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I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty:
The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

by Doug Childers

In Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford has produced a biography that stands as a testament to biographical research, but it probably won't provoke a reconsideration of Edna St. Vincent Millay's work the way Milford's Zelda did for Zelda Fitzgerald thirty-one years ago.

Back in the Great Depression, when a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry sold a remarkable 66,500 copies in seven months (in the Depression, no less), one reporter wrote that


A book of poems by a modern writer which sells a thousand copies is rated as a success by publishers. Several of Edna St. Vincent Millay's books have sold more than fifty thousand copies....Millay...throughout the years will be a bookseller's staple, like Shakespeare and ink and two-cent stamps.


Dead White Male and all, Shakespeare still holds his own, but it's hard not to observe that Millay's popularity has gone the way of the two-cent stamp. At the time, though, her candid, sexually charged verse made her a celebrity--and it earned her the first Pulitzer to be given to a woman for poetry. Thomas Hardy even considered her poetry one of the two great things about America (the other: the skyscraper). The fact that her style was conventional and easily understood by the average reader (in ways that many of her modernist contemporaries were not) certainly helped sales, but it's always sex that moves the books, right? And Millay, whose audience included an emerging generation of freethinking women, was really like a waggish, crossdressing Metaphysical poet in her approach to love and sex. Glance at the following passage from her "Thursday," for instance, and hear how close her tone and themes are to Marvell and Donne:


And if I loved you Wednesday,

Well, what is that to you?

I do not love you Thursday--

So much is true.


And why you come complaining

Is more than I can see.

I loved you Wednesday,--yes--but what

Is that to me?


Savage Beauty:
The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Nancy Milford
Random House
555 pp.

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The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Nancy Milford (Editor)
Modern Library
167 pp.

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Or try this sonnet on for coy size:


Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!

Faithless am I save to love's self alone.

Were you not lovely I would leave you now:

After the feet of beauty fly my own.

Were you not still my hunger's rarest food,

And water ever to my wildest thirst,

I would desert you--think not but I would!--

And seek another as I sought you first.

But you are mobile as the veering air,

And all your charms more changeful than the tide,

Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:

I have but to continue at your side.

So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,

I am most faithless when I am most true.


As Nancy Milford writes in her new Millay biography, Savage Beauty, Millay's philosophy was straightforward: "Life is impermanent and in the face of that impermanence, cavort! Look death in the eye, tell him you're as cute as a button, flash a defiant guile his way, and tell him to go feast on somebody else's sweet flesh. For just as there are no happy rustics in Edna Millay's work, so in these merry verses there were no repentant women."

The shock value of a woman talking openly and even callously about sexuality is lost on us today, of course. Years ago, Madonna taught us that women's underwear can be outerwear, and Britney Spears's efforts to make lurid Lolitas mainstream get edgier with each music awards show. Cunningly composed poetry just won't cut the mustard with us, these days. But Milford apparently likes a tough sell when it comes to biographical subjects. Her Zelda: A Biography (which appeared in 1970) jump-started critical and popular interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald's artistic but troubled wife, and I suppose she hoped to perform the same task for Millay with Savage Beauty.

As compelling as Savage Beauty often is, though, I don't think we're going to experience a Millay renaissance. Zelda's artistic efforts were largely unnoticed in her lifetime (particularly her paintings), and her role as a suppressed spouse overwhelmed by her husband's talent rendered her patiently heroic (just as her mental instability rendered her tragic). Millay's husband may have smothered her emotionally by 'protecting' her from the travails of daily life, but it hardly makes her a tragically stifled figure. Perhaps more importantly, Millay's work has been public for decades, and while she turned up a treasure trove of letters and unpublished pieces, Milford can offer no 're-discovered' Millay masterpieces as grounds for a reconsideration. (Readers looking for Millay verse will have to be satisfied with The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which Modern Library has published to coincide with Savage Beauty's appearance.)

The lack of an undiscovered masterpiece or tales of spousal abuse doesn't keep Savage Beauty from being a well-written, splendidly-researched biography. Milford does particularly strong work with Millay's childhood struggles. As the oldest child of divorced parents who were never home (her father was too down on his luck to visit and her mother worked as a nurse in distant towns), Millay was forced to act as a surrogate mother for her two younger sisters. The burden this placed prematurely on a child (even a responsible one like Millay) was great, and Milford uses Millay's diaries and journals to great effect in making the travails (and joys) come shockingly alive. One particular passage, written when Millay was nineteen, resonates particularly:


I'm getting old and ugly. My hands are stiff and rough and stained and blistered. I can feel my face dragging down. I can feel the lines coming underneath my skin. They don't show yet but I can feel a hundred of them underneath. I love beauty more than anything else in the world and I can't take time to be pretty....Crawl into bed at night too tired to brush my hair--my beautiful hair--all autumn-colored like Megunticook.


Her worries were premature, of course (though it wouldn't be the last time she expressed them). In time, financial success followed Millay's early critical success, and soon she was leading a flamboyantly Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and abroad. The stories of her escapades certainly make for titillating reading (to say the least), but Millay's middle years as a married, increasingly reclusive poet on a New York farm are less interesting in Milford's account. Too much of the text is truncated, I think; where, in the earlier years, Milford constructed a whole, complete narrative that stood on its own, her quoting at length from unpublished letters tends to slow the book's momentum too much.

Far more interesting (especially for such a traditional biography) is the occasional appearance of Millay's sister, Norma, who opened her unprecedented private collection of Millay materials ("papers, letters, snapshots, notebooks and drafts of poems that had not been destroyed or lost" in Milford's words) to Milford in the early 1970s and allowed herself to be interviewed by Milford. Milford's coaxing her way into Norma's confidence was a coup, to say the least. Norma, who controlled Millay's estate, had blocked other efforts to write Millay's biography, and even after she agreed to let Milford tackle her subject, a possessiveness lingered, as did a feisty unwillingness to explicate the many documents with full and open disclosure. Milford includes some of their exchanges in Savage Beauty, and their thrust-and-parry quality is great fun.

Norma's occasional (and always unannounced) appearances in the text lend it a documentary feel, and her voice draws a seemingly distant subject beautifully into the present. Despite her possessiveness and minor gestures of censorship (among her targets: pornographic photographs of Millay and her husband and an ivory dildo "which Norma admitted was difficult to burn, but she'd managed"), she was a steadfast keeper of her sister's memory, and Savage Beauty bears the fruits of her attentiveness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the biography's final pages, where Milford draws on Millay's own daily notebooks to document the severity of her various addictions (among them, alcohol, morphine and various barbiturates).

That Millay's final years were marred by addiction and severe depression doesn't make for a happy portrait, of course. One account a friend left of a visit to Millay is especially harrowing (grim irony that it echoes the worries expressed years before by a nineteen-year-old girl):


So I went in and there she was in a big armchair, pale and fragile...and her eyes were sad. She asked me to sit down and got to the point at once. Life had become unbearable; she was getting old....She was losing her looks, she was losing her ability to write, her poems were no good any more, the young men no longer fall in love with her, life was not worth living....As she spoke she began to weep--the tears rolled down her hollow cheeks.


But the fact remains that she was still capable, fitfully at least, of writing superb poetry, and her hard-won experience sometimes rendered her verse more candid and complicated than her earlier, happier efforts.


I will put Chaos into fourteen lines

And keep him there; and let him thence escape

If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape

Flood, fire, and demon--his adroit designs

Will strain nothing in the strict confines

Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape,

I hold his essence and amorphous shape,

Till he with Order mingles and combines.

Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,

His arrogance, our awful servitude:

I have him. He is nothing more or less

Than something simple not yet understood;

I shall not even force him to confess;

Or answer. I will only make him good.


Savage Beauty may not provoke a long-term re-examination of Millay's work the way Zelda did for Zelda Fitzgerald, but that's more a reflection of Millay's seemingly dated poetry than it is of Milford's dogged, patient work as a biographer. Savage Beauty is a stellar example of biographical research at its best, and it (along with Millay's role in her era) merits our sustained attention.


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