Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nancy Milford's Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Savage Beauty does not dispel the impression that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a major life but a minor poet. This well-written biography quotes many poems in full, including "Renascence," which early won Millay warm admiration from poets and editors, and financial support for an education at Vassar. The biography occasionally grades the poems it quotes, saying of one "extraordinarily lovely" and of another "masterful." It is, however, more interested in identifying the addressee of the poems, and other details from Millay's life. A discussion of the style of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" begins insightfully but ends too quickly by linking the harp with a woman's head to the lap loom on which Clara Millay, Vincent's mother, wove hair for a living. Interesting identification, but it is surely not the last word on the poem.

Matters are not helped when emphasis is placed on the astonishing attraction of Millay's low reading voice. In returning to this over and over, Nancy Milford is but tracing the strong reactions of Millay's listeners. But this obsession with her voice has the unfortunate effect of marking Millay as a performer. Not only did she reach thousands through her reading tours, she also read on radio, reaching many other thousands. Her celebrity played a part, surely, in her decision to write propagandistic poetry against Fascism and American isolationism in the run-up to War World II. She was sincere in her political beliefs, but sincerity does not by itself create poetry. In a letter from that period, she talked about the need of a lyric poet to engage the world if she is not to say the same things again and again. Her political engagement, to my mind, is insufficiently self-doubtful. Her longtime friend and a poet Arthur Ficke expressed his reservations about her war effort "The Murder of Lidice" in a way that resonates for me:

I cannot, I will not, believe that this war is an ultimate conflict between right and wrong: and though I do not doubt for a moment that we are less horrible than the philosophy and practice of Hitler, still I think we are very horrible: and I will not, I must not, accept or express the hysterical patriotic war-moods of these awful days.

Millay's poetic sympathies lie with the High and Late Victorians. Her influences, as she describes them, are Tennyson, Browning, Hardy and Housman. She seems to have little to say about Eliot, Pound and Auden, and nothing to say about her female contemporaries like Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein and H.D.. Milford refers to a satire in verse she wrote against T.S. Eliot that targeted "The Waste Land," but does not describe its contents, let alone delineate its poetics. Late in her career, Millay became the darling of the people and of collectors who lapped up the expensive special editions of her books. She seemed divorced from the poetry debates that raged around her, in Europe as well as her native America, and so the avant-garde, which she appeared to embody in the 1920s in the form of the New Woman, left her behind.

Still, belonging to no party or school, she found the freedom, and spared the time from her work, to recommend poets whom she believed in for the Guggenheim. What she said about the sanctity of a writer's work, apart from whatever politics he or she chooses to profess, is still generous and relevant:

Of the six writers I am recommending this year, three are definitely revolutionists, one is definitely a classicist, one is probably mad and the other is doubtless trying to recover from shell-shock. What are you doing to do about them? ... I have come loudly out into the open, and am running the risk of making an utter fool of myself. I think the Guggenheim Foundation cannot properly be administered on any other terms; we may not foster the conservative at the expense of the experimental; the solid at the expense of the slippery; we must take chances; we must incur danger. Otherwise we shall eventually become an organization which gives prizes for acclaimed accomplishment, not fellowships for obscure talent, tangible promise, probable development, and possible achievement.

Was she thinking of her own history when she wrote the last sentence? She emerged from the abysmal poverty of a small-town Maine childhood, after her mother sent her good-for-nothing father packing and undertook to bring up the three daughters, Vincent, Norma and Katherine, by herself. Clara Buzzell Millay took up the job of a home-nurse and had to be away from her family most of the time. Besides suffering the absence of a beloved mother, Vincent at a young age was responsible for the two younger sisters.  Milford is very good at conveying the power of this family romance for all the women involved, and scrupulous in detecting the darker undertones of abandonment, jealousy and anger.

Also detailed and interesting is her depiction of Millay's unusual marriage with Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch American importer. He believed completely in her poetic gift and strove to provide an environment for its flourishing. Unwilling to play the part of the possessive husband, he gave Vincent the freedom to pursue her romantic obsessions, in particular, her love affair with the younger George Dillon, the future editor of Poetry magazine. It is true, however, that the balance of power in the marriage shifted when Millay's writing began to bring home the bacon. Boissevain became the manager of the household at Steepletop, the estate they bought, releasing his wife to focus entirely on writing. I am reminded here to Leonard Woolf, who spared Virginia of the many distractions against writing too. Leonard, however, had Hogarth Press. Eugen had nothing, but the protection of Vincent, whom he guarded with perhaps overbearing vigilance. Like many partnered writers, Millay could dedicate herself to writing because she could bank on others' dedication to her.

1 comment:

Eric Norris said...

In his criticism of Edna, Arthur Ficke sounds like he is confusing Nationalism with Patriotism. Orwell discusses the distinction between the two ideas and the intellectual climate in England at the start of the war in an essay from May 1945.

"The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."

The entire essay can be found here: