EDNA MILLAY GOT her vivid and aristocratic-sounding middle name from the hospital in New York City that saved her Uncle Charlie's life. Drunk on the New Orleans waterfront, Charles Buzzell boarded a ship while it was loading grain and fell asleep on a bale of cotton in the hold. He woke to find himself pinned below deck, out of earshot and unable to move. After ten days without food or water, he saw a bright light expanding suddenly in the black hull, "& I could see through the ship as though it was made of clear glass." Rushed to St. Vincent's, he was convinced forever after that he had entered the spirit world and been reborn. He began to appear at the Globe Museum on the Bowery as "The Adventurer and Evangelist Chas. A. Buzzell, The New Orleans Stowaway." Six days after his miraculous rebirth, Edna St. Vincent Millay—nicknamed "Vincent" almost immediately—was born on Washington's birthday, February 22, 1892, in Camden, Maine.
Millay's parents were so badly matched that, as her mother Cora wryly remarked, "any crank on Eugenics would have said we were perfectly mated for the propagation of a family." Henry Millay liked to fish, to play poker, and to drink. When his industrious wife complained about his inability to hold a job, he beat her. Cora finally kicked him out in 1900, when Edna turned eight, and raised her three daughters—one blonde, one brunette, and one redhead (Edna, the eldest)—alone. A hairdresser and a self-taught nurse, she found occasional work in neighboring towns, often leaving the girls to their own devices.
Under their mother's tutelage, all the girls played the piano, wrote poetry, and acted. Cora Millay had a bohemian strain intertwined with aristocratic pretensions, a sometimes unattractive combination that she passed on to her eldest daughter. When a New Yorker profile in 1925 harped on Edna Millay's humble beginnings, her mother sent in a haughty correction: "Certain Millays owned houses and lands—but that was long ago." Still, as Cora remarked with equal pride in an interview, "The hardships that bound the children together made them stronger, and banded them together in self-defense against the world....I let the girls realize their poverty." That use of "realize" is nicely turned. In her best poetry it can be said that Edna Millay realized—acknowledged even as she made something real and lasting from—her poverty.
MILLAY’S CHILDHOOD IS a story of precocious virtuosity. She excelled at everything, and was always the leading lady in the school play, the class poet (except once, when her classmates, tired of her queenly ways, voted for the class dullard), the star. Music and poetry were her refuge from the daily grind of keeping house in ever more modest rented rooms along the rocky Maine coast. Nancy Milford, in the moving opening section of her painstaking and sympathetic biography, cites a poignant memory of Millay searching for a chord on the organ, and asking her exhausted mother for help.
We did not have the notes of it, it was something she knew by heart. I called her to help me with the chord, and she came in. She had been doing washing, and her hands, as she placed them upon the keys[,] were very pink, and steam rose from them. Her plain gold wedding ring shone very clean and bright, and there were little bubbles on it which the soap suds had left, pink, and yellow, and pale green. When she had gone and I was sure that she would not hear me, I laid my cheek softly down upon the cool keys and wept. For it had come into my mind with dreadful violence as she bent above me and placed her fingers upon the keys ... that my mother could die; and I wanted to save her from that, for I knew she would not like it; and I knew that I could not.
Poetry also came from Cora. "Mother gave me poetry," Millay wrote. Her discovery of the physical thrill of poetry was a perfect match for Emily Dickinson's famous statement that "if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Millay said of her own first encounter with poetry: "I know that it knocked the wind clear out of me, and left me giddy and almost actively sick ... when, on opening at random my mother's gargantuan copy of Shakespeare, I read the passage from Romeo and Juliet about the ‘dateless bargain’ and Death keeping Juliet as beautiful as she was in life, to be his `paramour.'" She began writing poems early, and perhaps too early learned to meet perfectly the editorial expectations of the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas. By the time she was eighteen, the cut-off age for submissions, she had won every poetry contest that the magazine offered. The awareness that poetry was a matter of prizes and editors as much as a giddy and gut-wrenching experience set her on the path of a big career—but one sometimes wishes that her eyes had not always been so firmly locked on the prize.
BY HER TWIENTIETH birthday, in 1912, Millay had written the first half of a masterpiece, the claustrophobic "Renascence," which recalls in its hammering tetrameters both her hemmed-in Maine childhood landscape and her Uncle Charlie's below-deck ordeal:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced the line Of the horizon, thin and fine, Straight around till I was come Back to where I'd started from; And all I saw from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood.
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