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Flawed Perfection

 Savage Beauty:
The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Nancy Milford
(Random House, 553 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)

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.

Two hundred lines or so detail this circular feeling of boundedness. "The sky, I thought, is not so grand;/I 'most could touch it with my hand!/And reaching up my hand to try,/I screamed, to feel it touch the sky."

What saves the poem from bathos is a verbal dexterity and self-mocking wit that is never far from light verse, as well as such Tin Pan Alley tricks as placing the reached-for rhyme first. The ending of the poem perfectly skirts the edge between grandiosity and a nimble tread:

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 heart can push the sea and land    Farther away on either hand;    The soul can split the sky in two,    And let the face of God shine through.    But East and West will pinch the heart    That can not keep them pushed apart;    And he whose soul is flat—the sky    Will cave in on him by and by.

Those last four lines, with the skittish dash and the culminating throwaway "by and by," could hardly be improved upon.

"Renascence," the title poem of Millay's first book, which appeared in 1912, was in the running for a big prize given by The Lyric Year. The much-publicized indignation of critics such as Louis Untermeyer, protesting Millay's honorable mention, was worth more to her reputation than winning would have been. The poem and the controversy also brought Millay a more discerning audience and more powerful patrons than her childhood submissions to St. Nicholas. The wealthy Caroline Dow, dean of the YWCA Training School in New York City, heard her recite "Renascence" at a party and offered to pay her way through Vassar, which Millay entered, four years older than her classmates, in 1913. It was at Vassar that the Millay legend can truly be said to have begun. A diminutive five-foot-one, never weighing more than a hundred pounds, she stood out, with her flame-red hair, waist-length as a child but pinned up at Vassar, her complementary green eyes, her trained voice, and her sexual swagger that combined a New Woman androgyny with an aristocratic remove.

THE OSTENSIBLE SUBJECT of Daniel Mark Epstein's breezy and carelessly written book—on a single page he manages to include the cliches "from the moment he laid eyes on her," "would not take no for an answer," and "went toe to toe with"--is Millay's "loves and love poems"; and Vassar gives him his first cast of characters. Epstein is fascinated by Millay's "megawatt libido" and her "harem of sex-starved Vassar girls eager for same-sex experiments right there on campus." Calling Millay "the Sappho of North Hall," he quotes liberally from love letters sent to her: "I think of you when I brush my teeth because I use the same kind of toothpaste that you do—I think of you when I bathe—for obvious reasons." Shifting gears from the prurient to the therapeutic, Epstein ascribes the "element of androgyny" in Millay's temperament and erotic life to her poetic ambition, "the cultivation of a multitude of rich voices from a profound and androgynous emotional center. If the male in her was not so firmly in touch with the female, she could never have written so insightfully of men and women in love."

This getting-in-touch-with-her-male-side stuff misses the transgressive excitement of Millay's Vassar. Millay's tastes at this time encompassed both athletic women—she described one of her lovers as "another hockey hero, cheerleader, rides horseback a lot, very boyish, not tall, but all muscle"—and effeminate men. While indulging in "both serial and simultaneous sexual relations with Katharine Tilt, Catherine Filene, Isobel Simpson, and Elaine Ralli," she also maintained an off-campus affair with an international man of mystery called Arthur Hooley. Unknown to previous biographers, Hooley was a man of disguises and aliases, shifting identities and addresses. Epstein thinks that Hooley had "something to hide" and suggests, credibly, that this something was homosexuality. He let her touch him only in the dark. "There in the darkness he would let her have her way with him," Epstein writes, "and he might use her in the way he would use a wicked little schoolboy who would not do as he had been told." "Might" marks the speculation in this passage.

FROM VASSAR--WHERE her myth lived on, to be apotheosized, some people believe, in the lesbian character Lakey in Mary McCarthy's The Group—Millay graduated to the world of Greenwich Village and its bohemia. The most eloquent witness of this period of her life is Edmund Wilson, who saw a performance of her anti-war play Aria da Capo early in 1920, and met her at a post-performance party downtown.

She was dressed in some bright batik, and her face lit up with a flush that seemed to burn also in the bronze reflections of her not yet bobbed reddish hair. She was one of those women whose features are not perfect and who in their moments of dimness may not seem even pretty, but who, excited by the blood or the spirit, become almost supernaturally beautiful. She was small, but her figure was full, though she did not appear plump. She had a lovely and very long throat that gave her the look of a muse, and her     reading of her poetry was thrilling.

Wilson was twenty-five at the time, and had never slept with a woman. Like many of Millay's lovers before and after, Wilson thought he was seducing her until he felt the hook in his mouth. Wilson's friend and colleague at Vanity Fair, the poet John Peale Bishop, swallowed the bait as well. In one scene played for comedy in both biographies, Bishop and Wilson joined Millay in bed, and divided her body at the waist between them--"with a polite exchange of pleasantries about which had the better share," Wilson recalled. (He chose below the waist.) Epstein, half-jokingly, suggests such scenes might have been the source of Millay's Jazz Age quatrain "My candle burns at both ends."

In his poignant and clear-eyed "Epilogue, 1952," which concludes The Shores of Light, Wilson tells how their friendship survived Millay's refusal of his marriage proposal. Milford, who insists on calling him Edmund Wilson, Jr., has found things in his diary not included in the memoir. When Wilson told Millay, "By the time we're fifty years old, we'll be two of the most interesting people in the United States," she replied, "You behave as if you were fifty already." But his mature presence was calming and restorative during a period when Millay was drinking heavily and going through lovers with apparent desperation. In a body of poetry in which almost no particular people are identifiable, Millay's "Portrait" is a gentle gesture of thanks to Wilson for hours spent in his company seriously discussing literature:

I could not ever nor can I to this day   

Acquaint you with the triumph and the   sweet rest   These hours have brought to me and       always bring— Rapture, coloured like the wild bird's        neck and wing,    Comfort, softer than the feathers of         its breast.

GREENWICH VILLAGE IN the 1920s was leftist, of course, and Millay moved weightlessly among the "Reds" circles of Max Eastman and John Reed. In the summer of 1927, she wrote a once-famous poem in protest of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," and managed to get herself arrested at a picket line at the Boston State House. The five-stanza poem, which employs, like The Waste Land, symbolist evocations of a blighted harvest, appeared in the New York World on August 22 and created a sensation.

   What from the splendid dead   
We have inherited--   
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed   
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.   
Evil does overwhelm  
The larkspur and the corn;   
We have seen them go under.

Despite the occasion and the parti pris, Millay's deepest instincts were hardly populist; as a propagandist, here and in the saber-rattling poems she wrote during the early years of World War II against American neutrality, she is always too much the poised and self-righteous performer. Aristocratic and apolitical, she hated the Nazis because they were vulgar and invaded civilized countries. A Cinderella who had, at least in wish, left the ashes and her two less-lucky sisters far behind her, she loved expensive gowns (ever present in her poems and her closets), champagne, English accents, and English men.

"She seemed sometimes rather British than American," Edmund Wilson wrote, "... in her quick way of talking to people as well as in her reading of her poems." As a child she fantasized about having a black mammy. Late in life she owned an estate in Columbia County, New York, and--this is the major discovery of Epstein's book--a stable of racehorses in Maryland that consumed the cash she made on her diva-like tours. (To warm up her voice she would recite the winners of the Kentucky Derby from 1875 onward.) Her marriage to a Dutch sugar importer named Eugen Boissevain, whom a close friend described as behaving "like a cruise director," gave her in the final decades of her life the stability and the European air that she required.

THE NARRATIVE OF those years, in Milford's detailed and forgiving treatment, has a ghoulish fascination, as Millay killed herself slowly and then, in a headlong pitch down a flight of stairs, once and for all. Three accidents marred her years with Boissevain. There was, first of all, her chance encounter in Chicago with a twenty-one-year-old poet named George Dillon, with whom she fell desperately in love. Their affair--with her in the driver's seat and him, timid and passive and probably gay, curled up in back--gave her material for the fifty-two sonnets of Fatal Interview, which many consider her finest work. Its mock-Elizabethan pastiches show a kind of perverse genius. I would challenge poets and English professors not familiar with Millay to name the century of lines like these: "Nay, learned doctor, these fine leeches fresh/ From the pond's edge my cause cannot remove:/Alas, the sick disorder in my flesh/Is deeper than your skill, is very love...."

In 1936 she lost the manuscripts of two books in a fire in a hotel in Florida. A couple of years later she was thrown from a moving car, suffering a back injury that was treated with large doses of morphine. By 1940 she was holed up in the upstairs rooms of Steepletop, her upstate New York estate, dosing herself heavily with morphine, alcohol, and cigarettes. On New Year's Eve, she filled out a medical chart in her notebook. The first two entries are unexceptional: "Awoke 7:30, after untroubled night. Pain less than previous day. 7:35--Urinated--no difficulty or distress." And then:

7:40--3/8 gr. M.S. [morphine] hypodermically,

    self-administered in left upper     arm + profuse bleeding, almost         instantly quenched. 7:45 to 8--smoked cigarette (Egyptian)         (mouth burns from excessive smoking) 8:15--thirsty--went to ice-box for glass     of water, but no water there. Take glass     of beer instead which do not want.         Headache, lassitude and feeling of     discomfort & stuffiness from     constipation. 8:20--cigarette (Egyptian) 9:00-- " 9:30--Gin Rickey (cigarette) 11:15--Gin Rickey 12:15--Martini (4 cigarettes) 12:45--1/4 grain M.S. & cigarette 1--pain bad & also in lumbar region.        No relief from M.S.

This deadpan record of five hours of torment is worthy of William Burroughs, or Baudelaire.

The final chapters of Milford's book read like one of Willa Cather's bitter portraits of gifted women in decline. Indeed, Boissevain's male-nurse ministrations to Millay bear an eerie resemblance to Oswald's well-meaning but ultimately unbearable care for Myra in My Mortal Enemy. During the early morning of October 19, 1950, unable to sleep, she smoked a few cigarettes and took another Seconal, wandered from her bedroom to the top of the dark staircase, pitched forward, and fell down the stairs to the landing, breaking her neck. Her head rested on a notebook with the draft of a poem in pencil. She had drawn a ring around the 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        

IT ALL MAKES one wonder what went so hideously wrong for the golden girl of the early 1920s. Milford and Epstein look to family dynamics, especially between Millay and her smothering mother and Millay and her competitive and resentful sisters. (An interesting aspect of Milford's book is the interpolated conversations between her and the "authorizer" of her official biography, Norma Millay.) Both biographers are kind to Boissevain, neither suspecting that he might have gotten some satisfaction from watching his brilliant and independent wife turn into the helpless prisoner of his care. Drug addiction, alcoholism, expensive tastes, expensive horses: these all took their toll. But what of the poetry that, after all, must be the reason why we take an interest in Edna Millay in the first place? The aristocracy of poets was, as she well knew, the true aristocracy--and where in its ranks does she stand?

For a start, it must be admitted that Millay's reputation as a writer of poems is not sufficiently inflated today to suffer puncture. Judgments from the past do not help much. In 1923, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, but four years later the prize went to the utterly forgotten Leonora Speyer. Millay's books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but so did James Whitcomb Riley's. Thomas Hardy said there were "two great things in the United States," the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and skyscrapers: an arresting opinion, surely, but also a clever way for Hardy to register his disdain for the Modernists, placing Millay above Eliot and Pound, while seeming at the same time to embrace the modernity of the New York skyline. And besides, English readers liked the Englishness of Millay's poetry, which confirmed their prejudice--Frost and Eliot benefited from it as well--that British poetry and poetic diction constituted the mainstream of poetry in English.

No one doubts Millay's extraordinary skill as a poet, what Hart Crane called her "equipment," which, in his view, was "bound to succeed to the appreciative applause of a fairly large audience." But it was that applause, as essential to her dependent solace as alcohol or morphine, that closed off the full exploration of her poetic powers. Of the two biographers, Epstein makes the greater claims for her poetry, asserting again and again that she is the great love poet of the century, or "America's foremost love poet." But Millay's love poems are among her most meretricious. The sonnet from which he takes his title, "What lips my lips have kissed," includes such unbearable bits as this: "And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain/For unremembered lads that not again/Will turn to me at midnight with a cry."

Epstein claims, absurdly, that Eliot, Moore, Frost, and Stevens "together did not produce three love poems comparable to Millay's `Pity me not because the light of day.'" Leaving aside Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which is surely some kind of love poem, Frost wrote incomparable love sonnets, including "Putting in the Seed," "The Silken Tent," and "Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same." It seems needlessly cruel to place these great sonnets, with their verbal panache and their delicate specificity, alongside Millay's verses. It is undeniable that, as Epstein claims, "Millay's lovers were flesh-and-blood men and women." But it is not true at all that "her sonnets preserve them in vivid detail." Those unremembered lads are right out of Housman, another English admirer of her poetry. Edmund Wilson was right that "when she came to write about her lovers, she gave them so little individuality that it was usually, in any given case, impossible to tell which man she was writing about."

Millay published hundreds of sonnets, and these, with rare exceptions, leave the impression of demands finely met--she wins the prize. There is a revealing passage in one of Millay's reports on a poet who had applied for a Guggenheim: "He writes nothing but sonnets. He has become so skilled in this form that he writes sonnets easily and naturally; his emotion is accustomed to being penned in this stall, and enters it willingly." The same, alas, could be said of Millay.

The exceptions are those poems in which she seems unruly in the stall. The early "Bluebeard" remains a wonderful poem, in which the secret of the pirate's castle is not his murdered wives, to whose number each disobediently curious wife is added, but a little room that he has reserved for himself:

This door you might not open, and you

    did;    So enter now, and see for what slight     thing    You are betrayed....Here is no treasure     hid,    No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring    The sought-for Truth, no heads of     women slain    For greed like yours, no writhings of     distress;    But only what you see....Look yet again:    An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.    Yet this alone out of my life I kept    Unto myself, lest any know me quite;    And you did so profane me when you     crept    Unto the threshold of this room tonight    That I must never more behold your face.    This now is yours. I seek another place.

The penultimate line too closely echoes Keats's "love and fame" sonnet, and I wish the last sentence was less grandiloquent, less like the closing of Tennyson's "Ulysses." (Frost would have found something closer to the speaking voice: "I'll find another place"?) Still, the poem is terrific in conception and execution, and it confirms Wilson's claim that Millay's great subject was not love but loneliness.

If we want to find a Millay for our times, it cannot be the Greenwich Village gamine who burned her candle at both ends. We need to find, instead, those poems that register what Wilson thought was deepest in her character, "something austere and even grim." Lyrics such as "Eel-Grass" and "Scrub" and "The Return" ("Earth does not understand her child,/Who from the loud gregarious town/Returns, depleted and defiled,/To the still woods, to fling him down....") express this austerity. So, in a different key, does her fine "Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," which I once heard Mabel Mercer recite at Carnegie Hall with unnerving effect.

One of her deepest soundings of this desolate region is the neglected sequence (unmentioned by Milford or Epstein) Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree, each sonnet of which has a fourteenth line extended to fourteen syllables. Here is the last part of the eleventh sonnet, when the speaker finds, after the snow has melted, an apron frozen on the ground:

An apron long ago in such a night   

Blown down and buried in the deepening     drift,    To lie till April thawed it back to sight,    Forgotten, quaint and novel as a gift--    It struck her, as she pulled and pried and     tore,    That here was spring, and the whole year        to be lived through once more.

That final line, in its heavy-hearted clarity and "realized" poverty, is worth any number of mock-Elizabethan sonnets strung together in Fatal Interview.  3