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

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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 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

3 thoughts on “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. 1
    71 of 73 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    What a GREAT READ!!!, September 1, 2001
    By A Customer

    This compellingly readable, lushly evocative biography focuses on the lovers and the love affairs that inspired Millay’s best-known poetry. While Millay capitalized on her public image as a jazz-age “free spirit”–reckless, heedless and enjoying every minute– her life story reads like a great, tragic Romantic novel.
    Millay’s hardscrabble childhood in turn-of-the(20th)-century Maine is so vividly conjured in Epstein’s story, you can just about smell the smoke from the cast iron stove as she careens between the crushing responsibility of caring for her younger sisters and the imaginative escape she forged through music, theater and poetry. Through a combination of sly manipulation, talent and sheer luck, Millay went from being an arty local eccentric to a national celebrity–the cynosure of the Manhattan literary scene–at the age of 20, virtually overnight. The seemingly incongruous combination of her porcelain-doll looks and unabashedly passionate (yet formally rigorous) poetry acted like catnip for her contemporaries, men and women alike: she looked like an angel, behaved like a libertine, and packed an intellectual wallop equal to that of any man. Epstein describes the compulsive pace at which, during the height of her poetic production, Millay conducted many, often simultaneous, love affairs, lavishing indifference on the legions who worshipped her image and reputation, and suffering agonizing unrequited passion for the (relatively few) others.
    By focusing on the most significant affairs and linking them (with impressive use of both painstaking scholarship and critical insight)to specific poems, Epstein incisively portrays the emotional pitch of the time without getting bogged down in endless lists of names, dates and locations. By crafting the narrative in this way, Epstein selects and contextualizes Millay’s own words and documented actions to show–not tell– how both physical illness and a likely manic-depressive disorder spiralled under the pressure to live up to her own legend. This is masterful storytelling, through and through.
    Much as she was rescued, “deus ex machina” from an small-time life in Maine by a dowager patroness, Millay was rescued again in 1923, this time from life-threatening illness and despondency by a real-life Romantic hero (a Belgian Mr. Darcy?), whom she had the good sense to marry. While he set aside his own business to support her work and to shelter her from the strain of public and critical scrutiny, their idyllic rural marriage scenario stultified her creativity. Millay’s dogged pursuit (with her husband’s active consent) of an affair with a reluctant younger man is affectingly portrayed as a desperate, unconsciously delusional act of self-abasement in the service of her own (fading) sexual persona and the poetry which that persona had always sponsored so reliably. And it worked: great sonnets happened, albeit at no small cost. The waning of this affair, plus a series of illnesses and accidents, provided a host of pretexts for Millay’s descent into astoundingly heavy-duty drug addiction and alcoholism. Epstein conveys the wrenching pathos of her repeated struggles to overcome these addictions, with–and, later, without– her husband’s devoted help. Set into this context, excerpts from her journals and letters illuminate a more richly layered, genuine and fragile Millay than other biographies even begin to approach.
    Epstein–a highly accomplished poet himself–thankfully resists the temptation to psychoanalyze, sensationalize or turn Millay’s life story into a morality tale. Instead, this beautifully-written, insightful and engaging feat of storytelling captures the essence of a real-life Romantic spirit who made poetry the only way she knew how–by living it.

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  2. 2
    28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A woman poet’s life, uncensored . . ., August 29, 2001
    By A Customer

    This is a marvelous account of the difficult early life, passionate love affairs, and heartbreaking physical demise of the gifted poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose journey from poverty to celebrity to alcohol and drug addiction follows a familiar and distinctively modern course.
    From this scrupulously researched life story, complete with previously unpublished journal entries and letters, Epstein takes us first inside the mind and heart of a girl who longed for love, then into the life of a woman who could never satisfy her ravenous appetite for passion. In the course of his often spellbinding narrative, he presents critical life events other Millay biographers have missed, such as the teenage poet’s first erotic experience, with a female friend, and her surprising obsession for horse breeding and racing that eventually drained the considerable fortune she’d earned as one of America’s best-known poets.
    An accomplished poet himself, Epstein also recognizes Millay’s genius as a lyricist whose sonnets are considered some of the finest in the language. He illuminates the meaning of some of her most famous poems and the life events that inspired them: the spiritual crisis that resulted in “Renascence,” for example, and the tumultuous love affair with a lonely young poet that threatened her marriage and inspired the 52-sonnet sequence, “Fatal Interview.”
    This is a captivating tale, alternately joyous and sad, passionate and desperate, suspenseful and ultimately moving-a must-read for those interested in how life sometimes fools us into thinking that talent, fame, and fortune are synonymous with happiness and peace of mind.

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  3. 3
    21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Comprehensive Survey of This Poet’s Life, October 25, 2001
    fm (Chicago, IL USA) –

    This biography was a fast and furious read, due to the great anecdotes as well as the tightly-written analysis. Ms. Millay’s life was a whirlwind and many heretofore unknown facts and episodes are revealed, adding richness to the typical chronological description of this writer’s life. Ms. Millay was more than a writer, she was a full-blown creative personality, in a time when to do so as a woman from a modest background was virtually unheard of. Even for those who do not know her poems or do not usually read literary biography, this book documents a fascinating woman’s life and is well worth picking up.

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