Thursday, January 06, 2011

Savage Beauty: A Review

Documenting the life of anyone is bound to be occasionally problematic. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s life was more in line with that of a Greek Goddess than any mere mortal: impulsive, passionate, effusive, sometimes insensitive, occasionally self-destructive, and thoroughly lusty, to name only a few. In her time, she was considered the dominant voice of rebellious youth in the period of hedonism and experimentation known as the Roaring Twenties. Millay was a talented poet, playwright, and actress, whose popularity was unmatched for a period of roughly thirty years, beginning with the end of World War I in 1918 and her death in 1950 at the age of 58. Her life is masterfully documented in a biography written by the author Nancy Milford. The title of this authoritative work is Savage Beauty.

To know the artist, one must know something of her upbringing. Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in a small coastal town in Maine about a decade or so before the turn of the Twentieth Century. Her father, Henry Millay, was a teacher who would later become superintendent of schools. Her mother, the former Cora Buzzelle, was a nurse. The two of them produced three children, all girls. The marriage, regrettably, was not a happy one and it swiftly ended in divorce. Cora left Henry at the time their oldest daughter, Edna, was 8. Though ordered to pay child support, Henry Millay rarely did, and the decision to legally separate thrust his former wife and their three children into a sustained state of poverty. These dire circumstances produced a tight bond between the Millay girls, a close-knit, highly involved relationship that persisted for each sister’s entire life. They could be loving, competitive, confrontational, and sometimes resentful, but the three of them always identified as a singular unit, of which their mother also played a large part.

To make a living, Cora decided that she ought to become a traveling nurse, going wherever she was needed. She made enough to survive, frequently sending money home. Consequently, she was rarely present in the daily lives of her daughters, particularly in their formative years. In effect, three young children had to more or less raise themselves. Their mother corresponded frequently through the mail, and insisted upon frequent letters from her children, but would sometimes be absent for days, even weeks at a time. Edna began writing poetry in childhood and her first efforts reflect this sense of isolation. It is a motif she would frequently return to later in life, even when surrounded by friends, fans, and associates.

Though she herself occasionally used the feminine first name of Edna, she was more well-known simply as Vincent. Considered to be a boy’s name, this created waves, particularly in a very different, far more conservative age where gender roles were usually adhered to without question. She began to submit her work to literary contests, and her proficiency as a poet was almost immediately acknowledged. Through these, she built her name, and also won the first round of admirers, who eventually gave her the ability to leave the remote place of her birth and enroll in college.

In those days, a university or college education was far more rare than it is today. It was considered a sign of great privilege and distinction and since few could afford it, it was largely off-limits to all but a fortunate few. By the time Vincent was old enough to attend, women’s colleges had been established to counter-balance the number of institutions that refused to admit them. It had, after all, only been in the recent past that colleges and universities had been the sole domain of men. Only a few had even begun to start admitting female students.

Her name now in print, Vincent wrote prodigiously, eventually drafting the poem that would introduce her to American readers, “Renascence”. The work was entered into a contest, wherein she placed fourth, a highly controversial decision. Even the eventual winner, a man, believed that her work had been vastly superior to his. The judges simply found it hard to believe that a twenty-year-old girl from rural Maine could have been possible of writing something of such high quality and maturity. The cloud of dust kicked up by the scandal did eventually produce something quite fortunate for the young poet. She found a patron willing to subsidize the cost of tuition, should Vincent wish to attend college. Choosing Vassar, Millay eagerly enrolled, though at twenty-one she was older than most of her classmates.

At Vassar, Vincent began to branch out and explore same-sex relationships. Nancy Milford’s book is made ever richer because the author had complete access to most of Millay’s written correspondence, this by way of one of her sisters, who fortunately preserved her papers. Though Vincent pursued other lesbian relationships while at college, Savage Beauty in particular explores the relationship between Vincent and Elaine Ralli, one of her classmates. Reading between the lines, one can observe that the two were lovers, though Millay was careful never to spell it out directly. Her relationships with men, in great contrast, were so verbose and detailed as to be excessive. Nevertheless, the pairing lasted only a few months until prominent others caught wind of it.

Vassar was (and still is) a notoriously difficult school to obtain entrance. And as mentioned earlier, a poor small-town girl without a name or a trust fund, Vincent Millay had to depend completely on the charity of wealthy benefactors to keep her enrolled and to pay her tuition. And, true to form, exactly as she would resolve situations like these in the years going forward, she simply cut all ties with her girlfriend. Elaine was very much in love with Vincent. Her partner knew this, but she still severely distanced herself, eventually ending all contact without much in the way of consultation or tact.

Vincent was well-known for her numerous love affairs with both men and women, the details of which frequently made their way into her poetry. The word promiscuous was frequently assigned to her, a characterization that is, I suppose, technically accurate, though it does connote slut-shaming and I use it here reluctantly. In her heyday, Vincent’s love life was a revolving door. Her letters reveal a consistent pattern. She had a habit of proclaiming ultimate love and devotion for a short time before finding something much more attractive and appealing later.

Had she not also left behind a large trail of spiteful, slighted lovers in her wake, this would not have been as much of an problematic issue. Many of these were also writers themselves, so their characterizations of her in written form often show feelings of extreme betrayal and resentment. Many fell in love with her through her writing. Many others became infatuated after meeting her in person or by way of the bedroom.

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

Attempting to explain where Vincent’s rebellious streak began is not terribly difficult. Her mother, even as an old woman, was fond of saying shocking things. First among them was her assertion, regarding her daughter’s sexual prowess, that she was a slut in her day. Why shouldn’t Vincent be the same way? In traveling through Europe with her daughter, she noted Vincent’s sexual behavior firsthand. At times, she even stumbled upon her daughter in the act itself, when the both of them shared a hotel suite, particularly when Vincent forgot to close or lock the door behind her.

The relationship between mother and daughter, then, often completely lacked any sense of healthy boundaries. Vincent’s mother was not above chiding and, if need be, browbeating her oldest child to write frequently, particularly during her daughter’s trips abroad, just as she had at an earlier time. Mother Millay, as Vincent’s husband called her, also spent vast amounts of time in her daughter's company, in a fashion that would seem intrusive and off-putting to most.

At times, their relationship resembled that of relative equals rather of than parent to child. This degree of intimacy does at times seem obsessive, particularly in certain revealing circumstances. The most prominent of all of these might be when the elder Millay took it upon herself to remedy her daughter’s unwanted pregnancy. Consulting an archaic book of natural remedies, she found a particular root that had abortive properties and personally induced the process herself.

While in her early thirties, Edna St. Vincent Millay eventually married Eugen Boissevain, a relatively well-off Dutch businessman and importer who was ten years her senior. A self-proclaimed feminist, he was the widower of Inez Milholland, a First-Wave suffragist, labor lawyer, socialist, war correspondent, and public speaker who died tragically young at the age of 30. Theirs was an open marriage, in which the two of them could and did take other partners. During the course of their marriage, she often wrote to and kept track of previous partners, to whom she was known to periodically return. These were usually other writers and artists who floated in the same social circles, though a particular infatuation on her part was the poet George Dillion. Fourteen years younger than her, he was the inspiration for several beautiful sonnets. It is occasionally difficult to keep track of Millay’s lovers, as they tended to share similar interests and passions, and as such a vast amount of creative cross-pollination was present, both literally and metaphorically speaking.

The go-to place for young, politically active intellectuals, artists, and activists at the time was Greenwich Village in New York City. Here the term “Bohemian”, applied to their libertine, freewheeling lifestyle was first applied. It was this scene that was the spiritual homeland of many such characters. Even today, their behavior and permissive attitudes would be shocking to many. I myself noted while reading a description of what went on back then that it disproves many cultural myths. The Godparents of free love were not the hippies or flower children of the 1960’s. Rather they were the riotous, high energy jazz babies and high steppers of forty years prior. Even now, much of the way they lived their lives is still well ahead of its time.

The last few years of Edna St. Vincent’s Millay fall into the category of falling action. Her health, which had never been good since her early thirties, began to fail once again. Flare ups of physical ailments combined with nervous breakdowns had been periodically present for years. She gave public readings and continued writing, though at times she was quite frail. Making matters even worse, three crucial people in her life died in rapid succession, a trusted friend (and lover), her mother, and her father.

She became addicted to morphine and alcohol as a means of coping with the pain. Photographs taken of her in the last decade or so of her life reveal a person in swift decline. It is as if she lived an entire life in only a few short years, then found nothing left in reserve to sustain her. Perhaps her most famous poem, written in her early twenties best defines the life she led.

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!

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