Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Savage Beauty

The biography that started all my musing about life stories, Nancy Milford’s spectacular Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, is a dense, complex portrait of the most famous and successful poet of the Jazz Age, thickly woven of letters, diaries, poems, and news clippings. Though Millay’s sharp, ironic poems captured the tone of the early 20s, her fame was as much due to her role as a captivating, sexually adventurous woman who seemed to embody the most outrĂ© ideas of what young women, freed from convention, might be able to achieve. As such, she terrified and titillated in equal measure and became a celebrity, selling tens of thousands of books, writing hit plays, performing her work on national radio, and embarking on national speaking tours of an extent and success to rival those of Dickens. Along the way, she persistently—and willfully—refused to understand why her many lovers (including Edmund Wilson, doing his best emotionally fuddled Henry James impression) needed to fully possess and contain her.

By all accounts, Millay bewitched nearly everyone who met her. Rare is the person in Savage Beauty who fails to fall under her spell—and even those realize that everyone else around has succumbed. Photos show her to be striking and unconventionally pretty, but they don’t give much hint of the force she clearly radiated. However, even eighty years later her determination to take life on her own terms, consequences be damned, is both thrilling and unsettling. I can all too easily imagine being in Edmund Wilson’s position, or that of the putative lover to whom the speaker in this sonnet says
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Or the one who is told
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever

Savage Beauty, as so many biographies do, moves from excitement and passion and achievement to sadness and solitude. Nearly all of us live, it seems, not too long for life itself, but too long for biography, the drama of our lives mostly complete before the book can be. In Millay’s case, we follow her through ill health, addiction, and steadily decreasing poetic output, until, at fifty-eight, she falls down the stairs of her home to her death. It’s a sad and solitary end to a life and a work that, in the words of her lover Arthur Ficke,
made girls feel that passion was clean and beautiful. . . . She appeared at a moment when American youth had need of her. . . . [for] the lesson of beauty she taught them: for the revolt she expressed was not merely away from a stuffy prison and also toward an open window. . . . there was an unmistakable wind of pure dawning in what she did.

In her hand when she died was a notebook with a penciled draft of a poem. She’d circled three lines:
I will control myself, or go inside.
I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.

Though her reputation took significant hits, especially from the Modernists, who found her work too personal, her poetry does survive. “First Fig” remains possibly the most-quoted lines of American poetry (vying only with “I, I took the road less traveled by (unless you count “You say tomay-to, I say tomah-to.”)) In his introduction to her Selected Poems in the Library of America’s American Poets Project, J. D. McClatchy mounts a convincing argument that, just as much of Millay’s initial fame came because she was a woman (Think of the effusions of a certain stratum of male rock critics over Liz Phair singing “blow job.”), much of the later critical reaction was due to plain old sexism. He quotes a contemporary review that, after reminding readers that “women live for love,” cited her for a “deficiency of masculinity.”

And while some of her poems are dated, and others are a bit flip, or too arch, many remain powerful and effective. Despite its ubiquity, I find “First Fig,” with its mix of bravado, irony, joy, and just a hint of weariness, completely effective. “Second Fig,” meanwhile, is downright cheeky:
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Several of her sonnets, meanwhile, are absolutely breathtaking in their ruthless honesty and force of feeling, harnessed by a careful, effective rhythm. I think my favorites are two of her earliest. One is this untitled sonnet of loss:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

And the other is “Bluebeard,” where she adapts a well-known story of female curiosity and male violence and makes it, while less horrifying than usual, much more haunting:

This door you might not open, and you did’
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed. . . . Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for Truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress;
But only what you see. . . . Look yet again:
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room tonight
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I see another place.

But when I want to think of Millay and her poetry together—as, for better or worse, the poetry so often tempts us to do—I think of this couplet that closes one of her sonnets:
Pity that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

The Millay that emerges from Savage Beauty understood all too clearly that her heart would never learn. Many people don’t ever even understand that much about human nature; fewer still leave us such a clear statement of the problem.

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