Hold the Gush

Like Virginia Woolf and Mary McCarthy, Rupert Brooke and Bruce Chatwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s striking appearance greatly enhanced her literary reputation.  Readers were drawn to her poetry by her good looks and notorious sexual behavior.  When she lost her health and beauty and became an alcoholic and a drug addict, she lost her following as well.  After great pain came a greater pain.  Millay (1892-1950), the most popular poet of her time, has fallen—like the painters Salvator Rosa and J.-B. Greuze, the composers Salieri and Meyerbeer, the writers Chatterton and Longfellow—into oblivion.

Daniel Mark Epstein, an enthusiast for Millay (in contrast to his ponderous rival biographer, Nancy Milford) narrates his story in a mercifully brief compass.  He is good on Millay’s flamboyant lesbianism at Vassar, which evoked paeans to her “secret circles and folds”; her affair with writer Floyd Dell; her morphine habit and heavy drinking.  She once passed out in a Pullman car and awoke, a few hours later, undressed and wondering whether the conductor had had his way with her.  She died from falling drunkenly down the stairs and breaking her neck.

But Epstein, long on quotation and short on analysis, fails to substantiate the great claims he makes for her work.  Her poetry lacks intellectual content, has mechanically predictable rhymes (fear-year, fall-call),...

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