Millay's Renaissance

In their competing books, Daniel Mark Epstein and Nancy Milford explore Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems and passions.

October 09, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

The girl-poet from Camden, Maine, scattered words behind her like bits of bread. Perhaps they were meant to mark her trail so she could find her way back home. Or, perhaps she intended all along to create a feast for the birds.

Two biographers, Daniel Mark Epstein and Nancy Milford, have picked up each crumb that Edna St. Vincent Millay dropped on her path. Besides the late poet and her younger sister, Norma, they are the only two people ever to have read Millay's private diaries and voluminous correspondence.

The result is two new books published within three weeks of each other. One is Milford's Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Random House, $29.95) which was 28 years in the making and lays claim to being the definitive biography of the waif/love goddess/poet.

The other, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Henry Holt and Co., $26), is a book by one poet about another. Unlike Milford, Epstein makes no attempt to be all-inclusive. Instead, he sets out to link Millay's love sonnets with the men and women who inspired them.

The Baltimore writer shuttled back and forth between his home in Roland Park and the Library of Congress, where he combed through 20,000 items crammed into six filing cabinets. But the more he learned, the more elusive Millay seemed. He remembers visiting her gravesite under the laurels in Steepletop, her beloved home in New York's Berkshire Mountains:

"I walked up the hill to her little burial plot, and I had this tremendous feeling of sadness," he says. "I thought about how much she was loved, how much she earned the world's respect and lived life to the hilt. And yet, she was this bottomless pit of need. How could someone with her capacity for joy have been so unhappy?"

How, indeed?

The public takes notice

Millay's childhood was hard, but eventually, she had virtually every good thing life offers: rare talent, wealth, public adulation, and a physical magnetism that ensnared nearly any man - and woman - whom she desired.

She was just 20 years old when her poem Renascence was published in The Lyric Year in 1912. The author's precocity was obvious and unmistakable; the poem seemed to indicate a degree of talent found no more than once or twice in each generation. The unknown young woman from a small Maine town was lavished with the same sort of worshipful attention accorded in other cultures to pure-white buffalo.

And that was before anyone in New York had set eyes on her.

Epstein says she was regarded as the most seductive woman of her age, and the book provides ample documentation of her erotic fascination. One lover, George Dillon, wrote a poem describing her body as being "woven as if of flame and snow." The poem concludes:

I shall not be again

So jarred in every joint,

So mute, amazed and taut,

And winded of my breath -

Beauty being at my throat

More savagely than death.

That said, photographs of Millay must miss something crucial. Modern viewers see not an arresting beauty, but a pleasant-looking woman with an angular face who almost disappears in her clothes. The most striking thing about her is her red hood of hair.

And yet, Dillon wasn't the only person to be so afflicted. Millay literally had more lovers than she could count. One of her most delicately wistful sonnets begins: "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why/ I have forgotten ... "

Poetry may have made her famous, but her lifestyle made her notorious. She chose lovers without regard to gender (as an undergraduate, she cut a wide swath through Vassar College's all-female student body), age differences (Dillon was 15 years her junior) or marital status (hers or theirs). She was happily wed for 25 years to Eugen Boissevain - in part because her husband not only accommodated, but encouraged, her affairs.

In later years, she consumed a staggering amount of alcohol and drugs until the day in 1950 that she was found at the bottom of the stairway, in a silk dressing gown, a notebook by her side. She had broken her neck.

Changing times

Doubtless, Millay's bohemian lifestyle and dramatic readings of her poems helped win a popular audience. At the height of her fame, Millay's annual income from royalties had the buying power of $300,000 in today's dollars. One book, Wine from These Grapes, sold 35,000 copies in the first eight weeks after it was published - and that was at the height of the Great Depression. The critics were no less enthusiastic. In 1923, Millay became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was 31 years old.

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