Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 8, 2010

Steepletop: A Visit to the Home of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay

I wanted to visit the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), which just opened to the public this spring, in Austerlitz, New York partly because I admire her sonnets — “I would put chaos in fourteen lines” – and her long poem Renascence was one I remember reading in high school, and then lying on my back on grass to see if I could get as close to the sky as the speaker. Okay, I was kind of a hippy girl. I also was intrigued by the story of how Steepletop http://www.millay.org/ was preserved. After the poet, who was called Vincent by friends and family, died after falling down the stairs, presumably an accident after drinking too much, the house was kept by her sister, Norma, who lived there for 36 years, making room for herself without disturbing much. Norma hung her own clothes from the shower curtain rod over the bathtub, while leaving Vincent’s in the closet, and found room for her own perfumes, hairpins, and antacids among Vincent’s left on the dressing table and sink. Visitors don’t get to see everything, because restoration efforts are still in place, but what’s to be seen in the bedroom, adjoining bath, library, and writing cottage are pretty much as they were left.

We saw the room where Vincent corresponded and edited. The library is filled with dictionaries, classics, the Bible and the Koran, French murder mysteries, along with images of Shelly, Sappho and Robinson Jeffers. A stenciled sign saying “Silence” hangs from the ceiling, though our docent, Peg, said that Vincent didn’t allow others to use the room. (and on the way home, this was one of the statements that got my husband and me wondering about personal history. I mean how do you know no one came in? Was just a sister barred, or did the myth come down from one evening, then generalized as decades passed and memory perhaps did its warping thing? Who knows?)

The garden tour was given by director Peter Bergman, who showed us around the farm where Vincent and her husband grew blueberries, cherries, apples, and wheat, and raised chickens and cows: during WWII, they sold butter to the armed forces. The thirteen “rooms” to the garden mimic the thirteen rooms in the house. Vincent apparently enjoyed eating lunch on a card table among lilies of the valley, even when they were covered with snow. Lupines, irises, and day lilies aren’t blooming now, but you could see their stalks along the path to the writing cabin, which was my favorite place.

It’s austere, with unpainted walls and not much more than a woodstove, a wooden chair and two tables: one to write on, and one with pencil sharpener for snacks. And an alarm clock. Vincent wrote for three and a half hours each day if she had company, and four if she didn’t. The cabin was modeled on one she’d seen when visiting George Bernard Shaw in the Cotswalds. (though his was set on a turntable cranked so he’d always get the sun.) Thirty-one pine trees were planted around Vincent’s cabin, which her mother had dug up, I think, as saplings, and which Vincent and her sister went to Maine to fetch. Later they added some Maine flowers, so that Vincent could feel as if she were back home as she wrote.

My husband and I walked through the woods to the gravesites of Vincent and her husband, her sister Norma and her husband, and her beloved mother, who raised three girls to think hard and write well, and whose stone is surrounded by mountain laurel. I broke off a stalk from another bush to put on Vincent’s grave.

Then I came home and read “Renasence” again, which was written when the poet was nineteen, and won her a scholarship to Vassar. Here are just a few lines from the poem, which I still find wonderful, even if they’re better in the six page or so context.

But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I’ll lie
And look my fill into the sky.

And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And – sure enough! – I see the top!

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit: http://carolwscorner.blogspot.com/2010/10/poetry-friday.html

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Responses

  1. A turntable to follow the sun! Oooh, that sounds lovely. What a remarkable invention. *covets*
    However, I’m not so sure I’d want a little writing cabin in the woods. It feels a bit isolating. From this vantage point, anyway. Maybe I’d feel differently, were I to actually try writing there for awhile. And hmmm, imagine how much more productive we’d all be, without our electronic distractions. Tradeoffs.
    Thanks for inviting us to join your trek!

  2. Oh, lovely! Both the setting and the poetry.

  3. “However, I’m not so sure I’d want a little writing cabin in the woods. It feels a bit isolating. From this vantage point, anyway.”
    It may sound a bit more isolated than it actually is, given that the writing cabin was no more than one hundred feet from Millay’s house. And inasmuch as the cabin had no plumbing (and thus no bathroom), I suspect Edna probably made regular trips back and forth, even when in the deep throes of creativity.
    Also, as Jeannine pointed out, the cabin was VERY spare in its furnishings, and probably served quite well as a place to go when the smallest number of distracting things was desired… even though that tiny writing space was but a hop, skip and a jump away from the comforts of the main house.
    One of the things I found most evocative was the concrete, spring-fed swimming pool, now sadly in a state of disrepair, surrounded by the remains of a screening shield of Arborvitae. I’m not sure if I totally believe the guide’s tales of Millay’s alleged “Nudity required beyond this point!” commandments, but it was probably a beautiful spot to swim — bathing suit or no — and look up at the trees and sky. — PL

  4. The sun and silence sound wonderful! A chair and two tables is just about right for me too. I love that section of Renascence. Thanks for sharing today!

  5. Jeannine, You have a delightful way of bringing us all along on a Poetry Friday field trip! Thank you. This one was haunting and beautiful, both. My grandmother loved “Vincent”, and I do too. I look forward to making this trip from upstate NY one day too… A.

  6. Thanks so much for taking us along with you. I didn’t know the house was open, but a few of her (shorter) poems are some of the earliest I ever memorized, and they stay with me still.
    I read Milford’s biography of her a year or two ago — such a bittersweet life.

  7. Thanks for the field trip notes! Haven’t read Vincent’s work in quite awhile, but of course now you’ve whetted my appetite. It’s always fascinating to see where artists and writers work, isn’t it? Enjoyed Peter’s comments, too :).

  8. Millay in Austerlitz
    Rules were rules once upon a time and Vincent made rules to suit her purposes. The no-clothes rule at the pool was totally real and no one who swam there, in very cold water, ever complained loudly for there, next to the visitor, was the poet herself.
    Every poet, even those who don’t know, or like, or appreciate Millay, should visit here for the inspiration that comes with this place. The approach to her cabin that we use is not hers, but you do wander through the inspiring, hardy garden that she used as her road, so you feel and see what she did en route to that not so isolated spot of quietude and creativity.
    We are open through Monday October 18 but poets are always welcome. Just call ahead to 518-392-EDNA.
    Peter Bergman

  9. That GBS was clever. I just try to follow the sun from window to window. I think Vincent really felt the push-pull of solitude necessary to write and company, which motivated her to move from Greenwich Village to the Berkshires. But she was in a pretty direct line to NYC and had a guest house to lure people to.

  10. Thanks for stopping by to New England, Rose!

  11. Sun, silence, a wooden table and chair: sometimes that does it. Thanks for reading!

  12. That’s so great your grandmother and you share that interest. It’s a very short way off the Rt 90/Mass Pike exit, and when you get there maybe the living room and kitchen will be ready for the public, too. I know you’ll be inspired.
    And I’m looking forward to seeing you in Minneapolis soon!

  13. The house just opened this year, Amy, and the director seems knowledgeable, energetic, and ambitious: a lot is happening. Yes, a bittersweet life. I liked standing in the writing cabin, feeling that with all the other drama, this is where it happened: writing lines, crossing them out: we were told some of her poems took twenty years to write.

  14. Yes, there’s something about those tables and windows that makes you breathe deep and want to get back to their work. And, yes, not to mention a dip in the spring-fed pool, with a mahogany bar across the way.

  15. Re: Millay in Austerlitz
    Peter, thank you for the warm welcome, inspiring tour, and being a fount of knowledge. And what a generous invitation to poets — most of whom I suspect aren’t used to such!


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