Edna St. Vincent Millay
(1892 - 1950)
September 17, 2001
A New Day for Ms. Millay
Still tacked above Nancy Milford's desk in Greenwich Village is a photo of two women taken 20 years ago. One is Milford; the other's a sharp-eyed old lady with cascading white hair. It's Norma Millay, who, after years of denying other scholars, allowed Milford to plow into the thousands of letters and notebooks of her sister Edna St. Vincent Millay that form the basis of the new biography of the poet, "Savage Beauty." To call this book "long awaited" is a gross understatement: Milford first approached Norma in 1972. The author was fresh from the huge success of "Zelda," a groundbreaking biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife that brought to sympathetic light a woman who'd been buried by conventional literary history. Since then, Milford, now 63, has gone through two publishers and several editors – and is utterly unapologetic about the three decades she spent on this project. “I needed the sustaining juice of a real life”, she says – a life that included three children, a divorce, teaching stints at major universities and a two-year Fullbright in Istanbul. “And there was a sort of buoyancy in the research”.
Milford’s long dig into the poet’s life is sure to reignite interest in Millay’s poetry. (There’s also another new biography, “What Lips my Kips have kissed”, by Daniel Marl Epstein.) Even by the time of her dead in 1950 – she pitched down the stairs one night and broke her neck, at the age of 58 – Edna St. Vincent Millay had drifted out of fashion. But everybody remembered these prophetic lines:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!
Her life was an incendiary cocktail of literary ambition, fame, sexual adventure and addiction. In 1932, she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry; the public, fascinated by her passionate, provocative verse, flocked to her cross-country reading tours as if she were a pop star.
The oldest of three sisters, Millay was raised in poverty in Maine by a mother determined to foster her children’s talents. Edna’s first poems were published when she was still a teenager; they won her a patron, who sent her to Vassar, where she had her first love affair, with a woman. In the ‘20s, she lived a bohemian life in Greenwich Village and a more glamorous life in Paris, mingling with jazz-age figures like Edmund Wilson, who fell hopelessly in love with her. She was charismatic: small, with pale skin and flaming red hair, and a perpetual girlishness that made her underlying sexiness even sexier. Eventually, she married and accommodating man who did everything for her, including the cooking. Her painful love affair with a much younger poet, George Dillon, fueled some of her greatest sonnets – and took place right under her husband’s nose.
If all the detail Milford unearthed sometimes threatens to swamp the story, it also gives this portrait its richness, complexity and wit. Not every biographer would tell us about a poet’s fashion obsessions (“I love my little black satin slippers with the rhinestones buckles”). Or count the empty booze bottles (28 in one month). But Milford nicely beaks up her narrative by fast forwarding to the white-haired Norma, years later, Scotch in hand, talking about her dead sister. Norma, who died in 1986, becomes a one-woman chorus to this tragedy – sometimes flirty, sometimes elusive, not unlike Edna herself.
Edna Milley isn’t easy to like. She slept with her friend’s husbands, she was narcissistic and self-destructive. But after nearly 30 years of living her parallel life, Milford is adamant: “I liked her”, she says. “There were times I just didn’t get it exactly. I had to work through that. But she took radical political positions that were rather noble. And I read her, strangely enough, as if she were a contemporary”. Milford has edited a volume of Millay’s poems for the Modern Library. Recent generations of feminists have had to settle for literature sexual liberation by writers like Erica Jong – or Candace Bushnell. How much better to return to Edna:
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away…
P O E T R Y
February 12, 2013
Read this article, here
Thesis: Make Bright the Arrows, by Olga T. Brichto, B.A. Georgetown University, here
She bedded countless men (and women) and became the most celebrated woman of her day. She wasn't a rock star -- she was poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
By Laura Miller
Read these two articles, here
Late in her career, a celebrated poet sodden with drink and drugs, Edna St. Vincent Millay would often remain in her study while her husband entertained the evening's guests. Occasionally a visitor would be summoned for an audience and find her crumpled in a big armchair, tears in her eyes, whimpering that her talent had run dry, that young men no longer fell in love with her, that her life had lost its bearings. One such visitor remembered that he protested and praised her work, even begged her to read a poem. No, Millay pleaded, everything she had written, especially the most recent work, was worthless. You read them, she begged through her tears. The visitor read the new pages aloud. Millay began to smile. Enthralled, the visitor exclaimed how beautiful the poems were. Again tears, this time of joy, came to Millay's eyes. She took the poems and began reading them herself, and when she was done, she kissed him.
Self-dramatization is at the heart of the erotic autobiography Millay made of her poems, and it dominated her life as well, as Nancy Milford vividly shows in her riveting and revealing biography, ''Savage Beauty.'' Milford, the author of a life of Zelda Fitzgerald, parses Millay's playacting as the genius, the hokum, the edgy bravado and manipulative heartache it all was. People who do not read poetry will think of Millay's story as the archetypal Poet's Life -- the obscure beginnings, the firework rise to fame, the flouting of convention, the tangle of sex and drugs, the haywire slump, the forsaken end. People who do read poetry, on the other hand, and who know that the workings of the imagination are more complex, probably now dismiss Millay as a mediocrity. Both kinds of readers should come away from Milford's book with their understanding of Millay deepened and charged.
Born in 1892 on the coast of Maine, Millay grew up acting. Her father decamped when she was 8, and her mother, a visiting nurse, was usually away on assignment. The three daughters -- Edna, the eldest, Norma and Kathleen, all born within four years -- were left on their own, each assigned tasks they made into games. It was a pinched and lonely childhood, and prompted Millay to create in her diary imaginary parents and friends, romantic figures representing the security she lacked and the escape she longed for. She came to life in local theatricals; she was eager to put over her lines, to work for applause. At the same time, she worked intently on her writing. She started a novel at the age of 8, and at 16 she carefully wrote out dozens of poems in a brown copybook and presented to her mother the ''Poetical Works of Vincent Millay.''
Her mother, Cora, was clearly the driving force in Millay's early life, always in the wings. She was possessive and competitive, selfless and encouraging. But there was no money to send the prodigy to college, so Millay reluctantly, dreamily kept house -- and somehow wrote, at the age of 20, the poem that catapulted her to national attention, ''Renascence.'' At her mother's urging she had submitted it to a competition, and it was included among the finalists in ''The Lyric Year,'' but, though clearly superior to the rest of the book, was not awarded the top prize. Readers protested. Newspaper columnists took up the story. Millay was an instant cause celebre. And when, at a party in Maine, she read the poem in her seductive contralto, a guest was so taken with the young woman's talent that she offered to finance her education at Vassar.
As she had entranced her sponsor, a stout, wealthy matron, so too she dazzled her privileged classmates with her headstrong, passionate brilliance. She was small, intense, pale, with hair the color of fire. She was quickly invited to literary salons in Manhattan, where Louis Untermeyer remembered her reciting her early poems: ''There was no other voice like hers in America. It was the sound of the ax on fresh wood.'' Millay cut a wide swath at Vassar as well. She knew she had a power to attract, and she used it to advance her prospects. ''People fall in love with me,'' she wrote, ''and annoy me and distress me and flatter me and excite me.'' And she responded in kind, indulging in torrid affairs with several young women. At the same time, she flirted with older men who might help her career. As Milford notes, her reckless role-playing ''lay at the heart of her character; her fierce instinct for self-protection was the iron in her blood.'' She would do what she must to create the conditions necessary to accomplish her work. It is also worth noting a letter her sister Norma wrote to her at Vassar but never sent, desperate because she had just nine cents left to run the house. Millay, generous all her life with her family, was determined to flee its sorry state.
After Vassar, she set herself forth as the nymph of Greenwich Village. Her first book was published in 1917 and made her the talk of the town. She acted with the Provincetown Players, drank and partied and had affairs. Floyd Dell, Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop and Arthur Davison Ficke were just the first names on a long list. She wrote an antiwar play, ''Aria da Capo,'' that was a stunning, sold-out success, and was meanwhile writing poems -- wild, cold, elusive -- that the jazz babies found intoxicating. One of them became what Milford rightly calls ''the anthem of her generation'':
burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light!
The Roaring Twenties are a bright blur: Millay's promiscuity with men and women, abortions, adoring crowds, reading tours, long stays abroad where she might be tramping through Albania or dining with Brancusi in Paris and sitting for Man Ray. The books come regularly, and in 1923 she becomes the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. All these adventures, all the notoriety and adulation lead Milford to see Millay as our 20th-century Byron. But finally there came a point when, in the words of her onetime lover Edmund Wilson, ''she was tired of breaking hearts and spreading havoc.'' In 1923 she met and married Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch coffee importer 12 years her senior. After more travel in the Far East, the couple found an old farm in Austerlitz, N.Y., named it Steepletop, and moved in for life.
You sense what attracted the neurasthenic Millay to Boissevain when you read Max Eastman's description of him as ''handsome and muscular and bold, boisterous in conversation, noisy in laughter, yet redeemed by a strain of something feminine that most men except creative geniuses lack.'' Certainly he was a devoted and patient husband. He mothered Millay, intent on providing her the quiet she needed. He saw her through reading tours and hospital stays. He worked the farm, kept the accounts, arranged their social life. But in time his magnanimity was sorely tested.
Millay continued to work hard but slowly. She wrote the libretto for Deems Taylor's opera, ''The King's Henchman,'' which had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927; it received 17 curtain calls and went on a 30-city tour. New poems were always on the drafting table. Her life with Boissevain seemed stable. Then, in 1928, in Chicago, during one of her reading tours, she was introduced to a 22-year-old sapless poet named George Dillon. By the next afternoon, Millay had written him a sonnet that swooned over ''This love, this longing, this oblivious thing, / That has me under as the last leaves fall.'' The first thing she did after they became lovers was to tell her husband. Dillon tried to slip away from Millay's intensity, and the distance he kept from her Millay herself filled with the poems that became her best collection, ''Fatal Interview.'' It was eventually published in 1931, and within months -- at the height of the Depression -- the book had sold 50,000 copies.
not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.
The romance seemed to sputter and Millay returned to her husband. But her fixation with Dillon smoldered. They rendezvoused in Paris, and this time Millay wrote to Boissevain that she was not coming home -- protesting her fidelity all the while. Boissevain was no fool and tried by letter to befriend Dillon, even draw him into a menage. Meanwhile, month after month he waited at Steepletop, alone, gallantly pleading for his wife to return. And eventually she did. She had simply worn Dillon out. He had been an odd fish from the start: all profile, weak-willed, possibly homosexual.
When she arrived home, the scandalmongers having been at work, Millay was even more legendary. On Christmas 1932, she inaugurated a series of nationwide radio broadcasts, reading her poems. For women, she made complicated passion real; for men, she made it alluring. The triumphal chariot rolled on, but reviews of her work were growing more mixed. Her critics resented her popularity, but in truth her work -- except for flashes of lightning -- was dimming. Fate itself seemed to be greasing the slippery slope. While vacationing with her husband in Florida to finish a new book, their hotel burned down, her manuscript in the ashes. In 1936, a freakish car accident left her in severe pain. She began withdrawing from her friends and from the public. Her health, often frail, deteriorated, though she roused herself to make one last reading tour in 1939.
With the war closing in, her strong social conscience, which had earlier fired her to campaign on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, now impelled her to enlist in the cause of Allied propaganda. She exhausted herself with hackwork. This culminated in 1942, when Nazi troops razed the Czech village of Lidice and murdered or deported its inhabitants. The Writers' War Board asked Millay for a poem. ''The Murder of Lidice,'' in an elaborate NBC broadcast, was heard all across the nation and beamed by shortwave to millions in Europe.
That was nearly the last time she could summon the strength to write with concentration and power. For several years, in fact, she had been a drug addict. Millay's final decade is the part of ''Savage Beauty'' that will most fascinate and appall. Milford is unsparing, and her account of Millay's decline becomes a sad parable of helplessness. Boissevain took her to hospitals and rehabilitation centers, and at one point even took drugs himself to be closer to her sufferings. Nothing worked for long. Milford reprints a chart that Millay kept, to chasten herself, of one day's intake: morphine, two gin rickeys, one martini, a beer, and half a pack of cigarettes -- all this before lunch. As matters spiraled out of control, she kept herself awake day and night rather than miss her hourly morphine injections. And to this she added Nembutal, Benzedrine, Demerol, Seconal, luminal sodium, phenobarbitol, codeine, insulin and nervosine. Her intake, she wrote, ''is too much, but not discouraging, considering how many different kinds of pain I have.''
She finally eased off the drugs, but not the alcohol. Under Boissevain's care, she even began to write again. But her spirit was broken. Puffy and dumpy and slow, she must have looked like Eurydice back from the underworld. Suddenly Boissevain was told he had lung cancer and, after emergency surgery, died during the summer of 1949. Millay fell into a deep depression and for another year more or less went through the motions of life. The night of Oct. 18, 1950, she was alone at Steepletop, reading and making notes. After she went up to bed, leaving her bottle of wine on the staircase, she smoked a couple of cigarettes, took a sleeping pill and then for some reason returned to the staircase. At some point, she pitched forward, down the stairs, breaking her neck. She was 58. In her notebook, it was discovered that she had penciled a ring around the last three lines of a new poem she had drafted:
control myself, or go inside.
I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.
This biography, as Milford reports, has been 30 years in the making. A nearly heroic patience has been lavished on the gathering of letters, drafts and even unknown poems, of interviews and documents, of facts small, large and previously hidden. Certainly ''Savage Beauty'' sweeps before it all previous biographies of Millay, which by contrast seem uninformed and too discreet. Still, there are flaws in this book. One annoying tic is that Milford regularly interrupts her narrative with her memories of encounters with the poet's sister Norma, the coy keeper of the flame, whom Milford had both to court and contain. And Milford's camera is too often locked on close-up; her angle on Millay lacks the wider social and historical perspectives that give a life, if not its shape, then its shadows.
But these problems are as nothing next to the perilous fault that runs right down the middle of ''Savage Beauty.'' A writer's life is lived not in bed or on the road but at the desk. Milford never convincingly explores what made and unmade Millay as a poet -- the books she read, the poets she imitated, the craft she learned and adapted, the literary discussions she had, the virtues or errors that distinguish her work, how individual poems were put together and why. She skirts the fact that Millay was writing old-fashioned lyrics in the face of modernism's iron strictures and is skittish of the art beyond her subject's celebrity. Instead, she is a critic of the and-then-she-wrote school, with none of the literary finesse that makes biographies by, say, Richard Ellmann or Walter Jackson Bate so exemplary. In seeking to illuminate the woman's life, Milford has obscured the artist's work. Only if this book sends readers back to the poems themselves will Milford have rescued Millay as a poet and not lovingly embalmed her as a personality.
It seems ironic that just as this definitive, long-labored-over biography finally appears, an upstart rival is simultaneously published. Beside Milford's patient, scrupulous account, Daniel Mark Epstein's ''What Lips My Lips Have Kissed'' seems a hasty sketch, short on narrative detail, long on overheated enthusiasm, dubious speculation and slapdash style. He claims to have based his book in part on a trove of papers in the Library of Congress. It is hard to think that anything could have escaped Milford's diligence, and in any case the only revelation here, overlooked by Milford, is the extent of Millay's passion for racehorses. Under the circumstances, it looks merely like another of the poet's addictions.
But Epstein, himself a poet, often puts his finger more exactly than Milford's on the pulse of Millay's work. He discusses her early reading and how it modeled her imagination. He reads her early journal with an eye toward her eventual subject matter. (''I have been ecstatic; but I have not been happy'' is the crucial phrase Epstein isolates.) He links her androgyny to the distinctive nature of her poetic voice, and of her use of drugs and alcohol he cannily surmises: ''What Millay deeply cared about was the welfare of her senses and moods, which sometimes entailed stimulants and often demanded anesthesia.'' Even her adulterous affair with George Dillon is given an interesting slant: ''At last she had fulfilled the dream of her girlhood: to have an admirable man to shelter and worship her, and a boy to nurture and adore.'' As a woman and a writer, she needed to be in control. To write and love, she needed to lose control. Epstein daringly circles the dilemma.
In its day, Millay's poetry was admired by such fastidious readers as Thomas Hardy and A. E. Housman, and Edmund Wilson even went so far as to say, ''Edna Millay seems to me one of the only poets writing in English in our time who have attained to anything like the stature of great literary figures.'' But she will never again be mistaken for a major poet. Of all the critical barbs aimed at Millay's poems over the years, few have not had real targets. Still, two dozen of her poems can stand among the best lyrics of the 20th century. Her emotional range was narrow, and her technique limited to exquisite feelings dipped in a bitter irony. If the two strings on her lyre, love and death, both sound the same note, still they ring variations on those dynamics of longing and loss that have inspired poets from Catullus to the Cavaliers, from Shelley to Housman. And often because of these self-imposed restraints, Millay could write poems with an obsessed, haunting power -- her best sonnets especially, each a silver cage for the melancholy, winged god of love -- poems that expose the banalities of more burly or experimental styles, poems that touch the heart, disturb the intelligence, lodge in the memory.
Readers now of a certain age were once hypnotized and inspired by Millay's example. In time -- really just 20 years or so after her death -- she was replaced by Sylvia Plath, the suicide a more romantic figure than the siren, and by Elizabeth Bishop. By that time, too, the public was impatient with what had come to seem a poised, genteel emotionalism. Bishop's serenely dark mysteries were more intriguing. Plath's demonic energy dripped more directly into the bloodstream. In Plath's case as well, for too long the myth has overshadowed the work. With luck, over time, poems work their way free of a poet's notoriety, moving from headline to pantheon. These two new books trace the extraordinary outlines of Millay's myth. On the brink of her fame, a tiger lily contemptuous of the odds, she gloated:
the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
We know at last what it cost her to write, the price she had to pay for the shining palace that washed away. It is time now to turn and face the poems.
J. D. McClatchy, a poet and critic, is editor of The Yale Review.
Nancy Milford's 1970 biography of Zelda Fitzgerald was something of a sensation: the book, which sold more than 1.4 million copies, took the well- worn story of the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and effectively demythologized it by painstakingly reconstructing the events of Zelda's life. It not only created an affecting portrait of a fascinating if thwarted woman — Southern belle turned flapper, artist manqué cast in the role of famous writer's wife — but it also shed new light on Fitzgerald and the alchemy whereby he turned his own life and that of his wife into classic novels like "The Great Gatsby" and "Tender Is the Night."
In her latest biography, Ms. Milford takes on another Jazz Age subject: the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It's clear from "Savage Beauty" that Ms. Milford would like readers to regard Millay as another iconic figure: she describes the poet as "the herald of the New Woman" and a symbol of emancipation whose promiscuity and saucy verses "ignited the imagination of a generation of American women."
But while Millay enjoyed enormous popularity during the 1920's and 30's — she was voted one of the 10 most famous women in America in 1938 — she no longer enjoys the sort of reputation that her contemporaries the Fitzgeralds continue to possess. And her poetry, which seemed curiously old-fashioned at the time (especially when compared with the modernist work of contemporaries like T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams), has aged rather badly. In fact, it's hard for the contemporary reader to think of Millay as an avatar of rebellion or flaming Jazz Age youth, given the facile, old- timey flavor of so much of her work and her propensity toward greeting- card glibness.
Even the lines from "First Fig" (1918) that Ms. Milford says helped "make her the most widely read poet of her generation" now seem oddly coy and cute:
burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!
In "Savage Beauty," Ms. Milford does not offer a thoughtful reassessment of Millay's work or help the reader appreciate the more estimable qualities of her verse (an instinctive musicality, a gift for self-dramatization and sensuous description) that once helped win her an ardent following. For that matter, Ms. Milford does not even do a credible job of tracing the poet's development or situating her work within a cultural context.
Nor does she manage to make Millay's life come alive for the reader, as she did Zelda's. After a fascinating opening section detailing Millay's impoverished, emotionally fraught childhood in Maine, where she and her two sisters more or less brought themselves up with little parental supervision, the book devolves into a tedious pathography, describing in numbing detail the poet's health problems, addictions (to morphine, sleeping pills and alcohol) and seductions of assorted men and women.
There are lengthy inventories of the drugs Millay consumed toward the end of her life, sad laundry lists of her sister Kathleen's demands for money and blow-by-blow accounts of the heated affair she carried on with a young poet, George Dillon, during her marriage to Eugen Boissevain. The picture that emerges of Millay is that of a cold, manipulative woman, capable of enormous charm but fundamentally narcissistic and self-absorbed.
Ms. Milford often seems so busy cramming every detail she's stumbled across into the narrative that she often forgets to deal with the larger emotional questions in Millay's life. We never understand why Boissevain tolerated her affair with Dillon, even urged her to continue seeing him. Nor do we really understand the dynamics of their marriage, which cast Boissevain in the role of caretaker and Millay in the role of child. The emotional fallout from the death of Millay's mother — with whom she had an intense, conflicted relationship — goes unexamined, as do the psychological reasons for Millay's addictions.
No doubt part of the problem stems from Ms. Milford's nervous relationship with her primary source for this book, Norma Millay, the poet's sister, who controlled access to many of her papers and tried to deflect many of her biographer's queries. Sometimes Ms. Milford quotes Norma Millay's evasive responses. Sometimes she simply takes her assertions about her sister and her much detested brother-in- law at face value. All too often, there is little effort to verify facts independently.
At once curiously opaque and too microscopically detailed, "Savage Beauty" fails at two of the prime duties of a literary biography: it fails to leave the reader with a persuasive understanding of Millay's life, and it fails to leave us with a considered appraisal of her work.
'Savage Beauty' by Nancy Milford and 'What Lips My Lips Have Kissed' by Daniel Mark Epstein
Reviewed by Ruth
Sunday, September 16, 2001; Page BW08
The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
By Nancy Milford
Random House. 550 pp. $29.95
WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED
The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
By Daniel Mark Epstein
Henry Holt. 300 pp. $26
"Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:/ Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!" Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry breathes the carpe diem spirit of the Jazz Age. A charismatic beauty who celebrated romance and sexual freedom in sonnets and lyrics by turns cutting and passionate, she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. During the height of the Depression, her book Fatal Interview sold more than 50,000 copies, and audiences packed halls throughout the country to hear her read. Yet 25 years after her death, her poetry was already absent from anthologies. Her lines, among the most quoted in American literature, are now more familiar than her name.
Who was this celebrity-poet who riveted America's imagination, and why did she drop so thoroughly off the literary map? These questions are at the heart of two bold new biographies of Millay, both of which are based upon previously unpublished letters, diaries, and other materials from the poet's estate. Nancy Milford, the author of a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, sees Millay as a perpetual child who was forced into responsibility at an early age and reacted with an almost pathological need for attention and devotion. Poet Daniel Mark Epstein portrays her as the "sex goddess of Greenwich Village," a seductress who used her beauty to ensnare both men and women, and then tossed them out when she grew tired of them. But Milford's eloquent book, the product of almost 30 years of research, is both more comprehensive and more insightful than Epstein's, and will almost certainly become the definitive biography.
Millay was born on Feb. 22, 1892, into an excruciatingly poor New England family. She began composing poetry as a child, and when she was 20 her visionary poem "Renascence" was published to great acclaim, bringing her to the attention of a wealthy female patron who promised to pay her way through Vassar. She took the college by storm, refusing to abide by rules and curfews and captivating the worshipful attention of her fellow undergraduates. "There are Anactorias here for any Sappho," she wrote in a letter.
After graduating, Millay moved to Greenwich Village, acting with the Provincetown Players and conducting affairs with literary figures such as Floyd Dell, Arthur Ficke and Edmund Wilson. It was during her Village years that she began to write the love lyrics and sonnets that would become anthems of bohemianism, among them the famous "First Fig":
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light!
"In her poetry sex surfaced constantly, sometimes ironically and sometimes sensuously," Milford writes, "but in such a way that the reader thinks it is about her own sexuality." Critics did not know what to make of this woman who seemed to revel equally in the pleasure of conquest and the despondency of rejection, calling her everything from a "romantic idealist" to an "urban pagan." And Millay milked her reputation for all that it was worth, carrying on affairs with as many as six or seven men at a time. Though she married the Dutch importer Eugen Jan Boissevain in 1923, it was her relationship with the poet George Dillon that inspired the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview, in which a woman seduces, ensnares, and finally loses a younger man.
Milford emphasizes the "family romance" aspect of Millay's life, detailing the deep and complicated relationships between the poet, her mother, and her two sisters. During childhood, with her father gone and her mother often away working for long periods of time, Vincent, as Millay was known throughout her life, was responsible for the care of her two younger sisters. Though the Millay women's affection for one another is palpable in their letters, a streak of competitiveness is equally apparent, with particularly ugly results for the youngest sister, Kathleen, who published poetry herself and chafed at being known as "the other Millay." Vincent was proud to be able to support her family, but at times she clearly resented the strain of their demands, particularly as she grew older and unwell.
Millay drank excessively and was plagued with health problems all her life, but in 1936 an automobile accident left her in disabling pain, and she became addicted to morphine. Milford quotes from a memo to herself in which she sternly tried to pull herself together: "Exercise will-power in all things, big or little. . . . Don't become sloppy in anything, in your thinking, in your dress, in anything. . . . Never leave the syringe about where you see it." She died in 1950, in a drunken fall down a flight of stairs.
The first authorized biography of Millay, Milford's book is extremely thorough, and her liberal citations from Millay's private writings and from her poetry give the biography additional authenticity. The only drawback is Milford's occasional interjection of scenes from her interviews with Norma Millay, the poet's sister and literary executor. Though Milford asserts that she retained control over the content of her book (indeed, Norma Millay died 15 years before its completion), Norma's presence in the volume forces the reader to wonder how much of it was filtered through her.
When Milford first began her project in 1972, the bulk of the poet's papers were still private and uncatalogued. But after Norma Millay's death the papers were transferred to the Library of Congress, where Epstein happened upon them two years ago. The heavy-handed way in which he asserts that he is the first to publish many of these documents (since Milford's book appears simultaneously, this assertion is untrue), together with his coy reference to Milford in the preface -- as "one other biographer" who may have been among "no more than four people" to read Millay's archive -- gives the unfortunate impression that he has tried to scoop Milford. As his subtitle reveals, Epstein's book is an erotic biography of Millay, and at times it has a prurient feel. The intensity and frequency of his physical descriptions of Millay make one wonder whether he has not fallen half in love with her himself. At one point he goes so far as to lament that the nude photographs of Millay he discovered in the archive are embargoed until 2010, "so it will be to the advantage of some future biographer to publish them." One certainly hopes not.
What a future biographer might be able to contribute, however, is a coherent assessment of Millay not as a person or as a sex object but as a poet. Though a few of her sonnets are still counted among the best in the English language, since her death her work has largely proved unable to stand on its own, without the animating force of her personality. Milford presents a convincing portrait of the enigmatic Millay, but her equally enigmatic poetry -- much of which Milford, to her credit, cites in its entirety -- is left largely without comment. In the end only the reader can decide how Millay is best remembered: for her poetry or for her persona. •
Ruth Franklin is associate literary editor at the New Republic.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
EXCERPTS FROM THE TWO BIOGRAPHIES
Camden, with its ring of mountains rising behind the white clapboard houses facing Penobscot Bay, made the most of its view. Nowhere else on the coast of Maine was there such dramatic natural beauty. The houses were like weathered faces turned to watch the sea. The upland meadows of ox-eyed daisies, timothy, and sweet fern, the dark green woods of balsam and fir swept to the gentle summit of Mount Megunticook, and the rock face of Mount Battie rose from the edge of the sea as if to hold it. But it was a far less generous time than the early days of shipbuilding, upon which the town's wealth had been founded. Now even the great woodsheds along the wharves were mostly abandoned, permanent reminders of the long death of shipbuilding. The wool mills looming behind the town offered scant wages and long hours. Later in her life Edna St. Vincent Millay would say she was "a girl who had lived all her life at the very tide-line of the sea," but in the fall of 1904, she moved with her family into 100 Washington Street on the far edge of town, in a section called Millville because it was near the mills. It was the smallest house in the poorest part of town, but it was one their mother could afford when she brought her girls to Camden after her divorce.
Their brown frame house was set in a large field, and just beyond it flowed the Megunticook River, into which the mills sometimes spilled their dyes. The house, on low ground, could be reached only by walking down a long, rickety wooden sidewalk from the street. When the Megunticook River overflowed and the weather turned cold with no heat in the house, the kitchen floor flooded and froze and the girls gleefully ice-skated across it. The house was close enough to their mother's Aunt Clara Buzzell, a large, easygoing person who ran a boardinghouse for the mill hands, that she could keep an eye on the girls while their mother worked. Cora wrote to her daughters often; the three little sisters felt her presence even when she was absent, which was almost all the time.
Have the baker leave whatever you want at Aunt Clara's. . . . I can pay him when I see him and it will be all right. Have your washing done every week now and have some system and regularity about your work. . . . You can do it and you must do it . . . for Mama who has her heart and hands full.
She told them to make up a song to sing while they did dishes, "and think 'I am doing this to please mama,' and see how easy the dishes will get clean."
"We had one great advantage, I realized later," Norma Millay wrote. "We were free to love and appreciate our mother and to enjoy her because she wasn't always around, as most mothers are, telling us what to do and how to do it. . . . when mother was coming home, that was an occasion to be celebrated, and we usually celebrated by cleaning the house."
They invented games to make play out of work. "Dishes were handled differently," Norma remembered. "This game was called 'Miss Lane' for miscellaneous: here one of us washed, another dried, and the other did miscellaneous pots and pans, milk bottles, whatever. Vincent was mostly responsible for the songs we sang as we worked." This one was written the first year they were in Camden:
I'm the Queen of the
My subjects abound.
I can knock them about
And push them around,
And they answer with naught
But a clattering sound;
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,
For I've pots and pans
And kettles galore.
If I think I'm all done
There are always some more,
For here's a dozen
And there's a score.
I'm the Queen of the Dish-pan,
But they missed their mother and longed for her return. "At night, sometimes, we would lie in bed together, huddled against the cold, pretending to be brides, and little Kathleen would call out, 'Goodnight, Cherest!' in the direction we thought our mother would be."
Not everyone in Camden agreed with the way the Millays lived. When their neighbor Lena Dunbar came to visit, she was dismayed: "For instance, they had shades at their window and nothing else. I don't think they cared much. Well, once they stenciled apple blossoms, painted that pattern down the sides of the window. Or, for instance, they had a couple of plum trees in their backyard and they never waited for the plums to ripen, but would pick them green, put them in vinegar, and call them 'mock olives.' Well, no one else did that sort of thing in Camden, don't you see?"
Emma Harrington, who taught eighth and ninth grades at the Elm Street grammar school, where Vincent enrolled that fall, never forgot her. "She was small and frail for a twelve-year-old. . . . Her mane of red hair and enormous gray-green eyes added to the impression of frailty, and her stubborn mouth and chin made her seem austere, almost to the point of grimness." She kept her after school after reading her first composition to find out if someone had helped her with it. Tactfully, she asked if her mother had seen her excellent work. Vincent interrupted her: "Excuse me, Miss Harrington, . . . but I can tell that you think I didn't write that composition. Well, I did! But the only way I can prove it will be to write the next one you assign right here, in front of you. And I promise it will be as good as this one, and maybe better."
It was her determination to excel that drew attention. That first winter, she clashed with the principal of the school. He was a good teacher but quick-tempered. Vincent questioned him whenever something he said puzzled her, and she was often puzzled. He felt she was challenging his authority and began to mangle her first name. He called her Violet, Veronica, Vivienne, Valerie, any name beginning with a V but her own, which he considered outlandish. Unshaken, Vincent would respond, "Yes, Mr. Wilbur. But my name is Vincent." One day he erupted during an exchange and shouted that she'd run the school long enough. He grabbed a book from his desk and threw it at her. She picked the book up carefully, took it to his desk, and walked out of the classroom.
That afternoon Mrs. Millay marched to the school and demanded an explanation. Trying to conclude their heated interview, Wilbur pushed her away from his door sharply enough that she nearly fell down the stairs. Dusting herself off, Mrs. Millay strode into the office of the superinten-dent of schools, who quickly agreed with her that Vincent should not return to the Elm Street School. He transferred her to Camden High School, midway in the first term. She was "The Newest Freshman," the title of her first composition to be published in the school paper, The Megunticook, and the youngest. Though they misspelled her last name-Milley-they would learn to correct it, for by her senior year she was editor in chief.
"She was supposed to be a year behind, you know," Henry Pendleton, who was in her class, said. "But her mother had-well-she had a downright fight with the principal of the school, and she took it upon herself to put Vincent ahead. Yes, she did. Now the girls associated with her more than the boys did. Their circumstances were very poor. They were a very poor family. Oh, neatly dressed and all, but their home looked . . . ah, well, they didn't have, let's say, the things that most people in Camden enjoyed."
What began to disturb, even offend, the local worthies, was the way Millay's mother treated Vincent. "You see," Henry Pendleton recalled, "sometimes people felt a little . . . oh, well, for instance father-my father was a farmer-and Mrs. Millay would be bragging about her daughter, Vincent, and my father couldn't get a word in edgewise. He had a daughter, too, you see, and he'd come home fuming. He said to mother more than once, 'I would say my daughter is out-ranked!' And people didn't like that."
Vincent's birthday that year was noted by her mother as "an unpleasant day." As Cora totted up its costs, she said she'd paid $30.00 for a set of books for Vincent and $3.00 for a subscription to St. Nicholas, a children's magazine. She said there were
1 cross little girl
1 grieved little girl
1 satisfied little girl
1 tired and discouraged mama.
The satisfied little girl was Vincent. She wrote to St. Nicholas and asked to join its League:
We have just been reading your interesting stories and poems and Norma, Kathleen, and myself wish to join your League. We think you are very kind to devote so much valuable time and space to your readers. Norma was ten years old last December. Kathleen, seven last May, and I shall be twelve Washington's birthday. Please send three badges of membership to three very interested little sisters.
-Vincent, Norma and Kathleen Millay
What Millay called her first "conscious writing of poetry" was done that year. "Mother sent it to the St. Nicholas League and it received honorable mention." Published in New York, St. Nicholas was a monthly illustrated magazine for children. It was begun in the 1870s by Mary Mapes Dodge, the author of a children's classic, Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates, who was able to bring authors such as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Christina Rossetti, Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, Lucy Larcom, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Jack London-writers of distinction who might not ordinarily have written for children-to young readers throughout the country. But what truly distinguished the magazine was the St. Nicholas League, which each month gave out not only prizes-badges in silver and gold, and cash-but the gift of publication. St. Nicholas confirmed and gave voice to a generation of young writers: Ringold W. Lardner, the Benét children-Laura, William Rose, and Stephen Vincent-even the young Scott Fitzgerald, who won a prize for a photograph.
"When I was fourteen," Millay wrote, "I won the League's gold medal for a poem, and there was an editorial commenting most flatteringly on my work." The poem was called "The Land of Romance," signed E. Vincent Millay. The League addressed her as Master Millay until she was eighteen, when she bothered to correct them. While the title and length of the poem were assigned by the editor for its March 1907 competition, Millay made it the story of a child's quest to find romance. The child (who always speaks as "I" and is never identified as either a boy or a girl) first asks a man to show the way. The man, described as thin, trembling, and uncertain, says he does not know the way, then that he can't remember it. Next the child turns to a woman, who does not respond at first but continues to work at her spinning wheel, until impatiently:
"Oh! Why do you seek for Romance? And why do you trouble me?
"Little care I for your fancies. They will bring you no good," she said,
"Take the wheel that stands in the corner, and get you to work, instead."
What is most interesting about the poem now is the difference between the man's inability to give any direction or help at all and the woman's fiercely practical advice: get to work.
On the same page as the poem, the editor of the League cautioned young writers, "Very sad, very tragic, very romantic and very abstruse work cannot often be used, no matter how good it may be from the literary point of view, and while the League editor certainly does not advocate the sacrifice of artistic impulse to market suitability, he does advocate . . . the study of the market's needs." It is hard to know how seriously E. Vincent Millay took any of this, but she did correctly judge what was and was not suitable to the needs of St. Nicholas, for by the time she was eighteen and too old to enter their competitions anymore, she had won every prize they gave.
"The Land of Romance" was considered good enough for Edward J. Wheeler, the editor of Current Literature in New York, to select it to reprint in his April issue. He said that although he couldn't tell from the signature whether the author was a boy or a girl, "the poem seems to us to be phenomenal."
~ ~ ~
Norma remembered that publication in Current Literature confirmed their belief that "Vincent was a genius." Although each of the sisters had sent things in to St. Nicholas, "we never got a bite. Vincent got everything."
~ ~ ~
Vincent began her first diary in the spring of 1907, when the snow was so deep it drifted over her knees. She was fifteen. She was walking home in the evening from a Glee Club rehearsal when a man called to her and, turning, she saw a sleigh drawing close to her house. "The sleigh was coming to take mama to Rockport on a consumption case. How I hate to have her go! Have to keep house all through vacation." Five days later, her mood had lifted considerably:
I am going to play Susie in Tris. . . . I have the stage all to myself for a while and I have a love scene with the villain. The villain is great.
Triss; or Beyond the Rockies was a melodrama in four acts, and Vincent Millay was cast as Susie Smith, "all learning and books."
My part is going to be great,-at least they all told me how well I did. I am awfully glad for this will be my first appearance. I want to make it a dazzling one. I get rather sick of having Ed Wells forever hugging me while he is showing Mr. Keep how to do it. Mr. Wells seems to understand the performance all right. He has evidently had experience in that line.
The play went off without a hitch, or nearly. Everyone said that it was the best home talent performance ever given in Camden, and some even considered it better than the productions of the traveling companies.
My part isn't very large, but it is important and rather hard. I hope we will get as good a house in Rockland as we did here. The Opera House was crowded full and everything went off finely except when Allie Eldredge lost his wig. Of course something had to happen. But what of it?
Four years later she stuck the following note in the margin of her diary: "I have just read through to this part and I wish to remark that I consider myself at this point of my life an insufferable mutt and a conceited slush head." By then she was nineteen and hard on herself.
In the town of Camden, Maine, at midnight of October 3, in the lower tenement of a clapboard house on Chestnut Street overlooking the harbor, a girl was absorbed in a curious ritual. If a passerby had been tempted by the flicker of candlelight beneath a shade to peep into the sparely furnished bedroom, he might have thought the girl was mad, or the votary of some pagan cult.
She was writing in a small brown notebook, and saying aloud to herself and to invisible presences strange and passionate words:
"Be these my fairies: Strong-Heart, Clean-Hand, Clear-Eye, Brave-Soul, Sweet-Tongue, and Thou -- my Robin Good-Fellow, who will come unseen, unheard, unqueried by all but me, and with thy shadowy flail thresh for me `In one night, ere glimpse of morn ... / What ten day-laborers could not end.'"
In her white nightgown, with her long braids of red hair brushing her thighs, she looked more like a girl than she actually was. The nightgown concealed the petite but perfectly formed figure of a nineteen-year-old woman.
"We have been betrothed just half a year tonight," she chanted. "I have been faithful to you. I have loved you more and better every day. It seems to me you might come before long. I am very lonely. I wish I might go to sleep tonight with my head on your arm. Or if I might only know just where you are this minute. You would seem very near to me even though you were way across the world. You have been everything to me for half a year.... I start in tomorrow on the second half and I am going to try and make it better than the first. I must keep always before my mind the thought of what you want me to be. I will try harder than ever before. But I am so tired! But when you come I shall rest."
There was no one in the candlelit room but Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the night sky over the town shone the constellation of the winged horse Pegasus, beloved of the Muses. The four-room flat included a sitting room with two more windows on the harbor side, the kitchen, and another bedroom looking out on the stained-glass front window of the Baptist Church. Millay's sisters Norma, eighteen, and Kathleen, sixteen, were sleeping in the other bedroom, and her mother, nurse Cora Buzzell Millay, was away in nearby Rockland working on a medical case. Cora Millay and her husband were divorced, and the girls' father lived far away.
Vincent, as she was called, rose from her writing table. She imagined her lover was seated in a mahogany-paneled room reading by the light of a study lamp. She parted imaginary curtains and coyly looked through them, pretending he could see her.
"How do you like my hair, sir? All you can see is my head now for I'm hiding. Wait just a minute, and I'll come out. I am wearing a fluffy lavendar thing over my nightdress. It is very soft and long and trails on the rug behind me. My bare feet sink into the rug. My hair is in two wavy red braids over my shoulders. My eyes are very sweet and serious. My mouth is wistful."
She imagined him watching her from his chair. She moved slowly over the rug toward him. She rested her head gently on his knee. Her braids curled in fiery coils on the floor.
With the grace of a trained actress the girl mimed the love scene. She looked into her imaginary lover's eyes. She felt him gather her into his arms. Her gowns fell softly about her feet as she kissed his face....
On her ring finger she wore a tin ring she had found in a "fortune" cake. Her ghost ring, she called it, "a cheap little thing in imitation of a solitaire, just the sort of ring to link me to a `Love-o'-Dreams'; I love it with a passion that is painful." Rising from the floor, she kissed the ring on her hand seven times.
The ritual had begun with the lighting of a wax candle from the drawer of the writing table, and the entertaining of her spirit lover would not end until the candle had burned out -- that is, if no one interrupted her. This bizarre ceremony, which the girl had been practicing on the third of every month since April 3, 1911, when she formally "consecrated" her soul to this "love o' dreams," was not so much the evidence of madness as it was an elaborate defense against it.
She was a vulnerable, neurasthenic girl whom life had dealt a difficult hand. Born in Rockport, Maine, on February 22, 1892, the eldest of three sisters, she had seen her father for the last time early in 1901 when her mother threw him out (for "bitter abuse," according to the divorce testimony). In September of that same year, all three girls -- ages nine, eight, and five -- were stricken with typhoid fever and certainly would have died had it not been for their mother Cora's skill in nursing. After that early trauma, life proved to be one struggle after another, yet the women survived with stubborn determination and a kind of desperate humor. Vincent won amateur poetry prizes, starred in stage plays, and graduated with honors from Camden High School in June of 1909.
But since graduation the young poet and actress had suffered from a series of crises -- physical, emotional, and spiritual -- that led her periodically to the edge of despair.
Now it seemed that only a perfect love, or the raptures of poetry, could save her:
My anguished spirit, like a
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
This is the story of a girl locked in a room that was her life in Camden, Maine, in 1911, and how she used her pen like a magic key to unlock the door. In order to understand the sorcery that Millay worked to win her liberty, in that hard year when she began to write the great poem "Renascence," we must go back to an earlier beginning, the story of her mother, Cora Millay, recently divorced, and how she scratched out a living for her three daughters from the rocky Maine soil.
* * *
They had been poor, poor relations thrown upon the mercy and irregular charity of uncles and aunts and grandparents from Newburyport, Massachusetts Cora's hometown, to Ring Island located just across the Merrimac River, and back again, finally washing up in Camden. From spare room to spare room in farmhouses and town houses, mother and daughters moved with their trunks of books and papers and homemade clothing and precious few other belongings dragging behind them.
First, during the winter of 1901 they stayed with Cora's brother Charles Buzzell and his wife, Jenny, on Ring Island while the girls went to school there. Cora worked in Newburyport until she could afford rent on a bungalow at 78 Lime Street. But they had not lived long in that little house before Cora went up to Maine to get her divorce, thinking that might guarantee her alimony. She left her daughters in the care of a Miss Kendall in Camden while she journeyed alone to the court in Rockland, where she received her divorce decree on January 11, 1904.
That winter was the coldest in memory, with temperatures plunging to forty degrees below, and Cora and her daughters returned to Newburyport in the throes of a coal shortage. Cora was too proud to take from the city supply of coal, although her it was offered to them as it was to all the poor. Cora's younger sister Clem bought them half a ton, and with the coke from the gashouse, and using shingles ripped from a ramshackle house next door, they were able to keep one fire going in their tiny kitchen. Cora would throw the shingles over the fence, and after school the girls would pick them up to put on the fire.
But then Cora contracted influenza and was so sick she could not get out of bed. The doctor said her illness came from overwork and undernourishment. "Not a good combination," Cora later remarked with grim humor. "I was away down, subnormal, pulse and temperature, and nothing could seem to bring me up." Her brother Charlie fixed up her life insurance, that was how serious things looked. And her well-to-do sister Clem stopped by often, sweeping in wearing "a heavy cape of double-faced goods, which the girls will never forget," Cora wrote.
"For, with all the work there was to do here, with a sick mother, and all in school, Aunt Clem never took her cape off on any of these calls. Clem did bring in things for me to eat, which she had cooked at home, at Aunt Sue's. But there was no help for the little ones who might be left alone now, any minute." (These quotes, with their lilting Irish rhythms, are from Cora's writings. She frequently wrote about herself in the third-person maternal, as "the mother.") Cora hung on, while the girls went to school and did the housework. "Vincent had learned to make yeast bread, and it was excellent," Cora recalled. It was during her mother's near-fatal illness that her eldest daughter learned to take command of the household. "And many a night the mother went to bed when she did not have much idea of seeing the morning. But she did not tell them so." She did not have to tell them: children know these things instinctively.
Despite Cora's tendency to self-dramatize her life in her letters and memoirs, in this case she did not distort the truth. The forty-year-old mother of twelve-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay nearly died during the winter of 1904. Her health rallied in the spring, just in time to take care of her youngest child, eight-year-old Kathleen. "Kathleen was sick, as if stricken. The little limbs unnaturally unruly, and the child sick, as they thought, unto death." Kathleen's fever marked the onset of the dread disease that one day would be known as infantile paralysis -- polio.
That summer, having seen enough hard luck in Newburyport, "the mother picked up some things, and turned the key in the Lime Street House, and took the children to Maine." First they went to Union, where they stayed for a while with friends who were obliged to Cora, whose nursing had saved the life of their youngest boy. From there they went to the hill farm of Uncle Fred Millay, where there was milk and cream, horses, and a blueberry pasture where the girls loved to play.
"For the little one [Kathleen] to climb toward the blueberry pasture she needed help, and the queer pitiful limping hurried gait was sad to see. For the left leg would not do its part, nor would the left hand, for it shook and trembled so that the only way she could keep it still, when she was eating, using the right, was to hold it between her knees."
There at the farm Cora nursed Kathleen day and night, massaging her legs and arms several times a day with cocoa butter and giving the child infusions of skullcap "to quiet the little shattered nerves."
From there Uncle Austin Millay took them in during the time that his wife was away nursing. But Uncle Austin was drunk much of the time, and a mean drunk he was, too, so "the family of visitors moved on, and went for a short visit to Eva Fales, a cousin of mother's at Beech-Woods Street, Thomaston ... then they went to Camden, and up to Aunt Clara's till some other arrangement could be made."
Aunt Clara Millay was a big, handsome woman, goodhearted and generous, who kept a boardinghouse on Washington Street just on the outskirts of town. Grandpa Buzzell was riding down from Searmont to get Vincent and Norma, and frail Kathleen was going to stay with Aunt Clara while Cora took a nursing job for Professor John Tufts, a pianist who was to be operated on in Rockland before returning to Camden. Cora would attend him in his big house on Chestnut Street.
All summer long Cora took care of Mr. Tufts, walking a mile uphill and down each day to Aunt Clara's so she could give Kathleen her cocoa butter rubbings and skullcap infusions and doses of cod liver oil. Then in October she received a letter from Grandpa Buzzell's wife, Delia, saying that the old man was on the verge of a nervous breakdown with the racket of so many youngsters in his little house (they had three boys living there before Vincent and Norma arrived). "She did not know but that he might be going crazy or out of his mind, and she was uneasy about the girls and their being there."
* * *
A man from Appleton who boarded at Aunt Clara's when he was staying in Camden owned a small rental house in the field downhill from Washington Street, between Aunt Clara's and the river that powered the mills. Across the Megunticook River was nothing but woodlands, and up the hill across the road rose the cemetery and the rocky height of Mount Battle.
The dilapidated house in the field had been empty for some time. The man from Appleton said that Cora could have the little house for her and her children to live in. If they would just clean it and make certain repairs for which he would provide the materials like painting and papering -- he would give them a month's rent free.
The doctors in Camden wanted Cora to work for them there and in the outlying towns. So she decided to return to Newburyport only long enough to close up the house on Lime Street and then make a new home for herself and her family in that house in the field in Camden.
On November 4, 1904, still in Newburyport packing the trunks, she wrote to Vincent and Norma at Grandpa Buzzell's in Searmont. "Be a good lot of girls and mind Delia, and be good to Grandpa. Kiss each other for Mama who is so homesick for you she is crying while she is writing. I hope you are all well, and that Kathleen is gaining all the time. Don't get discouraged because Mama seems so long; she is doing a man's work; and you just plan how cosy we'll have our new little home, when once it is cleaned and settled and banked up snug and warm for the winter. Somehow I don't dread this winter as I did last ..."
Between 1901 and 1904 they seem to have had no permanent home, but made do wherever they could be together for a few weeks or months. Cora traveled with a trunkload of classic books: Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Scott, etc., and read aloud to her daughters with a dramatic voice, slightly inflected with an Irish brogue. As a girl she had acted in amateur theatricals. She sang beautifully in a mellow mezzo-soprano, and played Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn on the piano, when one was handy. She firmly shaped her daughters in her own image, though with a sense of humor.
Soon they had their own language and pet names for one another. They had their own customs and legends, binding them each to each while separating them from the world of strangers and protecting them from those who would never understand their ways. Men often felt threatened by the women, as if they were a coven of witches.
After years of wandering, the prospect of having their first house together in this picturesque and welcoming suburb of Camden, a house at the edge of town but not entirely out of it, was a relief to them all. The house stood in an open field, with Cora's aunt's house on the town side, and a meadow on the other side sloping down to the Camden Mill. In back was another field, and below that was the Megunticook River, flowing from the lake of the same name through a valley and on down through the town to the harbor. This current turned the wheels of the five woolen mills that constituted the town's main industry.
In autumn, under the red maples and golden leaves of the oak trees, the fields were colorful with staghorn sumac, wild blue asters, wild pink orchids, fleabane, and goldenrod; in the spring there would be violets and arbutus, dandelions and trilliums. In the summer the sisters played hide-and-seek in the grasses that were never mown, and swam in the river on days when the water was not tinted from the dyes that colored the cloths in the mill vats, fashioning water-wings out of pillowcases blown up like bladders.
Cora recalled: "Another joy in the tall grasses was when it was raining hard. Then there was nothing the girls so much liked as stripping, and putting on thin print dresses and running out into the grass and leaping about in the rain, letting the summer showers soak them until it ran in little rivers from their hair and faces. Then they came in and stripped and I rubbed them down with a rough Turkish towel till they glowed and tingled amid their laughter."
But the house, neglected by the landlord, was brutally cold in the winter. When the rent was not paid up, Cora could not press too hard about repairs. "The snow outside made as good a winter playground as the grasses in summer, but there is need of warm cover within reach to make playing in the snow drifts enjoyable. This we had, but it did not cover the whole house."
Their dwelling was no more than four small rooms. On the ground floor was the kitchen, which had the only indoor plumbing, a cold water sink that had to trickle constantly so the pipe would not freeze. One day the water ran over the basin, and Cora returned home from work to find the girls merrily skating on the kitchen floor.
Next to the kitchen was the dining room, which in good weather also served as the library and music room. There was a cooking stove in the kitchen, but in the coldest part of winter these lower rooms could not be heated. The main coal stove stood in the living room upstairs (where Cora and Kathleen slept), next to the bedroom of the older girls. Everything in the house that had to be kept from freezing -- milk, potatoes, onions, bread, and butter -- had to be taken upstairs to the living room. "And this was a chore, and did not add to the order of the room," Cora remembered.
"Mother had a lot of work nursing, right away," Cora recalled, referring to herself, "and the doctors liked her. And after a little while she got more pay, but for a long time not more than ten dollars a week. And she took care of the sick folks all the time, night and day, unless at times when someone would give her a chance to go lie down," and when she insisted upon going home to check up on her girls.
As soon as she could afford it she had a telephone installed so she could keep in touch with Vincent from the patients' homes. The telephone, and Aunt Clara's boardinghouse a few hundred yards across the meadow, were Vincent's only lifelines on many cold days and nights.
Vincent was twelve then, Norma eleven, and Kathleen nine. The sisters had to grow up fast.
Later Vincent recalled: "To live alone like that, sleep alone in that house set back in the field on the very edge of Millville, the bad section of town where the itinerant mill-workers lived -- this was the only way they could live at all.... But they were afraid of nothing -- not afraid of the river which flowed behind the house, in which they taught themselves to swim; not afraid of that other river, which flowed past the front of the house and which on Saturday nights was often very quarrelsome and noisy, the restless stream of mill workers.... Once it took all three of the children, flinging themselves against the front door, to close it and bolt it, and just in time. And after that, for what seemed like hours, there was stumbling about outside, and soft cursing."
Their mother had a way with the girls, a subtle psychology that brought greater results in exacting obedience and labor than cruelty could ever have wrought. She constantly reminded them (with more or less wry humor) of her own valiant struggles and sufferings on their behalf, and how much they needed each other in order to survive the trials of poverty; at the same time she never let them forget they were, all of them, princesses, aristocrats of the spirit, in beauty and brains and talent second to none, equal only to each other.
By nursing the sick and weaving hairpieces for ladies, Cora made the money to feed and clothe them and pay the rent. The children took care of each other and their house and did the cooking and laundry. They never questioned this need. They loved Cora and they feared her, feared her displeasure, and they felt searing guilt and shame if ever they let her down. When she was rested she was full of songs and rhymes, stories and jokes; she baked sugar cookies in the shapes of birds that were the envy of all the town children. But weary -- or out of sorts -- she was a terror.
Cora made each of her departures an occasion to put the girls on their honor to do their best and be their best while she was away. "And to be put on your honor by a mother who did not say anything about it, and went away to work for you," Cora recalled, "was a lot heavier load to carry, a lot harder to throw off, than things that were said to you about what to do, and what not to do, when mother was right there to see.... For in the one case the responsibility was on mother who was used to it, and in the other case it was on you, who were not so used to responsibility but were getting used to it very fast."
Of course, the greatest burden fell to the eldest, Vincent, who was also her mother's favorite. The two were almost unnaturally close. Two themes dominate the early diaries of Edna Millay: how painfully she misses her mother, and how exhausted she becomes with the laundry, cooking, cleaning, schoolwork, and baby-sitting. That autumn, soon after they settled into the cottage and the girls had enrolled in the Elm Street School across from the Congregational Church, the eldest daughter found herself in charge of the household and her younger sisters. More than once she refers to herself humorously as Cinderella. She was small, with bones as frail and delicate as a bird's -- not meant for heavy lifting.
Vincent missed her mother so much that in desperation she invented an imaginary black "mammy" to whom she could turn in her diary for strength and comfort in her loneliness:
You'll have to take the place of Mama when she's gone, which is most of the time. It seems strange, doesn't it, that you, an old mammy, who are not my real Mama at all, should take the place of my real Mama when she is away.... It's so comfy when she's home to sit down in the kitchen -- I keep the kitchen clean and shiny all the time, Mammy -- to sit down near the stove when the wood is crackling and sending out little sparks ... when you hear the wind outdoors and know it can't get in where you are and where the little girls are sleeping in the next room. I make two cups of tea in the blue china teapot, and we sit opposite each other and drink it nice and hot while we watch each other's faces in the firelight of the crackling stove. It makes up for all the time she's gone. I forget all about the things that went wrong and she forgets all about the doctors and the patients and the surgery and the sleepless nights....
See another page of mine about this poet here
Also obituary and older texts here