‘Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay’ by Nancy Milford

'Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay' by Nancy Milford

'Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay' by Nancy Milford‘… Say, rather, your big, splendid venture.’ {Edna St. Vincent Millay}

I admit to having little previous knowledge of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I had never read her poetry through all my years of schooling, or studied her at all really, but then again not many female poets were explored in my small high school. Several months ago I happened across one of her poems within the pages of a larger poetry collective, and fell in love with the whimsy, wit, and musicality of this poetess. That poem was ‘First Fig‘ and through the course of reading this biography, I learned that ‘First Fig’ became a sort of chant for the flappers of the ’20s. I also learned, that although Edna St. Vincent Millay looks the part of innocent school girl for most of her life, she was in fact quite a vixen and temptress in disguise.

Edna St. Vincent Millay – referred to by her closest friends and family as simply Vincent – was raised by her single, impoverished mother cloaked in the understanding that she was special. And as such, Vincent seemed to dismiss the regular norms of life and stability – and lived exactly she as she wanted with little regard to who was caught or hurt in her wake, all in the name of living for her art. She had many lovers – male and female – and never stopped in collecting these lovers even after and all through her marriage. Vincent was constantly battling bankruptcy and later in life, addiction. Vincent took whatever she could out of life and threw a party whenever possible.

‘You see I am really too old to change very much in essentials.’ {Edna St. Vincent Millay}

Vincent lived her life in Maine, New York, and Paris – starting her career first in the Village, New York City with her sister Norma. Shortly after she moved to her first place in NY, Vincent sent along a memorable missive to her sister urging her,  ‘So come on out, my dear old sweet Sister, – & we’ll open our oysters together.’ And together Norma and Vincent lived and loved – and learned to accept the world and behaviors of the city.

‘One of the first things Vincent explained to Norma was that there was a certain freedom of language in the Village that musn’t shock her. It wasn’t vulgar. ‘So we sat darning socks on Waverly Place and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched. Needle in, shit. Needle out, piss. Needle in, fuck. Needle out, cunt. Until we were easy with the words.’

Over time, Vincent replaced the closeness she had previously shared with her  mother and two sisters – Norma and a very envious, Kathleen – with her husband and lovers. Vincent spent many years sharing her poetry over the radio and through tours – something that I have the utmost trouble picturing for the idea of a poetry tour seems to be the last thing that would interest youths today – but was a huge success throughout the depression years of the 1930s. Writing poetry straight up until the day of her death – a death marred with question of possible suicide – Edna St. Vincent Millay seems to truly have lived for the written word. Below is a segment of one of my favorite Millay segments.

‘… Make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away.’

Biographer, Nancy Milford, writes a truly amazing story and takes her time – and much research – to lead you into the life of this very complex woman. She attempts to portray Vincent as she was – a woman who was emotional, changeable, brilliant, and at times quite selfish. Milford allows her story to be enhanced through Vincent’s correspondence and her poetry. I honestly do not think I have ever enjoyed the style of a biographer more – although this tale did seem to drag in the final few chapters, I would recommend this biography to anyone who has a little inkling of love for poetry. I am quite anxious to read Milford’s other biographical effort – her analysis of F. Scott’s wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.

Salon Summary

RECOMMENDABILITY: 3 {out of 5} stars  |  ★★★☆☆
REPETITIVE READABILITY: 1 {out of 5} stars  |  ★☆☆☆☆
RATING: 3 {out of 5} stars  |  ★★★☆☆