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Finding the “scandal” in the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

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22 January 2021

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Finding the “scandal” in the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay

By Laura Klinkon

I have no way of knowing how many translators not only translate a poet’s work, but also publish comments on his or her biography.  It would be natural that the translator, who has become an expert in the linguistic aspect of the original work, might also want to write something about the poet’s life, even if, generally, the biography is not of primary interest to a translator; one would expect the translator’s emphasis to be mostly on the poetry.

Edna St. Vincent Millay at 20 years old in Camden, Maine where she grew up.

Yet, for a translator who also deals with the promotion of a book he or she has translated, the author’s life can become as important as the translated work. This is perhaps particularly the case when the translated work is poetry, not only because it is easier to talk about a life than to discuss poetry, but also because, from the point of view of promotion, biography has the potential to attract a wider audience.

Therefore, it would seem that biography is the emphasis required, with the poetry or the translation thereof discussed only secondarily.  Yet, at times there seems to be a need for something more. Perhaps something spicy to leave the audience agape, as it were.  The reasoning is that the wider potential readers open their mouths, the more likely it is, they will open their wallets. But one might ask: if truly open-mouthed, can the reader properly appreciate the poetry?

I became interested in this problem first of all because I had just published my second bilingual volume of sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay and, to introduce first one and then the other, I had done some research on the author’s life. I was happy to find two American biographies, one more authoritative and complete, the other less detailed but very readable with additional information released later. I also found a few articles that talked about Millay’s art. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion—unlike others for whom biographical information may even be central—that the poet’s life shouldn’t matter as much as the poetry itself.  From my standpoint, if the poet’s work is not of central importance, why does his or her biography matter at all?  We must at least try to equalize the importance of the biography with respect to the work.

Actually, I began thinking more about this problem when, simultaneous with the publication of my second book, I noticed two articles, precisely on Millay, in which the titles emphasize her life by drawing attention to its “scandalousness,” which the article bases mainly on the poet’s alleged bisexuality. We know that, even after millennia—and more than a hundred years after Millay’s first publications—bisexuality remains a bit scandalous (in 1920, probably a bit more than now).  But the articles I read did not at all explain what this “bisexuality” had to do with Millay’s poems.

My volumes of Millay’s sonnets both have love as their subject, and, except perhaps in one poem, they do not allude to bisexuality. I don’t mean that there were no episodes in Millay’s life that were or could be seen as lesbian, but even according to the biographical accounts of the said articles, experiences of this kind mostly occurred in the poet’s youth. The author and interviewee of the articles, who is also a translator of Millay’s poems, points to the university period of her life as the one in which these trends arose. I am not saying that there is no trace of this element in the biographies I have read; indeed there would have been another, earlier occasion. Yet love between women may leave considerable room for interpretation. During the first alleged relationship with a friend, for example, both fell in love with a boy they met regularly at a community dance. In the said articles, I also noticed some information that didn’t seem correct. When Millay entered college at Vassar, she was no longer a virgin. The author of the article forgot about a pre-university relationship with a man older than she, a relative of one of her publishers.

In addition I noticed that some information was obviously not mentioned and some, distorted. From the age of twelve to eighteen Millay was very often left at home alone to care for two younger sisters while her mother worked as an itinerant private nurse. They were very poor; the cold of Maine was extreme; typhoid was a danger, and one of her sisters contracted polio; Millay herself had suffered early on from an intestinal disease, so much so that on her wedding day, the groom had to immediately whisk her off to the hospital. But this kind of information is perhaps too trivial to have an effect on publicity.

In any case, one could still wonder whether her “bisexuality” entered her poems. As readers of her sonnets, we note only that they deal with love.

My first volume—The Silent Lire/La Lira Silente, a selection from the early sonnets of Millay published between her twentieth and thirtieth birthdays, and my second volume, Sonnets from Fatal Interview/ Sonetti da Colloquio Fatale, from a sequence written between her thirty-sixth and thirty-ninth year—have nothing to do with bisexuality. Among the sixty-six sonnets I have translated, only one of the early group,  could possibly hint at a female liaison.  Hence, I don’t see this element as expressed in her poems.

Of scandal, on the other hand, in the sense of going against convention, of course there is. Fatal Interview, for example, was written by Millay while, as a married woman, she was courting a recent college graduate, a man much younger than she, who was disappointingly reluctant as a lover.  A scandal could certainly be identified here, were it not that her husband, believing in free love and the emancipation of women, was not entirely against it.  In this collection, the sonnets always describe a single love, replete, like many others, with difficulties.

Her life during the period of her early sonnets could also be said to be scandalous—not so much for bisexuality but for the many affairs she engaged in with an attitude of independence and challenge against traditional roles. We mustn’t forget that Millay began her career in the early twentieth century when women were fighting for equality with men in various areas, including sexual freedom. What we read in Millay’s sonnets of this period are her reactions to various love affairs—what she observes, feels, thinks about her relationships, what she prefers and requires of them; we especially note her determination to make herself a paragon of modern female love. Instead of bisexuality, there is a nonconformity with regard to traditional and conventional ideas about love. It is my conclusion, then, that the articles I read, establish no real connection between Millay’s life and the meaning of her poems.

Here I add some early sonnets and their translations as they appear in my first volume. I invite the reader to try to understand if there is a “scandal” in these sonnets and what it may be about.

From The Silent Lyre/La Lira Silente: Early Sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay/Primi Sonetti di Edna St. Vincent Millay
Mindful of you the sodden earth in spring,
And all the flowers that in the springtime grow,
And dusty roads, and thistles, and the slow
Rising of the round moon, all throats that sing
The summer through, and each departing wing,
And all the nests that the bared branches show,
And all winds that in any weather blow,
And all the storms that the four seasons bring.
You go no more on your exultant feet
Up paths that only mist and morning knew,
Or watch the wind, or listen to the beat
Of a bird’s wings too high in air to view,—
But you were something more than young and sweet
And fair,—and the long year remembers you.

Memore di te la terra acquosa di primavera,
E tutti i fiori che in primavera crescono,
E le strade polverose, i cardi, il lento
Spuntar di luna piena, le gole che cantano
L’estate intera, e ogni ala in partenza,
E tutti i nidi scoperti fra rami nudi,
E tutti i venti che in ogni tempo soffiano,
E tutte le tempeste che le quattro stagioni portano.
Tu non vai più col tuo passo gioioso
Per sentieri che conoscevano solo foschia e mattino;
E neppure segui il vento, né ascolti il battito
Delle ali di un uccello troppo in alto per vedere,—
Ma tu eri qualcosa di più che giovane e dolce
E bello,—e il lungo anno ti ricorda.

—–  —–  —–  —–  —–  —–

I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year;
And you must welcome from another part
Such noble moods as are not mine, my dear.
No gracious weight of golden fruits to sell
Have I, nor any wise and wintry thing;
And I have loved you all too long and well
To carry still the high sweet breast of Spring.
Wherefore I say: O love, as summer goes,
I must be gone, steal forth with silent drums,
That you may hail anew the bird and rose
When I come back to you, as summer comes.
Else will you seek, at some not distant time,
Even your summer in another clime.

Lo so che sono soltanto estate per il tuo cuore,
E non tutte le quattro stagioni dell’anno;
E tu devi accogliere da un’altra parte
Arie nobili che non mi appartengono, caro mio.
Nessun grazioso peso di frutta d’oro da vendere
Tengo io, né altra cosa savia e invernale;
E io t’ho amato troppo a lungo e bene
Da portare ancora l’alto e dolce seno di Primavera.
Per cui dico: Amore, come passa l’estate,
Devo io partire, sgusciando via con tamburi silenziosi,
Così tu possa salutar l’uccello e le rose di nuovo
Quando torno io da te, come torna l’estate.
Sennò cercherai, in un tempo non lontano,
Anche la tua estate in un altro clima.

—–  —–  —–  —–  —–  —–

Once more into my arid days like dew,
Like wind from an oasis, or the sound
Of cold sweet water bubbling underground,
A treacherous messenger, the thought of you
Comes to destroy me; once more I renew
Firm faith in your abundance, whom I found
Long since to be but just one other mound
Of sand, whereon no green thing ever grew.
And once again, and wiser in no wise,
I chase your colored phantom on the air,
And sob and curse and fall and weep and rise
And stumble pitifully on to where,
Miserable and lost, with stinging eyes,
Once more I clasp,—and there is nothing there.

Ancora una volta nei miei giorni aridi, come rugiada,
O come vento da un’ oasi, oppure come il suono
Di dolce acqua fredda gorgogliando sotto terra,
Un nunzio infido, il pensiero di te
Viene per distruggermi; ancora una volta rinnovo
Ferma fede nella tua pienezza, di cui ho trovato
Già da tempo ch’era solo una massa qualunque
Di sabbia, su cui nessun verde crebbe mai.
Ma di nuovo, in nessun modo più saggia,
Vado a caccia del tuo fantasma colorito nell’aria,
E piango e giuro e cado e gemo e mi alzo
E traballo pateticamente fino a che,
Misera e sperduta, con occhi brucianti,
Ancora una volta mi aggrappo,—e non c’è nulla.

—–  —–  —–  —–  —–  —–

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you—think not but I would!—
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.

Oh, non pensare ch’io sia fedele a un voto!
Sleale sono io, fuorché all’amore stesso.
Se tu non fossi amabile, ti lascerei adesso:
Appresso i piedi della bellezza volano i miei.
Se tu non fossi ancora il cibo più raro della mia fame,
E l’acqua assoluta per la mia sete più selvaggia,
Ti lascierei—non dubitare che non lo farei!—
E cercherei un altro come avevo prima cercato te.
Ma tu sei mobile come l’aria sbandata,
E tutti i tuoi vezzi più mossi che la marea,
Per cui l’essere incostante non dà fastidio:
Devo soltanto rimanere al tuo lato.
Tanto volubile, leggero e falso, amore mio, sei tu,
Sono più sleale, quando fedele sono di più.

—–  —–  —–  —–  —–  —–

Laura (DiLiberto) Klinkon is Italian-American, a graduate in languages ​​and literature from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the American University in Washington, D.C.  Having worked in the editing and translation fields, she retired in 2004, devoting herself to poetry and writing.  From 2013 to 2018 she published a volume of her own poems and two chapbooks. In 2018 her first bilingual collection of sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Silent Lyre / La Lira Silente was released, and in 2020, the second volume, Sonnets from Fatal Interview / Sonnets from Colloquio Fatale.

The Italian version of the present article appeared January 4, 2021 in Atelier Poesia Online  http://www.atelierpoesia.it/cercando-lo-scandalo-nei-sonetti-di-edna-st-vincent-millay-nota-e-traduzione-di-laura-klinkon/ 

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s photograph and sonnets are translated and republished with the kind permission of Holly Peppe, Literary Executor, The Millay Society (millay.org).

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