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A Garden of Verses

Up the hill, the pines that Edna planted around the writing cabin to remind her of a Maine childhood have also grown too big. Bergman opens the cabin itself to reveal another time-warp moment. A plain cedar structure, it measures just 10 feet by 17 feet and contains a wood-burning stove, two lamps, two small desks and chairs, and sheaves of notepaper placed there by the poet. The air is dank. Edna's alarm clock, white with green hands, sits on one of the desks. It has stopped at 3:15.

Her normal routine, Bergman said, was to have breakfast in bed, then work in bed for a while. Get up, do some gardening, take lunch and then retire to the cabin in the afternoon. She would set the alarm clock for so many hours, and then work until it rang.

In this shack, she would write such works as "Fatal Interview," her collection of sonnets inspired by her affair with the young poet George Dillon. "The scar of this encounter like a sword/Will lie between me and my troubled lord."

"Mine the Harvest," a collection published posthumously, was penned in this cabin, as was "The Murder of Lidice." Bergman said this work, more than any other, damaged Millay's reputation and led to her physical decline. The subject of a current exhibition in the barn, the poem was written in 1942 with Europe under Hilter's jackboot. In Czechoslovakia, a brutal SS general was assassinated, and in retaliation the Nazis razed the village of Lidice and killed or interned its entire population.

The poem appeared in Life magazine, and as a book, and was performed in radio broadcasts that went to Europe and South America. A recording was made. But for all its popular appeal, critics and other prominent poets sniped that she cheapened her art for propaganda purposes. She later wrote to Edmund Wilson to tell him it was bad poetry and had caused her a breakdown.

By the end of her career, Millay's rhyming poetry seemed old hat against the modern verse of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and the like.

Poet J.D. McClatchy, who published a book of selected poems by Millay in 2002, wrote that it "is an irony that her detractors, even today, dismiss her work as sentimental, cloying, fusty. In their day, of course, her poems startled readers with their edgy candor."

He added that "two dozen of her poems can stand among the best lyrics of the twentieth century, and all of her work urges re-discovery."

Bergman says her writing has a directness and clarity about it that makes it ageless. "One of the goals we have here is to reintroduce her to the American public," he says, and he is confident that her star will rise again. Not least because of a recent incident.

A man telephoned to ask if he could bring his girlfriend to Steepletop. "She felt she couldn't die without first seeing where Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote," he said. On the appointed date, "there were these kids, he was 24, she was 23, and they were soldiers who had just been assigned to Afghanistan. This is what they wanted to see."


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