jeannineatkins (jeannineatkins) wrote,

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 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!

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Tags: poetry friday, writer's homes
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