Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Edna St. Vincent Millay and A Bittersweet Life


I read Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford (2001), which is 608 pages, as part of my participation in the Chunkster Challenge.

Today, it's hard to imagine a poet having the celebrity status that Edna St. Vincent Millay enjoyed in her lifetime (1892-1950). She had the kind of star quality that attracted people to her. During the Depression, her books of poetry were bestsellers. She went on tours across the United States, reading her poetry in literary salons and selling out concert halls and auditoriums to standing room only audiences, entranced by hearing the beautiful 5'1" poet recite her work.

In her biography, Nancy Milford details a bittersweet life lived in brilliance and excess against the backdrop of two world wars, the Jazz Age, and the Depression. The biography is quite detailed with journal entries, letters, and Millay's poetry.

Although Millay had been writing since she was eight, her fame as a poet began in 1912 when she was twenty with the lyric poem "Renascence." She entered "Renascence" in a poetry contest, but he fact that she did not win when her poem was considered by many to be the best got her much publicity. Here is the first stanza of "Renascence":

"All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood; 
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around til I was come
Back to where I started from; 
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood." 

Not long after, Millay caught the attention of wealthy socialite Caroline Dow, who heard Millay reciting poetry. Dow became Millay's patron and used her influence to get Millay into Vassar. 

After Vassar, Millay lived a Bohemian kind of existence in Greenwich Village and travelled around Europe. Her charismatic personality drew men and women into her circle, and she had affairs (and lots of them) with both sexes. She drank to the point of becoming an alcoholic, had abortions, and later became a drug addict. Amid all of this, she wrote brilliant poetry, plays, and short stories, and at one time, she joined an acting group. Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

In 1923, Millay married a handsome Dutch exporter twelve years older than she, Eugen Boussevain. He understood her artistic temperament and took care of the details of her life, keeping the world at bay, so that Millay could concentrate on writing her poetry, at their farm in upstate New York known as Steepletop

Theirs was an open marriage, and each had lovers. Millay met poet George Dillion, fourteen years her junior, in 1928. Millay took off for Paris to be with Dillon. When their affair ended, she returned to Steepletop, and was welcomed back by Eugen.

Sadly, Millay's excesses would catch up to her, and she died alone at Steepletop in 1950, one year after Boussevain's death.

While this was such a fascinating book, I wished for more information about Millay's creative process and wanted to know more about who influenced her writing. What I found hardest to read was the section of the book about Millay's final years and her struggle with alcohol, morphine and barbiturates. 

If you enjoy biographies, Millay's poetry or reading about life during the Jazz Age in New York City, I would recommend Savage Beauty.  There's much more to the book than I've included here. I found the biography absorbing, intense, and hard to put down.


"Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!"
"Second Fig" from A Few Figs from Thistles (1922)

2 comments:

  1. This biography sounds wonderful. I love Millay's poetry, and have read a little about her life, but have always wanted to read more. She lived in such an interesting age. Thanks for sharing this. What a perfect read for April. :)

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  2. One of my favorite poets! I saw a documentary about her life several years ago, but I think I need to read this biography.

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