Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More on Millay

Ooh, alliteration!

Er, anyway...I finished the Epstein biography of Millay while on my vacation. The earlier parts when she's churning out poetry and young and beautiful and everyone--no, seriously, everyone--is in love with her receive the most attention. But then again that's not surprising considering the fact that alcoholic morphine addicts don't generally do much.

The most fascinating aspect of the biography to me though, was this ability she had to make people love her and want to go to great lengths to help her. Certainly she was neither the first nor the last person to possess that particular trait, but she does seem to have had it in a particularly large quantity. Most striking of all those who loved her was her husband. Epstein writes:
His name begins to appear in the drug logs in 1943 and 1944, and though he outweighed her by sixty pounds, he was never able to take more than two grains [of morphine] in a day, and he usually took less. [At the time Millay was taking three grains per day] In a green notebook she titled "From Misery to Victory" [he] kept score. He increased his dosage, which he greatly enjoyed, and then, with steely discipline, he would reduce it to nothing. He had to admit this hurt like hell, but he did it to prove to her it could be done.
I find it hard to imagine loving someone so much or being loved so much by someone. But it seems vital that Millay was loved in such a way.

Through the biography Epstein is making a case for Millay as America's foremost love poet. If this is the case--and he makes a good argument for it--then surely the fact that she was constantly surrounded by love, constantly driving people to passion, and feeling such passion herself, allowed her to be so.

As Epstein points out, the American poetic tradition is, when compared to other cultures, fairly lacking in great love poetry. The giants of American poetry (Whitman, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, etc.) are certainly not famous for their love poems. And yet, when we think of poetry, we almost inevitably think of love as well. I think we should be grateful then, for Millay and the fact that she was loved and loved in return. And also for biographers like Epstein who are willing to argue for her importance in our culture.

Well, that sounds sufficiently pretentious, doesn't it? I'll just end here, I think, and post another poem of Millay's.


And you as well must die, beloved dust,
And 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, be 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.

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