81 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2001
This compellingly readable, lushly evocative biography focuses on the lovers and the love affairs that inspired Millay's best-known poetry. While Millay capitalized on her public image as a jazz-age "free spirit"--reckless, heedless and enjoying every minute-- her life story reads like a great, tragic Romantic novel.
Millay's hardscrabble childhood in turn-of-the(20th)-century Maine is so vividly conjured in Epstein's story, you can just about smell the smoke from the cast iron stove as she careens between the crushing responsibility of caring for her younger sisters and the imaginative escape she forged through music, theater and poetry. Through a combination of sly manipulation, talent and sheer luck, Millay went from being an arty local eccentric to a national celebrity--the cynosure of the Manhattan literary scene--at the age of 20, virtually overnight. The seemingly incongruous combination of her porcelain-doll looks and unabashedly passionate (yet formally rigorous) poetry acted like catnip for her contemporaries, men and women alike: she looked like an angel, behaved like a libertine, and packed an intellectual wallop equal to that of any man. Epstein describes the compulsive pace at which, during the height of her poetic production, Millay conducted many, often simultaneous, love affairs, lavishing indifference on the legions who worshipped her image and reputation, and suffering agonizing unrequited passion for the (relatively few) others.
By focusing on the most significant affairs and linking them (with impressive use of both painstaking scholarship and critical insight)to specific poems, Epstein incisively portrays the emotional pitch of the time without getting bogged down in endless lists of names, dates and locations. By crafting the narrative in this way, Epstein selects and contextualizes Millay's own words and documented actions to show--not tell-- how both physical illness and a likely manic-depressive disorder spiralled under the pressure to live up to her own legend. This is masterful storytelling, through and through.
Much as she was rescued, "deus ex machina" from an small-time life in Maine by a dowager patroness, Millay was rescued again in 1923, this time from life-threatening illness and despondency by a real-life Romantic hero (a Belgian Mr. Darcy?), whom she had the good sense to marry. While he set aside his own business to support her work and to shelter her from the strain of public and critical scrutiny, their idyllic rural marriage scenario stultified her creativity. Millay's dogged pursuit (with her husband's active consent) of an affair with a reluctant younger man is affectingly portrayed as a desperate, unconsciously delusional act of self-abasement in the service of her own (fading) sexual persona and the poetry which that persona had always sponsored so reliably. And it worked: great sonnets happened, albeit at no small cost. The waning of this affair, plus a series of illnesses and accidents, provided a host of pretexts for Millay's descent into astoundingly heavy-duty drug addiction and alcoholism. Epstein conveys the wrenching pathos of her repeated struggles to overcome these addictions, with--and, later, without-- her husband's devoted help. Set into this context, excerpts from her journals and letters illuminate a more richly layered, genuine and fragile Millay than other biographies even begin to approach.
Epstein--a highly accomplished poet himself--thankfully resists the temptation to psychoanalyze, sensationalize or turn Millay's life story into a morality tale. Instead, this beautifully-written, insightful and engaging feat of storytelling captures the essence of a real-life Romantic spirit who made poetry the only way she knew how--by living it.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2001
This is a marvelous account of the difficult early life, passionate love affairs, and heartbreaking physical demise of the gifted poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose journey from poverty to celebrity to alcohol and drug addiction follows a familiar and distinctively modern course.
From this scrupulously researched life story, complete with previously unpublished journal entries and letters, Epstein takes us first inside the mind and heart of a girl who longed for love, then into the life of a woman who could never satisfy her ravenous appetite for passion. In the course of his often spellbinding narrative, he presents critical life events other Millay biographers have missed, such as the teenage poet's first erotic experience, with a female friend, and her surprising obsession for horse breeding and racing that eventually drained the considerable fortune she'd earned as one of America's best-known poets.
An accomplished poet himself, Epstein also recognizes Millay's genius as a lyricist whose sonnets are considered some of the finest in the language. He illuminates the meaning of some of her most famous poems and the life events that inspired them: the spiritual crisis that resulted in "Renascence," for example, and the tumultuous love affair with a lonely young poet that threatened her marriage and inspired the 52-sonnet sequence, "Fatal Interview."
This is a captivating tale, alternately joyous and sad, passionate and desperate, suspenseful and ultimately moving-a must-read for those interested in how life sometimes fools us into thinking that talent, fame, and fortune are synonymous with happiness and peace of mind.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2001
This biography was a fast and furious read, due to the great anecdotes as well as the tightly-written analysis. Ms. Millay's life was a whirlwind and many heretofore unknown facts and episodes are revealed, adding richness to the typical chronological description of this writer's life. Ms. Millay was more than a writer, she was a full-blown creative personality, in a time when to do so as a woman from a modest background was virtually unheard of. Even for those who do not know her poems or do not usually read literary biography, this book documents a fascinating woman's life and is well worth picking up.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Daniel Mark Epstein brings a special understanding to Edna St Vincent Millay's biography by virtue of being a poet himself. I think that's why this book is in many ways superior to the Nancy Mitford book.
Edna St Vincent Millay was not only a great person of words, but a great seductress and everyone, male and female alike, fell under her spell. Apparently, accordingly to this book, she managed to live up to their expectations quite well. Mr Epstein matches the love poems to the folks they were written for and gives the details of the various affairs. It may not sound interesting, but it is quite interesting - especially since M's Millay seemed to have a weakness for men who were not quite as talented as she was. The background behind "Fatal Interview" and the story of her (apparently) one love she lost before_she_ was ready to is quite an interesting read by itself.
Mr Epstein focuses on M's Millay as sort of a self made goddess and how her various affairs shaped her writing. M's Mitford focuses on how M's Millay's relationship with her mother shaped her life. Both of these are very interesting and I'd advise reading them consecutively and draw your own conclusions. In some respects, I think Mr Epstein is correct in what he presumes, but the same can be said of M's Mitford.
Throw yourself into the words and life of Edna St Vincent Millay - you'll find yourself awash with her beautiful poetry and prose and this book will help you make sense out of it.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2002
Daniel Mark Epstein, like so many men of her own time, is obviously enamored of Edna St. Vincent Millay. He urges that she be restored to the "canon",although her work has not been lauded in recent years.
The intense, highly emotional poet comes alive in the pages of his well-researched book. She comes to us as a rebel, determined to live on her own terms, to make love with the freedom of a man,to explore the ecstatic heights of feeling. (Shelley, the author tells us, was her idol.)
A central point that I feel Epstein misses is that, although she may have escaped the feminine role dictated by conventions of her time, she did not escape her own compulsion to make the search for love the driving force of her actions. Her poetry also has as its overriding theme, romantic and sexual love. For this reason she missed achieving stature as a great poet. Even though she possessed a great facility for language, her works are too limited in scope.
Her eventual descent into alcoholism and drug addiction can serve as a cautionary tale against the wild self-indulgence and perpetual adolescence that plagued Millay. It must be said, however, that her verbal gifts were so great that even in the midst of her addled despair in later life, she was able still to produce, although the work then was of lesser quality.
Kudoes for Epstein's carefully researched, comprehensive biography.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2004
Mr. Epstein's passion for his subject was the first attractor for me upon reading this well written, intriguing biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, specifically focusing on her very tumultuous love life and the poetry which was birthed due to her romantic and [physical relations].
The prose reads like Mr. Epstein has fallen in love with Edna just as the many men in her path fell in love with her.
I also found the diversions which came later (like the horse Chaladon) and her well known descent into alcoholism and drug addiction were very compelling to dive into: I would have appreciated more of these times, although the limited documentation available would explain why there isn't more information here.
This book does its job well: makes me more curious about Edna St. Vincent Millay: from her poetry, her plays and her life outside the written word.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2008
Catching up on my Amazon reviews (only about 300 books behind)---been a big fan of Millay since my first reading of Renascence (a favorite poem). Millay was a personality before there were magazines and 24/7 coverage of a celebrities every move---no doubt she would have been good fodder for these purveyors of the lives of others. Ms. Millay lived on the edge and her talent was equalled by a life lived large. Mr. Epstein captured this exceptionally woman beautifully in his well-written biography.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2012
Two bios came on the market at the same time a decade ago. This one I purchased and read after the first big NYT best-seller one, which is really fat and flabby. This Epstein bio is very sharp with critically astute details regarding Vincent. It is the best bio. Epstein has the ability to really nail important junctures and relationships in a hurricane of love affairs that were more or less necessary to the writing and inspiration of the sonnets and poetry that the Millay legend was founded upon. This is a brilliant and succint biography that has crystalline insight into the life of the poet. This biographer is a poet himself and uses the poet's skills and lazer vision to show more of the poet herself in her era and in her genius. He addresses more in fewer pages and confidently peels the proverbial onion of such a life as Edna St. Vincent Millay's. It was a dicy existence from start to finish, and this biographer is truly adept in revelation of personality and her art. He knows more and shows more in less words. The intensity of her life is reflected full-force here, without a lot of silly stuff that doesn't matter. Milford, the other biographer, who also wrote a decent biography, wrote an overwrought bio that lacks focus and insight, and her big old bio is just a giant slippery fish that keeeps flopping out of her hands back in the giant ocean of information that she tried to control. Epstein, with superior dexterity, delivered a poignant bio with his fab poet's radar and he zeroed in on one of the most exquisite and now-under-valued voices in 20th century American literature, the one and only Edna St. Vincent Millay. Oh, and did I say that he is a brave biographer, too?
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2006
This is simply a great biography.
Apparently Epstein was able to gain access to a vast Library of Congress collection of documents on Millay that won't be released to the public until 2010. And he seems to have done an unusually good job of sorting through all this information and putting it in order.
Perhaps it's due to Epstein being a poet himself, but he's able to give a wonderfully sensitive and intelligent account of Millay's life. He's done lots of detective work, and it seems to all hold together.
It's an unbelievable story -- so American in some ways: the gilded age to ragtime to the Jazz Age, the World Wars, anti-war and women's rights, passion, poetry, Greenwich Village and the Left Bank, genius, narcissism, money, fame, sex, alcohol, drugs, a skyrocket ride from poverty to success to destruction.
And yet so un-American in its calm, well-behaved, almost English manner: no shooting, no fist-fights, no one calling the cops, a time when books of poetry sold 50,000 copies and folks jam-packed auditoriums to hear poetry readings -- think Bloomsbury secretly on meth and Virginia Woolf quietly dedicating herself to nymphomania.
Really a well-written book, and surely the best biography of Millay so far.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2008
This is an intimate portrait of Millay that I cherish. It is also a valuble historical account of many aspects of Maine life. The location and circumstances of Millay's estranged father and the inhabitants of the small town of Kingman in Northern Penobscot County are invaluable in my research of the area. Henry Millay lived in my house in Kingman and no doubt some of Vincent's work was conceived, if not written from my house. It is this connection which has led to my current collection of Millay's work and life. Thank you for this offering on your invaluable site.