Books October 2001

Hustler with a lyric voice

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

It's rather ridiculous that these two volumes should collide at Barnes & Noble and in the Amazonian ether in the very same month. Epstein must be annoyed by the star machinery that's been revved for the long-awaited Milford book, already excerpted in Vanity Fair—a magazine for which Millay wrote pieces under the name Nancy Boyd. And one can bet that Milford is galled by seeing the latecomer Epstein piggyback onto her subject and her reviews. But that's what she gets for taking so long. Epstein got to the Millay papers after Norma died and they were transferred to the Library of Congress. He mentions Milford only as a "biographer whom [Norma] engaged to write a book in the 1970s," and Milford doesn't mention him at all. Epstein comes up with an early Nicaraguan lover (the poet Salomón de la Selva) whom Milford seems to have overlooked, and devotes a chapter to what he insists was Millay's financially draining interest in thoroughbred racing, an activity she kept quiet for reasons of image. But the reader of both books will come away with no appreciably different estimations of Edna St. Vincent Millay's life and work—both of which ended badly.

During the 1930s and 1940s Millay became more and more depressed and alcoholic, and then, after a painful auto accident, ferociously addicted to morphine. The dope-taking logs, kept mostly in Boissevain's handwriting and described by Milford, are harrowing.

The first notebook begins on Tuesday, September 28, 1943, and continues to Thursday, November 30. On the first day of their record keeping, "Vince," as Eugen called her, was taking what appears to be a total of 3 grains of morphine, starting at 7 A.M., then at 8:10, 9:20, 9:40, 10:30, 10:45, 12:45, 1, 2:15, 2:30, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7:15, 8:15, 9:30, 10:30, 12, 1, 1:30 A.M., when she finally sleeps.

In an act of uxorious folly Boissevain started using the drug too—in order to know Millay's suffering, Milford suggests; to show her how to withdraw, Epstein argues. Millay eventually did kick the habit, but booze undid her remaining health and confidence. She struggled to keep her humor and wit ("It may be said of me by Harper & Brothers, that although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances"), but the fifty-six-year-old woman that Edmund Wilson saw in 1948, for the first time in two decades, shocked him as much as the bloated latter-day Maria Beadnell had appalled Dickens upon their reunion. Wilson wrote,

She had so changed in the nineteen years that, if I had met her unexpectedly somewhere, I am sure I should not have known her. She had become somewhat heavy and dumpy, and her cheeks were a little florid. Her eyes had a bird-lidded look that I recognized as typically Irish, and I noticed for the first time a certain resemblance to her mother. She was terribly nervous; her hands shook; there was a look of fright in her bright green eyes.

Her poetry had gone downhill too. Except for a de rigueur sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s—marked by her wonderful appeal to the hanging governor Alvan T. Fuller: "There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight"—Millay was not terribly political. ("Economically," Epstein declares, "she was a proto-conservative, a natural capitalist.") Before and during World War II, however, she allowed herself to publish a lot of heartfelt, slack verse, often in newspapers, in behalf of American intervention and then the Allied war effort. Epstein does a good job with the motivating forces at work on her.

The poet for whom World War I had been little more than a disruption of her love life was truly wracked by the insane cruelty of World War II—because of her husband's relatives' suffering in Holland, and because the war rushed into a vacuum left in her by the flight of Eros. Her pain matched the world's; she was dying, and it appeared the world was dying, too.

Boissevain died in 1949, and Millay followed him a year later. She was fifty-eight. In a sort of poignant reversal of the Frost poem she was found, after a fall to the bottom of the stairs at Steepletop, by the hired man.

Millay retains a small, anomalous place in modern letters. Her sensibility was always more modern than her forms; reading her libertine sonnets today is a bit like reading Wilfred Owen's Tennysonian evocations of machine-gunned flesh. It makes sense that she excited the admiration of both Hardy and Housman, two rigorous poets outliving themselves into the prime time of modernism. As Epstein points out, that very ism, as practiced on this side of the ocean, could never be hospitable to Millay's subject (love) or stance (emotional): "The modernist temperament of Eliot, Moore, Frost, and Stevens shrank from such outpourings."

One gets a brief, amusing sense of how Millay estimated her literary contemporaries from copies of recommendation letters she wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation, some of which Milford quotes to great effect. Millay's evaluation of E. E. Cummings, for example, was blunt, mixed, and hilarious. It concluded,

What I propose, then, is this: that you give Mr. Cummings enough rope. He may hang himself; or he may lasso a unicorn. In any case it is high time we found out about this man Cummings. Let us give him every opportunity to show us at once whether he is a genius, a charlatan, or a congenital defective,—and get him off our minds.

Still, neither Milford's book nor Epstein's is fundamentally about Millay's work, and it could hardly be otherwise. Epstein says, "It is never wholly safe to deduce biography from poetry," but the days are long past when we even pretended to be operating in reverse, using the former to explain the latter. The old New Criticism has achieved its goal of divorcing the writer's life and work by a means, and to an extent, that it never imagined. Celebrity culture has done the job. Literature, like the movies and politics, is chiefly a means of producing life stories. In Millay's case there was probably never much chance of a sound critical estimation. Reviewing her Collected Sonnets in 1941, Rolfe Humphries declared that "her progress ... from legend to success somewhat confuses discussion of her merit as an artist." Don't count on the future to bring additional clarity. The next little Millay revival will take place in 2010, when some nude photographs of the poet, now embargoed in the Library of Congress, become available for publication.

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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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