A Stratospheric Soul
There’s an interesting article by Adrian Higgins in today’s Washington Post about the plans to restore the house and grounds of Steepletop — Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home in upstate New York.At least part of the first step toward raising the necessary millions will be restoring Millay’s reputation, which was already fading before she died in the house one early morning in October 1950.
Her first poem —the long and impassioned Renascence won a national award in 1912 and was published in 1917; by 1923 she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
For more than two dizzying decades —from the late teens through the early ’40s— she was one of the most famous people in the world. For many of those years she was considered to be the female Byron — mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Without even thinking about it she influenced morals and fashions in ways that Madonna and Paris Hilton could never even imagine with all their self-conscious ambition.
In reality, her scandalously high life may even have outstripped the wild rumors that surrounded it. She famously wrote, in sentiments that were shocking enough in 1920, much less from a young Vassar graduate:
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.
And I’m partial to only marginally less subversive concluding lines from her 1921 poem “Travel”:
My heart is warm with the friends I make, And better friends I’ll not be knowing; Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, No matter where it’s going.
Eventually society caught up with her excesses and absorbed many of them before moving on seeking new excitement; such is often the lot of the pioneer.
And it’s ironic that, as her art was growing deeper and more refined, it was becoming less popular. In part that was because, as it became less easily accessible, it became less appealing; and in part because there was an academic reaction against rhyme as trite and superficial.
She was her own worst enemy as her serious carousing, fueled by drinking that degenerated into alcoholism and undermined by a devouring drug addiction, dulled her mind and lowered her resistance. But there continued to be flashes of brilliance right up to her death.
Her sonnet “Czecho-Slovakia” —written in white heat after that nation’s dismemberment at Munich in September 1938 and published the next year in Huntsman, What Quarry?— might be addressed to the events in Georgia at this moment:
If there were balm in Gilead, I would go
To Gilead for your wounds, unhappy land,
Gather you balsam there, and with this hand,
Made deft by pity, cleanse and bind and sew
And drench with healing, that your strength might grow,
(Though love be outlawed, kindness contraband)
And you, O proud and felled, again might stand;
But where to look for balm, I do not know.
The oil and herbs of mercy are so few;
Honour’s for sale; allegiance has its price;
The barking of a fox has bought us all;
We save our skins a craven hour or two.–
While Peter warms him in the servants’ hall
The thorns are planted and the cock crows twice.
After her death, Steepletop passed to her sister Norma, who kept most of it intact as a museum to the poet’s memory. Although it has become dilapidated, it is still close to pristine. Many rooms —including the library— are exactly as they were in the fall of ’50.
Vincent, as she was known to her friends, was an avid and adventurous gardener, and although the gardens are overgrown and the pool is brackish, there is still time to reclaim them.
The current keeper of the flame is Peter Bergman, recently appointed director of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society, which is accepting contributions towards it work and towards the restoration.
Among my favorite Millay poems is a sonnet from The Harp Weaver (1923):
I shall go back again to the bleak shore
And build a little shanty on the sand
In such a way that the extremest band
Of brittle seaweed will escape my door
But by a yard or two, and nevermore
Shall I return to take you by the hand;
I shall be gone to what I understand
And happier than I ever was before.
The love that stood a moment in your eyes,
The words that lay a moment on your tongue,
Are one with all that in a moment dies,
A little under-said and over-sung;
But I shall find the sullen rocks and skies
Unchanged from what they were when I was young.
And a much later sonnet from the posthumous collection Mine the Harvest (1954):
Those hours when happy hours were my estate,
Entailed, as proper, for the next in line,
Yet mine the harvest, and the title mine
Those acres, fertile, and the furrow straight,
From which the lark would rise–all of my late
Enchantments, still, in brilliant colours, shine,
But striped with black, the tulip, lawn and vine,
Like gardens looked at through an iron gate.
Yet not as one who never sojourned there
I view the lovely segments of a past
I lived with all my senses, well aware
That this was perfect, and it would not last:
I smell the flower, though vacuum-still the air;
I feel its texture, though the gate is fast.