How to Break Up Like a Poet: Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Art of the Kind, Clean Break
By Maria Popova
Published at nineteen and a Pulitzer winner at thirty-three, the poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892–October 19, 1950) is one of the most influential writers in the English language. She was also an early and unselfconscious pioneer of free love, openly bisexual and polyamorous in an era when society was still gasping for air from the suffocating grip of Puritanical dogmatism and homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Her 1920 poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles became a trailblazing manifesto for women’s sexual and political emancipation — a project she espoused in her poetry and embodied in her personal life, replete with passionate polyamorous romances with both women and men.
In the autumn of 1917, Millay, newly graduated from Vassar and settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village, answered an audition call for the role of ingenue in a play by Floyd Dell — a charming satirist, fellow intellectual, and kindred champion of free love, thirty-one and recently divorced. He would later recount in a passage from his memoir of Millay:
I fell in love with her voice at once; and with her spirit, when I came to know it, so full of indomitable courage. But there was in her something of which one stood in awe — she seemed, as a poet, no mere mortal, but a goddess; and though one could not but love her, one loved her hopelessly, as a goddess must be loved.
After a fiery love affair, Dell asked Millay to marry him. She declined, breaking his heart and breaking it open — a heartbreak that would, in Dell’s later recollection, “reveal in blinding glimpses something truer about love, and perhaps more terrible in its splendor, than was set forth in any philosophy of freedom.”
In a letter to Millay found in What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), a resigned but dignified Dell takes the only high ground there is for a jilted lover:
I am asking you to end a one-sided love relationship because it seems to be one-sided…. If this is true, then — I really think we can be the best of friends, and I hope you will want to, as I do. If this were a conversation, I should somewhere in the course of it, I know, ask you again to marry me. Will you … let the happiness which is possible between us come to be?
Millay took this invitation to make the clean, kind break that would transform their romance into a lifelong friendship. Perhaps she was thinking back to another intense relationship she had ended a year earlier at Vassar — her formative romance with a boyish Italian-American aspiring scientist by the name of Elaine Ralli, a class year ahead of her. When Elaine graduated from Vassar, Vincent — as Millay signed her letters — razed the relationship with a clean cut. The devastated Elaine tried to make sense of it in a letter to the poet:
I’m sorry we had to disagree so decidedly and that out of all we had been we didn’t have enough left to build up a friendship of some kind. — But I guess that’s the usual thing — the more people are to one another the more decided is the break…. I grant you that I made a fool of myself but I learned an awful lot.
In the years following her relationships with Ralli and Dell, which mounted over the landscape of young Millay’s lively romantic life, she penned a suite of sonnets about the tumults and transformations engendered by the heart’s interplay with other hearts — poems that captured the bittersweet lessons of great loves that had ended and explored her ambivalent regrets as to her own part in those endings.
In one, she writes:
I think I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Naked of reticence and shorn of pride,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.
Another stands as an eulogy — a simultaneous celebration and lament — for the fickleness of the heart:
Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you — think not but I would! —
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.
In another, she pokes mournful fun at the willful blindness inherent to every vow — the sweet delusion that love is impervious to the transience of all things and the oblivion to which the whole of the universe tends:
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, —
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.
Complement the altogether delicious What Lips My Lips Have Kissed with Millay on the sublime power of music, what it really means to be an anarchist, and her stunning love letters to the British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, then revisit Simone de Beauvoir’s masterwork of a breakup letter.
Published September 8, 2017