Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Visit to Steepletop, home of Edna St. Vincent Millay

When we read in the Albany Times Union that Edna St. Vincent Millay's home was now open to the public, we decided that we had to visit. Located in the Harvey Mountain State Forest, Millay's farmhouse home can be reached by taking a dirt road just south of the intersection of NY state routes 22 and 203 in eastern Columbia county.

Visitors approaching the shrine

Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Vincent as she liked to be called, was "a rock star of her day and very much a diva," according to Peter Bergman, director of the Millay Society. The society's many volunteers have worked hard to restore the house and grounds and provide very informative and candid tours of the house.

Vincent , after living  in Paris and Greenwich Village, bought this former blueberry farm  and an additional 400 acres in 1925 for $9000. The poet and her husband Eugen Boissevain enjoyed company and had frequent visitors from the literary world of the 1920s and 1930s.

  View of Vincent's pool, where skinny-dipping was mandatory

 Restored arbor, where Vincent's poolside bar was located

When not entertaining, Vincent insisted on a strict schedule for her writing. In warm weather, she repaired to her writer's hut and was not to be disturbed.

The writer's hut

 Interior of writer's hut

 Eugen was extremely, some would say pathologically, devoted to Vincent. He not only served her breakfast in bed- he also vacated the bedroom whenever Vincent needed to entertain lovers of either sex.

The study, where Vincent was not to be disturbed

 The tiny bedroom to which Eugen was banished when 
Vincent's lovers came to call

Vincent's poetry, which followed traditional rhyme and meter in contrast to Eliot, Pound, Auden and the other poets of her era, was popular and she made frequent tours promoting her books and giving readings. Eugen and the servants continued to wait on her until he died in 1949.  Vincent was lost without her devoted spouse and evidently her drinking and drug use, always a problem, increased.  In 1950, while climbing the narrow staircase with a glass of wine in hand, Vincent fell to her death.

 The fatal staircase: The rung on far right broke as Vincent grabbed 
for it before tumbling to her death

Following Vincent's death, her sister Nora Millay Ellis and her husband continued Eugen's tradition of devotion to Vincent, or in this case to her memory. They kept the house unchanged for the next quarter century. On Nora's death, Vincent's youngest sister Norma donated the property to the Millay Society, whose volunteers  set about the challenging task of restoring the house and grounds. The sisters also donated 250 acres to the adjacent Millay Colony for the Arts, a retreat for artists.

A quarter mile up the road from Steepletop can be found the Millay Poetry Trail, which leads a half mile through the forest to the graves of Vincent and Eugen.

 A few of her poems:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)  

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, 
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain 
Under my head till morning; but the rain 
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 
Upon the glass and listen for reply, 
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain 
For unremembered lads that not again 
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, 
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, 
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: 
I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 
I only know that summer sang in me 
A little while, that in me sings no more.


She is neither pink nor pale,
        And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
        And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
        In the sun `tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
        Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can, 
        And her ways to my ways resign; 
But she was not made for any man, 
        And she never will be all mine.

I shall forget you presently, my dear

    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 favourite vow.
    I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
    And oaths 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.
Public tours

of Steepletop will be available Fri - Mon at 11:30, 12:30, 2:30 and 3:30. Each tour is limited to six people so call ahead: 518-392-3362. The Millay Poetry Trail is always open.

For more on Vincent's life, the best source is the 2001 biography, Savage Beauty by  Nancy Milford.