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A noted biographer and poet illuminates the unique woman who wrote the greatest American love poetry of the twentieth century
This is the story of a rare sort of American genius, who grew up in grinding poverty in Camden, Maine. Nothing could save the sensitive child but her talent for words, music and drama, and an inexorable desire to be loved. When she was twenty, her poetry would make her famous; at thirty she would be loved by readers the ...
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A noted biographer and poet illuminates the unique woman who wrote the greatest American love poetry of the twentieth century
This is the story of a rare sort of American genius, who grew up in grinding poverty in Camden, Maine. Nothing could save the sensitive child but her talent for words, music and drama, and an inexorable desire to be loved. When she was twenty, her poetry would make her famous; at thirty she would be loved by readers the world over.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was widely considered to be the most seductive woman of her age. Few men could resist her, and many women also fell under her spell. From the publication of her first poems until the scandal over Fatal Interview twenty years later, gossip about the poet's liberated lifestyle prompted speculation about who might be the real subject of her verses.
Using letters, diaries and journals of the poet and her lovers that have only recently become available, Daniel Mark Epstein tells the astonishing story of the life, dedicated to art and love, that inspired the sublime lyrics of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
"Epstein creates a rendering worthy of the poet's energetic life."--People magazine
"Epstein is one of the strongest poets now writing in English. He is also a musician and a scholar; and, as [What Lips My Lips Have Kissed] makes clear, an expert biographer."--Jeffrey Hart, National Review
"Rapturous . . . [Epstein] extols Millay, persuasively, as 'America's foremost love poet.'"--Merle Rubin, The Wall Street Journal
LOVE O' DREAMS
* * *
In the town of Camden, Maine, at midnight of October 3, in thelower tenement of a clapboard house on Chestnut Street overlooking theharbor, a girl was absorbed in a curious ritual. If a passerby had beentempted by the flicker of candlelight beneath a shade to peep into the sparelyfurnished bedroom, he might have thought the girl was mad, or the votaryof some pagan cult.
She was writing in a small brown notebook, and saying aloud to herselfand to invisible presences strange and passionate words:
"Be these my fairies: Strong-Heart, Clean-Hand, Clear-Eye, Brave-Soul,Sweet-Tongue, and Thou—my Robin Good-Fellow, who will come unseen,unheard, unqueried by all but me, and with thy shadowy flail thresh for me `Inone night, ere glimpse of morn ... / What ten day-laborers could not end.'"
In her white nightgown, with her long braids of red hair brushing herthighs, she looked more like a girl than she actually was. The nightgownconcealed the petite but perfectly formed figure of a nineteen-year-oldwoman.
"We have been betrothed just half a year tonight," she chanted. "I havebeen faithful to you. I have loved you more and better every day. It seemsto me you might come before long. I am very lonely. I wish I might go tosleep tonight with my head on your arm. Or if I might only know just whereyou are this minute. You would seem very near to me even though you werewayacross the world. You have been everything to me for half a year.... Istart in tomorrow on the second half and I am going to try and make itbetter than the first. I must keep always before my mind the thought of whatyou want me to be. I will try harder than ever before. But I am so tired!But when you come I shall rest."
There was no one in the candlelit room but Edna St. Vincent Millay. Inthe night sky over the town shone the constellation of the winged horsePegasus, beloved of the Muses. The four-room flat included a sitting roomwith two more windows on the harbor side, the kitchen, and another bedroomlooking out on the stained-glass front window of the Baptist Church.Millay's sisters Norma, eighteen, and Kathleen, sixteen, were sleeping in theother bedroom, and her mother, nurse Cora Buzzell Millay, was away innearby Rockland working on a medical case. Cora Millay and her husbandwere divorced, and the girls' father lived far away.
Vincent, as she was called, rose from her writing table. She imagined herlover was seated in a mahogany-paneled room reading by the light of a studylamp. She parted imaginary curtains and coyly looked through them, pretendinghe could see her.
"How do you like my hair, sir? All you can see is my head now for I'mhiding. Wait just a minute, and I'll come out. I am wearing a fluffy lavendarthing over my nightdress. It is very soft and long and trails on the rug behindme. My bare feet sink into the rug. My hair is in two wavy red braids overmy shoulders. My eyes are very sweet and serious. My mouth is wistful."
She imagined him watching her from his chair. She moved slowly overthe rug toward him. She rested her head gently on his knee. Her braidscurled in fiery coils on the floor.
With the grace of a trained actress the girl mimed the love scene. Shelooked into her imaginary lover's eyes. She felt him gather her into his arms.Her gowns fell softly about her feet as she kissed his face....
On her ring finger she wore a tin ring she had found in a "fortune" cake.Her ghost ring, she called it, "a cheap little thing in imitation of a solitaire,just the sort of ring to link me to a `Love-o'-Dreams'; I love it with a passionthat is painful." Rising from the floor, she kissed the ring on her handseven times.
The ritual had begun with the lighting of a wax candle from the drawerof the writing table, and the entertaining of her spirit lover would not enduntil the candle had burned out—that is, if no one interrupted her. Thisbizarre ceremony, which the girl had been practicing on the third of everymonth since April 3, 1911, when she formally "consecrated" her soul to this"love o' dreams," was not so much the evidence of madness as it was anelaborate defense against it.
She was a vulnerable, neurasthenic girl whom life had dealt a difficulthand. Born in Rockport, Maine, on February 22, 1892, the eldest of threesisters, she had seen her father for the last time early in 1901 when hermother threw him out (for "bitter abuse," according to the divorce testimony).In September of that same year, all three girls—ages nine, eight, andfive—were stricken with typhoid fever and certainly would have died had itnot been for their mother Cora's skill in nursing. After that early trauma, lifeproved to be one struggle after another, yet the women survived with stubborndetermination and a kind of desperate humor. Vincent won amateurpoetry prizes, starred in stage plays, and graduated with honors from CamdenHigh School in June of 1909.
But since graduation the young poet and actress had suffered from a seriesof crises—physical, emotional, and spiritual—that led her periodically to theedge of despair.
Now it seemed that only a perfect love, or the raptures of poetry, couldsave her:
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.
This is the story of a girl locked in a room that was her life in Camden,Maine, in 1911, and how she used her pen like a magic key to unlock thedoor. In order to understand the sorcery that Millay worked to win herliberty, in that hard year when she began to write the great poem "Renascence,"we must go back to an earlier beginning, the story of her mother,Cora Millay, recently divorced, and how she scratched out a living for herthree daughters from the rocky Maine soil.
* * *
They had been poor, poor relations thrown upon the mercy and irregularcharity of uncles and aunts and grandparents from Newburyport, MassachusettsCora's hometown, to Ring Island located just across the MerrimacRiver, and back again, finally washing up in Camden. From spare room tospare room in farmhouses and town houses, mother and daughters movedwith their trunks of books and papers and homemade clothing and preciousfew other belongings dragging behind them.
First, during the winter of 1901 they stayed with Cora's brother CharlesBuzzell and his wife, Jenny, on Ring Island while the girls went to schoolthere. Cora worked in Newburyport until she could afford rent on a bungalowat 78 Lime Street. But they had not lived long in that little housebefore Cora went up to Maine to get her divorce, thinking that might guaranteeher alimony. She left her daughters in the care of a Miss Kendall inCamden while she journeyed alone to the court in Rockland, where shereceived her divorce decree on January 11, 1904.
That winter was the coldest in memory, with temperatures plunging toforty degrees below, and Cora and her daughters returned to Newburyportin the throes of a coal shortage. Cora was too proud to take from the citysupply of coal, although her it was offered to them as it was to all the poor.Cora's younger sister Clem bought them half a ton, and with the coke fromthe gashouse, and using shingles ripped from a ramshackle house next door,they were able to keep one fire going in their tiny kitchen. Cora would throwthe shingles over the fence, and after school the girls would pick them upto put on the fire.
But then Cora contracted influenza and was so sick she could not get outof bed. The doctor said her illness came from overwork and undernourishment."Not a good combination," Cora later remarked with grim humor. "Iwas away down, subnormal, pulse and temperature, and nothing could seemto bring me up." Her brother Charlie fixed up her life insurance, that washow serious things looked. And her well-to-do sister Clem stopped by often,sweeping in wearing "a heavy cape of double-faced goods, which the girlswill never forget," Cora wrote.
"For, with all the work there was to do here, with a sick mother, and allin school, Aunt Clem never took her cape off on any of these calls. Clemdid bring in things for me to eat, which she had cooked at home, at AuntSue's. But there was no help for the little ones who might be left alone now,any minute." (These quotes, with their lilting Irish rhythms, are from Cora'swritings. She frequently wrote about herself in the third-person maternal, as"the mother.") Cora hung on, while the girls went to school and did thehousework. "Vincent had learned to make yeast bread, and it was excellent,"Cora recalled. It was during her mother's near-fatal illness that her eldestdaughter learned to take command of the household. "And many a nightthe mother went to bed when she did not have much idea of seeing themorning. But she did not tell them so." She did not have to tell them:children know these things instinctively.
Despite Cora's tendency to self-dramatize her life in her letters and memoirs,in this case she did not distort the truth. The forty-year-old mother oftwelve-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay nearly died during the winter of1904. Her health rallied in the spring, just in time to take care of her youngestchild, eight-year-old Kathleen. "Kathleen was sick, as if stricken. The littlelimbs unnaturally unruly, and the child sick, as they thought, unto death."Kathleen's fever marked the onset of the dread disease that one day wouldbe known as infantile paralysis—polio.
That summer, having seen enough hard luck in Newburyport, "the motherpicked up some things, and turned the key in the Lime Street House, andtook the children to Maine." First they went to Union, where they stayedfor a while with friends who were obliged to Cora, whose nursing had savedthe life of their youngest boy. From there they went to the hill farm of UncleFred Millay, where there was milk and cream, horses, and a blueberry pasturewhere the girls loved to play.
"For the little one [Kathleen] to climb toward the blueberry pasture sheneeded help, and the queer pitiful limping hurried gait was sad to see. Forthe left leg would not do its part, nor would the left hand, for it shook andtrembled so that the only way she could keep it still, when she was eating,using the right, was to hold it between her knees."
There at the farm Cora nursed Kathleen day and night, massaging herlegs and arms several times a day with cocoa butter and giving the childinfusions of skullcap "to quiet the little shattered nerves."
From there Uncle Austin Millay took them in during the time that hiswife was away nursing. But Uncle Austin was drunk much of the time, anda mean drunk he was, too, so "the family of visitors moved on, and wentfor a short visit to Eva Fales, a cousin of mother's at Beech-Woods Street,Thomaston ... then they went to Camden, and up to Aunt Clara's till someother arrangement could be made."
Aunt Clara Millay was a big, handsome woman, goodhearted and generous,who kept a boardinghouse on Washington Street just on the outskirtsof town. Grandpa Buzzell was riding down from Searmont to get Vincentand Norma, and frail Kathleen was going to stay with Aunt Clara while Coratook a nursing job for Professor John Tufts, a pianist who was to be operatedon in Rockland before returning to Camden. Cora would attend him in hisbig house on Chestnut Street.
All summer long Cora took care of Mr. Tufts, walking a mile uphill anddown each day to Aunt Clara's so she could give Kathleen her cocoa butterrubbings and skullcap infusions and doses of cod liver oil. Then in Octobershe received a letter from Grandpa Buzzell's wife, Delia, saying that the oldman was on the verge of a nervous breakdown with the racket of so manyyoungsters in his little house (they had three boys living there before Vincentand Norma arrived). "She did not know but that he might be going crazyor out of his mind, and she was uneasy about the girls and their being there."
* * *
A man from Appleton who boarded at Aunt Clara's when he was staying inCamden owned a small rental house in the field downhill from WashingtonStreet, between Aunt Clara's and the river that powered the mills. Acrossthe Megunticook River was nothing but woodlands, and up the hill acrossthe road rose the cemetery and the rocky height of Mount Battle.
The dilapidated house in the field had been empty for some time. Theman from Appleton said that Cora could have the little house for her andher children to live in. If they would just clean it and make certain repairsfor which he would provide the materials like painting and papering—hewould give them a month's rent free.
The doctors in Camden wanted Cora to work for them there and in theoutlying towns. So she decided to return to Newburyport only long enoughto close up the house on Lime Street and then make a new home for herselfand her family in that house in the field in Camden.
On November 4, 1904, still in Newburyport packing the trunks, she wroteto Vincent and Norma at Grandpa Buzzell's in Searmont. "Be a good lot ofgirls and mind Delia, and be good to Grandpa. Kiss each other for Mamawho is so homesick for you she is crying while she is writing. I hope you areall well, and that Kathleen is gaining all the time. Don't get discouragedbecause Mama seems so long; she is doing a man's work; and you just planhow cosy we'll have our new little home, when once it is cleaned and settledand banked up snug and warm for the winter. Somehow I don't dread thiswinter as I did last ..."
Between 1901 and 1904 they seem to have had no permanent home, butmade do wherever they could be together for a few weeks or months. Coratraveled with a trunkload of classic books: Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Scott,etc., and read aloud to her daughters with a dramatic voice, slightly inflectedwith an Irish brogue. As a girl she had acted in amateur theatricals. She sangbeautifully in a mellow mezzo-soprano, and played Bach, Beethoven, andMendelssohn on the piano, when one was handy. She firmly shaped herdaughters in her own image, though with a sense of humor.
Soon they had their own language and pet names for one another. Theyhad their own customs and legends, binding them each to each while separatingthem from the world of strangers and protecting them from those whowould never understand their ways. Men often felt threatened by the women,as if they were a coven of witches.
After years of wandering, the prospect of having their first house togetherin this picturesque and welcoming suburb of Camden, a house at the edgeof town but not entirely out of it, was a relief to them all. The house stoodin an open field, with Cora's aunt's house on the town side, and a meadowon the other side sloping down to the Camden Mill. In back was anotherfield, and below that was the Megunticook River, flowing from the lake ofthe same name through a valley and on down through the town to the harbor.This current turned the wheels of the five woolen mills that constituted thetown's main industry.
In autumn, under the red maples and golden leaves of the oak trees, thefields were colorful with staghorn sumac, wild blue asters, wild pink orchids,fleabane, and goldenrod; in the spring there would be violets and arbutus,dandelions and trilliums. In the summer the sisters played hide-and-seek inthe grasses that were never mown, and swam in the river on days when thewater was not tinted from the dyes that colored the cloths in the mill vats,fashioning water-wings out of pillowcases blown up like bladders.
Cora recalled: "Another joy in the tall grasses was when it was raininghard. Then there was nothing the girls so much liked as stripping, and puttingon thin print dresses and running out into the grass and leaping aboutin the rain, letting the summer showers soak them until it ran in little riversfrom their hair and faces. Then they came in and stripped and I rubbedthem down with a rough Turkish towel till they glowed and tingled amidtheir laughter."
But the house, neglected by the landlord, was brutally cold in the winter.When the rent was not paid up, Cora could not press too hard about repairs."The snow outside made as good a winter playground as the grasses insummer, but there is need of warm cover within reach to make playing inthe snow drifts enjoyable. This we had, but it did not cover the whole house."
Their dwelling was no more than four small rooms. On the ground floorwas the kitchen, which had the only indoor plumbing, a cold water sink thathad to trickle constantly so the pipe would not freeze. One day the waterran over the basin, and Cora returned home from work to find the girlsmerrily skating on the kitchen floor.
Next to the kitchen was the dining room, which in good weather alsoserved as the library and music room. There was a cooking stove in thekitchen, but in the coldest part of winter these lower rooms could not beheated. The main coal stove stood in the living room upstairs (where Coraand Kathleen slept), next to the bedroom of the older girls. Everything inthe house that had to be kept from freezing—milk, potatoes, onions, bread,and butter—had to be taken upstairs to the living room. "And this was achore, and did not add to the order of the room," Cora remembered.
"Mother had a lot of work nursing, right away," Cora recalled, referringto herself, "and the doctors liked her. And after a little while she got morepay, but for a long time not more than ten dollars a week. And she tookcare of the sick folks all the time, night and day, unless at times when someonewould give her a chance to go lie down," and when she insisted upongoing home to check up on her girls.
As soon as she could afford it she had a telephone installed so she couldkeep in touch with Vincent from the patients' homes. The telephone, andAunt Clara's boardinghouse a few hundred yards across the meadow, wereVincent's only lifelines on many cold days and nights.
Vincent was twelve then, Norma eleven, and Kathleen nine. The sistershad to grow up fast.
Later Vincent recalled: "To live alone like that, sleep alone in that houseset back in the field on the very edge of Millville, the bad section of townwhere the itinerant mill-workers lived—this was the only way they could liveat all.... But they were afraid of nothing—not afraid of the river whichflowed behind the house, in which they taught themselves to swim; not afraidof that other river, which flowed past the front of the house and which onSaturday nights was often very quarrelsome and noisy, the restless stream ofmill workers.... Once it took all three of the children, flinging themselvesagainst the front door, to close it and bolt it, and just in time. And afterthat, for what seemed like hours, there was stumbling about outside, andsoft cursing."
Their mother had a way with the girls, a subtle psychology that broughtgreater results in exacting obedience and labor than cruelty could ever havewrought. She constantly reminded them (with more or less wry humor) ofher own valiant struggles and sufferings on their behalf, and how much theyneeded each other in order to survive the trials of poverty; at the same timeshe never let them forget they were, all of them, princesses, aristocrats of thespirit, in beauty and brains and talent second to none, equal only to eachother.
By nursing the sick and weaving hairpieces for ladies, Cora made themoney to feed and clothe them and pay the rent. The children took care ofeach other and their house and did the cooking and laundry. They neverquestioned this need. They loved Cora and they feared her, feared her displeasure,and they felt searing guilt and shame if ever they let her down.When she was rested she was full of songs and rhymes, stories and jokes;she baked sugar cookies in the shapes of birds that were the envy of all thetown children. But weary—or out of sorts—she was a terror.
Cora made each of her departures an occasion to put the girls on theirhonor to do their best and be their best while she was away. "And to be puton your honor by a mother who did not say anything about it, and wentaway to work for you," Cora recalled, "was a lot heavier load to carry, a lotharder to throw off, than things that were said to you about what to do, andwhat not to do, when mother was right there to see.... For in the one casethe responsibility was on mother who was used to it, and in the other caseit was on you, who were not so used to responsibility but were getting usedto it very fast."
Of course, the greatest burden fell to the eldest, Vincent, who was alsoher mother's favorite. The two were almost unnaturally close. Two themesdominate the early diaries of Edna Millay: how painfully she misses hermother, and how exhausted she becomes with the laundry, cooking, cleaning,schoolwork, and baby-sitting. That autumn, soon after they settled into thecottage and the girls had enrolled in the Elm Street School across from theCongregational Church, the eldest daughter found herself in charge of thehousehold and her younger sisters. More than once she refers to herselfhumorously as Cinderella. She was small, with bones as frail and delicate asa bird's—not meant for heavy lifting.
Vincent missed her mother so much that in desperation she invented animaginary black "mammy" to whom she could turn in her diary for strengthand comfort in her loneliness:
You'll have to take the place of Mama when she's gone, which is most of the time. It seems strange, doesn't it, that you, an old mammy, who are not my real Mama at all, should take the place of my real Mama when she is away.... It's so comfy when she's home to sit down in the kitchen—I keep the kitchen clean and shiny all the time, Mammy—to sit down near the stove when the wood is crackling and sending out little sparks ... when you hear the wind outdoors and know it can't get in where you are and where the little girls are sleeping in the next room. I make two cups of tea in the blue china teapot, and we sit opposite each other and drink it nice and hot while we watch each other's faces in the firelight of the crackling stove. It makes up for all the time she's gone. I forget all about the things that went wrong and she forgets all about the doctors and the patients and the surgery and the sleepless nights....
Excerpted from What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by DANIEL MARK EPSTEIN. Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Mark Epstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Part 1||Love o' Dreams|
|Love o' Dreams||3|
|School Days and Stage Lights||14|
|Little Girl Grown Up||33|
|Part 2||The Whirlpool of Eros|
|The Whirlpool of Eros||71|
|The Sappho of North Hall||91|
|Menage a Trois||145|
|The Mountain Laurels||219|
|Paris or Steepletop||228|
|The Last Love Poems||240|
Posted April 17, 2002
At best, I¿m only going to glance through the book I said to myself, as I was at Barnes and Noble to do some personal writing; however my evening took a different turn. I¿ve always been interested in Millay¿s work but have never read much about her. Epstein was able to entice me with his introduction and I eagerly turned the page. I was in Camden, Maine, in the teenage world of Millay, when my phone rang, and I carried on a 15-minute chat with a friend. Afterwards, I quickly returned to the charming life of the Goddess that was being aptly narrated by Epstein. He was able to hold my attention and I finished reading the book before the closing bell. My only disappointment was that there were not more direct quotes from Millay¿s letters and poems, as I could not get enough of her words.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 8, 2001
Absolutely excellent !!!!! I enjoyed the irony of the last sentence of the Acknowledgments. I hope you have left lots of 'letters' so one day we will know what your difficult time is/was !!! Seriously, this is not to make fun of your (or your family's) problems. I hope all is well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.