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The sad fate of Edna St Vincent Millay – America’s once celebrated poet

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St Vincent Millay Daniel Mark Epstein

Yale, pp.416, 25

In June 1957, Robert Lowell attended a poetry reading by E.E. Cummings. Sitting dutifully and deferentially alongside him were Allen Tate, W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido and the classical scholar William Alfred, ‘while Cummings read outrageous and sentimental poems, good and bad of both kinds’. They were not alone: ‘About eight thousand people listened.’ But you can tell from Lowell’s adjectives – ‘outrageous and sentimental’ – that Cummings’s reputation is already on the slide.

Edna St Vincent Millay’s diaries record a reading in Waco on 10 January 1930: ‘In spite of icy streets, really dangerous & cold weather, abt. 1500 people present.’ In 1934, Millay took Laurence Olivier and his first wife Jill Desmond to supper at the Savoy Grill. She had a disappointing lunch with Somerset Maugham in Cap Ferrat – ‘somehow it was not very much fun’. She collected honorary degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Russell Sage College, New York University, Tufts University and Colby College: ‘I confess that I love them. I love the gown, & the mortar-board with the gold tassel, & the pretty coloured hoods.’ (So did Marianne Moore, who once modelled her many degree hoods for Elizabeth Bishop.) Millay’s tax return in 1928 recorded an income of $22,000 in royalties from books, plays and readings – $350,000 in current values. She was a popular and critical success. Edmund Wilson admired her poetry so much he proposed to her. Thomas Hardy said only two good things had come from America – skyscrapers and Edna St Vincent Millay.

She died an alcoholic and morphine addict on 19 October 1950, aged 58, falling downstairs after heart failure. A full glass of wine was at the top of the stairs. In 1956, she was omitted from John Hayward’s Penguin Book of English Verse. She isn’t included in the fifth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. She always had a low opinion of anthologies: ‘Max [Eastman] doesn’t mind anthologies, as such. I hate ’em.’

Will Rapture and Melancholy revive interest in her? The spirited, rackety life, bi-sexually active, unconventional, outspoken, promises salacious disclosures. In fact, the diaries are intermittent and lapse when she is otherwise engaged. It is as if she has signed an NDA. The most indiscreet moment occurs in Paris in 1934:

To Maxim’s for supper. Had a wild gay time, I got lovely tight. Instructed the taxi-driver to take us to a perfectly dreadful place, all naked girls walking about or sitting on your lap, or spiriting twenty-franc pieces off the table either with the derrière or the devant.

Her bisexuality is confined to the editorial annotation. But there is one moment, at Vassar: ‘Love to dance. And Catherine makes a wonderful man. She was swell-looking & swell-feeling last night.’

The first 100 pages are hard going. Two long sections of cast-iron whimsy, the first addressed to a fictitious ‘Ole Mammy Hush-Chile’, succeeded by an equally emetic Imaginary Lover. In a shrewd moment, the young Millay comments accurately: ‘I suffer from inflammation of the imagination and a bad attack of ingrowing temperament.’ The mature Millay is tougher.

In 1921 she visits Versailles:
The palace was too big: there was no doubt about that. It took me an hour & a half to walk through it, one floor of it. And if you were a queen it would take you longer, because everyone would be looking at you, & you would not be wearing low-heeled Oxfords & a short tweed skirt.

A disguised credo. Her best poetry is marked by accurate touches – not enough of them – and the same is true of the diaries: ‘I dumped a lot of the bath-salts… into my bath, & it left a mauve line around the tub, & the whole place smelled like a whorehouse.’ In an Albanian hospital, she is unflinching: ‘(Go back & describe tumor in paper bag & enlarged artery that had been taken out…).’

The poetry, marred by inversions and overstatement – ‘I see the universe unrolled/ Before me like a scroll and read thereon/ Chaos and Doom’ – can intermittently command our assent. There is rain like a ghost: ‘Grey shawl, and leaning on the wind,/ And the garden showing through.’ There is orgasm: ‘And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain/ For unremembered lads that not again/ Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.’ As clumsy as Hardy, but irrefutable.

And one great, constrained sonnet, ‘If I should learn’, in which Millay imagines learning about a lover’s death by reading the back page of a commuter’s newspaper on the subway:

I should not cry aloud – I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place –
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Everything here is exact, especially the perfectly judged, mimetic, disrupted metre of ‘With a more careful interest on my face’. Heartbreak and keeping up appearances.

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