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Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay    by Nancy Milford order for
Savage Beauty
by Nancy Milford
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2002 (2001)
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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Savage Beauty is an enthralling biography of one of the foremost American poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry. This remarkable biography is possible since Millay's sister Norma (who lived until the late 1980's) gave the author access to the poet's voluminous journals and letters. Millay lived from 1892 to 1950 and came of age as a poet during the free-thinking, liberal era following World War I. With her famous poem, First Fig, she captured the spirit of her generation and emboldened young women everywhere: '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!'

Milford has called this biography a 'family romance' since Millay's relationship with her two younger sisters and her mother dominated her life. The poet came from a line of very strong females, including her mother Cora, who raised her daughters on her own in near poverty in small town New England. Although the family dynamics were not always healthy ones, Millay remained close to her family for her entire life. In fact she supported them much of the time once she became successful.

It was a time before TV and video games, when people were prolific readers, and often recited poetry and staged various dramatic entertainments. Millay's natural creative talents were therefore nurtured at a young age, and her early poems were published in an illustrated children's magazine during her adolescence. Cora was often absent from the family working as a nurse, so much responsibility fell on Millay, who coped with very few financial resources. Fortunately for the literary world she continued to write poetry and eventually found several wealthy benefactors who sponsored her 'escape' to Vassar in 1913 at age 21. Vassar, at that time, was fertile ground for intelligent young women and Millay flourished, both intellectually and socially. Already a published poet, Millay was the center of attention and recognized her power to attract people to her. She formed many close and very intense female relationships during this time and had several lovers.

Following graduation Millay moved to Greenwich Village where the bohemian lifestyle flourished. The recent mystery Free Love by Annette Meyers is loosely patterned on the poet during this period. She lived life to the hilt, drinking, smoking and conducting love affairs with both men and women. She had an almost intoxicating effect on people and drew them to her like a moth to a flame. Her sister Norma has said that 'because of the genius she dares do everything she pleases'. To readers today, it is hard to believe how popular poetry, and in particular, this wonderful lyric poet was during the first half of the 20th century - indeed, Millay's Fatal Interview, a collection of sonnets, sold more than 30,000 copies even in the depths of the Depression.

In 1923 Millay married the Dutch businessman, Eugen Boissevan, and remained with him until his death. However, she still conducted several long-lasting relationships with other men, apparently with the full acceptance of her husband. Their relationship is a puzzling one. While there did seem to be love and affection on both sides, it was not one of equals. Millay became the financial provider and Eugene almost her caretaker as her health deteriorated. Although she had many relationships, including her marriage, Millay's first love remained poetry which was the only real permanence in her life. As one of her poems said: 'Make the most of this, your little day, / Your little month, you little half a year, / Ere I forget, or die, or move away.'

During the 1930's and 1940's Millay continued to write. During her later years, her literary success was somewhat muted, since her transition to more mature poetry was a difficult one. However, she continued to publish throughout her entire life. Unfortunately her headstrong and reckless lifestyle began to take its toll as she entered her 40's and 50's. She had been in an automobile accident and ever after suffered from chronic pain. To relieve the pain she took increasingly larger doses of narcotics, prescribed by lax doctors and administered by her husband. She died in 1950 at age 58 from a fall down the stairs.

The book (at 508 pages) is a long one, but the author does an excellent job of pulling together sources and depicting the intimate details of Millay's life. She is also able to explain the poetry themes without being overly pedagogical. Even a non-poetry afficionado (such as myself) will come away with a reasonable understanding of Millay's place in literary history. Savage Beauty is highly recommended for anyone interested in poetry or in a fascinating woman who became the voice of her generation.

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