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Millay and the Magnolia Tree

Buds last week, flowers this week, gone next week.

It’s that blooming, buoyant, too-brief time of year again, when flowers abound – particularly, this week, the fragrant pink flowers of the saucer magnolia.

It was among the branches of just such a tree that a young poet posed for portraits that would become famous. Quintessentially “poetic,” the images of Edna St. Vincent Millay are immensely alluring.

Photo by Arnold Genthe, from the Library of Congress.


They’re somewhat misleading, too, says an expert on the poet. “Here she looks demure, sweet and fragile. But there was much more to Millay than that, even at age 22,” said Holly Peppe, literary executor at the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society (who gave this talk for GVSHP last summer). “She was witty, brilliant, and quite sophisticated. She was at Vassar at the time, and well known for her independent spirit and dislike of authority.”

Millay (1892-1950), who lived in Greenwich Village for part of her adult life, was considered irresistible by many, including her early publisher, Mitchell Kennerley. He arranged for the leading portraitist of the time, Arnold Genthe, to photograph Millay in his city studio. Those photos were subsequently lost, but it was Genthe who created these famous shots of Millay outside Kennerley’s Westchester County home in 1914.

Millay would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and a lasting place in the hearts of many poetry lovers. Because she is so strongly associated with the Village (her middle name is after St. Vincent’s Hospital, where her uncle’s life was saved, and she lived in the charming narrow house at 75 ½ Bedford Street), I had somehow assumed that the magnolia photo was taken in the Village as well, conveying additional romance on both the poet and the place. Not that they need it.

The saucer, or tulip, magnolia in St. Mark’s Church garden, as seen from GVSHP’s window.  Photos by Karen Loew.

Although Peppe is not aware of any other particular connection between Millay and magnolia trees, the poet was in fact something of an amateur botanist. The gardens Millay created at Steepletop, the upstate home where she lived for the last 25 years of her life, are still extensive, impressive, and can be visited beginning May 1.

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

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