Craig Raine

The sad fate of Edna St Vincent Millay – America’s once celebrated poet

Her diaries reveal how much she hated anthologies – and, after succumbing to drugs and alcohol, she soon ceased to appear in them

For most of her life, Edna St Vincent Millay was one of the most respected and popular poets in America. [Alamy]

In June 1957, Robert Lowell attended a poetry reading by E.E. Cummings. Sitting dutifully and deferentially alongside him were Allen Tate, W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido and the classical scholar William Alfred, ‘while Cummings read outrageous and sentimental poems, good and bad of both kinds’. They were not alone: ‘About eight thousand people listened.’ But you can tell from Lowell’s adjectives – ‘outrageous and sentimental’ – that Cummings’s reputation is already on the slide.

Edna St Vincent Millay’s diaries record a reading in Waco on 10 January 1930: ‘In spite of icy streets, really dangerous & cold weather, abt. 1500 people present.’ In 1934, Millay took Laurence Olivier and his first wife Jill Desmond to supper at the Savoy Grill. She had a disappointing lunch with Somerset Maugham in Cap Ferrat – ‘somehow it was not very much fun’. She collected honorary degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Russell Sage College, New York University, Tufts University and Colby College: ‘I confess that I love them. I love the gown, & the mortar-board with the gold tassel, & the pretty coloured hoods.’ (So did Marianne Moore, who once modelled her many degree hoods for Elizabeth Bishop.) Millay’s tax return in 1928 recorded an income of $22,000 in royalties from books, plays and readings – $350,000 in current values. She was a popular and critical success. Edmund Wilson admired her poetry so much he proposed to her. Thomas Hardy said only two good things had come from America – skyscrapers and Edna St Vincent Millay.

She died an alcoholic and morphine addict on 19 October 1950, aged 58, falling downstairs after heart failure. A full glass of wine was at the top of the stairs. In 1956, she was omitted from John Hayward’s Penguin Book of English Verse. She isn’t included in the fifth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

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