Friday, July 11, 2008

Edna St. Vincent Millay on Death of Young Classmate

Right now, I'm reading a fantastic biograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay. It's not exactly new ... I've known about it for awhile and just finally got around to reading it. The book is Savage Beauty by Nancy Millford. It's a masterpiece—I wish more authors would take this much time to craft, hone, and research. Her language is gorgeous ... and the amount of detail she pulls together into a cohesive tale is astounding. You really must have to be of a certain ilk to write good biographies. The attention to detail, the charm necessary to work with surviving family members, the follow-through, the talent for writing. Well, Milford has it all.

I'm a sucker for a good first sentence. Here's Milford's: "I played a hunch in the winter of 1972." Killer.

Anyway, on to the point :) Millay wrote some beautiful poems in 1917/1918 after one of her Vassar classmates died in that year's flu pandemic. You can see that she is struggling with the injustice of someone so young and full of life being struck down so suddenly. The poems are raw, vulnerable, and full of Millay's honest, real emotion. Here is one called "Chorus":

Give away her gowns
Give away her shoes;
She has no more use
For her fragrant gowns;
Take them all down,
Blue, green, blue,
Lilac, pink, blue,
From their padded hangers;
She will dance no more
In her narrow shoes
From the closet floor

And another titled "Elegy Before Death":

There will be rose and rhododendron
When you are dead and under ground;
Still will be heard from white syringas
Heavy with bees, a sunny sound;

Still will the tamaracks be raining
After the rain has ceased, and still
Will there be robins in the stubble,
Grey sheep upon the warm green hill.


Oh, there will pass with your great passing
Little of beauty not your own,—
Only the light from common water,
Only the grace from common stone!

According to Milford, publishers were afraid to move on these poems, even though Millay was already quite well known and respected for Renasance, because the poems were loaded with the theme of death. But as Milford points out, Millay refused to alter her work in a significant way, knowing that great writers for centuries before her had made their mark tackling the subject of death. Milford writes that the publishers didn't care that Millay "was echoing her beloved Latin poets." ... "Death scared them off, as it had neither the Elizabethans nor the Romans."

No comments: