Brain Pickings

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Playfully Lewd Self-Portrait

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Poetic amusement from the only woman who can get away with calling Edmund Wilson “Bunny.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay may be one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century and the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, only the third woman to win the award, but she also possessed the rare — especially in literary circles — talent for not taking herself too seriously and knowing how to infuse her craft with the proper dose of playfulness and lighthearted creative revelry. Much of that shines through in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — the terrific out-of-print tome that gave us Millay’s stirring love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison and her lyrical ode to the love of music — but nowhere more brilliantly than in a letter from the summer of 1920.

One evening in July, Millay and two of her friends, poet John Peale Bishop and legendary literary critic Edmund Wilson, at the time managing editor of Vanity Fair, amused themselves by writing poetic self-portraits. Hers bespeaks in equal measures her playful spirit, keen self-awareness, and relaxed acceptance of sensuality, as well as exuding a healthy confidence in the merits of her own naked body:

E. St. V. M.

Hair which she still devoutly trusts is red.
Colorless eyes, employing
A childish wonder
To which they have no statistic
Title.
A large mouth,
Lascivious,
Aceticized by blasphemies.
A long throat,
Which will someday
Be strangled.
Thin arms,
In the summer-time leopard
With freckles.
A small body,
Unexclamatory,
But which,
Were it the fashion to wear no clothes,
Would be as well-dressed
As any.

In an August 3 letter to Wilson — whom she addresses as “Bunny” (a nickname charmingly incongruous with the critic’s famously curmudgeonly literary persona) and who would eventually come to propose to her, only to receive a polite declination — Millay writes of the semi-scandalous verse:

I have thought of you often, Bunny, & wondered if you think of me with bitterness.

My sister is amused & disgusted by my lewd portrait of myself. At her suggestion, which I now feel to be a wise one, I beg you not to circulate it. If you have not shown it to [Vanity Fair editor] Mr. Crowninshield, please don’t. If you have, it doesn’t matter, but do shatter at once, in that case, any illusion he may have as to publishing it.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, though sadly long out of print, is a feast for the heart and mind from cover to cover.

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