Books October 2001

Hustler with a lyric voice

Edna St. Vincent Millay combined a modern sensibility with traditional forms

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.

Epstein calls her an actress in the bedroom, and Milford reports that she was one of those rare people who literally like the sound of their own voices. The two biographers seem to be in essential agreement on Millay's desire to control her lovers, often in the manner of a petulant, adored child—which is why Eugen Boissevain made such good husband material. A prosperous Dutch businessman, the widower of the Vassar suffragette Inez Milholland (famous for riding down Pennsylvania Avenue on a white horse), he was a natural soother and nurse; he rescued Millay during her first period of severe illness, as she was turning thirty-one and coming home from two years in Europe.

They married on July 18, 1923, two months after Millay had won the Pulitzer and hours before she was operated on for Crohn's disease and appendicitis. The combination of nuptials and the knife made for publicity of a very 1920s sort. (The unglamorous intestinal business was left out of the story.) The Boissevains settled into a handsomely renovated farmhouse (Steepletop) in the Berkshires at Austerlitz, New York. According to Epstein, who tends to hero-worship Millay's cultivated husband ("Master chef and connoisseur of wines ... sportsman, gardener, breeder of dogs and horses"), Boissevain's "mission at Steepletop was simply to make way for Millay's poetry." The couple's fidelity lasted about five years—but, as Milford points out, they went eleven without so much as a quarrel.

During this period Millay's work remained taut and successful, particularly a libretto for Deems Taylor's opera The King's Henchman; sales of the printed version proved as robust as the reviews. Her specialty, however, continued to be what Epstein calls the "erotic sonnet," and one such, "What lips my lips have kissed," makes for a terrible book title (Epstein's) but remains a very good poem, in which Millay fretfully mourned the "unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry."

While the great modernists were refracting themselves ever more obliquely into ever more elusive personae, Millay was a frail but flamboyant actual presence on hundreds of stages across the country. Milford brings her tiny frame back out in front of the lights, "dressed in a long gown of heavy creamy silk, her hair a flame of red." She packed them in, reciting without a microphone "in Masonic temples, at women's clubs, in university lecture halls, and at small colleges." Millay complained at one point to Boissevain that she felt "like a prostitute"—a sensation some thrill-seeking part of her no doubt relished.

The domestic contentments of an overcivilized marriage were in some ways more suited to prose, but an affair with the young poet George Dillon, begun when she was thirty-six and he twenty-one, left Millay, according to Epstein, "in perfect ecstatic condition to write love sonnets of longing, despair, and grandiose aspirations." Opposition from Boissevain might have provided even more stimulation, but he preferred to remain, to say the least, understanding. As the affair stretched on with the two lovers in Paris, he instructed his wife, "Settle down quietly, Edna, take a place for a year or come back here with him, do what you like ..." Any scolding he issued was more feminist than husbandly: "Is there any danger, Edna, that you are reverting to type, and becoming a regular woman, and losing interest in your work and yourself as a poet, and are just only interested in helping Him to be a poet ... [?]"

Actually, no. Before the affair had even reached its climax, Millay produced the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview (1931), with herself playing Selene to Dillon's Endymion. In a sonnet addressed to Boissevain, Millay turned his horns into laurels.

When failing powers or good opinion lost
Have bowed your neck, should you recall to mind
How of all men I honoured you the most,
Holding you noblest among mortal-kind;
Might not my love—although the curving blade
From whose wide mowing none may hope to hide,
Me long ago below the frosts had laid—
Restore you somewhat to your former pride?

As for the callow shepherd, after winning his own Pulitzer in 1932, for The Flowering Stone, Dillon never produced another book of poetry.

Presented by

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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