February 21, 2018

Millay: "Rapture & Melancholy"

On this day in 1950 Edna St. Vincent Millay died, aged fifty-eight, in a fall down the stairs of her "Steepletop" home in the Berkshire hills of New York. Though she had long since tumbled from fame -- a Pulitzer, nationwide tours and radio readings, front-page political activism -- Millay is regarded as one of the last American poets to have had a general readership and, whether through the love poems or the love life, to have enjoyed wide popularity. Why she withdrew from it into a decade of drug-and-alcohol seclusion is a question which continues to fascinate, given the recent books -- Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin (Marion Meade, 2004), and the 2001 biographies by Nancy Milford and Daniel Epstein. But in the end we seem to stand blinking with the hired man who found Millay in the morning -- the body sprawled on the landing, all the lights on, the half-full wine bottle on the stair, the only note the one to the housekeeper about the ironing, the last rough draft ending with these circled lines:
    I will control myself, or go inside.
    I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
    Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.
This seems a long way from the bravado of "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!" As those lines, written when Millay was in her late twenties, and scorching through the Twenties, seem a long way from where she began. The teenaged "Vincent" Millay of Camden, Maine was so starved for experience that she would put a secret ring on her finger and hold midnight séances in order to summon her Dream Lover: "I am sitting now in the light of that candle which tonight I have lighted for the seventh time. I shall light it five times more, and on the fifth night I shall let it burn out. Then, if you have not come by that time, I shall get another, and begin again...." The first fleshy recipient of such yearning was the judge of a poetry contest -- though, says biographer Epstein, he got no more than letters implying that Millay "was prepared to go to bed with him if it might give her a jump on winning five hundred dollars." When the prize did not materialize, the hopeful judge got another taste of Millay's style: "Let me congratulate you on your convincing impersonation of a man.... How can I be expected to understand a person who got his education in France, his business methods in Siberia, his behaviour in vaudeville, and his brains in a raffle?" But by this time the young poet had found a public and a patron - this is the oft-told story of the poem "Renascence." She put her tin ring in a box, added a drop of blood from her ring finger ("I shall always have to do things like that," she wrote) and snuffed her votive candle: "We will have no more vigils."

At twenty-one Millay left Camden for New York and for good. The next two decades would bring the best of her poetry, and most of the fabled stories, sometimes in amusing couplets: Epstein figures that Millay wrote the famous sonnet "What lips my lips have kissed" at about the time she was in a threesome with Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop. Other moments are just as odd to picture, such as the burial of Millay's mother at Steepletop: the workmen blasting a grave in the granite for four days, while Millay and her sister sat inside with the coffin, listening; a small, snowy service in the dark, which culminated with everyone firing three volleys from a shotgun, and then three again for Millay's mother-in-law, who had not received such a tribute on her day.

After her husband died, Millay insisted on returning to her Steepletop seclusion, and tried for a return to her best work. Her friends and doctors feared a slow slide back into the hole of addiction out of which she had begun to climb. The long, sunrise fall pre-empted both possibilities.

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