The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
By Nancy Milford
Random House, 527 pp., $29.95
Her being the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923? Her standing-room-only readings before rapt audiences in towns such as Boston, New York, and San Francisco, Dayton, Durham, and Des Moines? Her high critical reception one decade, mixed reception the next, then what? And why did talk of her poems invariably turn to talk of her?
Kenneth Tynan, a critic not known for foaming at the mouth, called Millay "a ravaged observer of the human plight," not a "pretty non-combatant [or] delicate fashioner of pathetic parlor verse."
Edmund ("Bunny") Wilson, one of many lovers and no slouch in the critic department, believed her to be "one of the sole surviving masters of English verse" -- though, by the mid-1930s, even Wilson had to concede that, along with Auden and Eliot, she "seems to be going to pieces."
Arthur Ficke, poet and friend, also saw her go to pieces (and may himself be doing likewise) when he wrote: "[Millay] appeared at a moment when American youth had need of her ... [for] the lesson of beauty that she taught them: for the revolt she expressed was not merely away from a stuffy prison [but] also toward an open meadow ... there was an unmistakable wind of pure dawning in what she did."
Robert Frost, who confessed to admiring her "less flippant verse," was rather less keen on her "lesson of beauty" and "unmistakable wind" but had to give her credit: "Miss Millay is a great audience killer. ... She loses nothing of course by her reputation for dainty promiscuity."
But it was a critic named Rolfe Humphries who may have got it right in the end (and who gets us back inside that parlor) when he wrote in The Nation in 1941: "[T]he fact that the direction of her progress has been from legend to success somewhat confuses discussion of her merit as an artist. If [Millay] is not taken quite seriously in this role today, it may be that she was taken too seriously twenty years ago ... placing her out of her class, over her head, instead of keeping her where she really belonged ... as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's naughty younger sister in the parlor, the last of the female Victorians, and in that sense only, the herald of the Coming Woman."
On the subject of Nancy Milford's big, new biography of Millay, Savage Beauty, however, it's the poet herself who got it right -- by sidestepping talk of open meadows and pure dawnings and by cutting right to the chase if your object is national attention. When the idea of a "mellow Foreword in retrospect" was suggested to Millay for a collection of poems in 1948, she responded: "People who never in all their lives, except when in school and under compulsion, have held a book of poems in their hands might well be attracted by the erotic autobiography of a fairly conspicuous woman, even if she did write poetry."
Well, Millay did write poetry, recited it, sold it at unheard-of rates, but if it's crude erotics you want that's not what you get in Milford's book. It is, though, comprehensive, if by "comprehensive" you do not mean a critical appraisal of Millay's work but do mean whom Millay was bedding and what Millay was writing, drinking, downing, or just plain surviving. On contemporary currents in poetry or poets she influenced or was influenced by, you'll read next to nothing here. (Is Daniel Mark Epstein's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, also new this September, better on this sort-of important topic?)
Milford, however, does have her advantage. Right off her bestselling bio of Zelda Fitzgerald in the '70s she got hold of Millay's surviving sister Norma and with her the trust to go ahead and dig into: Millay the homemaker for two younger sisters while mother Cora was out of the house, off nursing, off cutting hair (after getting rid of Millay's father, and he, her); Millay the Vassar woman winning the hearts of Vassar women; Millay the Greenwich Village bohemian winning the hearts of male leftists and male literary types; Millay the poet writing poems with one foot in the 19th century, another in the 20th (footing left in the 21st?); Millay burning a candle at both ends; Millay apparently not much affected by World War I; Millay apparently not much affected by the Depression; Millay writing brave words in response to Hitler's rise; Millay in and out of love, in and out of the country, crisscrossing the country on tours, then winding up married to a Dutch importer named Eugen, who cared for her in adulthood as she was not cared for as a child. Then, by the '40s: gin, poems, Dilaudid, another affair, poems, morphine, the death of Eugen in 1949, and a year later, a fall down a flight of stairs and the death of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Coming Woman gone and went.
Read Savage Beauty, learn from it. But see if this month's Modern Library selection of poems by Millay rounds out the story, confirms her talent or raises some doubts. Editor and introducer: Nancy Milford.