- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

What Lord Byron was to early 19th-century literary culture, Edna St. Vincent Millay was to that of the first half of the 20th century. Each was an accomplished poet whose personality became as important as the poetry in establishing an extraordinary degree of fame and success. Byron and Millay were supremely poets of love and they celebrated their sexuality and, to some degree at least, their sexual exploits in their verse. Both dabbled in politics, always on the side of liberty.
Immense success and popularity do not always bring critical esteem, but Millay (like Byron) had it all for several decades after she burst upon the literary scene in the years leading up to World War I. Her verse, rooted as it was in 19th-century English and American poetry, was never part of the Modernist movement, and as New Criticism and Modernism tightened their grip on critical opinion midway through the century, Millay's reputation waned to the point where, although never out of print, she was not on the literary-critical map.
Thus, near the turn of the millennium, it was necessary for Robert L. Gale, writing in the Dictionary of American Biography, to conclude his entry on Millay with this heartfelt assertion: "Her 'shining' poetry shall never fall out of fashion. Its lyricism, praise of beauty, freedom, and individualism, and technical virtuosity are timeless." As her biographer and impassioned champion Daniel Mark Epstein demands: "How did it happen that the professors who made spacious rooms in the canon and in voluminous anthologies for poets who addressed every theme but romantic love, could find no corner for the woman who sang so shamelessly and beautifully the delights and the torments of eros our greatest love poet?"
Fortunately, this call has been answered not only by Mr. Epstein but by Nancy Milford. Both biographies should go a long way toward restoring Edna St. Vincent Millay to her rightful place in the pantheon of American poets. (Why it should be that a biography of a writer has this effect more than a critical appreciation of his work is another question. Is it because literary criticism has become so weak, or simply because of our inordinate appetite for the details of people's personal lives that we find in biographies?).
Nancy Milford's "Savage Beauty," 30 years in the making, is the product of exhaustive research and is the repository of much information confided to the author by Millay's surviving sister. It is also that rare biography which gives the subject's oeuvre its due while necessarily concentrating on the life. It even provides a detailed portrait of Millay's antecedents, and unlike most such explorations of family trees, which usually make my eyes glaze over, this one makes for fascinating reading.
The critic Edmund Wilson, who was introduced by Millay to several of her family members, opined that her mother was even more fascinating than Edna herself. Miss Milford shows us that Edna's maternal grandmother was just as fascinating: proof that passionate, liberated women were already to be found even in rural-19th-century Maine.
Insightful and analytical, "Savage Beauty" is a rounded portrait of a charismatic literary drama queen whose tempestuous life helped furnish fuel for some memorable poetry. Mr. Epstein's "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" is a hotter, more emotional work, almost a love letter to the poet-priestess of love. He offers a convincing account of why and how her reputation languished and makes a strong case for restoring her to her rightful place in the poetic firmament. Interestingly, although his book is much shorter than Miss Milford's, it finds the time to discuss in great detail Millay's intense but secret involvement with breeding thoroughbred horses.
Most people remember Edna St. Vincent Millay for these lines entitled "First Fig":

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!

And indeed, as both biographies demonstrate, this was no idle boast. But there is far more to Millay as a poet. She could write, it seems, poem upon poem about love, and always make each sound as fresh as the poem from which Miss Milford has taken her title:

I had forgotten how the frogs 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!

Millay's political activism led to her to write a poetic response to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," demonstrating in lines like these that topics other than love could inspire her to a deftly fused effusion of imagery and feelings:

Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered
the weed uprooted
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

And Millay could surprise too with a grandeur of subject and a fittingly exalted tone in a poem like "Conscientious Objector":

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which waythe fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the where abouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Oddly enough, neither biographer even mentions, let alone analyzes, this extraordinary poem, which I think is one of Millay's best. It is interesting to note that within a few years of writing these lines, she had turned her back on pacifism in the face of aggressive totalitarianism. In 1938, she declared, "I used to be a most ardent pacifist, but my mind has been changed. I'm afraid the only hope of saving democracy is to fight for it not necessarily to be dragged into a war unprepared, but to choose our own time… . if we have a wild animal to deal with we cannot be pacifists forever. Whatever we do, we cannot keep aloof from the general world situation; it is silly to think we can."
In the final analysis, I think it is the plangent tone of Edna St. Vincent Millay which gives her poetry its special, distinctive quality. Like D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy (who admired her so much, he said that along with the skyscraper she was America's greatest gift to the world), the artistry of her poetry reposes comfortably in the clear, well crafted declarative sentence. There is a confidence about her poetic voice that is persuasive to the reader and it must have taken a lot of modernist ideology to make people turn a deaf ear to the value of her poetry. Happily, these two biographies, each of them excellent in its way, will introduce a new generation of readers to a poet too little read in the past half century.

Martin Rubin is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.

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