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Nancy Milford. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

New York. Random House. 2001 xviii + 555 pages + 32 plates. $29.95 ISBN 0-394-57589-X

NANCY MILFORD BRINGS US a thoroughly researched, exhaustive biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who in her fifty-eight years (1892-1950) blazed into the first half of the twentieth century. The first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, with high-volume sales, she thrilled audiences at sold-out readings coast to coast. She assumed equal sexual rights with men for multiple love affairs, but married for love in an "open marriage" that lasted for life. Her political opinions were loud and public: she write antiwar poetry before World War I, marched in the Sacco and Vanzetti protests, attacked the Lindberghs for supporting Hitler, and spoke to the nation about the evils of fascism.

Milford shows us, however, the dark side of this very popular and scandalous life: from childhood deprivation to the final days of drug addiction and grief. The "family romance" marked her with scars. "Vincent" (as she was known) was the oldest of three girls. Mother Cora ejected her husband from their home on the Maine seacoast, then frequently stayed away herself, earning a meager subsistence as a "live-in" nurse. Household management fell on Edna; her detailed hourly "DO IT NOW" chart is one of many illustrations. Nevertheless, Cora, a church organist, cultivated her girls' taste, taught them to sing, read Shakespeare, and play the piano. As a child, Edna memorized reams of poetry, and ever after showed a rare gift in music and memory. Cora was a vital force in her life, and once found wild herbs to induce abortion while they were visiting in England.

The heady post-World War I period was spent in the Village in New York, as a cast member of the Provincetown Players. Edna did not want children, suffered botched abortions and was frequently ill and exhausted. She could "eat men like air," in Plath's phrase. Working intensely, she inspired devotion in men whom she dropped or kept as she wished. By 1923, she was clearly not well, and her marriage to Eugen Boissevain, a wealthy importer, saved her. He found the best doctors, and the day after their wedding, she entered a hospital for an extensive surgical rearrangement of her insides. On her recovery, they toured the world. She continued to give poetry readings coast to coast. She and Eugen lived at "Steeple-top," a large estate near Austerlitz, New York, now a Millay museum.

Physical suffering, not helped by years of excessive drinking and smoking, led to a morphine addiction, yet we also learn that Edna loved to swim naked in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic while staying at their little offshore retreat called Ragged Island. From Shakespeare to Szymborska, poets have influenced our inner selves and our culture, though we may know almost nothing about their personal habits and family structures. What the poet feels compelled to say is there on the page. But oh, how we love to know details, the full gossip about a great artist's struggles, and what a lot we can learn from careful and loving biographies. In preparation for almost thirty years, Savage Beauty matches Milford's groundbreaking biography of Zelda Fitzgerald with the life story of Millay, who was, in Milford's words, "the herald of the New Woman."

New generations, one hopes, will want to explore further sources: Indigo Bunting (1951) is a brief memoir by Vincent Sheean about Edna's love and expert knowledge of birds. The early (1964) review of her work by Elizabeth Atkins, her letters, several collections of critical essays, and the new (2001) review of her love poems and loves, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, by Daniel Mark Epstein are all valuable. And, best of all, the poems.
Doris Earnshaw
University of California, Davis
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Author:Earnshaw, Doris
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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