Monday, November 26, 2007

More Millay

In addition to yesterday's tidbits from Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, here's a deliciously cheeky line from a letter she wrote to her publishers. Having been drawing advances from them during years of illness (much of it related to addiction), she had to resist their push to publish books she didn't feel would do her reputation credit. One such proposal was for a book of her love poems, introduced by a foreword in which she would provide some autobiographical context for each poem. Fearing that such a publication would attract the wrong kind of reader, she declined respectfully, closing with this fabulous line:
Trusting, however, in closing, that for one year more it may be said of me by Harper & Brothers, that although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances. (489)

And here's a sonnet written, appropriately enough, in the autumn of Millay's life, when she was about my age, mid-50s. It's a sonnet that testifies to Millay having recovered her powers after years of illness, depression, and little productive writing, and a sonnet worth savouring as we approach the end of autumn (sneaking up a bit too close to winter!).

Tranquility at length, when autumn comes,
Will lie upon the spirit like that haze
Touching far islands on fine autumn days
With tenderest blue, like bloom on purple plums;
Harvest will ring, but not as summer hums,
With noisy enterprise--to broaden, raise,
Proceed, proclaim, establish: autumn stays
The marching year one moment; stills the drums.
Then sits the insistent cricket in the grass;
But on the gravel crawls the chilly bee;
And all is over that could come to pass
Last year; excepting this: the mind is free
One moment, to compute, refute, amass,
Catalogue, question, contemplate, and see.

I love the way Millay works the octave, stretching its lyricism, building tension -- there's a certain fraught vulnerability to tranquility's tender beauty of the tranquility -- it's "at length" and only "touching far" places on the horizon. But I especially love the last four lines of the sestet, the buildup to the caesura and then that catalogue of evaluative processes so different from the strident achievements of summer, the move through "compute, refute, amass" all the way to that marvellously open "see." A "see" which, rhyming with the "free" above, is delivered with such triumph, at the end of the list of verbs, that we almost forgot that the mind is only free "One moment."

What I find really interesting about the claims she's making in the sonnet is that she's attributing to autumn some processes and possibilities I probably would assign to winter. I wonder how much that has to do with Millay's difficulties reconciling herself to aging. A public figure whose physical attractiveness and sexual charisma had been such a defining element, she may have been especially motivated to figure the autumn of her life in positive and productive terms.

1 comment:

  1. I've added this book to my
    "to be read list" as I mentioned
    before I really enjoy biographies.
    The best thing about riding the
    skytrain"reading time"


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