Sunday, October 21, 2018

2018.10.21 Vincent MIllay, Woman of Gift, Ill Repute,and Tragedy

Recently I spent a week enjoying the beauty of the Berkshires. There was no fall dress but still……..we got to visit the farm where I’d summered as a child, and the estate of the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who called herself Vincent. I’d read some of Millay’s work but was clueless about the woman behind the words—sharp, startling, awakening. Here’s one well-known quote I remember from a college poetry course, over 50 years ago when I too was young, yearning and burning many candles down to the nubbin.

“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.” 

I wanted it all—great literature, great love, wild drinking parties, freedom—and God. I was also scared witless of most all of such things burning within me, very unlike the care-free Millay, yet poised and ready to try. 

Millay was a flapper of my mother’s era, full of pulse and promise. Who ever heard of a flapper from rural Maine, let alone one of beauty—flaming red hair, lithe and petite (5’1”) stature, and a prodigious poet with a formidable intellect as ballast?
Millay was born in Rockland Maine in 1892, the oldest of three daughters. I was born 46 years later, the oldest of three daughters. Her middle name was derived from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York where her maternal uncle’s life had been saved just before her birth. My middle name is Hall, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. The Halls of Medford, Massachusetts were socially upscale. I live near Medford and can see the Halls of Medford’s large home, now condominiums. I imagine my grandmother’s antics, which by repute were many. Women in my family push against boundaries.

Millay was just twelve when her mother, Cora, divorced her father, Henry, for “financial irresponsibility.” My mother did not divorce my father but I bet she thought of it. He was responsible about money but not about booze. 

The young Millay girls grew up in rural poverty. I grew up in a big city called New York with the fear of poverty hovering over my parents' young lives, thanks to the Great Depression. (Why on earth do we capitalize that?  Dread I guess.) The Millay girls’ poverty was tempered by the joys of too much independence and the slew of classical literature which Cora hauled around in a trunk from place to place. The girls cavorted outside in summer and skated in their kitchen in winter when water from leaks froze solid. Edna, who by then called herself Vincent, was writing and publishing poems and having love trysts with women. I had the joys of a private girls’ school where I too was exposed to classics.

In 1912 Millay entered her poem “Renascence” in a poetry contest.  The poem is long, rhyming, plaintive and mystical, worth a read. Although it was considered the best submission, even by the winners who offered her some of their prize money, it was awarded fourth place—thus creating a scandal that catapulted her to fame and got the attention of a wealthy patron. Vincent got famous by NOT winning! Fame is exhilarating. Quick fame can be scary and scarring. Then again to be a prodigy in poetry requires scars on the heart. I have never been famous but did accumulate many scars on my heart.

At 21 Millay entered Vassar College. My paternal grandmother was graduated from Vassar in 1900 and insisted I apply. Vassar seemed austere to me, yet Millay’s eyes lit up, because Vassar  had people from China, France, Germany, and more. Nevertheless, she found Vassar’s rules binding: “Damn this pink and gray college. They trust us with everything but men. Man is forbidden as if he were an apple.” Smith College was my choice, embedded as it is among many men’s colleges.

Rules never stopped Millay. Often late to classes, she’d say: “I was in pain with a poem.” I was in pain over romance and exams, never missed a class, and was on time—mostly. When Millay committed the cardinal sin of spending the night out in a hotel, the college kicked her out. When I came back late to my dorm on father-daughter weekend, I’d been out drinking beer with my dad, and was not kicked out. I was, however, reprimanded and had to appear before some kind of student judiciary panel. It was humiliating and damn stupid.

In 1917 Millay’s classmates and faculty voted she could graduate, rules or no rules. She went to Greenwich Village, and lived a bohemian life, writing poems to support herself. They got published but the money didn’t keep up with her extravagance. She wrote Poetry Magazine: “I'm awfully broke. Will you mind paying more?” She was a tiny figure with a large voice so promiscuous she had many abortions, and so callous that one of her mourning lovers, possibly Edmund Wilson, suggested they form an alumni association—one model I suppose for unrequited bereavement. All I suffered was the terror of a pregnancy scare. Bouts of promiscuity came later.

Inside, Millay craved love, a void that all her rock star fame did not fill—not even the Pulitzer prize for poetry she won in 1923, nor the devotion of Eugen Boissevain, the man she married when she was 30—late. I married at age 24—also late for the eager sixties. Eugen adored her, and served her through moods, illnesses, and many betrayals. In 1925 the couple moved to Austerlitz, New York and onto 300-acres of what had been a blueberry farm.  Millay named the place Steepletop, after a shrub known as steeplebush, which grew on the property.
Steepletop is surprisingly humble, the mountain view beckoning, the terrain rough and woodsy. Here is the house, the outside bar next to the swimming pool, and the tiny writing cabin where Millay wrote.

After WWI, literary styles changed radically and the brilliance of Millay’s sonnets, the only form structured enough to contain the electric vigor of her passions, was deemed old-fashioned in Europe. Although a pacifist, she turned to war poetry in support of Allied war efforts. By the 1930s she suffered injuries from falls, developed an alcohol and morphine addiction, and was quite probably manic-depressive. Eugen tried to help by drinking and drugging himself. I too had my bout with alcoholism, contracted in part from trying to curb my first husband’s drinking by joining him. Superb logic, no?  It didn’t work and I eventually divorced, remarried, and grabbed sobriety.  

Sadly for Millay, Eugen got off the drugs and she could not. When Eugen died of lung cancer, Millay, recovered from morphine but not alcohol, mourned alone, and wrote poetry. She drank 1.5 bottles of wine a day. I gave up Scotch, drink four glasses of wine a week, channeled my perversity into a religious vocation, and wrote.

In 1950 Edna St. Vincent Millay died, despite her vows to “control myself.” One night she went to bed leaving her half emptied bottle of wine behind. In the night she got up, fell down the stairs, and broke her neck. She was 58. The caretaker found her in the morning.

Tragedy requires a fatal flaw in one’s character. Millay’s might have been her charming emotional immaturity. It takes maturity to house the creative vicissitudes of genius while longing for eternality.

I feel sisterhood with Millay. Although I am not a tragic figure, and no genius, I derive great spiritual zest from writing and the boost of getting published. There was in Millay’s work and life an ache, a profound soul-stretching yearning for something beyond. I recognize that ache in myself. Tears came to my eyes when as part of the tour we were able to hear her own voice reading her poetry. It was deep, resonant, like a slow roll of thunder brewing within a storm of passion. Not sad but simply tragic.

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

    “Conscientious Objector” by Edna St. Vincent Millay