nancy milford: savage beauty

Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Random House, New York: 2002)

Once in a while you stumble across a gem of a work so well-written and meticulously researched that you thank all your stars of fortune for such a book falling with serendipity into your grateful grasp.

Nancy Milford’s biography of American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay draws on previously unpublished family-preserved material – letters, photographs, drafts – to paint a realistic and highly detailed picture of her subject.

The trade paperback cover of Nancy Milford’s excellent biography of Millay. Sharing the spotlight is a Dancheron fountain pen. 

The title comes from Millay’s “Assault” (1921), portraying Beauty as a threat and menace, upsetting the usual convention of the poet paying tribute to it as a virtue.

Millay (b. 1892) was precocious, a genius; the muck of obscurity and poverty failed to conceal the blazing light of an intellectual beacon. Growing up unconventionally during the tail-end of Victorian times with a single parent (her mother, Cora, had sent her gentle but irresponsible father Henry away) and two sisters (Norma and Kathleen), “Vincent”, as she was called, entertained herself with books and writing. From her youth, her works regularly saw print in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas and in other publications; at twenty, her poem “Renascence” placed fourth in a literary contest and was included in an anthology, although many critics said her work should have won.

On the strength of the publicity of this occurrence, Vincent gained a scholarship to Vassar, and later settled into a life of writing poetry, plays, and prose. She was a free spirit, married to Eugen Boissevain until his death, but both of them openly engaged in affairs, she with lovers of both sexes. Her later life was marked by medical problems and addiction to alcohol and morphine.

Writing in 1929 to her lover, George Dillon, she begs him to visit her and Eugen at Steepletop, their home on a blueberry farm in New York state:

Sweetheart, what it means is: will you please come to visit me in my crazy, unfinished, half-finished, disorderly house, where there is a place for nothing, & nothing in its place, except the only important things in the world. – I want to show you the tiny pool we built, absurd, nothing at all, & the hut in the blueberry pasture where I wrote The King’s Henchman, I want to sit on the edge of your bed while you have your breakfast – I want to laugh with you, dress up in curtains, be incredibly silly, be incredibly happy, be like children, and I want to kiss you more than anything in the world.

Vincent lived life on her own terms, staying true to her core philosophy expressed in her “First Fig” (1918):

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!

Beyond the text, the book itself is of interest as an artifact. It has a story. It is pre-loved. I bought it a couple years ago from a poet, University of the Philippines creative writing professor Chingbee (Conchitina) Cruz, when she culled her library prior to leaving for New York to take up doctoral studies.

 The half-title page of the book bears her chop – a rubber-stamped “C” in sapphire ink, ornamented with scrolls and foliage.

She must have bought it second-hand too, or received it as a gift from someone else’s library, because the inside front cover bears a dedication from “Kate” to her “Mama”.

“Kate” lives in Los Angeles now, and gives the book to her “Mama” who might be living in Pennsylvania, where the “brown-gray” landscape is a “desolation.”

Too bad the dedication is not dated, but it must have been written between the publication date, 2002, and the date I acquired it from Chingbee, perhaps in 2010 or 2011.

This pre-owned copy has an interesting dedication written on the inside front cover. Once more the Dancheron makes an appearance.

The book as text and the book as artifact: I think Vincent, who spent her life writing, would have appreciated the many ramifications of presenting the written word.

All photos taken with an iPhone 4S, edited with Snapseed.

taste more:

Leave a Reply