One hundred and thirty years ago today Edna St. Vincent Millay – a remarkable, sometimes scandalous, and always brilliant poet, was born in Rockland, Maine. Twenty-five years later she moved to Greenwich Village, where she and my grandfather Floyd Dell – a brilliant, sometimes scandalous, writer himself–fell in love. (At least this is how Floyd remembered it!) But when he asked her to marry him, fortunately for me, she refused. And Floyd married my grandmother instead.
Although Edna St. Vincent Millay died the year before I was born, her ghost hovered in the rafters of every house I ever lived in as a child: In my grandparents’ cramped row house in Washington, D.C., where Floyd would recite Millay’s poetry at the end of every big family meal, in the ramshackle farm house where we spent summers in New Hampshire and Floyd would channel his young self as he read Millay’s poetry aloud to our friends and neighbors, in my parents’ house in Bethesda, Maryland, where my mother — young and romantic when she married into the Dell family – memorized at least a dozen sonnets by Millay and kept almost every book of poetry Millay wrote on the shelf next to her bed . . . all her life.
Once I learned to read, Floyd gave me Millay’s “Poems Selected for Young People” -– a book I still have (torn and tattered as it is). I loved every poem in that book, loved them enough to learn most of them by heart and recite them at the drop of a hat.
The year President Kennedy was assassinated, my father set one of Millay’s poems to music, knowing how much the Kennedys loved it.
My candle burns at both end; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-- It gives a lovely light! Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand Come and see my shining palace . . . built upon the sand
When I was sixteen, I spent a week in a tiny coastal village in Brittany called Plouescat, where I fell hopelessly in love . Returning home from France feeling bereft, I opened Millay’s Collected Lyrics and found a kindred spirit in her poem “Memory of Cape Cod.”
The wind in the ash-tree sounds like surf on the shore at Truro.
I will shut my eyes . . . hush, be still with your silly bleating, sheep on Shillingstone Hill . . .
They said: Come along! They said: Leave your pebbles on the sand and come along, it’s long after sunset!
The mosquitoes will be thick in the pine-woods along by Long Nook, the wind’s died down!
They said: Leave your pebbles on the sand, and your shells, too, and come along, we’ll find you another beach like the beach at Truro.
Let me listen to wind in the ash . . . it sounds like surf on the shore.
Millay’s Truro was my Plouescat.
The ghost of Edna St. Vincent Millay infused my young life with poetry and taught me how extraordinary my ordinary life could be.
Thirty years working for the World Bank while raising two sons didn’t give me much time for poetry (he years I wrote about in my new book Expecting the World) but Millay’s poetry (and Floyd’s novels) traveled with me wherever I went.
So when I first took up a pen to write my own story, perhaps it wasn’t too surprising that I found my self in Chicago, looking for my grandfather in the stacks of the Newberry Library, where his papers. . . 30 boxes of them! . . . are archived in the library’s Special Collections.
Just when I thought I’d read everything Floyd ever wrote, I learned there were 5 more boxes–in which I found more than 1,000 hand-written letters he wrote about his love affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay. Once I read the letters, I knew there was a book about my grandfather and the poet waiting to be written, .Blood Too Bright – Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay is my version of that book.
“To know Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Floyd once said,” is to write poetry to her and about her. In poetry better than in prose can one speak of the god walking our moral plain, of the lost child, of the good comrade. One feels for Edna Millay a strange mingling of awe and tenderness and – No, it cannot be said in prose. . . .There is too much magic in it.”
One hundred and thirty years after her birth, there is still magic in it. And the ghost of Edna St. Vincent Millay still hovers in the rafters wherever I live.