It was at a party in Greenwich Village, in the spring of 1920, that the critic Edmund Wilson first encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay in the flesh. W

How Fame Fed on Edna St. Vincent Millay

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2022-05-14 22:00:06

It was at a party in Greenwich Village, in the spring of 1920, that the critic Edmund Wilson first encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay in the flesh. Wilson, a well-bred graduate of Princeton, was a fan of the twenty-eight-year-old poet’s work—he’d taken to reciting one of her sonnets in the shower—but he was, in her physical presence, overcome. Years later, Wilson described the evening: “She was one of those women whose features are not perfect and who in their moments of dimness may not seem even pretty, but who, excited by the blood or the spirit, become almost supernaturally beautiful.” He remained in love with her for years, even after she’d refused his offer of marriage. It was as if he were enchanted, caught under the “spell” that she cast on “all ages and both sexes.”

This enchantress is the Millay whom many came to know. She was a siren, a seductress, a candle burning with a “lovely light” before being unceremoniously snuffed out. (Millay died at fifty-eight, of a heart attack, after falling down the stairs in her home.) Her appeal was legendary, as was her voice, which the poet Louis Untermeyer described as “the sound of the ax on fresh wood.” In her youth, she loved widely and shamelessly, and she was adored by a generation of young women for the verses she wrote about her transient attachments. Today, she is often remembered as the “poet-girl” of the Roaring Twenties, traipsing from bed to bed in downtown Manhattan, if she is remembered at all.

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