A book recommendation from Millay House Rockland: ‘Rapture and Melancholy’
While reading Rapture and melancholythe newly published diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, lightly but carefully edited by Daniel Mark Epstein and with a foreword by Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe, I found myself imagining this book affecting the lives of others, creatively and other.
Newspapers are above all a primary source. In Rapture and melancholy, you are not reading an interpretation of Millay’s life and events; you read his own words, publicly available now for the first time, written in the privacy of his bedroom, home, or bed.
You are aware of hearing a youthful voice directly from the early days of her self-confidence as a writer and poet; a biographer should cite her to provide the same immediacy.
In this volume spanning four decades, Epstein contextualizes Millay’s diary entries with introductions to every phase of his life. Excellent biographies, which provide fuller context to the journal, are available locally at Arctic Tern and Hello Hello bookstores, including that of Mr. Epstein. What lips my lips have kissedand Nancy Milford Wild beauty. These volumes may fill the narrative gaps in the diary that occurred when Millay’s life became busier and his entries more sporadic.
Like most literary journals, Rapture and melancholy emphasizes the daily interior and exterior landscapes of Millay – his many responsibilities for his home, in the absence of his divorced working mother; his joy at seeing his poetry recognized; the friends she made and the places they frequented, in and around Camden; his college life, his life in Greenwich Village and his life in Austerlitz, New York.
Entries begin in 1907, when she was 15, revealing lives lived in Maine at the turn of the century and what was important to a young woman, including such things as the cost of fabric and who made clothes for Edna and her sisters.
The immediacy of the diary allows readers to observe her love of music, to feel the winter cold and her frustration with the incessant rain, to imagine the hills she climbed while “maying” (welcoming spring while picking flowers), and meeting her challenges, from doing 12 hours of laundry to dealing with a sister who regularly soils her best clothes immediately after putting them on.
There were fewer entries between 1914 and 1927, when Millay frequented Vassar and traveled abroad; and at the end of the diaries, the reader finds Millay addicted to painkillers, recording only times taken and dosages in an effort to limit their use.
This may disappoint or skew some readers’ opinion of him, but here undeniably he is a front row seat to the thoughts of a dynamic and highly intelligent individual, approachable and genuine in a way that no other scripture can. be. Rapture and melancholy is a chronicle in Millay’s own words of how she developed the skills and courage to live unconventionally and present her art to the world.
Years ago I read Virginia Woolf writer’s diary, which her husband distilled to focus largely on his life as a writer. The people and places she wrote about intrigued me so much that over the next few decades I read all of her novels, essays, short stories, the multiple volumes of her letters and diaries, as well as biographies and literary reviews.
Reading his work and delving into many literary and historical rabbit holes has informed my own writing. I went to England in 1985 to roam the squares of London, find her homes and bookshops, and visit the country house where she wrote some of her books. Seeing her homes and sitting in her garden, where the two companion trees stand under which she and her husband are buried, suggested creative possibilities for me to venture into and wander around.
In a grassroots attempt to enhance and preserve Millay’s legacy, I serve on the board of Millay House Rockland. Our organization is restoring its birthplace on Broadway to preserve the home and eventually a garden, and provide programs that will inspire people to read and write poetry or share their stories. Just as visiting Woolf’s homes and reading his work helped me develop a career as a writer, maybe Rapture and melancholy bring readers back to the poetry and other works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and ultimately, to have the courage to do the same.