I’ve been greatly enjoying Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay title ‘Savage Beauty’. Millay at one time was the best known poet in America, reading to sold-out houses all across the country. The famous literary critic and author Edmund Wilson (my grandmother’s cousin) fell in love with her even before he met her. He had this sonnet of her by heart and used to recite it in the shower:
To Love Impuissant
Love, though for this you riddle me with darts,
And drag me at you chariot till I die, —
Oh, heavy prince! Oh, panderer of hearts! —
Yet hear me tell how in their throats they lie
Who shout you mighty: thick about my hair,
Day in, day out, your ominous arrows purr,
Who am still free, unto no querulous care
A fool, and in no temple worshiper!
I, that have bared me to your quiver’s fire,
Do wreathe you Impotent to Evoke Desire
As you are Powerless to Elicit Pain!
(Now will the god, for blasphemy so brave,
Punish me, surely, with the shaft I crave!)
Wilson, who was known as Bunny, felt he was the one to deal her the “longed-for dart. He was on the staff of Vanity Fair at the time, and he arranged to have several of her poems published in the magazine. Later he visited her and her family on Cape Cod and they had a brief fling which was, for Wilson, “a blaze of ecstasy that remains for me one of the high points of my life.”
For Millay, not so much. He wanted her to marry him, but she nixed that idea, and even after he followed her to France, their intimacy was at an end. Millay had many, many lovers, both men and women, and had no qualms about casting them off.
Here’s another of her sonnets, which seems to have no title:
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not as brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature had contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, —
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.