No star in the American literary firmament during the first half of the twentieth century shined as brightly and plummeted as precipitously as did Edna St. Vincent Millay. A female Byron, she was a passionate poet who aroused the passions of many others, male and female. Millay was as seductive in person as in print, and no one, not even Robert Frost, was as popular and provocative on the reading circuit. The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1923), Millay, voted one of the ten most famous women in America in 1938, was as famous for her flamboyant, unconventional life as for her plangent if conventional verse. Thomas Hardy quipped that, along with skyscrapers, Edna St. Vincent Millay was one of two great things in America. As late as 1939, Harvard president James Conant was introducing her on the radio as “the greatest woman poet since Sappho.” Yet the revolution in style and sensibility led by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams bypassed Millay, and well before her death in 1950, her metrical, rhymed poetry had come to seem quaint, an epigone’s echo of nineteenth century Romanticism. To contemporary poets and the readers of contemporary poetry, Millay is less scorned than ignored.
Millay’s eventful but relatively brief life was sensational, even lurid. Yet there would seem no need to supersede three existing biographies—Vincent Sheean’s The Indigo Bunting (1951), Miriam Gurko’s Restless Spirit (1962), and Norman A. Brittin’s Edna St. Vincent Millay (1982)—except to provide new information and to revive Millay’s reputation. Nancy Milford, whose best-selling 1970 biography Zelda drew F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife out from the shadow of her famous husband, attempts to do both. She was granted exclusive access to Millay’s papers by her surviving sister, Norma Millay Ellis, and she was sufficiently convinced of the poet’s enduring merits to have edited The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which was published by Random House in a Modern Library edition simultaneously with Milford’s biography. While eager to counter the neglect of Millay’s life and work, Milford, who worked on Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay for almost thirty years, cannot have been especially pleased by the simultaneous publication of a rival biography—Daniel Mark Epstein’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Readers curious about Millay’s poetry might best turn to Epstein, himself a poet. Those intent on immersing themselves in the sometimes sordid details of her life will find Milford an able and assiduous guide.
Milford interrupts her narrative periodically to interpolate conversations she had with an aging Norma Millay Ellis, the poet’s executor and only heir. Otherwise, Savage Beauty is a chronological account, documented with quotations from letters, notebooks, diaries, poems, and drafts, of a phenomenal career. It begins as a kind of fairy tale, the story of three pretty little sisters—blonde, brunette, and redhead—growing up poor in Camden, Maine. Edna St. Vincent, called “Vincent” by Milford as she was by those who knew her and named for the New York hospital in which her uncle was saved from death, was the eldest, born in 1892. She was followed by Norma in 1893 and Kathleen in 1896. Cora, their fiercely devoted mother, was remarkably independent and outspoken, and in 1900 she dismissed her feckless husband, Henry, whom Vincent never saw again. In order to provide for her three girls, Cora, whom Milford contends remained, despite everything, the love of Vincent’s life, took distant nursing jobs. In her absence, the oldest daughter functioned as head of the household.
Millay manifested precocious literary abilities, assembling a chapbook she titled Poetical Works of Vincent Millay by age sixteen. At twenty, she submitted a long poem, “Renascence,” to a contest conducted by a literary magazine called The Lyric Year, whose married editor, Ferdinand Earle, began a torrid correspondence with the coy young author. Though it received only honorable mention, “Renascence” created a commotion and prompted affluent Caroline B. Dow to pay the poet’s way through Vassar College. Despite her meager academic background and her humble pedigree,...
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