Monday, April 18, 2011

Savage Beauty: A Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my foes and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!
(First Fig by EVM)
This biography by Nancy Milford has been on my shelf a long while. I'm sure I read reviews of it and put it on my list when it came out, and then one of my writing gods, John Crowley, wrote tantalizingly about it on his blog, so I bought a copy on one of my next bookstore trips. I spent a good part of this March and early April finally reading it, and oh, what a page turner! I love a good literary biography, and I've particularly enjoyed those about my favorite women authors.

Some of my favorite biographers are Hermione Lee who wrote about Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton -- all very smart and well done; the late Julia Briggs also wrote a life of Woolf that I liked very much; Jan Marsh's Christina Rossetti and Juliet Barker's The Brontes are standouts.

First of all, I always thought Edna St. Vincent Millay was a grand name for a poet, and I love lyric poetry of her type and her era. But really, I didn't know that much about her life. I suppose I imagined one of those faintly patrician New England families who sent their daughters to schools like Vassar in the 2os. I was quite wrong about at least one of those assumptions. She went to Vassar alright, but as a "special case" with money drummed up by an interested benefactor on the strength of the poetry she had already written as a young woman and published.

Born in rural, coastal Maine, Millay and her two sisters were daughters of a single mother -- the imposing Cora Buzzell Millay, who had sent her ne'er-do-well husband packing (he is a very pathetic figure in the biography) when the girls were very young, despite the fact that they were quite impoverished and existed very much at the margins of society, where only helpful family members and her own employment kept them with a roof over their head and food to eat. My sympathy was won when reading about how the very young Edna had to keep house and take care of her sisters when her mother was working as a nurse in remote locations -- often for weeks, if not months at a time. It was Edna who had to buy and ration the food that was bought from the money sent home by their mother; who kept the girls groomed and dressed; who made sure everyone went to school and did their homework -- not the most poetic existence in the world. But that is part of what makes her story so extraordinary.

Milford's book is really masterful. Not only does she write well and lucidly, the research is impeccable. While I'm always impressed with how the best biographers can create a vivid life of someone long gone -- except for the written records left behind (often scant and of some far more secretive subjects than others), one of the joys of this book are the little vignettes that Milford includes of her conversations (and negotiations) with Edna's only living sister, Norma Millay, the keeper of the flame, and the gatekeeper of all things to which one might want to gain access if one were writing a biography. Norma died in 1986 and the biography was published in 2001, so that gives some idea of how long Milford was at work on her subject.

Norma seems somewhat Sphinx-like, careful of her sister's reputation, devoted, but also sly, hinting at just enough to lead a scholar on, but then slamming the door shut knowingly and playfully, just when too much might be revealed. For example, she tells Milford some of the things that she destroyed, including one "indiscreet" letter and also some film, pornographic in nature, if she is to be believed (and it's certainly no stretch, considering all the rest of the evidence for Edna's adventurous sexual life) of Edna and her husband Eugen -- home movies, if you will.

There's also something faintly creepy about Norma. Here's one bit Milford includes, in which Norma is showing her some relics from their girlhood:
"But look what Mother made for us," Norma said, as she lifted out of a trunk three identical porcelain-faced dolls -- identical except for their hair. One was dark, and one was blond, and one was fiery red. Norma asked me if I wanted to hold them, and I didn't. They seemed to me spooky, lying in their old muslin clothes, but their hair was real, all right, and richly colored, and dead.

When I said that I found the dolls macabre, Norma thought I meant dirty. "No, Nancy, the hair was washed. Mother washed our hair before she used it." Here was some fragment of their real bodies and Norma wanted me to touch them as she fondled their hair, as if they were relics. I recoiled from them as if they were tiny pieces of flesh.
Just a whiff of the Gothic there, yes?

Edna was a rock star in her day -- back when poets could still have that kind of impression on the popular mind -- she did extensive reading tours at the height of her fame, including my burg of Louisville, KY (of which I'm sure the local newspaper records are readily available -- I just need to dig them out), where she packed the houses and left reporters rather breathless in their wonderment at her voice, her theatrical style of reading, her flaming red hair, and romantic gowns. It must have been quite something to see. She was the New Woman -- a modern, outspoken, fully emancipated woman, and artist, who drove both sexes equally to distraction, and took advantage of every conquest.

Marriage didn't stop the love affairs, and one of the many fascinating aspects of her life, is the way her husband Eugen fitted himself to Edna's needs. At first he seems like the subservient nursemaid, always guarding her fragile health and time, providing her comforts (thought not necessarily the money for them), her opportunities for extracurricular activities, and then it all takes a turn in later years, when he is feeding her addictions (albeit with the best intentions) and isolating her almost exclusively to himself -- a source of great conflict for Norma and the younger sister, Kathleen.

Rather than re-tell the entire life here in a blog post, I wholeheartedly recommend that you acquire the biography, which to me, reads like a good novel anyway. And, in a weird little personal anecdote of my own, I'll close with how, when I was burrowing through my bookshelves, I found my first editions of some of Millay's poetry -- collected when I was still in graduate school, although Millay wasn't part of my studies at all. At the same time I also collected some other poetry of that era, including a complete Robert Graves (who was part of my research). Idly flipping open the flyleaf of Graves, I found it inscribed by none other than William Rose Benet -- brother of Stephen Vincent, husband of the poet Elinor Wylie, both of whom were close friends of Edna's. The book had been in William's possession -- it had his address on a little bookplate in the corner, in addition to his signature. I had never once took any notice of it before, but the name rang a bell this time because I had just been reading about him in Milford's book. Weird, eh?

So I'm not sure what I'm on to next. Poetry now calls my attention, but maybe something completely different, too. It's about time for a science break. I'm thinking about turning my brain to goo with some physics by Brian Greene. Has anyone read The Elegant Universe?