Edna St. Vincent Millay was a genius and a giant whose reputation ebbs and flows. Selected Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay, edited by Timothy F. Jackson, with an introduction by Holly Peppe, is an excellent antidote to Millay’s sexist, condescending detractors, and a gift to all who care about fine writing. Eavan Boland, in A Journey With Two Maps, cited by Peppe, provides a deft, partial correction. Like the good, authorized biographies by Daniel Mark Epstein and Nancy Milford, both published in 2001, neither this volume nor anything I or others have said or will say, can do Millay justice. She belongs on every short list that includes Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Langston Hughes, and I will try to tell you why.
“My candle burns at both ends,” from “First Figs,” will always be part of our speech. New word combinations become ingrained in everyday language when they neatly illuminate a universal, as they do here. As Helen Vendler said long ago, and as Hughes sang with such perfect pitch, “To name the need is to know solace.” Millay is best known for doing this in poems with accessible surfaces. She also did it, we are reminded here, with lyrical drama.
Millay was twenty-one when Renascence was first published, and it made a splash. It is gorgeous, passionate, and erudite. Selected Poems provides some pages as examples of process, so we see a galley proof excerpt from Renascence and Millay’s corrections. We also see handwritten drafts, aptly- placed notes, and some letters that explore her emotions.
Her music took fortitude to compose, and as her biographers and others have made plain, her Maine upbringing, surrounded by her mother and sisters and what they read, had much to do with it. “Renascence” is 214 lines , and begins with power and vision:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought from where I stand.
It is a welcome obligation to see connections here to Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin and many others whose approach to religion was closer to the Judeo-Christian traditions.. Many endings, like what follows from “Renascence,” are as fine as those by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Kay Ryan at their best :
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That cannot keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat–the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
Millay was often popular for superficial reasons, and as Peppe points out, was not always happy with selections made by male anthology editors. She felt that the public should see what she believed was her finest work. Her attitude toward religion is especially relevant now, when ‘spirituality lite’ is so prevalent, and her prose “Essay on Faith” is a helpful inclusion. Taken from a revised draft with her handwritten notes on it, it integrates her changes. It was begun before she went to Vassar, and like the faith notebook of Flannery O’Connor, it has the voice of someone laboring to find her place, and sometimes has the bossy ebullience of youth. “Only believe! Believe in anything rather than nothing. If you cannot worship God, whom you have not seen, worship the sun.” For its time, this could be perceived as radical. For our time, it is a sample of her love for what the sun enabled her to see.
One can read her without exposure to the Old and New Testaments or other ancients, but the pleasures are deeper with familiarity. The famous “First Fig” is a nod to Matthew 5:7, as Jackson’s annotation credits. Millay is also timely in “The Return”:
Earth does not understand her child,
Who from the loud gregarious town
Returns, depleted and defiled,
To the still woods, to fling him down.
Earth can not count the sons she bore :
The wounded lynx, the wounded man
Come trailing blood unto her door;
She shelters both as best she can.
But she is early, up and out,
To trim the year or strip its bones;
She has no time to stand about
Talking of him in undertones
Who has no aim but to forget,
Be left in peace, be lying thus
For days, for years, for centuries yet,
Unshaven and anonymous;
Who, marked for failure, dulled by grief,
Has traded in his wife and friend
For this warm ledge, this alder leaf:
Comfort that does not comprehend.
“Comfort that does not comprehend.” This is the statement of someone who has seen a vastness and faced her own limits. Which makes it wise.
Millay’s private life was complicated, her tranquil moments hard-earned, and her gaze brave. Though her rhythms can seem quaint to some, they were a well-learned tool. “Tranquility at length, when autumn comes,” is accompanied by helpful marginalia, and I quote the last six lines as an example (though almost any will do) of her relationship to form :
Then sits the insistent cricket in the grass,
But on the gravel crawls the chilly bee;
And all is over that could come to pass
Last year; excepting this : the mind is free
One moment, to compute, refute, amass,
Catalogue, question, contemplate and see.
This is an elegant manifesto, as steeped in the cadences of the King James Bible as is Points of Rebellion by William O. Douglas, a book of necessary prose.
One of Millay’s untitled sonnets is as sexy as it is liberating :
She had forgotten how the August night
Was level as a lake beneath the moon ,
In which she swam a little, losing sight
Of shore and how the boy, that was at noon
Simple enough, not different from the rest,
Wore now a pleasant mystery as he went,
Which seemed to her an honest enough test
Whether she loved him, and she was content.
So loud, so loud the million crickets’ choir…
So sweet the night, so long- drawn- out and late…
And if the man were not her spirit’s mate,
Why was her body sluggish with desire?
Stark on the open field the moonlight fell,
But the oak tree’s shadow was deep and black and secret as a well.
The enclosure of the sonnet is part of its power, and the swimmer enclosed in the lake, in her own skin, is made more powerful by her ability to compress and expand heart, lustful memory, and rational mental strength. The enclosures, lit by the moon, can be dangerous, when she loses sight of shore, and Millay liked danger.
“Body,” keeps her in the formal structure and enables her to avoid specific limbs or cheeks, or anything else more obvious before she arrives at “desire.” She makes it easy to envision a young woman swimming alone beneath the moon and having thoughts that would make her typical audience blush. Form is the shape of permission, a thought that owes a lot to Ben Shahn in The Shape of Content.
Millay kept commitments as a citizen, and was caught up in the outrage when Sacco and Vanzetti, two Anarchists, were sentenced to death. When angry or depressed, she was devastating because her art was so forcefully, cleverly carved. “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” published the day before the men were executed, is a rare, dismaying omission in The Poetry of Witness, a compelling volume edited by Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu. Millay’s take on the Boston trial put the mundane habits of her time to shattering use:
Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting- room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.
Let us go home, and sit in the sitting-room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted–
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.
What from the splendid dead
We have inherited–
Furrows sweet to the grain , and the weed subdued—
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm the larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.
Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children’s children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm.
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.
Gardens. Sitting rooms. Petals dropping to the ground. How brilliantly and often Millay uses pretty imagery as a well-aimed dagger. And how quickly the one per cent comes to mind as I write this. Millay remains urgently subversive and satisfying.
Read everything in Selected Poems, including some pieces never published that touch yet again, but never in a tiresome way, on her convictions, her pleasures, her hopes. “We have been in trouble before…and we came through,” she wrote in a poem in 1950. Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most important books to land on my desk since the beginning of the year. I hope I have convinced you that it should become one of yours.