Savage Beauty

A Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) Nancy Millford

This biography is one that most will surely love. It covers every emotion, trauma and joy in the human experience, as it reveals the biography of likely the greatest poetess or poet of the 20th Century also teaches us much about poetry itself and the ways in which poetry deals with its most common topics: love, nature and death – and the emotions and experiences that are common to all. With the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Edna St. Vincent Millay (a/ka/ “Vincent”, “Edna” or simply “Millay”), poetry is simple and often easy to understand. She wrote in old-fashioned forms (until late in her career), in a musical tradition, with well-metered and rhyming lines, that people have known and loved for centuries – although no longer popular, as it requires discipline, much more work and an enhanced vocabulary to compose.

She was born in 1892 and was raised in a small Pennsylvania-town in abject poverty, often left alone to feed and manage her two younger sisters, while her mother worked as a nurse in sometimes distant locations. Her mother taught her girls to love poetry and to sing in harmony both standard pops and their own songs, and they entertained their friends all of their lives. Vincent’s mother and her sister, Kathleen, were also published poets, and her mother was a fine poet indeed. Since Vincent’s passing in 1950, no great poet has written a significant body of poems in the classic forms of poetry – caressing us, guiding us with hypnotically metered and lyrically rhymed quatrains, sonnets, etc. Millay’s melodic lines sing to us with creative metaphors, wit, satire and timeless observations about life. A pioneer of women’s rights and independence (and a political activist and a passionate pacifist at times), Millay became famous and wealthy from her popular plays and lecturing and radio-readings, as well as from her books of poetry. Edna St. Vincent Millay, an inspiration to feminists, deserves the appellation “the most important Lyric Voice of The Great Depression” and, perhaps, of the 20th Century. Her books of poetry sold when little else did and do to this day.

The author of this biography is a most accomplished writer in her own right. Her title, Savage Beauty, is extracted from some lines by Millay, perhaps referring to Love and/or to Millay’s laissez-faire approach to sex and life and to her view that love among humans is inconstant, and, as a result, she treated her lovers with the same cruelty that some of them imposed on her – and she had many lovers (of both sexes), due to her appealing physical, mental and economic assets, not to mention her fame. She resented that men seemed to feel that it was their birthright to treat women unkindly, and she appointed herself a Committee of One to right some of those wrongs by exposing, in her verse, a male’s casualness towards lovers, encouraging her female readers to turn the tables on men, rubbing male-noses in the independence and infidelity of women. Countless female readers flocked to her words as a veritable Women’s Bill of Rights. Her verse (“My candle burns at both ends…”) became the clarion call of the women of her generation and remains among the most quoted lines in English literature. Her prolific sonnets offer perhaps her finest work, with subtle thoughts and metaphors that impel the reader to contemplate and savor her lines in the still of night by a flickering fire, as their lovely nuances reveal themselves Notwithstanding her sometimes flippant and even callous words, she loved people, including her sometimes mistreated husband (with whom she had an “open marriage” from the outset but, oddly, a wonderful marriage in most ways), but, most of all, she adored her mother, as passionately and as permanently as she loved poetry. Shakespeare, Byron, Longfellow, the Browning’s and Poe would surely have adored her work -- as would most anyone who takes the time read and study her so well crafted and sonorous poems.