By Edna St. Vincent Millay
Everyman’s Library, March 2010
‘She was… an American girl!’ Somehow the voice of Tom Petty came to mind as I read these poems.
It was the publication of her second volume of verse, A Few Figs from Thistles, that established Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) as a major poet and as an exemplar of the New Woman: romantic and often times reckless, always independent.
The two short poems that opened that volume (the ‘My candle burns at both ends…’ one and the ‘Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!’ one) pithily expressed her ‘live and love today, for tomorrow we die’ philosophy.
This went down well with her generation and the one that followed, the flappers and the hard-boiled, wise-cracking dames like Dorothy Parker, but it wasn’t entirely a pose. She held to it all the way down the line. In the late sonnet, ‘Let you not say of me when I am old’, she writes that ‘the sands of such a life as mine run red and gold, even to the ultimate sifting dust’ and again: ‘In me no Lenten wicks watch out the night / I am the booth where Folly holds her fair.’
Clearly Millay was attracted to the sonnet as a form and she wrote many throughout her life, as though attempting to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare. There are thirty among the selected poems here, from the well-known and heavily anthologised (‘Time does not bring relief; you all have lied’ and ‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why’ among them) to the little-known and unfairly overlooked. That the latter are as fine and sometimes sublime as the more famous is apparent. ‘I think I should have loved you presently’ is the pick, for me.
Reading through these poems it is plain that her themes were the classic and important ones: love, beauty, passion, integrity (which can be construed as independence or inconstancy, depending on the flip of a coin), the passage of time and mortality, death. You could make a reasonable case that death was as much a preoccupation for Millay as love, with the poem ‘Mariposa’ being as stark an example as any. Or the sonnet beginning, ‘And you as well must die, beloved dust.’
And, at a pinch, you might describe her as an Emily Dickinson who liked to party (though Emily Dickinson herself may not have been quite as retiring as has been assumed, if Lyndall Gordon’s recent biography is anything to go by).
Though Millay plays to the gallery a bit, mindful that she has a bit of a reputation to keep up (Byron did it too), she is a poet of substance. This fine, generous selection of her poetry includes also Aria da Capo, a one-act verse drama about xenophobia and the suspicion of the stranger.