2001

Hustler with a lyric voice

Edna St. Vincent Millay combined a modern sensibility with traditional forms
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She wrote, famously,

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!

Fifty-one years after her death a two-alarm biographical fire has Edna St. Vincent Millay once more ablaze, and intermittently illuminated. She was always good copy in life: one of The New Yorker's first profiles featured her, and objection to its tales and innuendoes ("Edna Millay likes almost anybody's parties") helped lead to the establishment of the magazine's fact-checking department. Like Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, Millay lived the kind of life now more associated with E!'s True Hollywood Story than with The New Oxford Book of American Verse, from which she was omitted in 1976. As the television program might say, she "came from nothing," and then she "had it all," and then she "threw it all away."

Edmund Wilson, who lost his virginity to Millay, once wrote,

Her poetry is not the work of a being for whom life could ever have been easy or gone along at a comfortable level. It will always give the lie to any too respectful biography ... but it will also always be there to make the casualties of her life seem unimportant.

The notion of a "too respectful biography" is now decidedly quaint. Even when these new lives, by Nancy Milford and Daniel Mark Epstein, verge on the worshipful, they're serving up grainy Polaroids from inside the temple. And even with a new Modern Library edition of the verse itself, one can forget about poetry trumping the casualties of Millay's life. The first rule of modern literary biography is that the life renders the work incidental; Milford and Epstein rarely break that rule.

Millay's hardscrabble turn-of-the-century beginnings were like a fairy tale. Three sisters—one blonde, one dark-haired, and one, the future poet, a redhead—were raised on the Maine coast by their careworn but dreaming mother, after she had banished their father, Henry. Cora Millay supported the girls by itinerant practical nursing and wigmaking, an activity one sees in Millay's tribute to her mother, "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver."

Many bright threads,
From where I couldn't see,
Were running through the harp-strings
Rapidly ...

Cora managed to provide the girls with music and books. Prone to self-dramatization, she prepared her daughters for their own star turns. The life of their uncle Charlie had been saved at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, so Cora's eldest girl wound up with the odd, beautifully dactylic name Ed'-na St.-Vin'-cent Mil-lay'. It would be no small contribution to her public success.

Cora had tried writing poetry herself. The youngest sister, Kathleen, would publish verse and fiction, and the middle one, Norma, would end up tending the flame (and papers) of "Vincent." Poorer than the real-life Mitfords, more difficult than the fictional Marches, the Millay women composed a remote, bracing female world in which Edna—before all the success and all the men and all the trouble—came to vivid life.

Throughout her girlhood she published poems in the children's magazine St. Nicholas, and by the age of sixteen, Milford claims convincingly, Millay had a genuine "sense of vocation" as a poet. Four years after that, in 1912, just when her life might have smothered itself in drudgery, her mother noticed the announcement of a lucrative poetry contest whose best entries would be published in a volume to be called The Lyric Year. The long poem Millay entered, "Renascence," would become for a time almost as often recited in some American schoolrooms as "The Highwayman" and "Hiawatha."

Millay actually lost the prize, probably by conducting what Epstein calls an "epistolary striptease" with one of the contest's judges, Ferdinand Earle, who began by assuming the author of "Renascence" ("E. Vincent Millay") to be a young man and then nearly lost his wife over his correspondence with a pretty girl up in Maine. Millay was learning to work both her talent and her ticket. Losing the prize brought her more fame than winning it would have, because established poets complained that her poem was obviously superior to all the others in the volume. Proceeding from a fantasy of suffocation ("awful weight! Infinity"), "Renascence" turns into a lyric cry of rebirth:

Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.

The poem had something—and it still does. Epstein sees the young Millay as holding a "vision of herself as both human and divine." She would remain a sort of ecstatic commuter between those two states in the best of the love poetry she went on to compose.

Shelley was an important influence, as was American advertising. Millay began mailing her picture to all the editors and poets who wrote to her after publication of The Lyric Year. A somewhat later image of her, caught by the photographer Arnold Genthe, in which she looks like a beautiful insect amid a tracery of magnolia branches, would perform the sort of retail seduction that has been achieved by photos of authors from Rupert Brooke to the young Joan Didion.

Millay knew how to interest older women as well as older men. Caroline B. Dow, who had heard her recite "Renascence" at the Whitehall Inn, in Camden, Maine, probably sublimated eros into patronage when she propelled the twenty-one-year-old poet toward a late arrival at the gates of Vassar College. Once there, already and forever the most famous girl in her class, she went to work on the younger students, becoming, Epstein says, "the queen of a cult of personality." She conducted, always on her own terms, lesbian affairs both crushy and carnal, meanwhile traveling down to New York for occasional trysts with the editor Arthur Hooley, whose taste for Swinburne seems evident in some of what Millay wrote during this period. She carried on a love-hate relationship with her "pink-and-gray college," whose rules she always broke in the hope of being first punished and then forgiven. (Epstein believes that she put Vassar on the map, but today she occupies no mythic place there. It is unlikely that more than a handful of the students listening to this past spring's commencement speaker, Stephen King, would have recognized her picture or her name, let alone a line she wrote.)

Once graduated, in June of 1917, she moved to the bohemian Greenwich Village of Max Eastman and John Reed, where she began her serious work in literature (the anti-war verse drama Aria da Capo) and romance. Millay lived with her sisters, performed with the Provincetown Players, and became involved with the dramatist Floyd Dell. At first she set up a neurotic tease: "We would now and then sit up in bed," Dell later remembered, "she with her lamp-lit torso and small firm breasts confronting me with impudent audacity while she defended platonic love against Freud." In giving in to Dell she appears to have crossed some sort of threshold, issuing the calm postcoital declaration "I shall have many lovers."

But even after she went seriously to town (she would ask the journalist Dorothy Thompson, "Dotty, do you think I am a nymphomaniac?"), Millay practiced some of the insecure cruelty that one finds in Thomas Hardy's Sue Bridehead, coaxing the fealty of suitors she had already rejected. Milford and Epstein both reconstruct the stiff little threesome that Millay designed one night for herself, Edmund Wilson, and his Vanity Fair colleague John Peale Bishop. "Sitting on her day bed," Wilson wrote in his notebook, "John and I held Edna in our arms—according to an arrangement [she] insisted upon herself—I her lower half and John her upper—with a polite exchange of pleasantries as to which had the better share." Millay was annoyed that their both being in love with her hadn't destroyed the young men's friendship. She devised an even more complicated geometry, lengthy and long-distance, for herself and Arthur Ficke (the poet for whom she wrote the sonnet "And you as well must die, beloved dust") and Ficke's friend the gay poet Witter Bynner.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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