Starting in 1907 as a teenager, Edna St Vincent Millay began documenting her life in a series of diaries, ending in 1949. These diaries chart her early hopes and dreams, her rise to fame as one of the most prominent American contemporary poets, her farm life with her husband Eugen, and her struggles with alcohol and morphine addiction.
I am not a reader of poetry – it simply doesn’t appeal to me terribly. Consequently my knowledge of all but the most well-known poets is a little lacking, though I have heard of Edna St. Vincent Millay before. On the other hand, as a fairly consistent diarist for over a decade, I’ve always been interested in the diaries of others and picked up this book because I thought it would be interesting to get to know a such once-prominent figure for the first time in such an intimate way.
Of course, this being a diary spanning such a period of time, the dates of the entries vary wildly, and as it was never written in expectation of being made public, its level of interest to the reader varies as well. I really enjoyed the early entries, full of Millay’s enthusiasm and her hopes and dreams – the passages on the dream lover for example I found really revealing. I also appreciated the notes and the introduction to each section of the diary, as they helped clarify many of the things Millay only alluded to, as well as present backdrops to situations that she apparently found too private to discuss in the diaries.
I liked the lyrical style of writing when it emerged, but Millay unfortunately usually stuck to more brusk recountings of people seen and things done that I often found myself skimming over. I also wished that she wrote more about her thoughts and feelings about things in the second distinct part of the diaries, as she had when she was young, for I felt we ended up missing out on a lot of the insight we had gotten early on. This is of course merely the nature of reading someone else’s private personal papers though.
In the introduction, the editor discusses various reasons why one may be compelled to publish a certain person’s diaries, and argue that in the case of Millay it is her fame and her literary prowess. Her fame I concede; her literary prowess is beyond doubt but the main problem for casual readers of this book I think is that it is not on display nearly as much as one hopes it would have been, so that only flashes of her true brilliance spring forth, the light of it mostly obscured by her more prosaic concerns.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley. This is my honest and voluntary review.