Laura Passin’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), among her many other accomplishments, wrote some of the great kiss-off poems of modern literature. As a woman who unabashedly loved sex, with men and women, and who was keenly aware of the difference between the societal expectations for women and her own daring persona, she had an uncanny ability to turn what seems to be self-deprecation into a sick burn.
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
BOOM. This is the “cool story, bro” of formal verse. Millay would have done well in our era, I think; I like to think of her as flirting between serious literary outlets and, say, Weird Twitter. If she wrote for The Toast, she would be in charge of Friday Femslash.
Like so many women poets of the 20th century, Millay’s reputation has been intertwined with public perceptions of her biography. She won the Pulitzer in 1923, but when newspapers recounted her public readings, they more often focused on her outfits than her writing. Her glamorous and occasionally scandalous life made her a celebrity, but her celebrity (along with other trends in literary criticism) led to charges of intellectual shallowness and political dilettantism. From a 21st-century perspective, though, I find it thrilling to look back at Millay’s poetry—especially her sexy, funny, unforgettable sonnets—and find a woman who found a way to advance all kinds of progressive ideas about women, simply by being as enthralling and talented as she was. Call it the Beyoncé effect.
Like our Queen B, Millay used her hot party girl persona to get her voice on the airwaves, and then she used that access to broadcast her feminist subliminal messages. (Thanks to Jess Zimmerman for this metaphor.) I mean, imagine the “Single Ladies” dance happening while you read this:
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.
Shoulda put a ring on it.
And much like Beyoncé, Millay’s sexual candor and popularity–especially among young women–led to hand-wringing, pearl-clutching conversations about her public image. She eventually married, like a proper lady, but she didn’t stop being a heartbreaker. Her affairs with men and women were an open secret, and they made some of her poems seem gossipy to readers in the know. But, as Nancy Milford points out in her biography of Millay, the brokenhearted men were operating under patriarchal assumptions that were simply never applicable to a girl named Vincent:
To a man they felt that her leaving them meant far more about her inability to be faithful than it did about their need to secure her exclusively for themselves. They talked about her chagrin, even when it was clearly their own; they talked about her promiscuity and her puzzling magnanimity. They failed to acknowledge the pull she felt between the excitement and energy of her sexual life, where she was a sort of brigand who relished the chase, and the difficult, sweet pleasure of her work.
Millay was well aware of the way her sexuality made her the object of scorn as well as fascination:
I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex,
Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat,
Leaving the lofty tower I laboured at
For birds to foul and boys and girls to vex
With tittering chalk; and you, and the long necks
Of neighbours sitting where their mothers sat
Are well aware of shadowy this and that
In me, that’s neither noble nor complex.
A cat in heat, a shadowy this and that–Millay refused to be shamed for her sexuality. Instead, she looked to the great women lovers of literature like Isolde or Helen of Troy: in the “lively chronicles of the past,” she finds, “here and there, / Hunting the amorous line, skimming the rest […] some woman bearing as I bear / Love like a burning city in the breast.” Note the subtle dismissal of the epic stories of men–if you are a woman reader looking for someone like you, you can just skim all those battles and catalogues of ships. Millay used a traditional verse form, the love sonnet, to reclaim passion as an emotion women feel as subjects, not just objects. This made some of her contemporaries very uncomfortable, but it made others declare her the most powerful woman poet since Sappho. She did a reading tour of the United States that regularly sold out (and left a rich archive of gushing newspaper accounts of her ethereal beauty). After a reading at Bryn Mawr College, one audience member, a woman, invited Millay and her husband to her place for a drink. They ended up getting smashed and talking poetry until 3 a.m., at which point everyone went to bed. In the middle of the night, Millay opened her host’s bedroom door and unclasped her dress, letting it pool at her feet, and said, “Oh, don’t you like good old Elizabethan lovemaking? Oh, I like it!” The young woman, alas, did not, and Millay returned to her own bed. Note to scientists: I will pay you a million billion dollars if you invent a time machine that allows me to swap places with that hapless undergrad.
The stellar biography Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay offers the following delightful anecdote in its prologue: the author, Nancy Milford, worked with Millay’s surviving sister Norma, who gave Milford unprecedented access to her personal archive. According to Milford, Norma Millay claimed to have permanently destroyed only three things of her sister’s:
1. An erotic letter to a beautiful gay man. Norma: “Maybe she didn’t care [that he was gay]. Anyway, he turned her down. We can’t have that.”
2. A set of pornographic photos of Millay and her husband Eugen Boissevain.
3. AN IVORY DILDO. (Milford: “which Norma admitted was difficult to burn, but she’d managed.” Please, God, let me have the opportunity to compose such a glorious understatement even once in my life.)
I am 100% in love with this anecdote. I cannot delight in it enough. And yet it echoes the problem we encounter with any account of Millay’s career: in this biography of one of the most popular women poets of all time, we get the sexy story before we get any of the poems. Our culture, as I know we all know, has a real problem with women who are sexy and also [any other characteristic]. Sexy women aren’t supposed to have other qualities: their accomplishments are always considered suspect, because who’s to say they aren’t being feted for sexiness rather than good work? Millay was canny about her persona; she played the patriarchy game when it was to her advantage. As Kate Bolick writes in Poetry,
It isn’t easy to even think about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s body of work without also thinking about her—well—actual body. This is entirely her doing. Born in Maine in 1892, she was blessed with not only uncommon genius but the romantic Gibson Girl looks prized by her era—winsome face, comely curves, heavy masses of auburn hair—and she wasn’t afraid to use them. In the spring of 1912, just 20, she put the finishing touches on her epic poem “Renascence” and submitted it to the prestigious Lyric Year poetry contest. When the editor, a man, responded with a letter praising her verse, she replied with a photograph of herself. He asked if he could keep it.
That poem, “Renascence,” put Millay on the map; she received a scholarship to Vassar from a group of wealthy women who’d been spellbound by her pixie/wünderkind charm. These women changed Millay’s life, which so far had been mostly spent in Maine, living in poverty with her fierce, independent mother and her artistically minded sisters. (It reminds me a bit of the Brontës, only without the religion or the consumption or the moors. Okay, so, mostly just the creative siblings part.) Millay’s intellectual world was sponsored, literally and figuratively, by women: first her family, then her benefactors and her Vassar classmates. But editors were men, mostly, and the fact that they were smitten with her beauty and youth gave this young, mostly self-taught writer a fighting chance in the early Jazz Age.
Millay, who went by “Vincent,” was clearly the love interest of every girl at Vassar. Vassar in the 1910s was a place where, if men weren’t allowed to your Halloween party, you would just demand that half the invited women come in drag. Millay wrote letters home describing her flirtations with “Jack,” the “best looking boy,” referring to him by male pronouns throughout. In a letter to Norma, Millay described several girls vying for her attention, including a picture for Norma’s appreciation:
She’s a handsome thing, very boyish, deep rough laugh, but the sweetest, most charming smile when she wants to be decent for a while. Really a fascinating type. Isn’t she wonderful in that picture? Couldn’t you die in her arms?
What I find most heartening in these excerpts is the quality I appreciate most in her poems: the complete absence of apology. When Millay wrote about desire, in poems and in letters, she did so without shame or obscurity. This is where her public image and her writing split, actually; she knew she was a beauty from a young age, and after she got very famous, she cultivated something of a mysterious persona—her glamour was based in contrast, this ethereal-looking woman with a halo of red hair and diaphanous gowns whose surprisingly deep voice charged her poems with intense erotic energy. Her poems, by contrast, tend to dismantle that glamour by revealing the poignant workings of desire and longing underneath all that sexual candor:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
This poem, one of Millay’s best known, starts out brazenly, flirting with the reader, but it takes a sharp turn as the very casualness of liberated sex generates its own kind of melancholy. This poem doesn’t apologize for the speaker’s actions; instead, it invites us into her mourning for her (and, implicitly, her lovers’) fading youth:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Millay uses natural imagery to create an elegy for herself; her sexual prowess is inextricable from her body, which is mortal. Pleasure is the joy against which she measures the passage of time. We can also see this dynamic in one of her most-quoted early poems, “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!
Alas, Millay’s life did grow more painful as her candle burned; a terrible auto accident had left her with chronic pain. Millay became deeply addicted to morphine, and she was already a heavy drinker. She and her husband kept heartbreaking records of how much morphine she took a day (via injection); we can’t know the motivation behind these records, of course, but to me they seem like attempts to rationalize her addiction as being a medical necessity. The truth was, she *was* in terrible pain, which worsened drastically when she hit menopause. She at times got sober and at times relapsed, as so often happens with addicts; the quality of her writing varied as well, as so often happens with established writers. Despair over WWII led her to engage more directly with politics in her writing and speeches, which some people saw as out of her wheelhouse.
Still, Millay kept a sharp wit and stayed as engaged as possible with the literary world, aware that the ongoing celebration of high modernists like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound made her formal verse look outmoded to some. In a letter, she accused Eliot of one of the worst artistic sins: trying too hard to be funny. Nailing both his literary pretensions and his deep Anglophilia (which went as far as adopting a British-y accent), Millay wrote, “He has no sense of humour, and so he is not yet a true Englishman.”
Millay’s husband died of lung cancer in August 1949; Millay died in October 1950 from a fall down the stairs. She was 58. Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, NY, became an artist’s colony.
When women artists are beautiful, they are often accused of exploiting their beauty, of using it as an unfair advantage. Who would pay attention to Beyoncé’s voice if she didn’t look like a 21st-century Aphrodite? The problem with this way of thinking (well, one problem) is that it assumes an inverse relationship between beauty and talent: if a woman is beautiful, then she is probably not talented. If a woman is talented, she probably can’t be beautiful. Either way, the premise is that women have to be exceptional to be worth any attention. Both Millay and Beyoncé are great talents who are also great beauties, and both of them use their art to undermine the patriarchal game that favored them in the first place. Millay doesn’t proclaim all of us flawless, of course, but in some ways she does one better: she gives women permission to be agents of desire, to inhabit a female gaze and decide for themselves what is sexy.
Love is not blind. I see with single eye
Your ugliness and other women’s grace.
I know the imperfection of your face, —
The eyes too wide apart, the brow too high
For beauty. Learned from earliest youth am I
In loveliness, and cannot so erase
Its letters from my mind, that I may trace
You faultless, I must love until I die.
More subtle is the sovereignty of love:
So am I caught that when I say, “Not fair,”
’Tis but as if I said, “Not here — not there —
Not risen — not writing letters.” Well I know
What is this beauty men are babbling of;
I wonder only why they prize it so.
Laura Passin is a writer, professor, and feminist at large. She holds a PhD from Northwestern and an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Archipelago, and Best New Poets 2013. She also writes a quasi-regular newsletter about feminism, poetry, and pop culture called Postcards from a One-Woman Army. Laura lives in Portland with too many cats.