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What Lips My Lips Have Kissed The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2002-09-01
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks

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This is the story of a rare sort of American genius, who grew up in grinding poverty in Camden, Maine. Nothing could save the sensitive child but her talent for words, music, and drama, and an inexorable desire to be loved. When she was twenty, her poetry would make her famous; at thirty she would be loved by readers the world over. Edna St. Vincent Millay was widely considered to be the most seductive woman of her age. Few men could resist her, and many women also fell under her spell. From the publication of her first poems until the scandal overFatal Interviewtwenty years later, gossip about the poet's liberated lifestyle prompted speculation about who might be the real subject of her verses. Using letters, diaries, and journals of the poet and her lovers that have only recently become available, Daniel Mark Epstein tells the astonishing story of the life, dedicated to art and love, that inspired the sublime lyrics of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Author Biography

Daniel Mark Epstein is an award-winning essayist, poet, playwright, translator, biographer, and musician. He's received the Prix de Rome and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been anthologized in several collections of essays and poetry. His books include biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson, Nat King Cole, and seven volumes of poetry. He lives in Baltimore.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Love o' Dreams
Love o' Dreamsp. 3
Corap. 5
School Days and Stage Lightsp. 14
Little Girl Grown Upp. 33
Renascencep. 49
The Whirlpool of Eros
The Whirlpool of Erosp. 71
The Sappho of North Hallp. 91
The Goddessp. 111
The Villagep. 121
Menage a Troisp. 145
Europep. 155
Marriagep. 167
Steepletopp. 187
Fatal Interviewp. 199
The Mountain Laurelsp. 219
Paris or Steepletopp. 228
The Last Love Poemsp. 240
Challedonp. 248
Little Nancyp. 255
Couragep. 267
Epiloguep. 273
Notesp. 277
Selected Bibliographyp. 285
Acknowledgmentsp. 287
Indexp. 289
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter One


* * *

    In the town of Camden, Maine, at midnight of October 3, in the lower tenement of a clapboard house on Chestnut Street overlooking the harbor, a girl was absorbed in a curious ritual. If a passerby had been tempted by the flicker of candlelight beneath a shade to peep into the sparely furnished bedroom, he might have thought the girl was mad, or the votary of some pagan cult.

    She was writing in a small brown notebook, and saying aloud to herself and to invisible presences strange and passionate words:

    "Be these my fairies: Strong-Heart, Clean-Hand, Clear-Eye, Brave-Soul, Sweet-Tongue, and Thou--my Robin Good-Fellow, who will come unseen, unheard, unqueried by all but me, and with thy shadowy flail thresh for me `In one night, ere glimpse of morn ... / What ten day-laborers could not end.'"

    In her white nightgown, with her long braids of red hair brushing her thighs, she looked more like a girl than she actually was. The nightgown concealed the petite but perfectly formed figure of a nineteen-year-old woman.

    "We have been betrothed just half a year tonight," she chanted. "I have been faithful to you. I have loved you more and better every day. It seems to me you might come before long. I am very lonely. I wish I might go to sleep tonight with my head on your arm. Or if I might only know just where you are this minute. You would seem very near to me even though you were way across the world. You have been everything to me for half a year.... I start in tomorrow on the second half and I am going to try and make it better than the first. I must keep always before my mind the thought of what you want me to be. I will try harder than ever before. But I am so tired! But when you come I shall rest."

    There was no one in the candlelit room but Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the night sky over the town shone the constellation of the winged horse Pegasus, beloved of the Muses. The four-room flat included a sitting room with two more windows on the harbor side, the kitchen, and another bedroom looking out on the stained-glass front window of the Baptist Church. Millay's sisters Norma, eighteen, and Kathleen, sixteen, were sleeping in the other bedroom, and her mother, nurse Cora Buzzell Millay, was away in nearby Rockland working on a medical case. Cora Millay and her husband were divorced, and the girls' father lived far away.

    Vincent, as she was called, rose from her writing table. She imagined her lover was seated in a mahogany-paneled room reading by the light of a study lamp. She parted imaginary curtains and coyly looked through them, pretending he could see her.

    "How do you like my hair, sir? All you can see is my head now for I'm hiding. Wait just a minute, and I'll come out. I am wearing a fluffy lavendar thing over my nightdress. It is very soft and long and trails on the rug behind me. My bare feet sink into the rug. My hair is in two wavy red braids over my shoulders. My eyes are very sweet and serious. My mouth is wistful."

    She imagined him watching her from his chair. She moved slowly over the rug toward him. She rested her head gently on his knee. Her braids curled in fiery coils on the floor.

    With the grace of a trained actress the girl mimed the love scene. She looked into her imaginary lover's eyes. She felt him gather her into his arms. Her gowns fell softly about her feet as she kissed his face....

    On her ring finger she wore a tin ring she had found in a "fortune" cake. Her ghost ring, she called it, "a cheap little thing in imitation of a solitaire, just the sort of ring to link me to a `Love-o'-Dreams'; I love it with a passion that is painful." Rising from the floor, she kissed the ring on her hand seven times.

    The ritual had begun with the lighting of a wax candle from the drawer of the writing table, and the entertaining of her spirit lover would not end until the candle had burned out--that is, if no one interrupted her. This bizarre ceremony, which the girl had been practicing on the third of every month since April 3, 1911, when she formally "consecrated" her soul to this "love o' dreams," was not so much the evidence of madness as it was an elaborate defense against it.

    She was a vulnerable, neurasthenic girl whom life had dealt a difficult hand. Born in Rockport, Maine, on February 22, 1892, the eldest of three sisters, she had seen her father for the last time early in 1901 when her mother threw him out (for "bitter abuse," according to the divorce testimony). In September of that same year, all three girls--ages nine, eight, and five--were stricken with typhoid fever and certainly would have died had it not been for their mother Cora's skill in nursing. After that early trauma, life proved to be one struggle after another, yet the women survived with stubborn determination and a kind of desperate humor. Vincent won amateur poetry prizes, starred in stage plays, and graduated with honors from Camden High School in June of 1909.

    But since graduation the young poet and actress had suffered from a series of crises--physical, emotional, and spiritual--that led her periodically to the edge of despair.

    Now it seemed that only a perfect love, or the raptures of poetry, could save her:

My anguished spirit, like a bird,

Beating against my lips I heard;

Yet lay the weight so close about

There was no room for it without.

And so beneath the weight lay I

And suffered death, but could not die.

(from "Renascence")

    This is the story of a girl locked in a room that was her life in Camden, Maine, in 1911, and how she used her pen like a magic key to unlock the door. In order to understand the sorcery that Millay worked to win her liberty, in that hard year when she began to write the great poem "Renascence," we must go back to an earlier beginning, the story of her mother, Cora Millay, recently divorced, and how she scratched out a living for her three daughters from the rocky Maine soil.


* * *

They had been poor, poor relations thrown upon the mercy and irregular charity of uncles and aunts and grandparents from Newburyport, Massachusetts Cora's hometown, to Ring Island located just across the Merrimac River, and back again, finally washing up in Camden. From spare room to spare room in farmhouses and town houses, mother and daughters moved with their trunks of books and papers and homemade clothing and precious few other belongings dragging behind them.

    First, during the winter of 1901 they stayed with Cora's brother Charles Buzzell and his wife, Jenny, on Ring Island while the girls went to school there. Cora worked in Newburyport until she could afford rent on a bungalow at 78 Lime Street. But they had not lived long in that little house before Cora went up to Maine to get her divorce, thinking that might guarantee her alimony. She left her daughters in the care of a Miss Kendall in Camden while she journeyed alone to the court in Rockland, where she received her divorce decree on January 11, 1904.

    That winter was the coldest in memory, with temperatures plunging to forty degrees below, and Cora and her daughters returned to Newburyport in the throes of a coal shortage. Cora was too proud to take from the city supply of coal, although her it was offered to them as it was to all the poor. Cora's younger sister Clem bought them half a ton, and with the coke from the gashouse, and using shingles ripped from a ramshackle house next door, they were able to keep one fire going in their tiny kitchen. Cora would throw the shingles over the fence, and after school the girls would pick them up to put on the fire.

    But then Cora contracted influenza and was so sick she could not get out of bed. The doctor said her illness came from overwork and undernourishment. "Not a good combination," Cora later remarked with grim humor. "I was away down, subnormal, pulse and temperature, and nothing could seem to bring me up." Her brother Charlie fixed up her life insurance, that was how serious things looked. And her well-to-do sister Clem stopped by often, sweeping in wearing "a heavy cape of double-faced goods, which the girls will never forget," Cora wrote.

    "For, with all the work there was to do here, with a sick mother, and all in school, Aunt Clem never took her cape off on any of these calls. Clem did bring in things for me to eat, which she had cooked at home, at Aunt Sue's. But there was no help for the little ones who might be left alone now, any minute." (These quotes, with their lilting Irish rhythms, are from Cora's writings. She frequently wrote about herself in the third-person maternal, as "the mother.") Cora hung on, while the girls went to school and did the housework. "Vincent had learned to make yeast bread, and it was excellent," Cora recalled. It was during her mother's near-fatal illness that her eldest daughter learned to take command of the household. "And many a night the mother went to bed when she did not have much idea of seeing the morning. But she did not tell them so." She did not have to tell them: children know these things instinctively.

    Despite Cora's tendency to self-dramatize her life in her letters and memoirs, in this case she did not distort the truth. The forty-year-old mother of twelve-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay nearly died during the winter of 1904. Her health rallied in the spring, just in time to take care of her youngest child, eight-year-old Kathleen. "Kathleen was sick, as if stricken. The little limbs unnaturally unruly, and the child sick, as they thought, unto death." Kathleen's fever marked the onset of the dread disease that one day would be known as infantile paralysis--polio.

    That summer, having seen enough hard luck in Newburyport, "the mother picked up some things, and turned the key in the Lime Street House, and took the children to Maine." First they went to Union, where they stayed for a while with friends who were obliged to Cora, whose nursing had saved the life of their youngest boy. From there they went to the hill farm of Uncle Fred Millay, where there was milk and cream, horses, and a blueberry pasture where the girls loved to play.

    "For the little one [Kathleen] to climb toward the blueberry pasture she needed help, and the queer pitiful limping hurried gait was sad to see. For the left leg would not do its part, nor would the left hand, for it shook and trembled so that the only way she could keep it still, when she was eating, using the right, was to hold it between her knees."

    There at the farm Cora nursed Kathleen day and night, massaging her legs and arms several times a day with cocoa butter and giving the child infusions of skullcap "to quiet the little shattered nerves."

    From there Uncle Austin Millay took them in during the time that his wife was away nursing. But Uncle Austin was drunk much of the time, and a mean drunk he was, too, so "the family of visitors moved on, and went for a short visit to Eva Fales, a cousin of mother's at Beech-Woods Street, Thomaston ... then they went to Camden, and up to Aunt Clara's till some other arrangement could be made."

    Aunt Clara Millay was a big, handsome woman, goodhearted and generous, who kept a boardinghouse on Washington Street just on the outskirts of town. Grandpa Buzzell was riding down from Searmont to get Vincent and Norma, and frail Kathleen was going to stay with Aunt Clara while Cora took a nursing job for Professor John Tufts, a pianist who was to be operated on in Rockland before returning to Camden. Cora would attend him in his big house on Chestnut Street.

    All summer long Cora took care of Mr. Tufts, walking a mile uphill and down each day to Aunt Clara's so she could give Kathleen her cocoa butter rubbings and skullcap infusions and doses of cod liver oil. Then in October she received a letter from Grandpa Buzzell's wife, Delia, saying that the old man was on the verge of a nervous breakdown with the racket of so many youngsters in his little house (they had three boys living there before Vincent and Norma arrived). "She did not know but that he might be going crazy or out of his mind, and she was uneasy about the girls and their being there."

* * *

A man from Appleton who boarded at Aunt Clara's when he was staying in Camden owned a small rental house in the field downhill from Washington Street, between Aunt Clara's and the river that powered the mills. Across the Megunticook River was nothing but woodlands, and up the hill across the road rose the cemetery and the rocky height of Mount Battle.

    The dilapidated house in the field had been empty for some time. The man from Appleton said that Cora could have the little house for her and her children to live in. If they would just clean it and make certain repairs for which he would provide the materials like painting and papering--he would give them a month's rent free.

    The doctors in Camden wanted Cora to work for them there and in the outlying towns. So she decided to return to Newburyport only long enough to close up the house on Lime Street and then make a new home for herself and her family in that house in the field in Camden.

    On November 4, 1904, still in Newburyport packing the trunks, she wrote to Vincent and Norma at Grandpa Buzzell's in Searmont. "Be a good lot of girls and mind Delia, and be good to Grandpa. Kiss each other for Mama who is so homesick for you she is crying while she is writing. I hope you are all well, and that Kathleen is gaining all the time. Don't get discouraged because Mama seems so long; she is doing a man's work; and you just plan how cosy we'll have our new little home, when once it is cleaned and settled and banked up snug and warm for the winter. Somehow I don't dread this winter as I did last ..."

    Between 1901 and 1904 they seem to have had no permanent home, but made do wherever they could be together for a few weeks or months. Cora traveled with a trunkload of classic books: Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Scott, etc., and read aloud to her daughters with a dramatic voice, slightly inflected with an Irish brogue. As a girl she had acted in amateur theatricals. She sang beautifully in a mellow mezzo-soprano, and played Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn on the piano, when one was handy. She firmly shaped her daughters in her own image, though with a sense of humor.

    Soon they had their own language and pet names for one another. They had their own customs and legends, binding them each to each while separating them from the world of strangers and protecting them from those who would never understand their ways. Men often felt threatened by the women, as if they were a coven of witches.

    After years of wandering, the prospect of having their first house together in this picturesque and welcoming suburb of Camden, a house at the edge of town but not entirely out of it, was a relief to them all. The house stood in an open field, with Cora's aunt's house on the town side, and a meadow on the other side sloping down to the Camden Mill. In back was another field, and below that was the Megunticook River, flowing from the lake of the same name through a valley and on down through the town to the harbor. This current turned the wheels of the five woolen mills that constituted the town's main industry.

    In autumn, under the red maples and golden leaves of the oak trees, the fields were colorful with staghorn sumac, wild blue asters, wild pink orchids, fleabane, and goldenrod; in the spring there would be violets and arbutus, dandelions and trilliums. In the summer the sisters played hide-and-seek in the grasses that were never mown, and swam in the river on days when the water was not tinted from the dyes that colored the cloths in the mill vats, fashioning water-wings out of pillowcases blown up like bladders.

    Cora recalled: "Another joy in the tall grasses was when it was raining hard. Then there was nothing the girls so much liked as stripping, and putting on thin print dresses and running out into the grass and leaping about in the rain, letting the summer showers soak them until it ran in little rivers from their hair and faces. Then they came in and stripped and I rubbed them down with a rough Turkish towel till they glowed and tingled amid their laughter."

    But the house, neglected by the landlord, was brutally cold in the winter. When the rent was not paid up, Cora could not press too hard about repairs. "The snow outside made as good a winter playground as the grasses in summer, but there is need of warm cover within reach to make playing in the snow drifts enjoyable. This we had, but it did not cover the whole house."

    Their dwelling was no more than four small rooms. On the ground floor was the kitchen, which had the only indoor plumbing, a cold water sink that had to trickle constantly so the pipe would not freeze. One day the water ran over the basin, and Cora returned home from work to find the girls merrily skating on the kitchen floor.

    Next to the kitchen was the dining room, which in good weather also served as the library and music room. There was a cooking stove in the kitchen, but in the coldest part of winter these lower rooms could not be heated. The main coal stove stood in the living room upstairs (where Cora and Kathleen slept), next to the bedroom of the older girls. Everything in the house that had to be kept from freezing--milk, potatoes, onions, bread, and butter--had to be taken upstairs to the living room. "And this was a chore, and did not add to the order of the room," Cora remembered.

    "Mother had a lot of work nursing, right away," Cora recalled, referring to herself, "and the doctors liked her. And after a little while she got more pay, but for a long time not more than ten dollars a week. And she took care of the sick folks all the time, night and day, unless at times when someone would give her a chance to go lie down," and when she insisted upon going home to check up on her girls.

    As soon as she could afford it she had a telephone installed so she could keep in touch with Vincent from the patients' homes. The telephone, and Aunt Clara's boardinghouse a few hundred yards across the meadow, were Vincent's only lifelines on many cold days and nights.

    Vincent was twelve then, Norma eleven, and Kathleen nine. The sisters had to grow up fast.

    Later Vincent recalled: "To live alone like that, sleep alone in that house set back in the field on the very edge of Millville, the bad section of town where the itinerant mill-workers lived--this was the only way they could live at all.... But they were afraid of nothing--not afraid of the river which flowed behind the house, in which they taught themselves to swim; not afraid of that other river, which flowed past the front of the house and which on Saturday nights was often very quarrelsome and noisy, the restless stream of mill workers.... Once it took all three of the children, flinging themselves against the front door, to close it and bolt it, and just in time. And after that, for what seemed like hours, there was stumbling about outside, and soft cursing."

    Their mother had a way with the girls, a subtle psychology that brought greater results in exacting obedience and labor than cruelty could ever have wrought. She constantly reminded them (with more or less wry humor) of her own valiant struggles and sufferings on their behalf, and how much they needed each other in order to survive the trials of poverty; at the same time she never let them forget they were, all of them, princesses, aristocrats of the spirit, in beauty and brains and talent second to none, equal only to each other.

    By nursing the sick and weaving hairpieces for ladies, Cora made the money to feed and clothe them and pay the rent. The children took care of each other and their house and did the cooking and laundry. They never questioned this need. They loved Cora and they feared her, feared her displeasure, and they felt searing guilt and shame if ever they let her down. When she was rested she was full of songs and rhymes, stories and jokes; she baked sugar cookies in the shapes of birds that were the envy of all the town children. But weary--or out of sorts--she was a terror.

    Cora made each of her departures an occasion to put the girls on their honor to do their best and be their best while she was away. "And to be put on your honor by a mother who did not say anything about it, and went away to work for you," Cora recalled, "was a lot heavier load to carry, a lot harder to throw off, than things that were said to you about what to do, and what not to do, when mother was right there to see.... For in the one case the responsibility was on mother who was used to it, and in the other case it was on you, who were not so used to responsibility but were getting used to it very fast."

    Of course, the greatest burden fell to the eldest, Vincent, who was also her mother's favorite. The two were almost unnaturally close. Two themes dominate the early diaries of Edna Millay: how painfully she misses her mother, and how exhausted she becomes with the laundry, cooking, cleaning, schoolwork, and baby-sitting. That autumn, soon after they settled into the cottage and the girls had enrolled in the Elm Street School across from the Congregational Church, the eldest daughter found herself in charge of the household and her younger sisters. More than once she refers to herself humorously as Cinderella. She was small, with bones as frail and delicate as a bird's--not meant for heavy lifting.

    Vincent missed her mother so much that in desperation she invented an imaginary black "mammy" to whom she could turn in her diary for strength and comfort in her loneliness:

You'll have to take the place of Mama when she's gone, which is most of the time. It seems strange, doesn't it, that you, an old mammy, who are not my real Mama at all, should take the place of my real Mama when she is away.... It's so comfy when she's home to sit down in the kitchen--I keep the kitchen clean and shiny all the time, Mammy--to sit down near the stove when the wood is crackling and sending out little sparks ... when you hear the wind outdoors and know it can't get in where you are and where the little girls are sleeping in the next room. I make two cups of tea in the blue china teapot, and we sit opposite each other and drink it nice and hot while we watch each other's faces in the firelight of the crackling stove. It makes up for all the time she's gone. I forget all about the things that went wrong and she forgets all about the doctors and the patients and the surgery and the sleepless nights....


Excerpted from What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by DANIEL MARK EPSTEIN. Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Mark Epstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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