Saturday, November 19, 2011

Savage Beauty: Review


I fell in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay when I was in high school. I borrowed every volume of poetry that the local library had and when I came across a volume of her work while in college, I naturally bought it. According to her biographer, Nancy Milford, falling in love with Millay was something that was very easy to do. She was tiny and luminous, filled with ambition and a sense of her power as a poet...and as a woman. When she read her poetry, she held the attention of the audience like no author had since Dickens had made his tours of America. She captivated and seduced; she entranced and captured hearts....through the written word and in every day life.

Thomas Hardy is credited with saying that America had two great attractions: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The most famous poet of the Jazz Age, Millay took the nation by storm: She smoked in public, took many lovers (men and women, single and married), flouted convention sensationally, and became the embodiment of the New Woman. Her poetry became the voice of the young women and men of her time. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay gives us a wonderful portrait of "this passionate, fearless woman who obsessed America even as she tormented herself."

This was a very good biography. There is so much material here that it is difficult to write a summary or even a review. I went into it knowing what a fine poet Millay was. I learned that she not only wrote fine poetry, but she sold prose as well...under a pseudonym...and plays and one highly acclaimed opera, The King's Henchmen. Her opera played at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to sold-out houses night after night. It was great fun to read about how very dedicated and precise she was in this endeavor. Deems Taylor was her collaborator--he to do the music and she to write the libretto. She did so, providing him with an Anglo-Saxon themed piece. When it came to naming it, he had suggested The King's Messenger and she replied by telegram:

KINGS MESSENGER ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE FOR THIS REASON THE WORD MESSENGER WAS BROUGHT INTO ENGLISH BY THE NORMANS AND I AM WRITING MY ENTIRE LIBRETTO IN ANGLOSAXON THAT IS TO SAW THERE IS NOT A WORD IN THE LIBRETTO WHICH WAS NOT KNOWN IN ONE FORM OR ANOTHER IN ENGLISH A THOUSAND YEARS AGO.

When she had her work pictured a certain way, whether it was a poem or an opera, there was simply no interfering with her perfectionist's view. And she was generally right about what worked best.

If you have any interest in Millay, life during the Jazz Age, growing up in Maine, or American Poetry during this time period, then I highly recommend Milford's treatment of Millay's life. Four stars.

*I also get to add this one to my Victory Garden. I started this biography about 5-6 years ago, but just couldn't get into it for some reason. Two plants for the garden...and three cheers for Bev!

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