What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
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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 over Fatal Interview twenty 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.
Poet, playwright, and translator Daniel Mark Epstein certainly has the right background to understand and evaluate poet, playwright, and translator Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)–though Millay didn’t write biographies. Readers of Epstein’s Sister Aimee and Nat King Cole will recognize the intense personal engagement the author brings to his task. He’s not afraid to express an almost physical fascination for his subjects, which is especially appropriate for the flamboyant Millay, who insisted on the right to take as many lovers as she pleased and to write about them in some of the greatest erotic poetry in American verse. Epstein focuses on that poetry, deciphering the affairs that fueled it and elucidating the boldly iconoclastic, almost cynical acceptance of love’s fleeting nature that informs it. (Of the last sonnet in A Few Figs from Thistles, with its notorious putdown, “I shall forget you presently, my dear / So make the most of this, your little day,” he remarks: “For a woman, not yet thirty, to compose and market such a poem… was a scandal, an alarm, and a red flag to censors.”) While the Edna St. Vincent Millay who emerges in Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty is indelibly shaped by her upbringing, particularly her relationship with her mother and sisters, Epstein’s Millay is a self-created goddess of love and literature. It’s fascinating to compare these two biographies, published nearly simultaneously and each with considerable merits. Milford’s lengthy book, the product of three decades of research, is lavish with details and comprehensive in scope. Epstein’s more selective work excels in cogent summaries and forcefully stated opinions. Either book will satisfy readers with an interest in Millay or American literature; really passionate aficionados of the art of biography will want to read both. –Wendy Smith