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
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of letters and unpublished pieces, Milford can offer no 're-discovered'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
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.