Brain Pickings

How Much Edna St. Vincent Millay Loved Her Mother

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“Almost all people love their mothers, but I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most extraordinary creative icons of the twentieth century — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, delinquent schoolgirl, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits, literary gateway drug for children, the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, only the third woman to win the award. But one of Millay’s most exceptional qualities is the rare relationship she shared with her mother, Cora B. Millay, whom Edna loved profoundly enough to make any daughter jealous of this deep bond and whom she frequently addressed with terms borrowed from the vocabulary of romance — “dear,” “dearest,” “sweetheart,” and even “my Best Beloved” — to imbue this great platonic union with the intensity, if not the nature, of romantic passion.

In a letter from June 15, 1921, found in the altogether wonderful The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), 29-year-old Edna — who customarily signed her letters to her loved ones as “Vincent,” an oft-discussed preference in the context of her open bisexuality — writes to her mother and two sisters from Paris:

I am always button-holing somebody and saying, “Someday you must meet my mother.” … I do love you very much, my mother.

* * *

It is nearly six months since I saw you. A long time. Mother, do you know, almost all people love their mothers, but I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you. I don’t believe there ever was anybody who did, quite so much, and quite in so many wonderful ways. I was telling somebody yesterday that the reason I am a poet is entirely because you wanted me to be and intended I should be, even from the very first. You brought me up in the tradition of poetry, and everything I did you encouraged. I can not remember once in my life when you were not interested in what I was working on, or even suggested that I should put it aside for something else. Some parents of children that are “different” have so much to reproach themselves with. But not you, Great Spirit.

I hope you will write me as soon as you get this. If you only knew what it means to me to get letters from any of you three over there. Because no matter how interesting it all is, and how beautiful, and how happy I am, an dhow much work I get done, I am nevertheless away from home — home being somewhere near where you are, mother dear.

If I didn’t keep calling you mother, anybody reading this would think I was writing to my sweetheart. And he would be quite right.

The following month, on July 23, Edna sends another loving letter to Cora:

Dearest Mother, —

You do write the sweetest and most wonderful letters! They are so lovely that very often I read parts of them aloud to people, just as literature. It was delicious what you told me about the turtle, — you are so gentle and kind to everything, dear — and all the things you write about birds and animals I love. Thanks for the little flower. I never saw one like it, either.

[…]

And, sweetheart, how would you like, in place of the birthday present I did not send you from the 10th of June, sometime in the late fall or winter, depending on how much money I can make between now and then, to come over here, and play around with your eldest daughter a while in Europe? We could go to Italy and Switzerland and to England and Scotland, and, if there are not too many riots and street fights there at the time, — mavourneen, we would go to Ireland! … and then, my Best Beloved, you and I will just have ourselves a little honey-moon.

With all the love of my heart,

Vincent

Millay adds a charmingly self-aware postscript:

P.S. — Do you suppose, when you & I are dead, dear, they will publish the Love Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay & her Mother?

As an aside, as fantastic as The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay may be in its entirety, it is hard to decide what’s more tragic — that this magnificent volume is long out of print, or that it bears one of the most hideous covers ever designed, belying the spirit of such a beautiful woman and beautiful poet to a degree bordering on travesty. Please oh please, dear overlords of publishing, won’t you consider reprinting this gem and having someone like Chip Kidd, Jessica Hische, or Coralie Bickford-Smith design a fittingly glorious cover?

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