Friday, 2 September 2016

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Twenty five years ago, the library I was working at discarded a copy of  Mine the Harvest, the posthumously published poetry of  Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950). Millay was an American poet and playwright, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 and as we found out when we recently visited her home Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York, she filled stadiums when she read her poetry to enthralled audiences during post World War I.

There are many lovely poems in Mine the Harvest, but this untitled one moved me most because it reminded me of somebody I knew:

Who hurt you so,
My dear?
Who, long ago
When you were very young,
Did, said, became, was...something that you did not know
Beauty could ever do, say, be, become?--
So that your brown eyes filled
With tears they never, not to this day, have shed...
Not because one more boy stood hurt by life,
No: because something deathless had dropped dead--
An ugly, an indecent thing to do--
So that you stood and stared, with open mouth in which the
Froze slowly backward toward its root,
As if it would not speak again, too badly stung
By memories thick as wasps about a nest invaded
To know if or if not you suffered pain.

As it turned out, Edna St. Vincent Millay's home is probably the most complete author's home we have ever visited and I have seen a few, including the Alcott home where  the artistic daughter was allowed to draw pictures on the walls, the hot and humid house where Faulkner wrote and drank and fought with his wife, the place where Mark Twain raised his family and the real House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts. All Vincent's furniture and knickknacks, including a painting on her bedroom wall of two people skinny dipping, are still there. (Should  I mention that she and husband had an open marriage, that both women and men were drawn to her and that she was a sexually liberated woman long before her time?)

Everything about the renovated Millay farmhouse called Steepletop was fascinating, but Vincent's writing quarters were what really got me. I now have a place to write on the third floor of my house, which is infrequently used because of the palliative, psychiatric and thankfully postpartum help needed by my burgeoning family, but for years I wrote in odd places at odd times. Millay was a professional writer from the word go though, so family members and later on her devoted husband Eugene, all made sure that she got the time she needed. One wing of the second floor of the house seemed to belong to her. She wrote some of her poems in bed, probably while it was still too cold to get up, but the study beyond her private bathroom where she wrote poetry and tracked her tours also had a long writing table and a view and next door was a book lined room with another view and a single, comfortable reading chair. She even had a  writing shed out in the fields, probably to use when they had visitors. Her biographies--Savage Beauty is the one I'm reading now--indicate she had stuck to a regular writing schedule ever since she was an impoverished, overworked teenager and was encouraged by her mother to write. In most of the writers' homes I've visited, female authors were lucky to have one small table by a window with a single drawer where they could hide their papers when a visitor came.

Though she is believed to have had two abortions (or "miscarriages" as they were euphemistically referred to in the hidden past when people rarely spoke of such things) Edna St. Vincent Millay never had children, which for a woman would have rendered even her husband's  help a moot point.

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