Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Exquisite Polyamorous Love Letters from the 1920s
By Maria Popova
Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950) was only thirty-one when she became the third woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. She remains one of the most influential and timelessly bewitching poets in the English language. Today, Millay might be described as openly bisexual and polyamorous. But beneath such constricting labels lies the simple truth that her extraordinary poetic potency sprang from her boundless capacity for love and beauty — a capacity so boundless that she fell in love frequently and intensely, with both men and women, often with multiple people at the same time.
In her early twenties, shortly after she wrote those beautiful love letters to the British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, Millay became besotted with the poet, playwright, and Japanese art scholar Arthur Davidson Ficke and they embarked on a decade-long epistolary romance of exhilarating intensity. The letters she wrote to him, included in the altogether exquisite out-of-print treasure The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us Millay on the sublime power of music, what it really means to be an anarchist, and her wonderful appreciation of her mother — capture the simplest, deepest truths of love hidden behind the surface complexities of relationships.
In October of 1921, Millay writes to Ficke:
Arthur, my dearest,
I must write you, or you will think I did not get your letters. But when I start to write you all I can think of to say to you is — Why aren’t you here? Oh, why aren’t you here? — And I have written that to you before… I have nothing to say but that I long to see you. — I take the photograph with me everywhere, the big one. I love it.
I think we might have a few days together that would be entirely lovely. We are not children, or fools, we are mad. And we of all people should be able to do the mad thing well. If each of us is afraid to see the other, that is only one more sympathy we have. If each of us is anguished lest we lose one another through some folly, then we are more deeply bound than any folly can undo… What ever happens, I want to see you again! — But oh, my dear, I know what my heart wants of you — it is not the things that other men can give.
Do you remember that poem in Second of April which says, “Life is a quest & love a quarrel, Here is a place for me to lie!”? — That is what I want of you — out of the sight & sound of other people, to lie close to you & let the world rush by. To watch with you suns rising & moons rising in that purple edge outside most people’s vision — to hear high music that only birds can hear — oh, my dearest, dearest, would it not be wonderful, just once to be together again for a little while?
The poem Millay is referring to, which she had written earlier that year, is titled “Weeds”:
White with daisies and red with sorrel
And empty, empty under the sky! —
Life is a quest and love a quarrel —
Here is a place for me to lie.
Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
Cursed by farmers thriftily.
But here, unhated for an hour,
The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
Like flowers that bear an honest name.
And here a while, where no wind brings
The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things
The blood too bright, the brow accurst.
Later the same day, she writes to Ficke again:
Arthur, I am glad that you love me. Your letters have hurt me & healed me. Such sweetness, to be loved like that. But to be loved like that by you — how shaking & terrible besides… You were the first man I ever kissed without first thinking that I should be sorry about it afterwards… Arthur, it is wicked & useless, — all these months & months apart from you, all these years with only a glimpse of you in the face of everybody.
But by the beginning of winter, Millay had started falling in love with the writer Witter Bynner, nicknamed Hal — a friend of Ficke’s since their college days at Harvard. Here was a love that didn’t, as she insisted over and over again to both men, detract from her feelings for Arthur. Millay refused to subscribe to the pie fallacy of the heart — for her, as she so movingly articulates in a letter to Hal from 1922, love was never a zero-sum game:
It is true that I love Arthur. But we have all known that for some time — haven’t we? — I shall love him always. He is something to me that nobody else is. But why should that trouble you, Hal? Don’t you love him, too? Don’t you love several people? — If you loved me, I should not want you to love only me. I should think less highly of you if you did. For surely, one must be either undiscerning, or frightened, to love only one person, when the world is so full of gracious and noble spirits.
The very next day, 30-year-old Millay writes to Arthur:
It doesn’t matter with whom you fall in love, nor how often, nor how sweetly. All that has nothing to do with what we are to each other, nothing at all to do with You and Me.
With this, she informs him diagrammatically that she is considering marrying Hal:
Would you be sorry or glad if I did? … Of course, there is a very geometrical reason why I should. We should make such a beautiful design, don’t you see, — Hal and you and I. Three variable and incommensurate souls automatically resolved into two right angles, and no nonsense about it.
Her marriage to another, Millay assures Arthur, in no way truncates the vector of her love for him:
Well, there’s no denying that I love you, my dear. I have never denied it for a moment, since the first time I saw you, whether to myself or to anybody else who seemed interested. When people ask me if I know you I say, “Yes, I know him.” Then if they ask me if I like you, I say, “I love him.” And that’s all there is to that. And they can shut up, or go on asking questions, or talk it over among themselves.
You, best of all, know how I feel about you, and always shall. No one can ever take your place with me. We know each other in such a terrible, certain, windless way. You and I have almost achieved that which is never achieved: we sit in each other’s souls.
But that’s no reason why I couldn’t marry Hal, and be happy with him. I love him, too. In a different way.
Millay married neither Arthur nor Hal. The following year, she married another man altogether — Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of the trailblazing lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland. Over the course of their 26-year open marriage, both Millay and Boissevain had frequent relationships with other people but maintained a deep love for one another until death did them part. They died within a year of each other.
The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, despite its lamentable unavailability, is a trove of stunning sentiments on love, literature, and life, stunningly articulated. Complement this particular fragment with the love letters of John Keats, James Joyce, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo, then revisit Millay’s prescient thoughts on the death penalty and her playful self-portrait.
Published February 22, 2016