It Mattering Not How Beautiful You Were

Millay 10
Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay by William Zorach, National Portrait Gallery Washington D. C.

“It doesn’t matter with whom you fall in love, nor how often, nor how sweetly. All that has nothing to do with what we are to each other, nothing at all to do with You and Me.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay in a letter to Arthur Ficke, a life long friend and sometime lover.

Memorial For Dead Friends

by Arthur Davison Ficke

When I remember my immortal dead
And see the eyes that in a former time
Looked at me, and recall the splendor shed
God-like by those tall figures in their prime –
And do not quite forget how one man spoke,
And how one strode, and how another stood
When the word came beneath which at a stroke
His lofty tree splintered to useless wood –
And how another, prouder than the rest,
Accepted once my hand in evil hour;
And how another from his own racked breast
Brought me a secret and most healing power –
Then I desire to live at any cost,
Lest when I die these memories should be lost.


There was a dark side to Millay’s passion. Her marriage to Eugen provided 15 solid years, but the last 10 were a haze of too much drinking and eventually an addiction to morphine, first Edna and then Eugen.  Edna’s writing grew more political leading up to World War II, by her own words, propaganda, a left leaning perspective communicating a belief that the best course of action was to stay out of the war. She ran in a circle that included noted socialists and communists and though refined in her tastes for the good life, she leaned hard left in her work on behalf of a saner world.  That it amounted to nothing in reducing the horrors of World War II may have played a role in her slow descent into addiction and sloth.   The period from 1926 to 1940 were relatively lucrative for Millay, both in book sales and speaking tours, but by 1943, there were cracks starting to show in Eugen and Edna’s finances and they lived largely off of advances for books of poetry that were never delivered.

The other tragedy in the Millay family is what had been an incredibly close relationship between sisters as adolescents became strained to the point of being estranged after about 1926. Kathleen, the youngest, suffered from mental illness, depression and alcoholism.  She died young, often asking for money from Eugen and Edna in the last 10 years of her life.   Norma begged to reconnect with Edna, resorting to writing poetry that she felt would get her sisters respect and attention, but nothing really came of it.

Edna’s close friends rallied around her and Eugen, trying to jossle them out of the doldrums that had beset them.  Her friend Arthur Fricke wrote in his journal, published posthumously, of Edna;

She is the oddest mixture of genius and childish vanity; open mindedness and blind self worship, that I have ever know.  She let me, as a fellow-craftman, dissect her mistakes and scold her and make fun of her, because she feels perfectly safe in the fundamental admiration I have for her best work: but …. She has built up so enormous an image of herself as the Enchanted Little Faery Princess that she must defend it with her life. 

Arthur Davison Ficke died on November 30, 1945 from throat and lung cancer.  Edna recited the poem she had written for him graveside:

And you as well must die, beloved dust,
All your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, — this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how beloved above all else that dies.

Eugen would die of lung cancer 4 years later and Edna would die a year later. Eugen and Edna spent their remaining years protective of their privacy and shutting out the broader world. She rejected several lucrative fellowships and grants that would have required her to make public appearances preferring the routine existence of unpaid bills that she knew so well.

Milford’s memoir is a remarkable work, but I think Edna would think it the greatest betrayal possible, that Norma made all of her letters and unpublished poems available for everyone to read. There is a reason work goes unpublished, certainly Edna needed the money, she put out several retrospectives, agonizing over the introductions.  The level of detail that Milford crafts in her book leaves little room for privacy of human failure.  It is a bit too graphic, cold and academic in my opinion.


XVI
Wine From These Grapes

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Alas for Man, so stealthily betrayed,
Bearing the bad cell in him from the start,
Pumping and feeding from his healthy heart
That wild disorder never to be stayed
When once established, destined to invade
With angry hordes the true and proper part,
Till Reason joggles in the headsman’s cart,
And Mania spits from every balustrade.
Would he had searched his closet for his bane,
Where lurked the trusted ancient of his soul,
Obsequious Greed, and seen that visage plain;
Would he had whittled treason from his side
In his stout youth and bled his body whole,
Then had he died a king, or never died.

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A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations.

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