The Wondrous and Mundane Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay

The Wondrous and Mundane Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay

The Wondrous and Mundane Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Her private writing offers another, more idiosyncratic angle to understand the famed poet.


On April 3, 1911, Edna St. Vincent Millay took her first lover. She was 19 years old, and she engaged herself to this man with a ring that “came to me in a fortune-cake” and was “the symbol of all earthly happiness.” Millay had just graduated from high school and had taken charge of running the household while her mother worked as a traveling nurse. She fixed her younger sisters dinner, washed and mended all their clothes, and entertained their guests. Her lover had no name and no body; he was a figment she’d conjured up to help her get through the stress and loneliness of being a teenage caretaker. This first lover, her “shadow,” is not often recounted among the many others she later had, but Millay had various ways of making these exhausting days of her early adulthood endlessly charming and alive. In one note to her lover, she describes the chafing dish she served her siblings’ dinner on, which she called James, and jokes, “Why don’t you come over some evening and have something on ‘James’—doesn’t that sound dreadful—‘have something on James’!”

Millay’s imaginary lover is the only one mentioned in great detail in the pages of her diary, collected for the first time as Rapture and Melancholy. The editor of the collection, Daniel Mark Epstein, ventures that “few, if any, serious reputations” in American literature “have so quickly arisen and burned so brightly” as Millay’s: In 1923, only 12 years removed from her days as a surrogate mother, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and in her highly publicized life she also became known for her many flesh-and-blood lovers in the literary world as well as her fatal addiction to morphine.

But her diary doesn’t include these things, and it often skips over the most dramatic events in her life. The Millay who emerges in these entries is not the famed poet, performer, and lover but another Millay, whose inner world helps situate the story of her life anew. She embraces the mundanity of the non-writing life, that part of every literary artist’s existence unseen by critics and readers, and finds moments of rapture in the melancholy of these pages.

In 1912, while she was still living at home in Camden, Me., the 19-year-old Millay submitted her poem “Renascence,” which she had begun writing the year before, to a prestigious poetry competition. It was a favorite among the judges, and Millay came home from picking blueberries for supper one day to find a letter from a New York editor informing her that her poem had been selected to be published in a volume called The Lyric Year. Critics raved about her poem, and soon people began to court her.

Caroline Dow, the dean of the YWCA Training School in New York, used her connections to find Millay sponsors who would fund her studies at Vassar College; Charlotte Bannon, who knew the head of the English department at Smith College, promised to arrange for a full scholarship if Millay were accepted there. Millay chose Vassar, with a preparatory semester at Barnard College. She boarded a sleeper train and arrived in New York City at the age of 21, in pigtails, having lost her comb on the journey. Her fame, by then, preceded her.

In New York, Millay had to take English, French, and Latin courses to make up for her shortage of high school credits; she balanced her mounds of homework with high teas and luncheons and mixers at the Poetry Society (with “celebs, more or less,” as she mentions in one entry) and regular meetings with her patrons to give them updates. She was expected to keep her grades up and to continue to write her verse. For the most part, these details are mentioned only in passing, often in the same breath with more domestic matters: ironing and discussing Horace; sending out laundry and writing poems in the library.

At Vassar, Millay was untouchable. She negotiated her first book deal, which would lead to the publication of Renascence, and Other Poems in 1917, published poetry in magazines, and took part in college theater productions. She got in trouble constantly for skipping classes, smoking and drinking in the dorms and in the cemetery, and sneaking off campus to go for a drive with her friends up the Hudson River. On at least one occasion, she spent the time allotted for a geometry test writing a letter to a friend. “Perhaps I’ll be expelled,” she quips, but she couldn’t be; though she was suspended just before graduation, she was given a special exemption to receive her degree. While at college, she also developed a relationship with the poet and playwright Arthur Davidson Ficke, an affair that would lead to a lifelong friendship and more than a decade of regular letters, but he doesn’t make a single appearance in her diaries until long after the affair has ended.

Millay’s diary animates the world around her, as she turns everyday objects into a cast of characters. Her new hat is “a dear,” and the faucet in her new room gives her a “feeling of comradeship” because the hot water comes out where the cold water should. When she goes to Paris a few years later, she writes about the Seine (“a French river. It speaks no English”) and little pleasures like tavern desserts: brown pears “squat & twisted as quinces…. I wondered if they had not ripened near a wall, maybe, in a thorny garden, where in the summer-time go walking of an afternoon an old blind woman & a little boy in bright blue apron.”

These were not quiet times for her. The same day she bought her lovely new hat and expressed relief in her diary that she did not have an ulcerated tooth, she mentions offhand, in the same breath, “Saw something about me in the April Bookman.” It was a review of “Renascence” by William Aspenwall Bradley, who called the poem “a more remarkable production” than any of the other poems in the collection it originally appeared in, but Millay does not mention that. Nor does she mention that her reason for going to Paris was to get away from the tangle of her messy love life, which by then encompassed Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, whose work and friendship were strained by their common romantic interest.

These diaries reveal a moment-by-moment kind of life, in which the secret history of a squat brown pear or a rogue faucet or a chafing dish may be just as significant as the public life of the writer. The Millay of these diaries, then, reveals a different kind of writer: less engaged with an audience, with her readers, editors, or fellow writers, and more engaged in the distinctly private pleasure of simply taking in the world. A famous writer’s letters are written with the knowledge that they will be read—certainly by the recipient, but also perhaps eventually by the general public. Diaries, on the other hand, are motivated by a much more ambiguous impulse. Only in diaries does a writer have the true freedom to be no one but a witness to the world, the freedom to not tell a story or make a point. It seems to me that being interested in writers’ lives necessitates being interested also in the nothingness that often fills those lives; we want excitement, but reading the private observations of a writer’s largely static surroundings can perhaps excite us about the world as it is, and not as it promises to be.

Between 1917 and 1927, Millay published her first, then her second, then her third volume of poetry. She brought her mother to New York and began to support her family. She won the Pulitzer, got married, and fell dangerously ill, with a condition that would affect her health for the rest of her life. If reading about Millay through a traditional biographical narrative can be salacious—it is truly a racy story—then her diaries are quieter, more languid. What Millay considers to be “racy,” on the other hand, in a letter to her mother from Paris, is the “Paris gossip” about “public toilets”—that is, the fact that bathrooms are labeled “W.C.” for “water closet,” except that the French pronounce it vatair closette. “Isn’t that killing?”

What is the point of these observations, these silly jokes, or of reading diaries at all? We do not get Millay’s secrets on craft or unfiltered disclosures about her various lovers. In fact, her diary provides the opposite of this. She didn’t discuss ideas in it, and for the most productive decade of her life she didn’t even keep a diary. A life of work and feeling, from which art and love are created, is in the context of its daily recording actually quite ordinary. Perhaps when keeping track of the everyday, it’s the pointless pleasures that become more interesting. Her pages shine with spontaneous feeling, images that have little to do with the fated course of her life. Millay’s diary offers a strangely nonlinear reading of her life—each day is complete in itself, and gives no indication that it had a predecessor.

After her wedding to Eugen Jan Boissevain, which took place shortly after Millay’s life-saving appendicitis operation and for which she wore a veil made of mosquito netting, Millay and her new husband purchased a home in Austerlitz, N.Y., where they gardened and watched birds. They hosted friends frequently, but Millay’s illness made her constantly tired, and she depended on Boissevain to do the housework, put her to bed, and sometimes even write her journal entries for her. For the remainder of her life, Millay battled her addiction and her depression, partly caused by a tumultuous relationship with the younger poet George Dillon, whom she fell in love with in 1928 and never quite got over.

She did reading tours, traveled around Europe, worked for the Guggenheim Foundation, and revised her manuscripts, but her diary at this time is filled with extensive lists of flowers and vegetables planted—pansies, geraniums, lilacs, buttercups—and birds seen and heard: Baltimore orioles, goldfinches, her first ruby-throated kinglet, singing warblers, and the “thrilling arpeggios” of thrushes. She delivered calves and collected snakeskins and killed moles. Meanwhile, she seems to have no longer enjoyed doing public performances, saying she felt “awkward” and didn’t know “what to do with my hands” when she gave a reading. Whenever she did mention the work of being a writer, she complained of it being “a bore.” Once she had to drag herself out of bed to meet Eleanor Roosevelt.

Despite her depression, Millay continued to feel thrilled by the most everyday things, just as she did as a teenager. “Apple sauce for dinner tonight,” she wrote when she first moved to Austerlitz, “I never get used to this—it is much more wonderful than the telephone—well, I don’t know—the telephone is wonderful too—.” Roses, swallows, toilets, faucets, rainstorms, dresses with trains, the year’s first sounds of tree toads: No surprise was too small, no pleasure too simple. Millay and her husband soaked sweet peas, intending to plant them on Easter Sunday because, she wrote, “we believe in resurrection.” She caught butterflies, fed chickadees in her bed, celebrated every jar of raspberries turned into preserves.

Toward the end of her life, Millay’s diary becomes slightly unsettling. She writes herself notes and reminders to not “become sloppy” and “never let the other person see you using the hypodermic,” as well as an hourly account of her substance intake (a morphine injection, two cigarettes, a glass of beer, and a gin cocktail before 10 in the morning). Read this way, the entries depict a dramatic descent, but this is not a particularly useful way of reading them.

Millay’s diary is almost a photographic negative of the more well-known narratives of her life: Her fame’s shadow is her love of the hearth and her garden; her depression’s shadow is her irrepressible sense of wonder, which never faltered. Diaries are necessarily incomplete and inaccurate in this way, even if they’re the most private form of writing. There is no real final word here, no big picture. As Millay noted in an entry in November 1927, “This book never gets written in, except when there’s nothing to write.”

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