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 …