When Edna St Vincent Millay was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in 1950, it came as an abrupt change in register – from Cinderella story to domestic tragedy, or addiction parable. She was 58. There was a wine glass and a bottle beside her, amid a spill of papers. Her husband, Eugen Boissevain, who had been her caretaker during their happily-ever-after of almost three decades, had died of cancer the previous year. She was living alone at Steepletop, their estate near Austerlitz, New York. A servant found her in the morning, lying there with a broken neck.
Millay rose to fame while still in her twenties. She beat Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens for the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Although she became a proselytiser in her last decade, devoted to progressive causes to which she fitted her verses (‘not poems, posters,’ she admitted), she was still in demand for lectures and recitations, and had made a small fortune in the art of ‘lending existence to nothing’, as Edmund Burke defined poetry. Thomas Hardy gave her the blurb of a lifetime when he said that the two greatest things about the United States were the skyscrapers and Edna St Vincent Millay. Her poems are still in print, and her famous lines still recognisable: ‘Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare’; ‘Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink’; ‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,/ I have forgotten.’ ‘Recuerdo’, with its famous opening (‘We were very tired, we were very merry –/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry’), and ‘First Fig’ (‘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!’) could have been ripostes to ‘So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving’ – and she was considered the female Byron. ‘The Ballad of the Harp Weaver’, which won her the Pulitzer, was turned into a song by Johnny Cash.
Rhetorically, Millay was a genius: her mastery of attitudes and devices owed a lot to her training as an actress. She knew the value of a theatrical presentation, treasuring her best features: red-gold hair and a contralto voice. She was a natural seductress, but an unlikely siren: her tiny frame suggested frailty, pubescence; she appealed to protective instincts. In an unpublished poem called ‘E ST V M’ she described herself as follows:
Hair which she still devoutly trusts is red.
Colourless eyes, employing
A childish wonder
To which they have no statistic
A large mouth,
Asceticised by blasphemies.
A long throat,
Which will someday
In the summer-time leopard
A small body,
Were it the fashion to wear no clothes,
Would be as well-dressed
There may be more eyewitness descriptions of Millay’s body than of any other poet writing in English: she was fond of skinny-dipping with friends and weeding in the nude. She lived by her own laws and can’t be neatly slotted into narratives of feminist triumphalism or victimisation. She led a bohemian life in Greenwich Village, writing poems, plays, librettos and a satirical column for Vanity Fair, and then, in 1923, in poor health, she married Boissevain, a wealthy Dutch businessman who made it his life’s purpose to enable her work. Vincent – as her family and intimates called her – had wealth of her own: in 1927 she made $350,000 in today’s money from royalties and honoraria. The couple bought racehorses (Saratoga was nearby) and an eighty-acre island off the coast of Maine. They sojourned in Europe.
All this bounty grew from nothing: Millay was born in 1892 to working-class parents in Rockland, Maine, who split up after the birth of three children (all girls). Her father was a gambler who skimped on child support; her mother, Cora, was an itinerant nurse who left the girls to fend for themselves while she earned a living (Cora’s mother, too, was divorced: these were hard-working women who wouldn’t tolerate a shirker). As the oldest, Vincent was in charge of Norma and Kathleen, as well as the cooking, cleaning and ironing. And then an extraordinary thing happened: she was delivered from domestic servitude, and elevated from her station in life, at the age of twenty. Not by a prince, but by a poetry contest – and the intervention of society ladies summering in Camden who heard her sing and recite, and decided she must be rescued. The poem that made her famous, ‘Renascence’, didn’t actually win the contest sponsored by the anthology The Lyric Year, but it received an honourable mention and was published alongside the winner, which it put in the shade. While (male) critics publicly chastised the editors, and privately wrote to Millay with besotted encouragement, (female) benefactors vied among themselves to be the one to send her to Vassar or Smith. She went to Vassar, where she broke all the rules and embarked on a brilliant career; the more rules she broke, the more adored she became.
Millay began keeping a diary at the age of fifteen, but wasn’t consistent about it. ‘More than 90 per cent of the diary entries were made in the years 1907-14 and 1927-35,’ Daniel Mark Epstein notes – years that exclude her Greenwich Village period. The notebooks languished for decades under the executorship of Norma, gatekeeper and invigilator of her sister’s reputation. Now published and edited by Epstein, one of her biographers, they aren’t particularly prurient: Millay chronicled quiescent periods of her life, mining the turbulent ones for her poems. When she did mention her conquests, she was discreet. But maybe that is a kind of revelation. This poet of raw emotions is rarely a raw confessionalist. Rather, she keeps a record of her days: weather, chores, reading. Occasionally she breaks into rhetorical and theatrical flights, as if writing monologues for the stage (or witty notes to self). She is vigilant against self-pity and strives for self-improvement, something evident even in early entries: ‘I’m dissatisfied with everything, myself first of all, I’m egotistic and self-analytical. I suffer from inflammation of the imagination and a bad attack of ingrowing temperament.’ In extremis, as a teenager, she addresses imaginary friends conjured from familiar stereotypes: when she misses her absent mother and wearies of chores, she invents ‘Ole Mammy Hush-Chile’, a comforting surrogate; when she is nineteen she invents an ‘Imaginary Lover’.
Millay’s imaginative faculty didn’t come out of nowhere. Even as the family struggled with poverty, evictions and itineracy, they cultivated books, music and plays (Cora also published some poetry). By 1907, when the diaries begin, the family had established a modicum of stability, and Millay’s education in the Maine hinterland was pretty highfalutin by today’s standards: she had piano lessons, enthusing over Beethoven and Chopin; friends and family read aloud to one another – Browning, Tennyson, Dickens – as others embroidered, or they’d take Sir Walter Scott on ‘tramps’ through the mountains. For entertainment, there were church socials, dance halls, Firemen’s Balls, the Glee Club, community players: ‘I am going to play Susie in “Triss”, and we had a rehearsal tonight … I have the stage all to myself for a while and I have a love scene with the villain. The villain is great.’
At college we begin to see the girl who burned the candle at both ends, less introspective and more notational: ‘It is wonderful but I am tired, tired, tired.’ ‘Dead tired.’ ‘Am awfully tired.’ ‘And I am tired to death. And no studying done.’ ‘Didn’t go to the Junior Party. Too tired.’ ‘Cut two classes today. Feeling pretty ragged.’ The chronology soon lapses. At this point she is engaged in a whirligig social life and conducting a voluminous correspondence with figures from the literary establishment like Louis Untermeyer, Witter Bynner, Sara Teasdale. (Just then, Ezra Pound and H.D. were inventing Imagism at Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, and Eliot was publishing ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, but you would never know it from this account of literary New York.) Later she would become close to Edmund Wilson, Elinor Wylie and William Rose Benét, tread the boards with the Provincetown Players and swan about with distinguished musicians and actors.
The diary resumes in earnest when she settles down in her early thirties with Boissevain at Steepletop: gardening and cooking, laundry and animal husbandry occupy dozens of pages. She delights in forsythia in the early spring, snowstorms in winter. ‘Heard a phoebe this morning’; ‘The pasture fence is finished & the cows have been turned in’; ‘I gathered yellow pussy willows & red maple flowers’; ‘Opened one of the last jars of red strawberries – so good, so good!’; ‘Saw chipping-sparrow, & downy woodpecker & cherwink’; ‘The little pale shoots of several delphinium plants were visible today. I was astonished, & feverish with excitement.’ There are so few literary mentions in her mature diaries that they stand out all the more, and do her little credit (it was thumbs down for The Tempest). Her ecstatic purchase, in 1927, of an electric washer and ironer remind us of her punishing descriptions of housework in her teens, and it’s a strange pleasure to be steeped in the texture of daily life a century ago, when people were still winding clocks and harnessing horses to sleds even as they were driving cars and going to ‘moving pictures’.
After six years of marriage, Millay fell violently in love with a man fifteen years younger – the poet George Dillon, later the editor of Poetry. (She wrote 52 febrile sonnets for him, published in a sequence called Fatal Interview.) The biggest drama of her middle age is distilled into an irritated, unusually intimate entry in 1929: ‘I am tired of my husband.’ There are other clues that accumulate into a picture of a marriage dependent on booze: from homemade apple cider to champagne, claret, gin fizzes, chartreuse, fine à l’eau, pinard. On the SS Excalibur in the Mediterranean in 1934 she writes:
Had the most awful hangover this morning, and all our packing to do, & in that sea! I must have been darned drunk last night … I remembered nothing, but my clothes were all over the room, and I never do that. Disgraceful. Got to cut it out. Not only that the doctor says so, but that I’m getting a tummy.
Then, ‘with the help of seven gin-rickeys’, she manages to pack for their disembarkation at Marseilles, ‘and got through customs nicely without having to open every box of Kotex’.
Morphine was in the mix too. In 1927 Millay suffered an eye injury when her sleigh got caught in a snowstorm, and may have had her first taste of opiates while managing the pain; soon after the accident she had a D&C at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she was given ‘all the morphine I want’. Epstein blames her susceptibility on heartbreak: Dillon had cooled towards her. Her moods were increasingly abrasive. ‘The only people I really hate are servants’ and ‘Women are awful, really.’ ‘Stayed in bed … I wish I could be kept under morphine that whole way until we dock. Don’t want to go on deck, can’t stand it to have to talk to people. Just want to keep on drinking & reading detective stories until we hit New York.’
In 1936 Millay was thrown from the car when Boissevain was driving and underwent several surgeries on her spine. By 1942 she needed rehab. Along with details of her daily drug regimen – Nembutal, codeine, Benzedrine, grams and pellets and hypos – one can read her last terrible entries: a self-exhortation to ‘Exercise Will Power in all things, big or little, Don’t become self-indulgent, don’t become sloppy in anything, in your thinking, in your dress, in anything … DON’T WHINE!’ And then the desperate attempt to shore up her vanity:
Me with my Savile Row riding breeches just longing for the ice to get off the country roads so that they can go out and have the doeskin rubbed up a bit on the insides of the knees! Me with my two Top Flight tennis rackets just singing for the court to be raked and rolled and the lines put down so they can start whacking about the balls that as early as last autumn I teased a pro friend to sneak to me a few at a time! Me, whose weight without troubling to diet, eating all that I like of whatever I like, is 109 lbs stripped, and who looks my best when wearing neither brassiere nor girdle! Me, who never shows my face (or perhaps it’s my figure) in New York without having four attractive men of my acquaintance dialling their phones, to take me out to the Stork Club, or 21, or a Noel Coward opening! Me, to be stuck in a loony bin with a contingent of bulging old biddies.
There are times when one thinks of Sylvia Plath – fellow contest-winner and bathing beauty, vivid diarist, world conqueror – without the breakdowns. Millay lived to enjoy her success; Plath didn’t. But then the breakdown came anyway, as it does in poetry. An early assessment of Millay’s writing by one of her professors still applies: ‘Full of feeling, verging on sentimentality, but with some pathos. Not particularly healthy. Technically good.’