Edna St Vincent Millay's poetry has been eclipsed by her personal life – let's change that
She was once deemed ‘the greatest woman poet since Sappho’ and won a Pulitzer – but Millay’s legacy has been overshadowed by her sexuality and addictions
Thu 22 Feb 2018
Thu 22 Feb 2018
When pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s identity was reportedly revealed in 2016, she reflected on the dangers of an author’s life dominating their work. “The book functions like a pop star’s sweaty T-shirt,” she wrote, “a garment that without the aura of the star is completely meaningless.”
Ferrante’s sentiment could easily be applied to Edna St Vincent Millay, another incandescent literary talent who lived decades before (born on 22 February, 1892). For far too long, Millay’s work has been overshadowed by her reputation. A party girl poet. A sexually adventurous bisexual. A morphine addict. But then Millay also won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1923; the following year, literary critic Harriet Monroe called Millay was “the greatest woman poet since Sappho”. In a review of a 2001 Millay anthology, the Atlantic proclaimed that “the first rule of modern literary biography is that the life renders the work incidental” – but what happens when the life begins to obscure the richness of the work? Focusing on Millay’s relationships with both men and women has been de rigueur for the last half century – so it is high time that her words were allowed the limelight again.
Where should one begin with Millay? She had a famed predilection for Petrarchan sonnets and rhyming couplets, at odds with prominent experimental modernists of the era, such as TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens. But Millay expanded the scope of these poetic forms, presenting a bold, sexually charged vision of the female experience. Her verses serve as a kind of elaborate architecture, housing the fickle, frenetic movements of the heart that falls in love and then out of it. Renascence and other poems (1917), which includes the 200-plus line poem that brought her acclaim, also boasts six sonnets, all of which are outstanding in this respect.
“If I should learn, in some quite casual way, / That you were gone, not to return again —,” she muses in Sonnet V, she would not cry in a public place, like a train; no, she’d “raise my eyes and read with greater care / Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.” This is classic Millay – how else can one grapple with the end of a love affair than to instinctively busy oneself with the mundane? But Millay never approached love and its vicissitudes with passive melancholy. In No Rose That in a Garden Ever Grew, she ponders cynically on the temporal nature of infatuation that drives the stories of women such as Lilith, Lucrece and Helen: “And thus as well my love must lose some part / Of what it is, had Helen been less fair, / Or perished young, or stayed at home in Greece.”
Her poems shimmer most when they reflect on the yearning to rebel against the constrained space granted to women’s voices in literature and life. Witch-Wife, written loosely in the style of a short folk ballad, is about a defiant woman who “learned her hands in a fairy-tale, / And her mouth on a valentine”, who will never belong to her beloved (“But she was not made for any man”). She weaves a haunting tale of sacrifice into Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, about a woman caring for the dying husband she parted ways with years before. Millay embeds the crumbling marriage into the dullness of the chores this anonymous woman performs: cleaning the kitchen, building a fire that just won’t start. In The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, an impoverished mother freezes to death while weaving her son a luxuriant wardrobe filled with “the clothes of a king’s son”; long before Plath and Sexton, Millay was attacking the noose around the creative woman’s neck.
I Know I Am But Summer to Your Heart presumably describes unrequited feelings for another, although it takes on a different meaning when one thinks about Millay’s fall from grace towards the end of her life; she became ostracised by the literary community for her attempts at political poetry. Unlike other famed poets such as Siegfried Sassoon who were vociferous about the carnage and destruction of war, Millay collaborated directly with the Writers’ War Board for poetry that championed the allied forces. This, together with her spiral into drunkenness and drug addiction, spelt the end of her time in the limelight, although she never stopped writing. A revival of serious interest in her poetry is in order. And for those still obsessed with the details of her colourful life – well, they can find as much richness and more in her luminous work.