Book Review: Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
edited by Timothy F. Jackson
Yale University Press, 2016
Introduction by Holly Peppe
“No woman poet in her generation was as adored, or as widely read and quoted, as Edna St. Vincent Millay,” writes Holly Peppe in her Introduction to an elegant and slightly oversized new volume from Yale University Press, Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Counted among her ardent suitors were the New York literati – Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, Floyd Dell, and and Witter Bynner, to name a few. But her lifelong loyalty belonged to poetry. She wrote beautifully, and with emotional intensity, about universal themes – nature, love, loss, death, the rebirth of the soul – in finely chiseled lyrics, sonnets, ballads, and elegies.
Readers who’ve treasured and bookmarked their copies of the big Collected Poems volume from half a century ago might raise an eyebrow at the appearance of a new selection, but editor Timothy Jackson amply justifies the endeavor, not only with his intelligent selections from the poet’s more famous work but also by including some previously-unpublished poems, like the simple and sing-song “Nun-Heart”:
I’ll make of me a nunnery
And shut my heart inside.
There the passionate heart of me
Quiet and cold shall bide.
All around her cell the sweet
Insistent words will blow,
But my nun-heart, unstirred, will beat
Peacefully and slow.
Yet what if on some heavily
Enchanted night in spring
That sorry minstrel, Memory,
Beneath her window sing?
Items like “Nun-Heart,” kept by their author in manuscript for perhaps understandable reasons, are balanced of course by selections from The King’s Henchmen, A Few Figs from Thistles, and such favorites as “Spring” from Second April:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Come like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
This Selected Poems edition is also lightly but helpfully annotated, with Jackson pointing out the allusions to “Macbeth” in “Spring” and informing us, for instance: “Millay’s poem appeared in The Chapbook (London) in July 1920, two years before T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its similarly dismissive tone toward spring. A handwritten draft is dated “Mar. 21, 1920.”
The book has been very gracefully designed throughout by Sonia Shannon, and its gentle emphasis on Millay’s more tangled or problematic work is thoroughly welcome – as would be, incidentally, an equally pleasing new hardcover edition of the Collected Poems, should the good folks at Harper ever feel so inclined.