Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Love is not all

It doesn’t always end well. Let’s not kid ourselves.

This blog began with the presumption that love affairs between older woman and younger men can work, and I think we’ve made a good argument over the 2 ½ years we’ve been blogging. Sheri and I are coming up on our 18th wedding anniversary, so we’ll keep making that argument.

But for the sake of balance, for the sake of gratitude for what does work, it’s worth remembering that sometimes such affairs fail. And sometimes they might even ruin a person.

This month, Open Letters Monthly, a website devoted to reviews of literature, revived the discussion of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s affair with George Dillon, 14-years her junior, and how their love may have fueled his poetry and then ended it.

It was 1928. She was 36 and famous, having already become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry; he was 22 and aspiring,
having published his first book. According to Shannon McCloskey Allain, writing at Open Letter, George introduced Edna when she gave a reading. He also became infatuated–and she with him.

She was married, but that didn’t stop her from having an affair. Her husband knew and, perhaps, approved. They were a bohemian couple willing to bend rules. Maybe that’s one reason Edna never left him for George.

Edna and George each used their passionate affair to write a sequence of sonnets inspired by the pain and glory of their love. His led to a book that won him the Pulitzer Prize at age 25. She published hers in Fatal Interview, a volume some critics have called her best work, including this famous sonnet.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

George never seemed to get used to the idea that he had to share Edna, and perhaps Edna tired of George. Their affair ended. And George never published another book of poetry.

Much has been made of that fact. A theater company even plans to produce a play around it. Allain's essay for Open Letter suggests that answers to whether Edna ruined George for poetry can be found in his verse. Her article makes an interesting case, though I’m not convinced. There are a lot of reasons not to write. It may be overstating things to say that Edna alone put an end to his books.

What happened after? George became editor of one of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. He never married, and eventually he moved in with his parents. Now and then he and Edna met, and they even translated poems together. They may have even revived the affair for a night or two, but never as it had once been. “This love is strange that does not die,” he had written in his book, according to Allain, and seemingly it never did. He added, “A man would be nothing but that he has been a lover. He is glad for that. As for the rest, it is dead.”


  1. If you haven't already done so, you might consider reading Savage Beauty, a wonderful biography about Edna St Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford.

  2. I would like to read "Savage Beauty" about which I've read much. I've also got Daniel Mark Epstein's "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" on my to-read shelf.