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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

 

In this issue:

Books

Eileen Frost reviews Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. People responded to Millay's words, spoken, in ways no longer part of our common experience and it is hard to gauge the influence that this single writer had on her generation of women.

And consider This: A Sighting about Art and its place in our culture post-September 11th.

 

Books

Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. Random House, 2001.

Clearly, Edna St. Vincent Millay led a life so quintessentially poetical, so Byronic, so bohemian that it would be difficult for even a mediocre biographer to render it tiresome. An almost straight narration of the facts would probably be fascinating in and of itself. But by artful insertion of Millays poetry and letters into her biography, as well as interviews with her sister Norma, Nancy Milford has brought the poet so to life that in places this book is almost excruciating to read. This is great biography, so continuously interesting that it is difficult to put down.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was known as Vincent from childhood on. The St. was added later for show, but refers only to St. Vincent Hospital where she was born, not to an elegant pedigree. She was born in Camden, Maine, in 1892, the eldest of three daughters. Her father was a ne'er-do-well who left the family when Edna was a small girl. Her mother, herself a poet, earned their meager living by weaving hairpieces and traveling to do freelance practical nursing. Edna was often left alone, in charge of her younger sisters, not frequently without money enough for groceries. It was through her mothers sacrifices that Edna was able to blossom, and her mother was always the love of her life.

After a brilliant high school career, she published her first poem, Renascence. Two years later, she entered Vassar College, her tuition underwritten by a well-to-do older woman. Vassar was to be her springboard out of the ordinary. It was there that her reputation as a brilliant poet, her flare for drama, and a series of lesbian involvements set her apart from other students as an artist and poet writ large.

In 1918 she and her family moved to Greenwich Village. Edna began to live a life now considered prototypically bohemian, (except that her mother and sisters were there during the early years). Uninhibited and beautiful, this tiny red-haired woman drank, smoked, talked brilliantly. She wrote with enormous concentration, polishing and refining each poem, and several books of her poetry astonished her publisher by becoming best sellers. The Provincetown Players were located a few blocks away, and in 1919 Edna wrote for them Aria da Capo, an anti-war play which drew a wide audience. She wrote several other plays, even an opera that played at the Metropolitan to sold-out houses. Milford recognizes that Millay gave the Jazz Age its lyric voice. She became a celebrity. In 1923 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; she was only 31 years old. That same year she married Eugen Boissevain, who cared for her emotionally and physically until his death 26 years later.

She seemed to captivate every creative writer and editor whom she encountered. Before her marriage, she had a series of passionate affairs while remaining somehow reserved at the core, almost disdainful of the pitiable condition of the men who loved her:

I shall forget you presently, my dear,/ So make the most of this, your little day.

Her poetry was her only real preoccupation. She was only intermittently faithful to her loving husband, although he was always her rock and foundation. She required a great deal of care. Driving herself to exhaustion to earn money to support her family, yielding to alcohol, in poor health for longer and longer periods, she prefigured her own demise when she wrote, 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. Toward the end of her life she became addicted to morphine.

Throughout her life she traveled around the country to give readings of her poetry. They must have been thrilling. Millay had always been a talented actress, with a low husky voice remembered as compelling and dramatic. She would wear a long dark green velvet gown, and sometimes a black Byronic cape, speak her poetry, and utterly dominate packed houses. People responded to her words, spoken, in ways no longer part of our common experience.

It is hard to imagine the influence this single writer had on her generation of women. She represented freedom and passion and total commitment to ones talent. That she had such success must have been powerfully motivating to women emerging from pre-1914 constraints. So alive does Millay become through this biography that one wishes she were still around for tough encounters with our sorry age.

Next: A Sighting about Art and its place in the context of September 11th> _______________________________________

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