Nancy Milford's Edna St. Vincent Millay

September 02, 2001|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. Random House. 550 pages. $29.95.

Dead from morphine and alcohol more than a decade before the Summer of Love, dead in critical esteem for almost as long, Edna St.Vincent Millay continues a comeback that's sure to get a major boost from Nancy Milford's almost obscenely fascinating biography of this early 20th century American poet.

Young American readers may never have heard of Millay, though any American over 50 would find that hard to imagine: at the height of her career, a poll named her one of the 10 most famous women in America, which surely made her the most famous poet alive. Epithets like "movie idol" and "rock star" pale beside her reality --though a wild personal life, captivating looks and the ability to wow huge crowds make those comparisons spring to mind. No contemporary star that I can think of so fully combines Millay's brilliance and originality, intellect, craft and genius with consummate show-biz.

Myriad observers depicted Millay as a big-breasted, redheaded "elf," a near-nymphomaniac for whom love was a many-gendered thing, a Pulitizer Prize laureate, a prodigy who remained a child till she died. I like to think of her as Emily Dickinson's Revenge. "This is my letter to the World," wrote Dickinson, "that never wrote to Me --" The whole world wrote to Millay, and Millay answered, sometimes with two or three letters a day to the same person. Nancy Milford has read every one of them.

The more you think you already know about Millay, the more surprising this biography is. Who knew that one of her most lastingly famous poems, "Renascence," was written while she was a Vassar student, and it brought her fame but not first prize in the magazine contest she sent it to? Or that she was a successful playwright? Or that Millay's co-translator of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, George Dillon, was a weak minor poet Edna helped out as a grace note to her barely requited love affair with him? Or that this romance and many a flirtation were "enabled" by Millay's husband, handsome, long-suffering Eugen Boissevain? Or that Millay had a strong political conscience? Or that the deepest, most perverse love of her life was Cora, her mother?

Cora, with Millay's middle sister Norma (source of Milford's interviews, most of the correspondence and the best gossip) emerge as the bio's best characters. Free-loving, tough-talking Cora -- who supported her girls by hair-weaving, learned herbal medicine in order to abort Millay's illicit child and wrote pretty good poetry -- could spew pages of sexual jealousy against a depraved fortune hunter who dared steal Edna's caresses.

Norma enjoyed shocking Milford with her own recollected sexual exploits. Cora, Edna, Norma and youngest sister Kathleen (herself a writer) entertained gatherings by singing in quartet, as alarming an image as I've encountered in years despite ear-witnesses' praise for the Millay "girls' " magical voices.

The most magical voice remains those of Millay's poems, especially the melody and intellect of her many sonnets. Listen for them in Milford's Collected Work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, also out in September from the Modern Library for a bargain $16.95.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry and contributed two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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