“…anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay is a force of nature and Nancy Milford writes like one. Seldom do I finish a book and find that not a word of praise said about it has been exaggerated. Milford reveals so wholly the life and person of Millay in this compelling, insightful biography it is as if we were childhood friends of Millay’s looking over our own memories. Starting with Millay’s poverty-stricken childhood caring for her two sisters while their single mother worked as a travelling nurse, to her bisexual, sexually free adulthood decades before the free-love sixties, the stratospheric heights of renown she and her writing achieved, her later addiction to alcohol, morphine, and other drugs and the havoc wrecked on her life by those addictions, Milford shies from no dark corner. But it’s not all sex and addiction. Millay demonstrated in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, men accused of taking part in the robbery and murder of a shoe factory paymaster and sentenced to death for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. She refused awards proffered her by prestigious Literary groups, if they refused on the grounds of “moral failings” to honor her accomplished female friends. (For of course, male poets weren’t held to this standard; a male poet could abandon his wife and run off with another woman and provided his poetry was good enough no one would flicker an eyelash.) She spoke out exhaustingly against American isolationism as Hitler’s thugs vomited atrocities in Europe, sacrificing her health and personal standards to write what she believed was desperately needed propaganda in favour of America entering the war:
“If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook…what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman?…I used to think it very important to write only good poetry. Over and over I worked to make it as flawless as I could. What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and their ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.” (452)
She stood up for what she believed in. She was passionate about everything she loved. She loved wildly and widely. Savage Beauty is an incredible book about an incredible woman. An inestimable pleasure.