The photograph of the mutable Edna St. Vincent Millay that peers out from the cover of Nancy Milford’s new biography recalls the face of a Vermeer. But not a Vermeer painted in the likely way—upside down, via camera obscura, so the features and creamy surfaces come together abstractly, with the sweet extraterrestrial look of sainthood or Down’s syndrome. The portrait on the cover of Milford’s book, despite the tortured Flemish-flapper coif, beneath which sits the elegant bone structure and porcelain finish of a teapot, is mesmerizingly human: Millay’s unaverted gaze is seen right side up, captured not as a collection of abstract qualities but as part of the living, breathing features of a complex and elusive woman.
And so it is with Milford’s biography. Neither empirical nor worshipful, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay bears up under its twenty-odd years of research and deluge of detail to manage a rich, moving picture of a rich, moving target. Milford, the author of a celebrated biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, has assembled her portrait of Millay largely from bundles of documents kept for decades by Millay’s literary executor and less-than-industrious sister, Norma (who died in 1986 at the age of ninety-three). And sensitive to the literary significance of her subject and the impact of this biography in revisiting if not securing Millay’s historical importance, Milford’s decades of excavation and narrative piecework have paid off in something slightly—perhaps inevitably—disorganized as well as original and spellbinding.
Millay was the second renowned American poet to spend early years in a city called Camden, though hers was in Maine. She was petite, in-tense, bright, witty, romantic, freckled, auburn-haired, self-dramatizing, and beautiful. (As a poet friend recently remarked to me, “Why has Judy Davis not yet played her in the movie?”) At one time arguably the most famous living poet in the world, her work lauded by Thomas Hardy, Elinor Wylie, Edmund Wilson, Sarah Teasdale, and Louise Bogan, Millay lived stormily and wrote unevenly, so that her place in American letters was in descent even in her lifetime. In her day she was hailed as a feminist, lyric voice of the Jazz Age, yet she went largely unclaimed by the feminism of subsequent decades. She owned, perhaps, too many evening gowns. And her poems may have had an excess of voiceless golden birds (she did not strain for her metaphors; on her mantelpiece at home were two gold bird figurines, souvenirs from a trip to Asia). Her work could be occasionally modernist, but only occasionally, and so was not taken up by the champions of modernism, with their passion for Pound and for Eliot, of whom Millay once wrote a “murderous” satire. (Of E.E. Cummings she once wrote, “powerful writing (as well as some of the most pompous nonsense I ever let slip to the floor with a wide yawn).”)
Her reputation, despite her sharp critical mind, enormous popularity, and a Pulitzer Prize (she was the first woman to win one), suffered for these exclusions. A gifted formalist and prolific sonneteer, a literary heir to Donne, Wordsworth, Byron, and, well, Christina Rossetti, Millay today has been admired only slightly or reluctantly, if at all, her poetry viewed, sometimes by its detractors as well as its devotees, as anachronistic, unreconstructedly Victorian, sentimental, recycled. Even the critic Colin Falck, who writes in his ardent introduction to her Selected Poems that the “occulting of Millay’s reputation has been one of the literary scandals of the twentieth century,” nonetheless finds only a quarter of her poems worthy enough “to entitle her to consideration as one of the major poets of the century.” (Such lilting lyrics as “And better friends I’ll not be knowing! Still there’s no train I’d not get on no matter where it’s going” or “We were very tired, we were very merry—/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,” which would have burnished the lyrical reputation of such ironists as Bob Dylan or Philip Larkin, did not seem especially to add to hers.)
A quarter, however, is probably not bad, probably usual for a major poet, and in Millay’s case, probably high. One can see scattered throughout her poems—some weak and famous, some stronger and lesser known—enough elegant and beautiful lines, so that one wonders what she was thinking in the rest of the, too often, soggy poem. Her sonnets are especially susceptible to this: she wrote them as a short story writer constructs a story: with the end strongly in mind. Between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet, the latter, with its dramatic closing couplet, is sometimes considered the more vulgar of the two, and it was at these that Millay excelled. The pseudo-feminist “I shall forget you presently, my dear” closes cleverly: “But so it is, and nature has contrived/To struggle on without a break thus far,/Whether or not we find what we are seeking/is idle, biologically speaking.” “I think I should have loved you presently” ends with this rhythmic, mock mournfulness: “A ghost in marble of a girl you knew/Who would have loved you in a day or two.” Other of Millay’s endings involve such epigrammatic wisdom as “Let us go forth together to the spring;/Love must be this, if it be anything.” (“I pray you if you love me, bear my joy.”) And “Pity me that the heart is slow to learn/ What the swift mind beholds at every turn.” (“Pity me not because the light of day.”)
If she had gone into commercial song-writing, she might have been praised more enduringly as a poet. Among her more ad lib verse, “Wild Swans” and “Elegy” (from Memorial to D.C.) have particular strength. The former, one of her simplest, shortest, and best compositions, is straightforward and affecting in its swell of feeling and cry of exile:
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!
Contemporary critics often praise “Bluebeard,” a first-rate sonnet written sympathetically from the point of view of the merely private though disobeyed husband. (“…I must never more behold your face./This now is yours. I seek another place.”) Long before Anne Sexton’s Transformations, Millay was boldly looking twice at literature’s alleged villains and staking out radical positions for herself.
But Milford is mistaken that the mawkish and folksy “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” also a kind of fairy tale, and inspired by and dedicated to Millay’s mother, “is a terrific poem.” Its wearying twenty-nine stanzas begin:
“SON,” said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.”
And so on. Milford is understandably moved that last June in New York City she overheard two girls on MacDougal Street reciting it by heart. (Surely in that context one would be moved even to hear “There once was a lady from Niger.”) But that cannot change the quality of Millay’s too-mortal poem, the sentimental doggerel of which makes it probably indeed best suited to children. The poem’s attachment to themes of maternal self-sacrifice in the Millay family give it power for Milford, for whom, naturally, biographical readings are the interesting ones.
As a result we have, with Milford’s biography, the story of the life that eclipsed the work. It is a life that began in bookish poverty. Millay’s mother, an itinerant nurse and hairweaver (one is reminded slightly here of a Victorian update of the medieval barber-surgeon), also kept a roomful of books open as a kind of public reading space for the neighborhood schoolchildren; it was a larger and finer collection than that possessed by the local library.
Mrs. Millay herself, however, was rarely home. Her three beautiful daughters—a phrase already out of a fairy tale—largely looked after themselves. Constructing a childhood of work and magic, fusing chores with skits, they memorized and performed poetry and songs, enchanting all who heard, or almost all. Edna, the eldest, known as Vincent (after St. Vincent’s hospital, where a relative was convalescing at the time of her birth), or “Sefius” or “Sefe” to her mother, short for Josephus, for her role as alto and “son” and perhaps caretaker of the younger girls (the faux aliases the family concocted for themselves were a stewpot of loopy nicknames), was also the most beautiful, the most enchanting, and the most gifted. She was the leader of the sisters’ imaginative play as well as primary housekeeper. When the river in Camden overflowed and the weather turned cold, Milford tells us, “the kitchen floor flooded and froze and the girls gleefully ice skated across it.” (There is a melancholy echo of this game, in the last year of Millay’s life, when a caretaker at her upstate New York home of Steepletop recalls of the ill and recently widowed Millay, “I remember that I had to wax the floor and I asked her where the heavy polisher was to buff it. And she sort of smiled at me and, putting on her socks, she skated and danced across my freshly waxed floor, and did it shine!”)
Even as a girl, she calculated her effect and cut a magical figure. One childhood friend recalls her opening the door one evening dressed in
a blouse of white muslin with cuffs and boned collar made of rows of insertion edged with lace. A full gored skirt came to the tops of her buttoned boots; a patent leather belt circumscribed a wide equator around her tiny middle; and a big blue bow spread its wings behind her head where her hair was fastened in a “bun.” Books were piled on the floor from a table Vincent had cleared for games and in the center was a plate of still warm fudge.
When it came time to leave, she showed her guests to the door, lamp in hand, and taking up the refrain of the last song she’d sung for them, sang out, “Adieu, adieu, kind friends, adieu.” “She has built up so enormous an image of herself as the Enchanted Little Faery Princess,” recalled another friend much later in life. “She is the oddest mixture of genius and childish vanity, open mindedness and blind self-worship, that I have ever known.”
In American mythological terms, Millay’s is an actress’s childhood: drunken, absent father; divorced, ambitious stage mother; a dreamy desire for the theater manifest everywhere from her reinvented speech and musical numbers with her sisters to her passion for sewing and costumes (she was a lifelong clotheshorse; not for her the fate of the redhead resigned to only kelly green). All the while, she wrote—poems, stories, even two novels, one written when she was eight, the other at fifteen. (Eventually she would even write an opera, The King’s Henchman, which would have its première at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1927.) She read all of Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge and practiced and composed piano pieces. She was given early to dramatic recitations of the many poems she memorized, and she memorized her own poems first, composing them in her head, before she wrote them down, a habit she kept throughout her lifetime.