by Thomas Hill
Give away her gowns,
Give away her shoes;
She has no more use
For her fragrant gowns;
Take them all down,
Blue, green, blue,
Lilac, pink, blue,
From their padded hangers;
She will dance no more
In her narrow shoes;
Sweep her narrow shoes
From the closet floor.1
What drives us to preserve and make public the material leavings of the illustrious departed, the private rooms and personal effects of their once-lived lives? Is this sentimental and so tellingly human behavior useful? Is it commendable, or even healthy? In the case of an artist, can the things and places we venerate through their connection with their esteemed owners tell us anything of value about those owners and their work? And if of scant documentary use as common things, might these objects and spaces have other talismanic or reliquary value: as ritual loci, perhaps, of commemoration and cultural communion? And granting this, at what point does our fascination with these desire-soaked objects become exploitative and voyeuristic? “What would she think of this, were she not beyond caring?” one asks oneself. “Have the dead no right to privacy?”
Exhibited behind glass in Vassar’s Thompson and Art Libraries, these objects once possessed by Edna St. Vincent Millay have undergone a double objectification: when they were removed to Vassar for display from their places at Millay’s home at Steepletop; and more fundamentally in the ongoing process of the transformation of that home into a museum. This process began at the moment of Millay’s death in 1950 and was carried out devotedly over an expanse of years by her sister Norma, who inhabited the house until her own death in 1986, and who maintained the home and its objects as Vincent had lived in it in a kind of temporal stasis.
Of course one may describe a poet as a person who is able to shape the private, interior experiences of a life into a public object: a published poem. And, as Martin Heidegger observed in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” an essay seminal to our reflections here, as the artist produces the artwork, so the work produces the artist.2 Each is a condition and support of the other. Millay certainly understood the importance for her poetry of her objectification, and crafted her public image shrewdly and with stunning effect throughout her lifetime. That Millay’s self-definition as both a poet and a woman are linked is something she was conscious of at least as early as her correspondence with Ferdinand Earle, an editor for The Lyric Year, concerning her submission of her poem “Renascence” in that publication’s competition for a thousand-dollar prize. At the very beginning of her career, the young Millay is aware she must be strategic in her dealings with a male-dominated literary world. Having submitted the poem under the name E. Vincent Millay, when she receives Earle’s letter, with the salutation “Dear Sir,” informing her that her poem has been accepted for publication as one of the best one hundred entries in the contest, she replies with a bold and somewhat teasing letter in which she reveals both the ruse and her gender in a way calculated to intrigue: “It may astonish you to learn that I am no ‘Esquire’ at all, nor even a plain ‘Mister’: in fact that I am just an aspiring ‘Miss’ of twenty.”3 In answer to the letter’s request for a statement of her “characteristics,” she responds by including a photograph of herself and a self-description that begins:
If I were a noted author you would perhaps be interested to know that I have red hair, am five feet-four inches in height, and weigh just one hundred pounds; that I can climb fences in snowshoes, am a good walker, and make excellent rarebits. And if I were a noted author I should not hesitate to tell you … that I play the piano; — Grieg with more expression than is aesthetic, Bach with more enjoyment than is consistent, and rag-time with more frequency than is desired.
Earle, who because of the conditions of the contest remains anonymous to Millay, is indeed intrigued and, while not the arbiter of the contest himself, is drawn into a lengthy correspondence.
The persona Millay will go on to construct in her poetry is still an important aspect of the image she is remembered by: that of a fast-living, sexually liberated woman of talent in control of her own life and body. In poems such as “Only until this cigarette is ended,” and “I shall forget you presently, my dear,” “I being born of woman,” and “Passer Mortuus Est,” she asserts her subjectivity by indicating a willingness to use and dispose of her sexual partners. Yet this image does not do full justice to her poetry or her persona, which, if unfettered by sexual convention, is neither hard-bitten nor wholly cavalier. In poems such as “Witch-Wife,” “Song of a Second April,” “The Philosopher,” “The Betrothal,” “Pity me not, because the light of day,” and “What my lips have kissed, and where and why,” Millay presents herself and her partners as beings mutually humbled by absence and loss in the pull and tug of the politics of desire and possession:
This have I known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
A prevailing concern of a growing body of recent writing on objects in art and philosophy has to do with the limits of our understanding of the work of art, and the world, when we approach a thing as a subject regarding an object.4 Drawing much on Heidegger’s insights in the aforementioned essay, contemporary thing theory seeks to liberate objects from their objectification, which is to simultaneously free subjects from the burden and violence of subjectivity, through appeal to a notion of the “thing,” which is prior to the subject/object axis. For Heidegger, things as such resist representation and use. Works of art are exemplary instances of the thingly object’s ability to evade reduction and appropriation. We share with things, and with works of art in particular, a dynamic web of significant relations that constitute the “world” of our historical and cultural existence. This world differs from the hidden substrate of nature out of which these things arise, which Heidegger calls “earth.” The world is “self-opening” and the earth “sheltering and concealing.”5 The work of art, in “setting up a world and setting forth the earth,” is able to reveal the truth of things in the tension between them. The work of art, as an exemplary thing, at its best sets forth the strife between world and earth in a kind of balance or “repose” that opens up a space in which truth, the “unconcealedness of beings as a whole,” is won. The open space of art, and of poetry in particular, is a place where both world and earth are at home, where the world grounds itself in the earth.
Millay’s poetic exploration of the object, including her own selfhood, is saturated with the earth: with nature and its cycles and seasons, and with its resistance to representation and appropriation. “Renascence” itself, that first major poem which played so critical a role in her becoming a poet, can be read as a work about this very coming into being: about the poet’s transition from a life in which she experiences herself and the world as mutually reductive and objectified, to a new life in which she is called up plant-like out of the earth as a being receptive to the radiance of revealed Being, in the space between earth and the world, closure and disclosure, that art has cleared for her:
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e’er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat — the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.
The initial movement of this poem portrays such a caving-in, and reads as a rendering of the act of objectification itself. In it, Millay imagines herself in a Cartesian scene of geometric perspective dominated by vision, line, number, and definition, in which she and the world are diminished as the world is translated into an object she feels she can grasp with her hand:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see:
These were the things that bounded me.
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand!
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
In one of her most poignant poems, “Interim,” which won first place in Vassar’s Miscellany Prize of 1914, Millay grapples with the image as a mode of representation. Originally published with epigraphs, “A Man Speaks” and “The Widower Speaks,” the long poem is ostensibly about a man’s grief over the death of his wife. In it Millay conveys a remarkable sense of loss and trauma as the griever contemplates the things in their changed home and struggles to come to terms with the confusion of his loss through language, first in a line spoken, and then written:
Strange how few,
After all’s said and done, the things that are
Of moment. Few indeed! When I can make
Of ten small words a rope to hang the world!
“I had you and I have you now no more.”
There, there it dangles, —where’s the little truth
That can for long keep footing under that
When its slack syllables tighten to a thought?
Here, let me write it down! I wish to see
Just how a thing like that will look on paper!
“I had you and I have you now no more!”
O little words, how can you run so straight
Across the page, beneath the weight you bear?
How can you fall apart, whom such a theme
Has bound together, and hereafter aid
In trivial expression, that have been
So hideously dignified?—
That tearing you apart would tear the thread
I strung you on! Would God — O God, my mind
Stretches asunder on this merciless rack
Of imagery! O let me sleep a while!
The inadequacy of the linguistic image to illuminate loss becomes more explicit as the world collapses into meaninglessness:
Dark, Dark, is all I find for metaphor;
All else were contrast; —save that contrast’s wall
Is down and all opposed things flow together
Into a vast monotony, where night
And day, and frost and thaw, and death and life,
In distinction, the handwriting described earlier in the poem, left in an open notebook by the lost beloved, tells of a participatory engagement with earth and world, in its materiality and subject matter, as well as in the griever’s
inability to understand the presence that the writing and other household things — an open book, a chair — yet imply:
And here are the last words your fingers wrote,
Scrawled in broad characters across a page
In this brown book I gave you. Here your hand,
Guiding your rapid pen, moved up and down.
Here with a looping knot you crossed a “t,”
And here another like it, just beyond
These two eccentric “e’s.”
. . .
There is a dignity some might not see
In this, “I picked the first sweet-pea to-day.”
To-day! Was there an opening bud beside it
You left until to-morrow?
For Millay, the physicality of sound is a privileged means for evoking the truth of things, including absences. We find this in the music of her poetry itself, of course, which she loved to perform. It is also figured in the “Elegy” section of “Memorial to D.C.,” a series of poems written for her Vassar schoolmate Dorothy Coleman, who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic:
But the music of your talk
Never shall the chemistry
Of the secret earth restore.
All your lovely words are spoken.
Once the ivory box is broken,
Beats the golden bird no more.
In “Wraith,” like “Interim” a poem about a house and a departed inhabitant, Millay suggests an intuitive connection with the memory of the house through the sound of earthly rain:
“Thin rain, whom are you haunting,
That you haunt my door?”
Surely it is not I she’s wanting;
Someone living here before
“Nobody’s in the house but me:
You may come in if you like and see.”
The poem sets up a doubly uncanny collusion of absence and presence, broken by time, as the imagined wraith and the house’s current inhabitant seem to wonder about the presence and identity of the other:
“Thin rain, hush with your knocking!
You may not come in!
This is I that you hear rocking;
Nobody’s with me, nor has been!”
Curious how she tried the window,—
Odd, the way she tries the door,—
Wonder just what sort of people
Could have had this house before . . .
Can a house as a world of things tell of its former inhabitants? Reading the first lines of “Interim,” one might conclude that Millay would have answered, “Yes, at least for some”:
The room is full of you! —As I came in
And closed the door behind me, all at once
A something in the air, intangible,
Yet stiff with meaning, struck my senses sick!—
For Norma, who for nearly 36 years kept Steepletop and its things as Vincent had left them, and for others who knew the poet and her home, poems like her “Interim” and “Wraith” surely must have resonated. Norma’s devotion to her sister’s house and things, and the care with which she preserved them so that others might indeed also know in some way her sister, perhaps gives us our best clue toward an answer to the questions posed at the beginning of these reflections. In seeking an authentic way to relate to objects, even the most ordinary objects, as things deserving to be allowed to disclose themselves to us, we can begin by acknowledging their place and agency in the world that they share and help to create for us, as well as their connection to the earth that is our common source and destiny. Surely an important way we participate in the world of a thing is by caring for it. Curation, then, in the pure sense of the term, becomes a mode of being. In this way our treatment of works of art is exemplary.6
As a matter of curatorship and in context of this discussion, the whole present endeavor at Steepletop, which includes considerable attention to the cultivation and preservation of the surrounding landscape, fields, and gardens, expresses a curatorial impulse that is as invested in the earth the poet drew from as it is in the world she left there.
Of course none of these things would have been held and preserved were it not for Millay’s poetry. In this regard, today’s Steepletop, its things, and those who labor to care for them, are a consequence of this poetry, are part of the world her artwork yet discloses, even as it continues to disclose Vincent herself. It is in effect a kind of reading space to which every receptive visitor contributes.
Art, as the setting-into-work of truth, is poetry. Not only the creation of the work is poetic, but equally poetic, though in its own way, is the preserving of the work; for a work is in actual effect as a work only when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work, so as to bring our own essential nature itself to take a stand in the truth of beings.7
One final word. Vincent herself was an avid collector and caretaker of natural specimens. Striking among her collectables, stored and on display like rare china in two corner cabinets in her dining room, one sorted by kind and size and the other unsorted and filled almost to overflowing, are a trove of sea shells she collected as souvenirs of her various stays at the seashore. There is something especially telling, and touching, about this plethora of quintessential thingly objects. For one, Norma kept them exactly as Vincent left them in their places on the shelves, as do the present caretakers. Second, they are of no material value in the usual sense of the term: they are mostly ordinary shells that are as numerous in the world, one might say, as the stones in the sea. They cannot really be owned. They are the kind of things a child might collect and value, astonished at the richness of nature. Whether they had special value for Vincent and Norma as tokens of a materially impoverished yet imaginatively enchanted childhood in their mother’s home on the coast of Maine, or whether they speak of the poet’s fierce attachment to the things of the earth, they surely tell of a care for things for their own sake.
1. These lines, entitled “Chorus,” are Part III of the poem series “Memorial to D.C.,” which appears in Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay: An Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2016), the source for all the poems cited or quoted in this essay.
2. Martin Heidegger Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The
Task of Thinking (1964), ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper &
Row, 1976), p. 149.
3. Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (New York: Random House, 2002), p. 64.
4. See, for instance, two recent anthologies: The Object, ed. Antony Hudek (Cambridge, Mass.: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 2014); The Object Reader, Ed. Fiona Candlin, Raiford Guins (New York: Routledge, 2009).
5. See the discussion beginning in Heidegger, p. 172.
6. See, for instance, Dieter Roelstraete, “Art as Object Attachments: Thoughts on Thingness,” in The Object, p. 65:
In seeking truly to think the thing, and to reclaim the concept of thingness, hence also the thing in and of itself, from the various reductions it has had to endure, we are in fact attempting a rescue operation of sorts; that is, we aspire to restore the thing to its former wholeness and position of enigmatic centrality to our everyday experience of the world (which is a world of things first and foremost); we are thinking that world whole again. And if works of art, to name but one example, are among the things we care about most in this world (hence also the mystery of sheer value that is so puzzlingly incarnated by the work of art: through what magic is value bestowed on things?), then surely there must be an ethical impulse at play here (i.e., in our caring for works of art) that could be put to bettering use in other, more mundane domains and aspects of our daily dealing with the “world of things.”
7. Heidegger, p. 186.