Edna St. Vincent Millay
October 20, 1950
AUSTERLITZ, N.Y., Oct. 19-Edna St. Vincent Millay, the famous poet, was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her isolated home near here at 3:30 P.M. today.
Her physician said she died of a heart attack after a coronary occlusion. She was 58 years old.
She was dressed in a nightgown and slippers when her body was found by James Pinnie, a caretaker, who had arrived to fix a fire for the evening. The Columbia County coroner estimated that she had been dead for eight hours. Her nearest neighbor lived a mile away.
Miss Millay had lived alone in the Berkshire hills near the Massachusetts border, ten miles southwest of Chatham, N.Y., since her husband died on Aug. 20, 1949. He was Eugen Jan Boissevain, a retired New York importer.
Spokesman for Three Decades
Edna St. Vincent Millay was a terse and moving spokesman during the Twenties, the Thirties and the Forties. She was an idol of the younger generation during the glorious early days of Greenwich Village when she wrote what critics termed a frivolous but widely known poem which ended:
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!
All critics agreed, however, that Greenwich Village and Vassar, plus a gypsy childhood on the rocky coast of Maine, produced one of the greatest American poets of her time. In 1940 she published in The New York Times Magazine a plea against isolationism which said, "There are no islands any more," and during the second World War she wrote of the Nazi massacre of the Czechoslovak city of Lidice:
The whole world holds in its arms today
The murdered village of Lidice,
Like the murdered body of a little child,
Innocent, happy, surprised at play.
Before this, when Miss Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1922, her work had become more profound and less personal as she grew out of the "flaming youth" era in the Village. The nation and the world had become her concern.
Was Raised in Maine
Miss Millay was born in Rockland, Me., on Feb. 22, 1892, in an old house "between the mountains and the sea" where baskets of apples and drying herbs on the porch mingled their scents with those of the neighboring pine woods.
She was the eldest of three sisters, brought up by their mother, the former Cora Buzelle. Of the younger sisters, Norma became an actress and Kathleen a writer whose first novel, published in 1927, was succeeded by fairy stories, short stories, plays and verse.
Floyd Dell, novelist and unofficial historian of the Village in the early Twenties, has written how the mother worked to bring up her daughters in "gay and courageous poverty."
Edna, the tomboy of the family, was usually called "Vincent" by her mother and sisters. Her talent was recognized and encouraged and poetry was read and reread in the household. At age 14 she won the St. Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry, the first of many honors. In the poem that gave its name to her volume, "The Harp-Weaver," some have discovered the inspiration of her poor youth and her mother's devotion.
Edna entered Vassar late. She was then 21 years old, but when she was 18 she had finished the first part of her first long poem, "Renascence," and at 20 had ended it. It was published in a prize content, which incidentally, it did not win. Sonnets and lyrics followed while she still was in college. She was graduated in 1917 and came to live in the Village, remaining for years, something of a tradition in her college.
Miss Millay, says Floyd Dell, was in those days "a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine," young, red-haired and unquestionably pretty. But the Village was the wartime Village, and Miss Millay took the radical stand.
John Reed, Communist and war correspondent, was among her friends. Inez Milholland, feminist leader, to whom the sonnet "The Pioneer" is a tribute, was one of her admirers. In a play, "Aria da Capo," written in 1921, she expressed her hatred of war, and it has been recorded that she haunted court rooms with her pacifist friends, reciting to them her poetry to comfort them while juries decided on their cases.
With Provincetown Players
At first poetry in Greenwich Village did not pay, and Miss Millay turned to theatre, briefly. She acted without pay with the Provincetown Players in their converted stable on Macdougal Street and got a part in a Theatre Guild production. For some time she did hack writing for magazines under a pseudonym.
It was her second volume of verses, "A Few Figs From Thistles," that turned national attention to the nine-foot-wide house on Bedford Street where she lived. There followed "Second April" in 1921 and "The Lamp and the Bell" and a morality play, "Two Slatterns and a King," in the same year, and in 1922, with the Pulitzer Prize, her position as a poet was established.
"The Harp-Weaver" was published in 1923, and then the Metropolitan Opera House commissioned Miss Millay to write a book for the score of an opera composed by Deems Taylor. For her plot she went to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of Eadgar, King of Wessex, a story not unlike that of Tristan and Isolde, and the result was "The King's Henchman," called by one writer the most effectively and artistically wrought American opera ever to reach the stage.
It was produced at the Metropolitan Opera as the most important production of the 1927 season, with Lawrence Tibbett, Edward Johnson and Florence Easton, and later was taken on an extensive tour. Within twenty days of the publication of the poem in book form four editions were exhausted, and it was calculated that Miss Millay's royalties from her publishers ran to $100 a day.
In the summer of 1927 the time drew near for the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Boston Italians whose trial and conviction of murder became one of the most celebrated labor causes of the United States. Only recently recovered from a nervous breakdown, Miss Millay flung herself into the fight for their lives.
Contributed Poem to Fund
A poem which had wide circulation at the time, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," was her contribution to the fund raised for the defense campaign. Miss Millay also made a personal appeal to Governor Fuller.
In August she was arrested as one of the "death watch" demonstrators before the Boston State House. With her were John Howard Lawson, the playwright; William Patterson of the American Negro Congress, Ella Reeve, "Mother" Bloor and others.
"I went to Boston fully expecting to be arrested-arrested by a polizia created by a government that my ancestors rebelled to establish," she said, when back in New York. "Some of us have been thinking and talking too long without doing anything. Poems are perfect; picketing, sometimes, is better."
Miss Millay was married to Mr. Boissevain in 1923. They spent most of their married life at Steepletop, their Columbia County home. They traveled to Florida, the Riviera and Spain and, in 1933, bought an eighty-five acre island in Casco Bay, Me.
October 16, 1921
Those who take delight in harmonizing names may find something to write about in the fact that among all the throngs of very young people who are now producing volumes of original poems one man and one woman are pre-eminent-Stephen Vincent Benet and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Mr. Benet was graduated from Yale in 1919 and Miss Millay from Vassar in 1917. Both have already several books of verse to their credit, and it is not to much to say that both have a national reputation.
Both printed poetry before they could vote; but Miss Millay's first volume of poems appeared the same year she received her degree at Vassar. No one can read "Renascence" without believing in the author's lyrical gifts. The only indubitable sign of youth in her work is the writer's pre-occupation with the theme of death. Nothing is more normal than for a young poet to write about death-the contrast is romantic and sharply dramatic; it is the idea of death that appeals to youth.
The eighth sonnet in the volume, "Second April," is thoroughly typical of Youth standing in contemplation before Death:
And you as well must die, beloved dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell-this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost,
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how beloved above all else that dies.
In Tennyson's first volume, the details of dissolution appear again and again, and the thought of death shadows nearly every page. When a poet is old, he does not write about death so much or in his early manner. Death is too close; it has become a fact rather than an idea. To youth death is an astounding, amazing, romantic tragedy, and yet somehow remote from the writer; it may not cost as much worry as a dentist appointment or an ill-fitting gown; but when one is old, death seems more natural. In St. Paul's early letters, he talks about the second coming of his Lord; in the last ones, about his imminent departure.
Thus to find the constantly recurring idea of death is the first two volumes by Miss Millay is quite the opposite of anything abnormal; I imagine, apart from her poetic gift, that she must be a natural, healthy-minded young girl. It is only fair to add that, in addition to the romantic idea of death as material for poetry, there are in the second volume beautiful tributes to the memory of a college friend, sincere expression of profound grief.
No matter how long we live, or how rich and varied our experience, Beauty always comes to us as a surprise; thus the reader will be happily struck more than a few times in these pages. But it is not surprising that they should be the work of youth; for all poets of quality achieve some perfection in early years. If one has reached the age of 22 without writing some admirable poetry, one might as well resign ambition to become distinguished as a poet. Undergraduate verse is probably at a higher level at this moment in America than it has ever been before; but the wonder is that so little of permanent value is produced.
Miss Millay is the author of two plays-one in prose an one in verse. Though both have the stamp of literary distinction, they are not primarily literary plays; they were intended for the stage, and both have been successfully produced. "Aria Da Capo" first appeared in Reedy's Mirror, and was subsequently published by the Poetry Bookshop in London, again in the volume of "Fifty Contemporary One-Act Plays," edited by Frank Shay and Pierre Loving, and once more in the Provincetown Plays, edited by George Cham Cook and Frank Shay. I wish I had seen it on the stage: the prose dialogue is just what it should be, ad the dramatic movement admirable.
Still more earnestly do I wish that I had seen the five-cent drama in verse, "The Lamp and the Bell," which was produced at Vassar College last June, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Vassar Alumnae Association and dedicated to the class of 1917. It is not too much to say that the spectators were spellbound. The echoes of this extraordinary performance were heard far and wide. The cast contained more than forty actresses, graduates, undergraduates and future students of Vassar; the talent employed in preparing the production was remarkable; and the result beyond what even enthusiasts had hoped.
I confess that as a rule nothing on earth bores me more than reading a play in verse, except when the author is a genius, like Shakespeare or Goethe or Rostand. The reason why most modern dramas in English are tiresome is because they really are dull-- incredibly dull, provoking slumber more potently than pandragosa or all the drowsy syrups of the world. But if one will read the account of this performance in The Theater Magazine, and then read the play with constant visualization, one will find material for wonder.
Edna St. Vincent Millay is a poet and a dramatist. I am already looking forward to her next book. Her lyrical poetry is interesting , because it comes from an interesting mind.
July 19, 1923
Edna St. Vincent Millay, poet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for American Verse in 1922, was married secretly yesterday to Eugene Boissevain, wealthy importer, at the home of Boardman Robinsion, artist, at Croton-on-the-Hudson. Mr. And Mrs. Boissevain had planned to be married on Friday, but Miss Millay's physician told her yesterday that she would have to undergo an operation for appendicitis at New York Hospital today. She left for the hospital immediately after the marriage, which took place at noon.
The bride's sister, Norma Millay, was the maid of honor. Jan Boissevain, the bridegroom's mother, was best man. A few guests included Arthur Davidson Ficke, poet; Charles Ellis, formerly of the Provincetown Players, and Gladys Brown, art secretary to Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney.
Miss Millay has been in poor health since her return from Europe last January. She has been living at Croton in the hope of regaining strength. Specialists told her she would have to submit to an operation. Mr. Boissevain prevailed upon her to heed them and suggested an immediate wedding.
Miss Millay is 30. Her husband is several years older. His first wife was the late Inez Milholland, prominent in the suffrage movement. She died in 1916. Mr. Boissevain is in business at 147 Front Street. He lived for some time at Croton with Max Eastman, now in Russia.
Miss Millay's best known work, "Renascence," was published ten years ago. She was awarded the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for her volumes of poetry entitled "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver," "A Few Figs from Thistles," "A Miscellany," and eight sonnets.
Other pages of mine about the same poet here and here
See also the New York Times.
She was like a flame, they said. She was like a rock star, the Madonna of her time. When Edna St. Vincent Millay read her poetry, crowds gathered to hear her thrilling voice and to see the tiny figure with the milky white skin and the bright red hair, dressed in her long, shimmering gown, and clad, Byronically, in a black velvet cloak. ''My candle burns at both ends,'' Millay wrote. ''It will not last the night;/ But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends --/ It gives a lovely light!''
The lines, first published in 1918, became an anthem of the Jazz Age, particularly for a generation of women experimenting for the first time with free love, alcohol and drugs. It is difficult today to imagine a living poet achieving the fame that Millay did during her lifetime. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, in 1923. A best-selling poet even during the Depression, she grew rich from her art. Thomas Hardy once said that Millay's poetry, along with the skyscraper, was America's greatest contribution to the 1920's.
But after Millay died, her star faded, a casualty of modernism, with its emphasis on allusion, irony and paradox. These days, her poetry is seldom taught in universities, and she is rarely the subject of critical essays. She is remembered mostly as a ''woman poet'' who composed lilting, rhythmic, romantic verse and whose work, at best, is a kind of guilty pleasure, poetry that rhymes.
Next month, however, marks the publication of two new biographies of Millay, based on previously unavailable archives, that dramatize once again the extraordinary impact of her work on her times. ''Savage Beauty'' (Random House) by Nancy Milford, was 20-some years in the making and is partly based on Ms. Milford's extensive interviews with Millay's sister, Norma. ''What Lips My Lips Have Kissed'' (Henry Holt) is by Daniel Mark Epstein, himself a poet. The Modern Library is reissuing some of Millay's poetry with an introduction by Ms. Milford, who was the author of ''Zelda,'' a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, a landmark of the feminist movement. The two Millay biographies make use of similar sources, the poet's diaries and letters, which are now in the Library of Congress. Both books emphasize the life rather than the poetry.
Efforts are also under way to restore Millay's wooden farmhouse, Steepletop, in Austerlitz, Columbia County, N.Y., as a home or a museum.
''Three great figures sit astride the 20th century -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Millay,'' Ms. Milford said in an interview recently. ''But Millay is lost.''
''She was immensely famous in her day, but why?'' Ms. Milford asked. ''At some point her poetry has to be read.''
Mr. Epstein calls Millay a poet in the classical tradition of Horace and Catullus, and of Keats, Shelley and Coleridge. ''She has all the elements of classicism as defined by Aquinas,'' he said, ''radiance, clarity, harmony and unity.'' He pointed to Millay's sonnet:
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage. . . .
''She is merging Euclid's mathematical vision with her own aesthetic vision in a way that is totally unprecedented and totally unique,'' he said. ''You can't do that unless you have experienced it in the depths of your soul.''
That Millay even became a poet at all is surprising. She was born in 1892 to a poor family in Rockland, Me. Her father, Henry, was unable to hold a job for long, though he was for a time a superintendent of schools. Millay's mother, Cora, was a practical nurse, and after she and Millay's father divorced, she supported her three daughters alone. Yet the family house was filled with books, and Cora Millay was intensely ambitious for the girls.
From childhood, Millay was called Vincent by those close to her. She was only 19 and had not yet entered college when she began writing ''Renascence,'' the long, mystical poem about rebirth that is still considered one of her greatest works. While giving a reading of it, she caught the attention of an older woman, Caroline Dow, the head of the Y.W.C.A. National Training School in New York, who was so enthralled that she arranged for a group of women to pay Millay's way through college. Dow was the first of a series of older women who took Millay under their wings and supported her.
In 1912 Millay entered ''Renascence'' in a poetry competition in a literary annual, The Lyric Year. An anguishing part of both biographies describes Millay's seductive epistolary relationship with Ferdinand Earle, one of the editors. Their correspondence is a paradigm of that between an older married man and an ambitious young woman both bent on using each other. Millay was wildly flirtatious, and Earle seemed to promise her that she would win the prize. She didn't win, and she was devastated. ''Renascence'' was published in The Lyric Year with an honorable mention, and ''the clear injustice of its not having won made it a national cause célèbre,'' Ms. Milford writes in her introduction to the Modern Library collection.
Millay enrolled at Vassar College in 1913. There, the young poet, already famous, became a cynosure, the center of a group of adoring girls. She had passionate affairs with at least two women among her classmates, Mr. Epstein said.
After graduation, she moved to New York City, and became part of the Bohemian culture of Greenwich Village. She wrote ''Aria da Capo,'' a verse play with an antiwar theme that she directed at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1919, and it became a hit.
Both biographies paint a portrait of a woman who was sexually adventurous and sometimes calculating in the service of her art. One of Millay's lovers was Edmund Wilson, who wrote of his ''chagrin and perplexity, when I discovered that, due to her extreme promiscuity, this could not be expected to continue.'' Mr. Epstein said that during the period of Millay's affair with Wilson, she was sleeping with at least four other people. She also drank heavily and used morphine.
The 1920 publication of her collection ''A Few Figs From Thistles'' ''brought her notoriety and a large public for its free-spirited and defiant celebration of love and life,'' Ms. Milford writes in the introduction to her poetry. In 1923 she won the Pulitzer for her poem ''The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,'' her anthology ''A Few Figs From Thistles'' and eight sonnets. Harriet Monroe in Poetry magazine called her perhaps ''the greatest woman poet since Sappho.''
Millay also wrote the libretto for ''The King's Henchman,'' with music by Deems Taylor, which had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927. It is sometimes called the first significant opera written by Americans. The house was packed, and there were 17 curtain calls. That year she also became involved in protesting the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.
In 1923 Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a prosperous Dutch importer, handsome and virile. It was a remarkable marriage. Both biographies paint a portrait of a man slavishly devoted to Millay, who neither cooked nor shopped nor did housework. In one scene in the Milford biography, when Millay became tired after entertaining a houseful of guests at Steepletop, Boissevain simply picked her up and carried her to bed as if she were a child.
''Eugen eventually infantalized her,'' Ms. Milford said in an interview. Boissevain's devotion extended to a vast tolerance for her love affairs, including one with the poet George Dillon, who was some 14 years her junior. In 1932, when Millay wanted to be alone with Dillon in Paris, Boissevain obligingly returned to the United States and wrote plaintive love letters to her from Steepletop. The affair with Dillon inspired the love sonnets in Millay's 1931 collection, ''Fatal Interview.'' But she remained married to Boissevain, and she and Dillon stayed friends.
By 1935, Mr. Epstein said, Millay was earning $20,000 a year for her poetry, giving her a purchasing power of about $300,000 in today's terms. Then, in 1936, she apparently suffered an injury to her shoulder and back, possibly from falling through the door of a car. Mr. Epstein speculates that it was the pain from that injury, plus the fading of her beauty, upon which she had always depended, and the waning of her relationship with Dillon, that propelled her deeper into an abyss of alcoholism and drug abuse.
Among Millay's papers the biographers found meticulous records of her drug taking. At one point, she had a morphine habit of some two hundred milligrams a day. A dosage of 20 to 30 milligrams is sufficient to kill an adult who has not built up a tolerance for the drug. Boissevain obtained the drugs for her from two pharmacies in Great Barrington, Mass., near their Columbia County home, both by prescription and buying them directly. Her face grew puffy, saggy, her eyes bleary, her teeth discolored. She found it hard to write.
After the Nazis defeated the Low Countries and France in 1940 Millay opposed isolationists who were determined to keep the United States out of the war. Her 1940 collection ''Make Bright the Arrows,'' was denounced as propaganda and she was called, Ms. Milford writes, a ''premature anti-Fascist.'' Mr. Epstein said in an interview, ''Her reputation never really recovered from that book.'' Her 1942 poem ''The Murder of Lidice,'' inspired by the slaughter of Czech villagers by the Nazis, was criticized as propaganda.
When her husband died in 1949, Millay had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. After her release, she continued to drink. She had managed to bring her morphine addiction under control, but she used Seconal, a barbiturate, which was prescribed by her doctors.
In 1950 she fell from the top of the stairs at Steepletop, and died. Ms. Milford writes that when Millay was found, her head was resting on a page of her notebook that contained the penciled draft of one last poem. The final three lines had a ring drawn around them:
I will control myself, or go inside.
I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends --
gives a lovely light!
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
Sept. 6, 2001 | "People who never in all their lives, except when in school and under compulsion, have held a book of poems in their hands, might well be attracted by the erotic autobiography of a fairly conspicuous woman, even if she did write poetry." So wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay toward the end of her life, in response to a suggestion from her publisher that she put together a volume of her love poems that would contain "a mellow Foreword in retrospect" confiding "when, where, and under what impulsion" she wrote each one. As her editor knew, such a foreword -- the first-person account of a legendary amorous career that included a formidable number of men and women, single and married -- would probably wind up consuming more pages than the poems themselves.
Millay dismissed the "indelicacy" of this idea with good humor and the wit of a literary Mae West: "It may be said of me by Harper & Brothers, that although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances." But over 50 years later, with two new biographies of Millay appearing this fall -- "Savage Beauty" by Nancy Milford and "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" by Daniel Mark Epstein -- it's the poet's love life, above all, that seems likely to attract readers to the books. Few students are under any compulsion to read her verse anymore; it has fallen far out of fashion among critics and scholars. A mighty fall it was, too, for at one time Millay was phenomenally popular as well as critically acclaimed. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, she once published a book of sonnets that sold 35,000 copies in two weeks (and this was during the Depression). In 1928, her royalty income was the equivalent of $200,000 in today's dollars, and in 1938 she was voted one of the 10 most famous women in America. Thomas Hardy said that the skyscraper and Millay's poetry were the two great things to come out of America, and the critic Edmund Wilson thought she had "more character and more genius" than F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Millay belonged to nearly the last generation of poet icons, people whose lives meant as much to their admirers as their work. In her youth she flirted with the idea of becoming an actress, and the genius so many people saw in her was inextricable from her ability to look and behave exactly like her audience's notion of a divinely inspired girl poet. She traveled the country, reading to packed halls of rapt listeners in a voice described as sounding like "a bronze bell" and "an axe on fresh wood." It's not that such bards no longer exist, it's just that now they inevitably carry a guitar; singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega is a better parallel to Millay than any of the mandarins writing poetry today.
The deprivation of her childhood made Millay's later successes all the sweeter. Growing up in and around Camden, Maine, Millay -- whose mother, Cora, had divorced her husband when Edna was 7 and was frequently away from home working as a sicknurse -- had to run the household and care for her two younger sisters, Norma and Kathleen, mostly on her own. Still the family was remarkably close, weaving a charmed circle of shared games, songs, inside jokes, pet names and poetry around themselves. Many of her adult friends (including Wilson, who was also one of her paramours) observed that the true love of Edna's life was probably her mother.
As with all of Edna's relationships, the emotional volume between mother and daughter was turned up to 11. Milford includes some entries from Cora's diary in which she rages against a man (a "spineless jellyfish" in her opinion) whom her daughter took up with while the two women were visiting Paris together in the '20s: "I cannot be away from her and live, and if I stay I shall die. When he is with her my heart is hurt physically, it aches like a sore, and cries out against the outrage to my womb." Edna could be nearly as passionate when it was her turn to worry. "I think about you all the time in the daytime, and lately I dream about you at night," she wrote Cora when she was concerned about the older woman's health. "There is nothing in all the world I love so much as you."
Nevertheless, when Millay saw her chance to get out of Camden, she took off like a jackrabbit. A patron, an older woman who had heard her recite her poem "Renascence" at a party, managed to finagle her a scholarship to the women's college Vassar, where she proceeded to break the hearts of half the undergraduate class. "Renascence" became a sensation through not winning a poetry prize (the protests on Millay's behalf probably attracted more attention than nabbing first prize would have), and once out of college she moved to Greenwich Village to revel in one of the neighborhood's bohemian heydays.
There she wrote, acted in plays and consorted with other writers and artists -- "consorted" being a particularly appropriate word. She was invariably conducting several affairs at once, sometimes sleeping with three men in the same day, and driving all of them to distraction. Both biographies quote from dozens of letters whining, pleading and groveling for her favors. Wilson recollected that falling in love with her "was so common an experience, so almost inevitable a consequence of knowing her in those days." During this period, Cora (who, with her other two daughters, had soon moved to the city to live with Edna) once asked Norma, "Who is Edna killing now? Is he almost done for?"
At the same time, her poetry attracted a following stirred by her simple, spirited verse and its intimations of a glamorously modern sensual freedom. "She gave the Jazz Age its lyric voice," Milford writes, and even though most of us don't realize it, we still use an expression she invented to describe a life of impudent abandon:
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 Greenwich Village, Millay's candle lasted a bit longer than one night, but living up to her reputation proved draining and she fled her hopelessly tempestuous personal life for Europe in 1921. In a matter of weeks, she'd generated a similar mess in Paris and managed to drag it from Austria and Italy to remotest Albania and back. By the time she returned to America in 1923, she was exhausted and ill and had utterly failed in her efforts to write a novel. She then made one of the smartest decisions in a life that, for all its seeming recklessness, was characterized by a keen instinct for self-preservation: she married a wealthy Dutch importer named Eugen Boissevain.
Boissevain doted on Millay, nursed her back to health and whisked her out of the city to a farm in the Berkshires they named Steepletop. She would live there, tended lovingly by her husband, for the rest of her life, becoming even more famous and successful writing plays as well as poetry. She took up the anti-Fascist cause and early on urged U.S. intervention in World War II, writing verse that propagandized against Hitler and thereby producing what even she considered the weakest writing of her career. By the time she went back to the more intimate subjects that were her forte, it was too late to redeem her critical reputation. Ravaged by lifelong alcoholism and a more recently acquired morphine addiction, her health declined. Eugen died suddenly of lung cancer in 1949, and after an admirable attempt to rally her powers, Millay broke her neck when she fell down the staircase at Steepletop just over a year later.
The drawback of being so quintessentially of one's time, as the novelist Jay McInerney can no doubt testify, comes when that time has passed. Although Millay's late poetry was, if anything, even better than the work of her youth, she'd been brushed aside. "The fact that the direction of her progress has been from legend to success," wrote the critic Rolfe Humphries in the early '40s, "somewhat confuses discussion of her merit as an artist. If she is not taken quite seriously in this role today, it may be that she was taken too seriously twenty years ago ... placing her out of her class, over her head, instead of keeping her where she really belonged ... as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's naughty younger sister in the parlor, the last of the female Victorians." Ouch.
It doesn't seem to have occurred to Humphries that if the initial embrace of Millay as "the greatest female poet since Sappho" might have been too fervent, then perhaps her later rejection was too punitive. Strangely, neither of these two biographies tries very convincingly to resurrect Millay's rep -- at least not if that means explicitly confronting the modernist aesthetic standards that damned her as, in the words of Kenneth Tynan (an admirer, who was characterizing a view he disagreed with) "a pretty non-combatant, a delicate fashioner of pathetic parlor verse."
Her poetry was, indeed, sentimental and obvious if you compare it to cerebral, allusive, blank verse about the despair of hollow men or austere images attesting to the importance of red wheelbarrows -- but then so is Keats'. And the body of her work is uneven, but then so is Byron's. The days when poetry needed to prove a strenuous unfamiliarity with parlors are long gone, and there's something craven about any blanket repudiation of Millay's work, as if the repudiators are afraid that T.S. Eliot or some equally fastidious literary authority might come along and rap then on their knuckles with a ruler. There are fine poems to be found in these biographies (and in a new volume of Millay's poems just out from Modern Library -- though this unfortunately lacks her late, more complex work), if we're not too cowed to give them a chance.
Approaching Millay's life appears to be just as tricky as evaluating her poetry. Like Epstein, you can simply swallow hook, line and sinker the romantic legend of an irresistible goddess of both love and poetry, a woman who was "our most illustrious love poet" with a "megawatt libido" and a "powerhouse career" and whose beauty, according to Epstein, was blinding when she "took her clothes off and stood naked before a man for the first time." That's the route Epstein opts for, and his biography -- written in the two years since he discovered a cache of Millay family papers in the Library of Congress -- is probably closer to the blend of gushing adulation and tabloid leer that most of the readers picking up Milford's more high-profile book will secretly be hoping for. Epstein clearly worked himself up into quite a state writing it: his enthusings range from insisting that "there can be no more precise account of the psychic burden of the poet, the moral poet, or the anointed saint" than Millay's precocious "Renascence" to describing her college dorm as "a harem of sex-starved Vassar girls eager for same-sex experiments."
Milford, by contrast, seems to be straining against the Millay mythos. That's understandable since her book, 20 years in the making, was completed with the assistance of Norma, the sole surviving sister, who died in 1986. Milford includes a few vignettes describing how she conducted her research, working in Edna's old studio at Steepletop -- where Norma lived with her husband Charles after Edna's death -- and engaging in a complicated dance of revelation and concealment with Norma. Ever the vixen, Norma made a game of tormenting would-be Millay scholars: Milford, who calls her "merciless," tells the story of Norma flattering a stuffy "gentleman" into taking off his glasses, declaring him "adorable" without them, then bringing out some nude photos of Edna and refusing to return his specs.
Such stories do more to convey the lineaments of Edna's charisma than Epstein's belabored disquisition on the thrust and retreat techniques of master seducers. Millay obviously excelled at just that -- for all Epstein's ravings about her beauty, photos show her to be merely good-looking, and more judicious observers (mostly women) would note that though she wasn't even really pretty, she was "something better than pretty -- an exciting creature" and "a totally bewitching sort of person." Milford writes of being "wary" of the whole Millay family's "enchantment." That spell consisted of spinning a sparkling cloud of wonderment around the ballad-like story of their lives and then offering their victims morsels of that magic only to pull away before full satisfaction could be attained.
It also feels as if Milford isn't quite sure how to frame Millay's story. Her previous, phenomenally successful life of Zelda Fitzgerald was an early classic of feminist biography, revealing the many wrongs Zelda suffered at the hands of her husband, Scott. Millay, who by all logic ought to be a feminist icon, actually doesn't offer the kind of life story that usually drives such narratives, a highbrow Lifetime Channel saga of injustice and exploitation ultimately transcended when the benighted woman's talent is posthumously reclaimed and celebrated by feminist thinkers. There's no satisfying jolt of indignation to be had here. It's hard to get riled up by the spectacle of a woman who got more or less exactly what she wanted from life, at least until the very end.
Millay broke every rule and never paid the price for doing so. She was brainy and professionally successful and still men chased after her. She was shamelessly promiscuous and yet she ultimately found a husband who cherished her. She put her work first and never wound up alone and bitter because of it, having never, it seems, expressed the slightest regret at not producing a child. If there's any lesson to be learned from her life, it's that charm counts for more than virtue and that the best method for getting your way with men is not to put too much stock in them to begin with. Millay believed that romantic love was inevitably transitory, and this hard-headed attitude, despite the scenery-chewing she did when in the grip of her passion of the moment, was no doubt behind her choice of Eugen Boissevain.
Feminist scholarship has long advocated the celebration of history's unsung supporting players, and in that spirit, why not say a few words in praise of Boissevain, a man who negotiated the nigh-impossible role of a genius's husband with consummate grace? For all its breathlessness, Epstein's biography steps back more often than Milford's does to offer comment on the larger shape of Millay's life, and in the case of Boissevain he seems more aware of how extraordinary the man was. He was "so sure of his virility that no woman could threaten him" and therefore may have been one of the few men in the world capable of marrying Millay and not resenting her.
Boissevain had made a practice of marrying brilliant, glamorous women -- his first wife was a fiery activist who practically died in his arms after she collapsed while making a speech for women's suffrage -- and devoting himself to them. But Eugen was no colorless, selfless helpmeet. While Millay's poetry did and always will earn her more renown, the many friends who visited the couple in the Berkshires farmhouse usually found themselves coming for Edna and staying for Eugen. Her gift for words was at the very least matched by his gift for life. He was tall, tan and vibrant, dominating whatever room he entered and reminding one observer of the dashing film star Douglas Fairbanks. One night when the couple was on the way to a party at the American Embassy in Paris, he stopped their cab to inquire about a commotion on a bridge and wound up diving into the Seine in his evening clothes to save the life of a drowning woman.
No doubt Boissevain thought that the greatest test of his mettle had come when his wife fell in love with a poet over a decade her junior and he was called upon to live up to the couple's pledge of an open marriage even though her infatuation seemed to threaten the very bond itself. He handled this crisis with an astonishingly heroic generosity, detailed in both biographies, although to do so tortured him. She, being anything but a fool, finally came back to him. Boissevain's worst trial, however, still lay before him, and in this, at last, he failed; he couldn't wean Millay from her many addictions and eventually surrendered to morphine himself.
To discover that Millay wrote some excellent poetry constitutes the unsurprising surprise of reading these two biographies; meeting Eugen Boissevain is the sort of complete surprise that makes biographies worth reading. There are some kinds of art, like his, that don't survive after the artist perishes, and it's only in biography that we can catch an echo of them. Here, taken from Milford's book, is a quote from Alyse Powys, wife of Llewelyn Powys (one of any number of Edna's former lovers who became a friend of Eugen's) that seems the perfect note to end on:
Handsome, reckless, mettlesome as a stallion breathing the first morning air, he would laugh at himself, indeed laugh at everything, with a laugh that scattered melancholy as the wind scatters the petals of the fading poppy ... One day his house would be that of a citizen of the world, with a French butler to wait on the table and everything done with the greatest bienséance, the next the servants would have as mysteriously disappeared as bees from a deserted hive, and he would be out in the kitchen washing the dishes and whistling a haunting Slavic melody, as light-hearted as a troubadour. He had the gift of the aristocrat and could adapt himself to all circumstances ... his blood was testy, adventurous, quixotic, and he faced life as an eagle faces its flight.
In the end, perhaps the most unexpected testimonial to Millay's much-touted genius was her union with such a man.
Laura Miller is Salon's New York editorial director.
LINKS for EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY:
The Academy of American Poets
Columbia University (Bartleby)
Modern American Poetry
Page by Ilse (Swedish)
Perspectives in American Literature
Biography and poems by jus-curious
Make Bright the Arrows, 1940 NOTEBOOK, online