Best poet of all, back in the day? Prize goes to Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay among the blossoms

There it was on a book shelf, SAVAGE BEAUTY, The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. So I bought it right away and took it home for a mid-winter reading project. I’ve had no reason since to regret it.

Milford makes a creditable investigative run at one of America’s premier poets. She fills her book with juicy Millay details gleaned from reading the poet’s personal letters,

Youthful Edna

plus interviewing a surviving sister. One awesome revelation:  Edna’s parents gave her that prestigious middle name because they admired Maine’s St. Vincent Hospital.

In this debased era – when poetry is relegated to the domain of rock musical lyrics and advertising blank verse – one is more likely to encounter an honest politician strolling the boulevards than a real poet.

But there was a time in this country, during a frenetic Jazz Age, when these charming versifiers proliferated. National poetry magazines printed their stanzas, while newspapers routinely reported the results of their contests and interviewed their traveling lecturers. Even some radio stations held weekly poetry readings which attracted wide audiences. And among the bards writing during the third decade of the 20th century, one stood highest in public acclaim. I first encountered the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay as a freshman in college. It was like running into an electric shock. Here was a woman – in my eyes the undisputed poet laureate of the 1920s, a member of my parents’ generation – speaking to us rebellious youngsters of the 1940s and beyond:

Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you,
Not in a lovers’-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such a fashion, and the legend plain –
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that:
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt
I bring you, calling out as children do:
“Look what I have!—And these are all for you”

Here was someone who had taken the venerable Shakespearean sonnet, brought it up to date, and made it her own personal art form. And the writing was so clear, neat, terse and learned. The sonnet is a simple vehicle. It starts with an octet of two quatrains, followed by a sestet composed of a quatrain and a couplet. Nature must have created it to permit thwarted romantics to vent – especially in those two pithy and profound lines at the end. Yet she was equally masterful in the ballad and other rhyme schemes:

In the spring of the year, in the spring of the year,
I walked the road beside my dear.
The trees were black where the bark was wet.
I see them yet, in the spring of the year.
He broke me a bough of the blossoming peach
That was out of the way and hard to reach.
In the fall of the year, in the fall of the year,
I walked the road beside my dear.
The rooks went up with a raucous trill.
I hear them still, in the fall of the year.
He laughed at all I dared to praise
And broke my heart, in little ways.
Year be springing or year be falling,
The bark will drip and the birds be calling,
There’s much that’s fine to see and hear,
In the spring of a year, in the fall of a year.
Tis not love’s going that hurts my days,
But that it went in little ways.

Edna’s past and her poetry reveal that her romantic life had been rocky, a series of emotional calamities which dominated her work. Like Shakespeare she had perfected the role of tormented lover. Can you think of any persona who would appeal quicker to a tormented teenager? The elderly and middle-aged seemed to like her, too:

Pity me not because the light of day
At close of day no longer walks the sky;
Pity me not for beauties passed away
From field and thicket as the year goes by;
Pity me not the waning of the moon,
Nor that the ebbing tide goes out to sea,
Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,
And you no longer look with love on me.
This love I have known always: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

Edna got an early start in her chosen profession. Her mother, Cora, herself an accomplished poet and musician, tutored her precocious daughter in both arts. An early Edna attempt:

I know a hundred ways to die.
I’ve often thought I’d try one:
Lie down beneath a motor truck
Some day when standing by one.

I know some poison I could drink.
I’ve often thought I’d taste it.
But mother bought it for the sink,
And drinking it would waste it.

By age 15 her works were becoming more mature and were being published in children’s magazines. One even made it into an adult poetry publication. It is fascinating to read how youngsters of Edna’s era managed to become educated though lacking student loans, federal grants, and the bountiful scholarships of today. It involved talent, hard work, home schooling and lots of luck.

At age 19 she finished her first long lyric poem “Renasance” which failed to win a prize in a poetry contest, but caught the eye of judges and the public. More importantly it attracted the attention of several wealthy women who financed her college enrollment.

Once graduated from Vassar (class of 1917), Edna took her diploma and headed straight for New York’s Greenwich Village, a flower-child habitat long before the word “hippie’ had been invented. It was a celestial playpen for poets, playwrights, painters, novelists, editors, and drunken bums.

Diving deeply into her Bohemian milieu, Edna practiced cursing until she could pass as a native. After that came constant drinking and smoking, followed by a scandalous

Edna protesting executions

number of sexual escapades. She slept with both men and women, amassing a string of infatuations the pain of which would color her verses until the end.  To begin, she became the inamorata of a literary type, Floyd Dell, writer for the radical magazine, the Masses. After him came a round of romances – editors, publishers, and poets – which lasted until she married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch businessman. She was semi-faithful to him for most of her wedded life.

One natural bodily function in any Bohemian society is the protest march. Edna became a skilled practitioner of this progressive art form, hitting the pavement with likes of Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker and Michael Gold. They demanded justice in the celebrated case of Nicola Sacco and Barttolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants tried for robbery and murder. Protests sparkled with names of the famous, but the pair was executed anyway.

Her life on the wild side occasionally peeped out coyly from her verses:

I had a little sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”

Alas for pious planning–
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My little Sorrow would not weep,
My little Sin would go to sleep–
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!

So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by –
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I,
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”

But the Roaring Twenties couldn’t last forever. The decade terminated with a bang in the 1930s, igniting a smothering economic Depression and a tumble toward world war. Edna had written the era’s epitaph with her most famous quatrain, which also served as her life’s signature and as a cry for freedom to future restless generations:

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.

Edna sailed on through the 1930s gathering acclaims and awards along the way. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was granted no fewer than five doctorate degrees from colleges and universities.
She wrote a number of plays and the libretto for one major opera. Edna also lectured on her poetry from coast to coast, wrote short stories under a pseudonym, and pioneered the reading of poetry selections over radio. But as the 1930s waned and war madness again gripped nations, she forsook love interests for a role as tocsin for freedom. Her poem, “Czecho-Slovakia,” limned the times, as that betrayed land was abandoned by its friends and ravaged by Nazis:

If there were balm in Gilead, I would go,
To Gilead for your wounds, unhappy land
Gather you balsam there, and with this hand,
Made deft by pity, cleanse and bind and sew
And drench with healing, that your strength might grow;
(Though love be outlawed, kindness contraband)
And you, O proud and felled, again might stand;
But where to look for balm, I do not know.
The oils and herbs of mercy are so few;
Honour’s for sale; allegiance has its price;
The barking of a fox has bought us all;
We save our skins a craven hour or two.—
While Peter warms him in the servants’ hall
The thorns are platted and the cock crows twice.

Years were spent manufacturing propaganda verses supporting the Allied war effort. It was as though a sleek, brilliant little pony had been condemned to hard labor pulling a

Edna and Eugen

lumber wagon. Known widely for her liberal, anti-war, anti-death penalty views, Edna was forced to shelve every belief to combat a great evil loosed on the world.  Complaining that she was writing “acres of bad poetry,” She felt the strain intensely. Even before World War II ended she suffered a nervous breakdown, becoming an alcoholic addicted to morphine and barbiturates.

Staunchly by her side during her hospitalization was husband Eugen, who early in their marriage had appointed himself Edna’s manager, keeper, bodyguard, chef, and confidant. He regulated the household to the extent that Edna had little to do all day except eat, drink, and compose poetry. If she seemed to be tiring during parties, he frequently would pick her up, carry her upstairs, and put her to bed. Then he would descend and entertain the guests the rest of the evening with jokes and stories.

So close were they, that when Edna became addicted to morphine, so did Eugen. She wrote several sonnets to him, including this one, which likened their marriage to a fortress town “builded without fault or stain.” Should it fail, Edna vowed, “No mortal roof shall shelter me again:”

Believe, if ever the bridges of this town,
Whose towers were builded without fault or stain,
Be taken and its battlements go down,
No mortal roof shall shelter me again;
I shall not prop a branch against a bough
To hide me from the whipping east or north,
Nor tease to flame a heap of sticks, who now
Am warmed by all the wonders of the earth.
Do you take ship unto some happier shore
In such event, and have no thought for me,
I shall remain;–to share the ruinous floor
With roofs that once were seen far out to sea;
To cheer a mouldering army on the march …
And beg from spectres by a broken arch.

Edna miraculously fought through her addictions and was beginning to write again when she received a final blow. On August 29, 1949, Eugen died of lung cancer. One year and one month later she followed him in a fatal fall down the stairs in her home, Steepletop, at the town of Austerlitz, New York State.

Could any verse of hers bare the mystic nature of a true poet? Perhaps only this:

I had forgotten how the songs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.

I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Best poet of all, back in the day? Prize goes to Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. You have mentioned very interesting details ! ps decent site.

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