Saturday, 2 January 2016

Siren Songs - Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay must surely be the only poet loved by both Thomas Hardy and Dave Garroway. In Hardy's view, America had produced two cultural artifacts that could be considered great—the skyscraper and Millay's verse. When Garroway was the host of “Wide Wide World,” one of television's first magazine shows (1955 to 1958), he signed off after every broadcast by reciting four lines from the last stanza of “Renascence,” a poem written by Millay when she was nineteen: 

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky—
No higher than the soul is high.

The audience of “Wide Wide World” probably knew where the lines came from. Millay had been hugely popular between the two world wars. A volume of her sonnets sold fifty thousand copies in the depths of the Depression. Hardy and Garroway weren't her only unlikely fans. Arthur Symons compared her to Keats and Poe; Kenneth Tynan loved her dramatic verse; and Edmund Wilson called her “one of the only poets writing in English . . . who have attained to anything like the stature of great literary figures.” But rarely has an idol so widely revered suffered such a drastic devaluation in her own lifetime. Millay received what the French call a coup de vieux— a brutal and sudden blow of age—and it fell at about the same moment on her beauty and her reputation.

For more than a decade, 1935 to 1946, Millay was a serious junkie. At the peak of her addiction, the “elfin” poet, five feet one inch and a hundred pounds, was dosing herself around the clock with nearly two hundred milligrams of morphine a day (ten is the standard dose for a terminal cancer patient). By the time she died, at fifty-eight, in October of 1950, she had reduced her abject dependence on narcotics, though even after several hospitalizations for alcohol- and drug-related nervous breakdowns she defined sobriety as restricting her daily liquor intake to a litre and a half of wine. While there were no witnesses to her death (Millay had been widowed for a year and was living alone on her country estate, Steepletop, near Austerlitz, New York), the scene, like many from her life and work, seems overplayed, as if fate had resorted to an old screenwriter's cliché. Working late and drinking hard, Millay pitched down a dark flight of stairs and broke her neck. The next day, a hired man found the corpse in a silk dressing gown on the bloodstained landing. Millay's head was resting beside a notebook that contained the draft of a poem. She had circled its last three lines:

I will control myself, or go inside.
I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.

Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain, had no children and had wanted none. “I have never settled down,” she once told an interviewer. “I could never have married the kind of person with whom I would have had to settle down. . . . My husband is responsive to my every mood. That's the only way in which I can live and be what I am.” Her estate passed to a younger sister, Norma Millay Ellis. There had been another sister, Kathleen, a minor poet, novelist, and paranoid who died in 1943, and a formidable, self-sacrificing mother, Cora, who also wrote poetry but had supported her girls (she was divorced from their hapless father) as an itinerant practical nurse and weaver of hairpieces. All the Millays sewed, swept, cooked, laundered, sang, acted, and were lovely. If the poet's hardscrabble but artistic New England girlhood reads like “Little Women,” by the time her sisters and mother joined her in the seething Greenwich Village of its glory days, just after the First World War, their family life had become a bohemian takeoff of that Puritan morality tale, with Vincent, as she was called, hogging the roles of both Amy and Jo, and Marmee-Cora rolling the cigarettes, slugging back the gin, and telling the shockable Edmund Wilson that she “had been a slut herself so why shouldn't her girls be?” The Millay “theater piece”—as Nancy Milford observes in “Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay” (Random House; $29.95), which will be published this fall—was “their story of triumph over adversity, one of the best women's stories there is in America: hopeful, enduring, centered in family, and fraudulent . . . because it was built on so much unadmitted pain.”

It's striking how many writers of both sexes have been offspring of mothers like Cora Millay, exceptional women disappointed in marriage and thwarted in ambition and desire who give all and ask for nothing except that the special child live gloriously enough for two. It's also striking how often their children, though they may be self-serving and rebellious in other respects and relations, shoulder the burden of making such mothers complete—giving them an enhanced reality—and perhaps that task, inherently impossible to finish, is fundamental to art. The farewell letter that Cora wrote to Edna as her daughter was about to sail from New York for Paris, in 1921, to become a foreign correspondent for Vanity Fair, suggests the archetypal bond from the mother's point of view: “There can be no real separation for two like us.” A stanza that Edna wrote after Cora's death, in 1931, captures it from the child's:

In this mound, and what's beneath,
Is my cure, if cure there be;
I must starve, or eat your death
Till it nourish me.

After Edna's death, her sister Norma moved into Steepletop, where she slept in the poet's bed and left the dead woman's clothes hanging in the closet. Norma published an edition of the “Collected Poems,” but, rudely or coyly depending upon the suitor, blocked access to the juicy papers, intending one day to write what she called “The Biography.” In 1972, when she was seventy-eight, Norma finally decided that this task might better be entrusted to a sympathetic profes-sional, and her choice fell upon Milford, whose life of Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay's contemporary, was one of the big literary events of the feminist new wave—the first liberation of a madwoman from the attic—selling more than a million copies. When Norma died in 1986, Milford was fourteen years along and only halfway to her last page. In 1999, another potential biographer, Daniel Mark Epstein, himself a poet, discovered that the unpublished diaries, journals, and letters Milford had been working with—some twenty thousand documents—were now at the Library of Congress, and he soon secured permission from a new executor to consult them. Epstein's life, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay” (Henry Holt; $26), will also be published this fall, along with “The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay” (Modern Library; $16.95), edited and introduced by Milford.

“Savage Beauty” is a five-hundred-page distillation that was nearly thirty years in the making. “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,” half the size, was researched and written in about eighteen months. But haste can sometimes, paradoxically, work to a biographer's advantage. It spares one from the fatigue, introspection, disillusionment, eclipse of an overview, corrosion of confidence, and mixed emotions attendant upon any long and troubled intimacy (but also essential to understanding it). There is something to be said in art as in love for the week of living dangerously, and Millay kept saying it. A life as messy as hers—glittering but repetitive—and an oeuvre as uneven can benefit from compression. Epstein's chronicle is well researched and briskly narrated, without an iota of wit but with intelligence, and his ear is often keener than Milford's for the telling quote. He makes at least two revelations she seems to have missed—of Millay's first homosexual experience, with a girl in Maine, and of her late, ruinous obsession with horse racing. If only his style were not so perfervid, so riddled with italics, so defensive—even surly—about his status, in relation to Milford, as the tenacious underdog. While Epstein is eager to rehabilitate Millay's “genius” and to restore her to what he believes is her rightful place as one of the great love poets of all time, he does little to convince the reader of his claims beyond using adjectives like “immortal.” He is more persuasive in establishing Millay's bona fides as a “sex goddess,” frothing over her “red integuments” and “secret circles and folds”; her petite, “34-22-34” figure with its “surprisingly large” breasts; and the “crimson flame of her hair—not carrot-colored, let no one call it that.” He adds that there is “a beautiful switch of the poet's hair still kept in her bureau drawer in tissue, eerily as fresh and vivid as the day it was harvested. . . . I have heard that a man before me fainted at the sight of it.” According to Epstein, “poetry is the exercise of hyperbole.” But biography isn't.

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