in Blog, Books

The Poet and Her Book: On Reading the Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Content warning: this post is full of poetry, sentimentality, and far too many stories about young Lise.

“I’m 80% Edna St. Vincent Millay by volume,” I’ve joked before. My friends know to share anything Millay on my Facebook timeline. I have a memorized line of hers for any occasion. It worms its way into my writing, in small and large ways.

(Just using Lioness as an example: the poet Merveil, that Yfre and Bizel quote at each other, for example, is very much based on her verse; Estevien describes his religious experience in a way very similar to the events of “Renascence”).

And really, this is no surprise. Her poetry was a tremendous part of my life, starting roughly in 1993, when I dug Mine the Harvest, her posthumous collection, out of a box of books my mom had taken out of the house of the poet George Abbe. (There’s a story there, but for another time). I was an impressionable age — thirteen — and so I eagerly read and reread every single poem in that volume. I don’t think I understood most of them at first; I don’t think I even understood how you were supposed to read line breaks in poetry, at the time.

And yet those verses spoke to me. They invoked my own blossoming interest (ha) in the natural world and my fascination with the mysteries of life and death.

This book, when I am dead, will be
A little faint perfume of me.
People who knew me well will say,
She really used to think that way.
I do not write it to survive
My mortal self, but being alive
And full of curious thoughts today
It pleases me somehow to say
This book when I am dead will be
A little faint perfume of me.

Excerpt from “Journal”, Mine the Harvest (1954)

So thoroughly did I take to it that later that year — tasked with making a poster to introduce me to eighth grade — I chose “Song” from that volume, and illustrated it with flowers cut out of a gardening catalogue. Maybe I hoped that there, like Edna’s “beautiful Dove”, I might be happy here; might even sing.

Later, I would discover other volumes that had been part of my life all along: A Few Figs from Thistles on my mom’s bookshelf, a book of collected poems in my high school library, a neglected copy of Poems Selected for Young People that I already had. I layered these together, took on the task of memorizing more intentionally, and was already well studied in her work by the time my mom gifted me with her Collected Poems in high school.

For the sake of some things
That be now no more
I will strew rushes
On my chamber-floor,
I will plant bergamot
At my kitchen-door.

For the sake of dim things
That were once so plain
I will set a barrel
Out to catch the rain,
I will hang an iron pot
On an iron crane.

Many things be dead and gone
That were brave and gay;
For the sake of these things
I will learn to say,
“An it please you, gentle sirs,”
“Alack!” and “Well-a-day!”

“Rosemary”, Second April (1921)

Somewhere in those years, I scribbled on the front page of that volume, “Oh, Edna; you won’t ease my troubles, but you do sympathize.” (Little did I know then that if I’d wanted to be really familiar, I should have called her Vincent).

When I was applying to Vassar, my essay spoke of my love for Millay and for Mary Oliver — both Vassar grads. (Oliver, I just learned recently, visited Steepletop when she was 17 and befriended Norma Millay, and apparently does a ton for Millay preservation. Why I am unsurprised?)

I learned over the years just how subversive Millay was — that she was almost certainly bi, that she and her husband Eugen had an open marriage, that she wrote frankly about sex at a time when women didn’t, etc — which only increased my love for her.

I

I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.

II

I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

“Assault”, Second April (1921)

I’m not sure when my mom — always my Millay dealer — gave me Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. Sometime in college, I am sure, because I remember it sitting on my bookshelf in my senior-year apartment.

And yet I just finished reading it.

It’s… not everything I could hope for, but it is quite good. Sometimes I feel like it’s withholding information I would dearly love to have — possibly my appetite for trivial details about Millay is unquenchable. Other times, I feel like it has reached biographical perfection, putting its finger on Millay’s heart. (And of course as I write that, I recognize the echo of “Renascence”).

How strange it seems
That of all words these are the words you chose!
And yet a simple choice; you did not know
You would not write again. If you had known–
But then, it does not matter, — and indeed
If you had known there was so little time
You would have dropped your pen and come to me
And this page would be empty, and some phrase
Other than this would hold my wonder now.
Yet, since you could not know, and it befell
That these are the last words your fingers wrote,
There is a dignity some might not see
In this, “I picked the first sweet-pea to-day.”
To-day! Was there an opening bud beside it
You left until to-morrow?–O my love,
The things that withered,–and you came not back!

Excerpt from “Interim”, Renascence and Other Poems (1917)

I wanted to know, for example, how somebody as young as Millay could write something with the crushing grief of “Interim.” There are mentions of it in the biography, letters from Vassar to her mother and sisters, talking about entering it in a contest — but that’s about it. I want to know: is it biographical? Had she lost someone in this abrupt way? Who?

Or, I wanted some speculation on the sickness that kept her abed for nearly a year in the early 1930s. The letters she wrote through her husband talk of seeing the world as if there’s a mesh in front of her eyes, of terrible migraines. There are no answers to those questions contained in the book, and her headaches seem to suddenly go away when she rushes off to Paris to be with George Dillon.

The book also stops abruptly with her death — found with her neck broken, having fallen down the stairs at Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, NY. It doesn’t even mention that later it was ruled that a heart attack was what caused the fall and probably her death.

I also find myself frustrated with the obstruction of Millay’s sister, Norma, who clearly revised the narrative of her sister’s life over the years. There’s only this biography of Millay, perhaps because Milford was the only person who was able to sufficiently placate Norma! Even then, Milford says that everything she took out of Steepletop, Norma insisted on “interpreting” for her. It seems like Milford dealt with this as best she could; Norma manages to be a not-entirely transparent narrator. It’s not her biography — but her presence, her take on Millay’s life, still casts a hue on the story.

I wonder, sometimes, of the elision of these points is intentional. During her life, Millay was asked to put out a volume of her love poems with her notes on who each of them was about (!) She refused, although she joked to her publisher that she “reject[ed] your proposal but appreciate your advances.” She gets offended when Arthur Ficke asks her if a particular sonnet was written to him; only on his deathbed does she admit that yes, it is. (“And you as well must die, beloved dust/and all your beauty stand you in no stead”). I think Milford possibly understood this well, and stopped short of this sort of voyeurism. (Although, maybe not in the choice to include some of Eugen’s smutty letters… burn all the letters, indeed).

The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried;
Now granite in a granite hill.

The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear;
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!—
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

“The Courage That My Mother Had”, Mine the Harvest (1954)

But then there are the moments when the biography sings. The story of how Millay and Eugen drove her mother’s body home from Maine, for example — with the goal of burying it among the mountain laurels on the hills above Steepletop. How the ground was frozen solid and they had to dynamite, and the sound of it boomed over the hills for days. “Now granite in a granite hill,” indeed.

Another moment involves the wife of Millay’s brother-in-law, Charlotte Boissevain. They didn’t get along when Millay and Eugen were staying at their house on Cap d’Antibes; later, Milford interviews Charlotte Boissevain about the event. This bit from the interview struck me:

“Standing before her bookcase with its signed copies of first editions of novels by her friend Rebecca West and by Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells, [Charlotte] began to speak, pointing to a book of Millay’s poems inscribed to them both: ‘There. There is as much as she’s ever written to me, to us — her words are precious, to Edna. And how do I see her? Edna — with a wall around her.'”

This felt like a perfect description of the intense loneliness of being a writer. (There, her echo, too; I think of “intense and terrible — I think — must be the loneliness of infants”).

Those hours when happy hours were my estate, —
Entailed, as proper, for the next in line,
Yet mine the harvest, and the title mine —
Those acres, fertile, and the furrows straight,
From which the lark would rise — all of my late
Enchantments, still, in brilliant colours, shine,
But striped with black, the tulip, lawn and vine,
Like gardens looked at through an iron gate.
Yet not as one who never sojourned there
I view the lovely segment of a past
I lived with all my senses, well aware
That this was perfect, and it would not last:
I smell the flower, though vacuum-still the air;
I feel its texture, though the gate is fast.

“Those hours when happy hours were my estate…”, Mine the Harvest (1954)

What is funny to me is how often Millay is viewed as this saucy jazz baby poetess. She rebelled strenuously against that notion; she fears, as she gets older, that she will be never be taken seriously, that “mature” Millay will be disdained. And yet every article that appears about her in the press, it seems, infantilizes her further, describing her clothing and how “doll” or “child”-like she looks, even into her fifties.

But for me — it wasn’t early Millay I fell in love with. It was that exquisite observation that Mine the Harvest is full of, a sort of natural philosophy through poetry, written almost entirely in her last year of life. It’s bitter to think of her during that time: her husband dead of lung cancer, alone except for housekeepers and gardeners. But also sweet: finally having overcome her morphine addiction, writing her best verse.

Mature Millay was beautiful, and that time period was so short-lived. I wanted to dwell longer there. And that, regrettably, is not something Milford’s biography allows.

I will continue, then, to make of my own life a memorial to her.

Stranger, pause and look;
From the dust of ages
Lift this little book,
Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die!
Search the fading letters, finding
Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

Excerpt from “The Poet and His Book”, Second April (1921)

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