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Burning at Both Ends

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.

This habit of public recitation was responsible for an early turning point in her life when, at twenty, she presented her own poetry at a summer hotel where her sister Norma worked, and a potential benefactress, Caroline Dow, became smitten and promised to send her to Vassar (Vincent was also offered, by another benefactress, free tuition to Smith, which she turned down). Such was her magical effect on people. There was no protracted, lonely obscurity for her: almost from the beginning she was noticed and sponsored. Even when her first famous poem, “Renascence,” did not win a prize in the then widely read journal The Lyric Year, it became a kind of cause célèbre because it hadn’t, various readers and poets registering their dissent, and the actual first-place winner refusing his prize money. Millay’s failure to win the contest had been preceded by a long, coquettish, perhaps scandalous, correspondence with one of the editors and judges, Ferdinand Earle, which, her brazen flirtation in the end leading nowhere useful, concluded with her writing to him in bitter disappointment:

Let me congratulate you on your convincing impersonation of a genuine man…. How can I be expected to understand a person who got his education in France, his business-methods in Siberia, his behaviour in vaudeville, and his brains in a raffle?

It is a loss to the occasion of this mini-revival of Millay that her correspondence, first published in part in the Fifties by her sister Norma, has not also been issued, for Millay’s prose is sparkling and fierce—on a par with Dorothy Parker’s, to whom she was occasionally, in her time, compared.

Although she was already twenty when she started college, and therefore older than the others, among the young Vassar girls, too, Millay became a kind of pet. Girls fell in love with her and it was with them she first began—necessarily or gratuitously (Millay’s cruelties are hard to categorize)—breaking the hearts of people infatuated with her. She was a master of the sudden distance, as well as the sudden intimacy, but she was also a discreet and loyal friend, which, if her lovers could forgivingly manage such a friendship—and Edmund Wilson, later on, was one of these—proved a lifelong reward. Strong-willed and ambivalent about student life that did not involve her poetry, Millay bore up under the strictures of Vassar and the sternness of the hypermanagerial Miss Dow, her benefactress, though not without bumpiness. Millay was already famous and feeling hemmed in by the regulations of the college. For skipping classes she was both rescued and reprimanded by Vassar’s president—“I don’t want any dead Shelleys on my doorstep” he said to her. “On those terms,” she replied cockily, “I think I can continue to live in this hellhole.” “I hate this pink-and-gray college,” she wrote in a letter to a friend:

If there had been a college in Alice in Wonderland it would be this college…. They treat us like an orphan asylum…. I am thinking seriously of going to the University of Moscow, and taking a course in Polite Anarchy & Murder as a Fine Art.

Her brief suspension shortly before graduation was met with much protest from admiring students and professors. She had been the star of all the class plays, and written two herself. She was a kind of beloved student queen and had trouble deferring to anyone, doing pretty much as she pleased. “I want you different from the usual type of poet who claims a freedom bordering on license,” Miss Dow wrote her scoldingly, when Millay missed a meeting with one of Dow’s distinguished friends. Throughout her life people initially saw in Millay what they wanted to see, then later were disabused. When her first book was published, Millay sent one to Miss Dow, only to receive this stinging note:

Of course I am happy to have an “author’s copy,” and hope it is only the beginning of better things…. If I had not heard from several sources how bored you have been in the atmosphere of our home, I would have been glad to have you bring Norma up to dinner some time—but I hesitate to suggest a return to a place which seems to have been dull.

She added, paradoxically, that Millay would always be as welcome as when “we were all you had.”

After Vassar, Millay headed for Greenwich Village, where she wrote and, along with her sisters and mother, performed with the Provincetown Players. Her play, Aria da Capo, which she directed, was a resounding success. She traveled to France, England, and Albania, and helped keep things afloat financially by writing pseudonymously for Vanity Fair under the name of Nancy Boyd, reporting and advising on the social scene around her. Her many lovers included the most attractive of her political and artistic crowd: Floyd Dell, Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, probably Jack Reed, probably Malcolm Cowley. (She also had an affair with Thelma Wood, Djuna Barnes’s lover, earning Barnes’s lifelong jealousy, and once made a pass at Georgia O’Keeffe, which was rebuffed.) Wilson strangely attributed Millay’s promiscuity to her having had a delayed start on sex: this despite her many lovers at Vassar (he didn’t count girls) and despite that he was a virgin himself before he met Millay (who was his age) and so had gotten a much later start than she—inconsequentially, one imagines.

But maybe too much generally has been made of Millay’s love affairs—Daniel Mark Epstein, in a strange arithmetical moment in his biography of Millay, puts the official count at one hundred, with the implication that the unofficial tally would be much higher. The most important person in her life was not really any of them. Nor was it exactly her mother—though this is occasionally asserted by her biographers, and certainly there was an intensity and love between Millay and her mother, who, however, often seems more like yet another admirer, steeped in yearning, her letters to her daughter full of a lover’s phrases and begging. The hardworking and literate Cora Millay had been for Vincent less a mother than a sister, coach, and friend. She kept close tabs on Vincent’s work and publications and even competed with Vincent in poetry contests, being something of a poet herself. (This close mother–daughter literary bond is perhaps rivaled in American letters only by Carson McCullers and her mother, who was sometimes suspected of writing her young daughter’s work. Neither Epstein nor Milford report any such suspicion here, though it is interesting to note that in both McCullers’s and Millay’s case the writer’s work went into conspicuous decline after the mother’s death.)

Cora shared with everyone else an undying infatuation with Vincent—she was at times less stage mother than president of the fan club—wondering, it seemed, how she, a mere mortal, could have given birth to such a goddess. But she was not without her own ego vis-à-vis her daughter, once writing, “We all know the poet who shot into fame/As Edna St. Vincent Millay,/But who was the poet who gave her the name/Of Edna St. Vincent Millay?” Vincent perhaps did as much to care for Cora later on in life—bringing her to Paris, buying her a house—as Cora had ever done for her. Edmund Wilson’s recollection of Vincent’s mother included her once saying that she “had been a slut herself so why shouldn’t her girls be?” Wilson found Mrs. Millay shocking but felt that, even more than with Edna, Cora had “passed beyond good and evil… and that she had attained there a certain gaiety.”

Perhaps it would not have been possible for her daughters to love Cora in any conventional way. Their adult protectiveness toward her was more likely a forgiving cover for her prior maternal negligence. She was at times hectoring and emotionally demanding. She had sent their father away, divorcing him, after developing a crush on a local minister. She consigned to her eldest astonishing quantities of housework. She gave her daughters a book on witchcraft, which in the absence of parental care became a kind of bible to them. She was a self-invented herbalist who made Vincent quite ill with a potion designed for homemade abortions. The daughters vied for her attention, courting her and looking after her, but when, as an older woman, she became more available to them, they plotted their little escapes from her. When Vincent writes to her, “We all love you better than anything, just as we did when we were little kids,” one hears more obligation and desperation and hollowly constructed reassurance than truth.

No, surely the great love of Millay’s life—and the great mother—was her husband, the Dutch aristocrat Eugen Boissevain, whose former wife was the suffragist Inez Milholland (also a Vassar graduate, who died tragically at twenty-eight). Boissevain was, according to Millay’s brother-in-law, “the solution to a lot of problems” for Millay. He was “the mother type” and in terms of continuous devotion and care a more effective parent to Millay than her own parents ever were. As literary husbands go, even Leonard Woolf may pale by comparison. Boissevain loved caring for Millay and boasted of it—he called her “Vince”—just as Millay boasted, “I have nothing to do with my household. Eugen does all that kind of thing…. I have no time for it. I want to go into my dining room as if it were a restaurant, and say, ‘What a charming dinner!’ It’s this unconcern with my household that protects me from the things that eat up a woman’s time and interest.”

Millay and Boissevain married when she was scheduled for intestinal surgery and his official spousal status was required for visitation. They gathered together with a few witnesses at his house in Croton-on-Hudson, she threw mosquito netting over her head for a veil, and immediately afterward they drove to New York Hospital. It was an open marriage (each had affairs known to the other; hers with the poet George Dillon seems even to have been actively encouraged by Boissevain) but theirs remained nonetheless a close and rancorless union. As he had squired his first famous wife on her speaking tours, Boissevain accompanied and nursed Millay on her grand, whistlestop readings (she read to nothing but packed houses), and generally saw her through illness, spiritual crises, and family dramas, especially with her youngest sister Kathleen, who was by then severely alcoholic. When they hit financial difficulties Boissevain remained characteristically buoyant. He wrote to his brother that he was down to his last dollar but needed it for magic tricks. (Millay’s wit too remained undeterred by money issues: she wrote of her publishers, from whom she borrowed large sums, “although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances.”)

When her husband died, during surgery for lung cancer, Millay was, of course, devastated. Her own actual death—a fall down the stairs—seems a drunken suicide (she was not without such tendencies), a leap that perhaps echoes her having been “thrown” from a car in a Florida accident years before, after she lost a manuscript in a hotel fire. (“O Florida. O, cold Florida! Could any state be horrida?” she joked afterward.) When her back injury from the car accident led subsequently to morphine addiction, Eugen kept close and helped record her alarming dosages (these notebooks Milford calls “among the most troubling and pitiful documents in American literary history”); he even tried the drug himself to attempt to understand her dependence on it.

A contemporary reader of the lives of Millay and her peers will be struck by how much alcohol and drug intake was required of these sensitive Victorians turned Jazz Agers in negotiating their own pain, psychic and otherwise, in a fast-changing age of loosened mores. (Millay was considered successfully detoxed when the nurses got her breakfast down to tea, toast, and claret.) It was ultimately husbandly love that was Millay’s ballast, and on her own after her husband’s death she died within a year, found in a bloody heap at the foot of her stairs with three lines circled in a poem she’d been writing. “I will control myself, or go inside. I will not flaw perfection with my grief. Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.”

In the end Millay’s life seems a love story of a different kind than indicated really by her poetry (“I shall forget you presently, my dear” or “My candle burns at both ends”). This is quite forcefully arrived at by Milford at the conclusion of her biography, and acknowledged to a lesser degree by Epstein, whose book, finally, is of a different sort. Epstein does many things quite well—he is more organized than Milford and more intent than she on recording what Edmund Wilson called Millay’s “dedicated and noble presence.” Milford’s sources seem more often to recall Millay’s vanities, and so in this way Epstein’s book is less catty, more adoring, more literary and generous—more what Wilson himself might have written. He attends better to the poetry than Milford does, and has a good ear for Millay’s best work, even if he occasionally overstates (“Renascence,” written when Millay was only twenty, may be precocious, but is it really a “marvel of twentieth-century poetry”? Did neither Eliot, Moore, Frost, nor Stevens produce three love poems comparable to Millay’s?)

Epstein hasn’t missed Millay’s love of the racetrack (she was an enthusiastic gambler) the way Milford has, and he is better at certain background information, such as Boissevain’s life before Millay. But his book is also stranger and cheesier, as when he seems to turn the young Vincent into the precious heroine of a young adult novel, presuming her interior thoughts and motives, assembling his prose as narrative (“Her hands were small, but she stretched them strenuously each day over the piano keys, praying that they might grow”), even referring to her as “our heroine.”

To be fair, there are parts even of Leon Edel’s brilliant biography of Henry James that verge on something similar; such intimate but fictional fashioning is a hazard of biographical obsession. Epstein, however, may not always have put obsession to good use. He is a little startling, for example, on the subject of Millay’s naked breasts, about which he exults—photographs of which he has apparently pored over in the files of the Library of Congress (which cannot authorize their release and reproduction until the year 2010). When he gives us his own feverish descriptions, readers may become a little frightened, but eventually he moves on, and I do believe everyone recovers. Such an instance does not, however, prevent him from other periodic overheatings ( “Her coloring, the contrast between her white skin and the red integuments, lips, tongue, and more secret circles and folds her lovers would cherish, had become spectacular after the girl turned twenty”), which if they do not actually singe and bubble the page, at least prompt a reviewer’s exclamation marks in the margins. Epstein’s index includes multiple entries for Millay’s physical appearance: “physical appearance: body”; “physical appearance: hair”; “physical appearance: mouth”; “physical beauty and charisma.” Plus, quite pointedly, “power to drive men mad.”

Milford’s biography, on the other hand, remains poised and employs an unusual bicameral structure that has been criticized by some reviewers, but which in fact is part of the book’s great strength and originality. Once per chapter or so she interrupts the main biographical account with ongoing conversations she as biographer had with Millay’s sister Norma (and Norma’s husband) in the 1970s and 1980s, during the book’s research at Steepletop. In these metatextual moments Norma Millay emerges as a brilliant character herself—eccentric, witchy, funny, balky—not a coauthor of the biography, but a kind of cospirit behind it. Together with the stunning Eugen Boissevain, these two almost threaten, as characters, to upstage the portrait of Edna Millay the book is trying to bring into light. As when the vivid minor characters of a Dickens novel begin to engage the reader more than the protagonist does, it is a delightful, accidental, and never wholly fatal problem for an author to have.

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