But apart from her life, her manner, and her example I have now discovered her sonnets - and I can see how they gave a whole generation of women completely new ways of thinking about passion, sex and themselves.
So much has changed for women in the last one hundred years that you wonder what Edna St Vincent Millay can possibly say to us today. But in reading about her, I now understand that she was a bridge from Victorian notions of femininity to a modern understanding of female sexual empowerment. I find myself identifying with her even more than with some of today's female role models.
|Such fresh openness. No wonder the world was in love with her.|
"One afternoon we'd gone for a walk up Mount Overlook, and on our return two boys were following us. At first we paid no attention to them. We'd always liked to walk and there we were two - I daresay pretty - girls striding along enjoying ourselves. And these two callow youths, calling out to us, trailing behind, but trailing, still, if you follow me, threateningly. Suddenly Vincent turned around and, crooking her finger, beckoned them. Well, they came right up pretty quick. And she said, looking them directly in the eye, 'it is true that we have vaginas and breasts, but we are walking alone together because it pleases us to and that is our right. We have selected to be alone, and we intend to so remain.' The boys just stood there, bug-eyed, truly stricken. "
Vincent Millay was confident and she was defiant and she was fiercely intelligent, but these qualities didn't come with the hard edge of bitterness that so often accompanies them today. Perhaps that's why she was able to thrive in the early 1900's. Everyone fell in love with her - including the rather stodgy Edmond Wilson. She struck a kind of elfin figure - nonthreatening but highly seductive. She was openly bisexual, liked to swim in the nude and smoked cigarettes in public. During her long marriage, she conducted several intensely passionate love affairs - one in particular with a much younger man. Her husband was a Dutch businessman who adored and thoroughly understood her. Incredibly he kept on writing to her during this period (while also conducting a few affairs of his own), as she ran off to Paris with poet George Dillon, for whom she had arranged a Guggenheim fellowship. Her husband's letters are full of love, longing, understanding and patience.
During her heyday, Millay sold thousands of volumes of poetry, which is extraordinary for a poet of any epoch. She was also a compelling presence on stage - draped in long velvet robes. She was small with red hair and the power of her voice brought large audiences under her spell. With a quick google search you can find several recordings of her recitations. But if you're anything like me, you'll be struck immediately by the quaint and dated style of her delivery. It was the gay nineties and then the roaring twenties, so Millay's voice, timbre and delivery brings to mind Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz!
We are all products of the age in which we live, of course. Our ideas of beauty, of strength and seduction are informed by the fashion of the day. But listening to Millay's recitations, I am struck by how quickly the times have moved on - how we women have moved from one phase to another, and are hopefully moving towards a clearer less apologetic sense of womanhood. Vincent Millay's particular brand of femininity was very quickly left behind.
I mean, just take a look at this photograph - and notice how posed it is - how it conforms to twee notions of Victorian femininity: the hem of her dress caught up in one hand - the coy dip of her body as she peers beyond the gate.
|So posed. So coy. So dated.|
In reading Savage Beauty you learn what a struggle it was for Millay to come to terms with aging and the loss of sex appeal. It was hard for her to give up what she'd been and to become a new version of herself. It's something women often struggle with, it seems. But far worse than this for her, was how increasingly difficult she found it to write, especially after the war. She had tried to write polemically and after the war she felt she'd lost her touch.
The end of her life was tragic, but one of the oldest stories in the book. After a fall, she damaged some nerves in her back - and was prescribed morphine injections. She then became addicted to morphine and also became a raging alcoholic. Her devoted husband succumbed to the allure of morphine too, and died a year before she did. When she died, at the age of fifty eight, she was alone in their house. She fell downstairs in her nightgown and broke her neck.
But my goodness - all that passion - all that life and experience! I became completely enthralled in reading about her life, and I've enjoyed going through her sonnets. In her sonnets, she's always mindful of the temporal nature of love. She knew it didn't last. But her sonnets did. I admire so much the tone she strikes, her clever use of language, her purity and passion, her light and witty touch. This one is particularly poignant - written to her lover George Dillon, but evidently never sent to him. It shows her vulnerability, but also her kindness, even as she has the final word.
Well, I have lost you, and I lost you fairly;
In my own way, and with my full consent.
Say what you will, kings in a tumbrel rarely
Went to their deaths more proud than this one went.
Some nights of apprehension and hot weeping
I will confess; but that's permitted me;
Day dried my eyes; I was not one for keeping
Rubbed in a cage a wing that would be free.
If I had loved you less or played you slyly
I might have held you for a summer more,
But at the cost of words I value highly,
And no such summer as the one before.
Should I outlive this anguish - and men do -
I shall have only good to say of you.