Book Review

Last May, I was lucky enough to get to spend a month in residency at Millay Arts, in Austerlitz, New York. The residency takes place at Steepletop, the wild estate (once a blueberry farm in the Taconic Mountains) named after the steeplebush flowers that grow there, where Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950) spent most of her adult life. I slept and wrote in her old barn in view of the famous home where she and her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain lived and died. I took walks through the crumbling gardens framed by petrified cypress trees, next to the defunct swimming pool where Millay once swam nude, now filled with murky water and a chorus of frogs. I wandered the moss-bedded paths in the surrounding woods, including the one that leads to her grave: a simple boulder set deep in the woods. I peered into her bare writing shack and was haunted by the poet. I’d gone to Steepletop to write a biography about another woman author named Sanora Babb. Babb adored Millay’s writing—her freedom, and her openness to write about her sexuality in the 1920s, when Babb, a young woman growing up in the Midwest, was looking for models whom she could manifest her life toward. As a young writer, I’d been enchanted by Millay’s poetry for the same reasons as Babb’s. Her work gave voice to what I felt as a young woman—something I rarely encountered on the page. But by the time I got to undergrad I realized her work had fallen out of fashion. My professors told me that Millay, like many of the other women poets of her generation (Amy Lowell and Sara Teasdale, to name two more) weren’t canonical poets. I was advised to look toward the safer Emily Dickinson if I wanted a poet foremother, or I was given entire syllabi of male poets as an alternative to choose from.

It’s at Millay Arts, in the common room library, that I discovered the book Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein. Epstein, who’d previously written a 2001 biography about the poet, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed took on the important task of publishing Millay’s diaries, thereby making these once archived documents more accessible to a wider public (her diaries are housed at the Library of Congress). Each morning at Millay Arts, I’d wake in the old barn and walk up to the main house through a net of bird song to read dozens of her entries over my morning tea. When I read Millay’s entries about Steepletop, I had the luxury of seeing the actual trees and birds she carefully identified in each passage. If I read she’d seen a goldfinch in the morning, I’d spend the day on watch for one. If she wrote about planting a pear tree, I’d try to find the tree on the property.

Epstein’s book is the first to collect and publish Millay’s diaries, which span from her childhood in rural Maine in the early 1900s to her last entry written a year and a half before her untimely death in 1950. To read Millay in her own voice about her creative process and her work, about her marriage, and her affairs, about her love for nature, about her addictions and the cost that her fame had on her health brought her to life for me in ways I could have never imagined.

However, though I am grateful for the Epstein’s scholarship, his curation was not without flaws. For example, he explains to readers in his introduction that he “transcribed every diary and journal entry in Millay’s hand that he could find among her papers.” But he admits a few sentences later that what is presented in Rapture and Melancholy has been curated “in interest of focus.” What he withheld: Millay’s diary about her travels in Japan and a portion of the sections that she wrote while at Steepletop, without, as he claims, “disturbance to the logic of her story.”  A description that left me wondering, what details about the poet could I learn if I read what he cut out?

Additionally, Epstein’s analysis of Millay’s life in the prose forwards to each section of her diaries left me a bit astonished at times, especially in his introductions to Millay’s later diaries written when she was approaching middle age. For example, in the introduction to “Steepletop 1933,” he writes that her diaries show how she is discouraged by her unrequited love for George Dillon and “her fading beauty”. Both of which sent her into a depression “from which she never fully recovered.” Later, in “Europe and England (1934),” he writes, “it is astonishing witness of character and evidence of stamina to see this forty-two-year-old writer functioning at such a high intellectual level . . . and playing a decent game of tennis daily, while poisoning her system nightly with liquor and opiates.” While I understand that Epstein likely meant his comment to be about her dependence on drugs and alcohol, the ageism inherent in his phrasing is difficult to stomach.

Regardless of the flaws in Epstein’s introductory comments, the book collects such intimate moments in Millay’s extraordinary life that, in reading it, one is given a window into how her mind operated. For example, while on tour in Europe (January 19, 1920) she records:

Last night I walked along the banks of the Seine alone, close, close down by the parapet, where people drown themselves. There was a high wind blowing, dripping rain. The river, flowing . . . is crumpled on the surface like dead leaves. And in flowing it makes a sound not like a river, but like a forest, a leafy rustling, an articulate sound, ancient and mysterious to the ear.

Or in other entries, one witnesses the joy she experienced when she is recognized for her work. For example, on March 9, 1927:

Today on the front page of the New York World we came upon ‘$100 a day for Poet of King’s Henchmen’ and an article telling how my book has already sold 10,000 copies . . . well, I just sat for ten minutes with my eyes sticking out, drinking it in. Oh, what a thrilling winter this has been!

Perhaps my favorite image of Millay, though, takes place in her second-floor bedroom at Steepletop, dated February 19, 1938, when she records how “dozens of chickadees” were on her bed eating sunflower seeds as she sat in bed writing. “I put my bed close to the window & spread the seeds out on a towel.” She goes on to explain how she’d trained the birds by first placing the seed on the windowsill and then slowly luring the birds to her bed.

Holly Peppe, the Literary Executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, begins her forward to the book with the questions, “Are personal diaries fair game for curious readers? Do we have a right to eavesdrop on a writer’s intimate thoughts.” I’ll end by answering her. In my opinion, as a biographer, as a poet who grew up looking for a female role model, we do have the right to read a writer’s personal diaries, especially if we are reading them with the intention of illuminating that writer’s life in more detail. I wish I could send my child-self that image of Millay taming the chickadees, or transforming the sounds of the Seine into a forest, or even celebrating her own success because it would have made her mentorship all the more real.

About the Reviewer

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer and poet and former Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Her latest books include the biography Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) and her poetry collection West : Fire : Archive (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2021). Her next biography Done Dirty: Sanora Babb, the American West, and a Forgotten Literary Masterpiece will be published by the University of California Press in 2024. She’s received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and Millay Arts. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and UC Davis and is the Poetry and Translation Director at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.