Sunday, July 24, 2016

246. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Feminist Romantic

This post will begin with a limerick that I encountered recently:

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Was the night-burning flame of her day;
She lured all her lovers
And significant others
                      To bed, and then tossed them away.

     Limericks aren’t the greatest poetry, but this one is an appropriate introduction to Edna, whose personal life was, to put it mildly, irregular.  Born in Rockland, Maine, in 1892, she and her two younger sisters were raised in poverty by their mother, a nurse, who divorced her schoolteacher husband for financial irresponsibility.  Edna was given the middle name “St. Vincent” because, shortly before her birth, an uncle’s life had been saved at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York.  So there she was, right from birth, linked to Greenwich Village, where she would later migrate and achieve fame. 

     The family moved about in Maine and finally settled on the property of the mother’s aunt in Camden, just up the coast from Rockland.  I know Rockland, where I always stayed en route to vacations on Monhegan Island, off midcoast Maine, and was made aware that one of its few claims to fame is as the birthplace of Edna St. Vincent.  But she didn’t stay there long, and to my knowledge never went back. Today Rockland has an incipient glimmer of sophistication, and Camden certainly does as well, but for a restless young talent like hers, those towns back then were less than stimulating; they never could have held Edna long.

     Neither did Maine.  Already noted for her outspoken ways in high school, she went on to Vassar, where her budding literary talent, which her mother had encouraged from the start, was accompanied by a number of sexual relationships with other girls.  (Which, in a girls’ school, is about all that’s available.)  Older than the other girls and a born rule-breaker, she was often summoned to the office of President Henry Noble MacCracken, who reprimanded her and limited her privileges for infractions.  Once, an hour after she had reported sick, he looked out his office window and saw her trying to kick out the light in a chandelier on top of an arch, a rather lively exercise, he informed her, for one so taken with illness.  “Prexy,” she said with a solemn look, “at the moment of your class, I was in pain with a poem.”  Infractions continued, but he never expelled her because, as he explained to her, he didn’t want a “banished Shelley” on his record.  (The poet Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for promoting atheism.)  “On those terms,” Millay replied, “I think I will continue to live in this hell-hole.” 

     Even so she was finally suspended, which meant that, with graduation approaching, she couldn’t receive her degree.  When the faculty signed a petition urging that she be allowed to receive her degree, the president relented, but forbade her to participate in any commencement exercises, including the singing of a hymn she had composed for the occasion.

     Graduating in 1917, she made a beeline for Greenwich Village – not the high-rent Village of today, a citadel of middle-class professionals with a sprinkling of richies in luxury apartments, but the low-rent Village of yore, a picturesque mix of Italian working-class immigrants, would-be anarchists, joyous mifits, budding writers, starving hopeful artists, shocking specimens of the New Woman, other challengers of the status quo, and weekend tourists who came to have a look at the crazies.

     Soon after arriving and being desperate for money, she got a part in a one-act farce being staged by one of the Village’s small experimental theaters, and fell into the arms of the author/director, who found her part chorus girl, part nun, part Botticelli Venus.  The chorus girl and Venus won out, and soon his protégée was having sex with every man in sight.  There was something about this freckled redhead from midcoast Maine via Vassar that made every man who laid eyes on her fall rapturously in love.  Her attractiveness is indisputable, but photographs give no hint of it.  Maybe it was her luminous green eyes, maybe the glint of her copper-toned, short, bobbed hair. 

     Settled with her sister Norma in rooms on Waverly Place, she set out to be the Newest of New Women, that shocking breed avidly chronicled by the press, who caroused with men in bars, talked foully, and even smoked.  The transition took a bit of effort.  Years later Norma told how the two of them practiced profanity, reciting a litany of words that scraped their genteel ears, as they sat darning socks (yes, these free-spirited damsels darned socks): “Needle in, shit.  Needle out, piss.  Needle in, fuck.  Needle out, cunt.”  Soon they had a rich four-letter vocabulary and, with effort, grew easy with its use.  Their life in the Village thereafter was, in Edna’s own words, “very, very poor and very, very merry.”

     What was she like in those days?  Her friend Dorothy Thompson, a noted journalist, described her as mercurial: whimsical sometimes, sometimes petulant and imperious, sometimes stormy, sometimes “a lost and tragic soul,” but always intelligent and able to evoke “the most passionate and tender love.”  Not one easy to live with, it would seem, which was just as well, since she had no intention of settling down for long with anyone.

     When not wreaking amorous havoc among Villagers, Edna St. Vincent was writing plays and poetry.  While still in school she had won acclaim for her poem “Renascence,” written when she was only nineteen.  In rhymed octosyllables, it describes a succession of moods that the narrator experiences while standing on a mountaintop and looking out from there, moods that include an evocation of death and burial, followed by rebirth or “renascence.”  Recently I have reread it several times and think it her finest work.  The volume I have is my partner Bob’s first edition, dated 1917, containing “Renascence” and other poems, which his free-thinking father gave Bob when he was still in high school.

     Her next volume brought her notoriety:

                           My candle burns at both ends;
                           It will not last the night;

                           But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
                           It gives a lovely light!

Published in 1920, A Few Figs from Thistles candidly expressed female sexuality and what today we call “feminism.”  Hailed by the press as a shining example of the liberated Village woman, Edna St. Vincent gloried in it; more lovers flocked, some of whom even proposed, only to be resolutely rejected.  It was the field she wanted to play, not a closeted twosome, and women were welcome, too.  A tomboy, she had been called “Vincent” by her family when she was growing up.

     In December 1919 her experimental play Aria da Capo played to sold-out audiences at the Provincetown Playhouse.  A comedic harlequinade with Edna directing and Norma in the lead, it then darkened into an anti-war commentary, and was praised by the New York Times critic Alexander Woollcott as the best play currently running in the city – praise indeed, given Woollcott’s reputation for vitriolic reviews, though he knew the author only as Nancy Boyd, the nom de plume she adopted so she could earn a few bucks writing pop fiction for magazines without compromising her career as a serious poet.

     Even the Village couldn’t hold her.  Writing satirical sketches for Vanity Fair, in January 1921 she took off for that mecca of American expatriates, Paris, where one could love freely, live cheaply, do the drugs of your choice, and imbibe liquor that didn’t come to you courtesy of gangsters – in short, a place that for wild, free living topped even Greenwich Village.  She settled for a string of affairs, including a brief one with the mannish American sculptor Thelma Wood. 

     After gadding about in Europe for a couple of years, she returned to New York in 1923, the year when her fourth volume, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, she being the third woman to win the award.  In that same year she married the middle-aged Dutch businessman and playboy Eugen Boissevain in what must have been a wide-open marriage, since both continued to have numerous affairs.  So the Village wanton, while still wanton, felt the need of marital support.  And she got it.  Boissevain, a source of quiet strength, also provided financial security, nursed her through illnesses and breakdowns (of which there were many), and managed her career, arranging readings and public appearances that further advanced her reputation as a poet.  They settled down in a three-story brick row house at 75½ Bedford Street, a house that I have walked past often, whose “1/2” indicates its status, beloved of tour guides, as the narrowest house in New York City (less than ten feet wide). 

     “Settled down” is hardly appropriate, since the newlyweds rarely graced the house’s narrow confines.  After a honeymoon that took them around the world, in 1925 Boissevain bought Steepletop, a 600-acre blueberry farm in Columbia County in upstate New York, where they lived in an old frame farmhouse, built a barn, a writing cabin, and a tennis court, and the poet grew her own vegetables in a small garden.  Though they refused for years to install a telephone, she was not a total recluse; from this refuge she occasionally made forays to give poetry readings, including on the radio.  Many a male, upon hearing her read, was smitten.  Then in 1933 she and her husband also acquired Ragged Island in Casco Bay, Maine, where they retreated for the summer. 

     Hailed by some as the greatest woman poet since Sappho, she continued to publish volumes of poetry, often including sonnets that reviewers gushed over, hailing them as on a par with the sonnets of Browning, Rossetti, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and other luminaries of the poetic universe, while a few detractors found them manufactured, with inflated rhetoric lacking in true feeling.  Consider the first eight lines of this well-known sonnet:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

     That this flaming redhead of the Village, this promiscuous New Woman, should write sonnets, and lots of them at that, is significant, for this is the most traditional, rhyme-laden, and strictest of old-hat genres, and one that, as her talent matured, she might have jettisoned with contempt.  On the contrary, her reputation rests in large part on the genre.  If it was good enough for Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton, and company (though maybe we’d better leave out Milton), she presumably opined, it was good enough for her.  But personally I’m inclined to agree with the critic who viewed her as a twentieth-century romantic expressing herself in a nineteenth-century vehicle.  There is nothing gutsy or raw in her poetry, nothing to compare, for example, with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

     Still, in her heyday she was widely read, almost a cult figure on a par with Sylvia Plath at a later date.  My mother, a young college-educated and quite respectable professional in Chicago, still unmarried, was of Millay’s generation, loved poetry, had herself written poetry in college, and read Millay avidly, which for me is the clincher.  My mother’s taste was formed by the Victorians and Romantics she had absorbed in school – Tennyson, Browning, Wordsworth, and the lot.  She knew little of Whitman or Dickenson, and nothing of Pound or Eliot, but took to Millay’s poetry with abandon; as I recall, she even had a first edition of one of Millay’s early volumes (one that, in spite of a diligent search, I have failed to locate among my many dusty books).  If my respectable mother was a fan of this wanton, then Edna St. Vincent the poet, in spite of her lurid private life, was “safe”: a twentieth-century poet (and often a good one) in uncontroversial nineteenth-century garb.

     A dedicated pacifist during Word War I, Millay was a vigorous supporter of the Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and got arrested in Boston while protesting their execution for a murder they claimed they had not committed.  In the 1930s she turned away from personal lyricism and more and more toward social consciousness, and devoted herself to the war effort in World War II.  For this she reaped much scorn, her patriotic poetry being disparaged by literary critics who, like her readers, preferred the daring young poet of Greenwich Village who burned her candle at both ends.  A has-been?  Alas, for many, yes. 

     Her husband – he was still around, and they were still living in the  farmhouse at Steepletop – died of lung cancer in 1949; his loss devastated her.  Our final impression of her in the last year of her life shows the woman who once was the toast of Greenwich Village, and who had had more lovers than she could count, living on alone in the isolated house, suffering from mental and physical afflictions, drinking too much, but determinedly working on yet another manuscript of poetry.  On October 19, 1950, a caretaker found her collapsed at the foot of a stairway; she had died some eight hours before of a heart attack, age 58.  Today a death at 58 seems premature, but the intensity of her living and her passionate commitment to writing may have had a hand in it.

     After her death Millay’s sister Norma and her husband moved into the farmhouse and in 1973 established the Millay Colony for the Arts; when Norma became a widow in 1976, she continued to run the program until she died in 1986.  Farmhouse and grounds have since become a museum open to the public, and Edna and Norma and their husbands are buried on its grounds.  So ended two women who in their youth had been vibrant participants in the wild scene of Greenwich Village in the Roaring Twenties. 

     Millay’s reputation had been in tatters since the 1930s for a romanticism that seemed passé in the age of Modernism (think Eliot, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Auden), but it came into its own again with the rise of feminism.  Romantic though she was, in her amorous escapades she expressed a decidedly female point of view, and that wasn’t passé at all; it was a welcome blast of the New.

     My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

     My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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     Coming soon:  Robert M. Morgenthau, the legendary prosecutor who pursued both crime in the streets and crime in the suites (meaning white-collar crime), with memories of John Lennon's murder; Bernhard Goetz, the subway vigilante; and the Central Park jogger case.

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

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