Not so many years ago, the favorite poet of sophisticated high-schoolers and typical college students was Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950). One had a mental image of a redheaded, fair-skinned imp of a girl from an obscure Maine background, having scandalous affairs at Vassar and in Greenwich Village—a poet garlanded by age twenty, a bohemian free spirit dedicated to living the artist’s life, and, of course, a looker.

This image was true enough and helped the cause of Millay’s poetry. The poetry returned the favor by fostering the image. Love affairs leap from these pages, immortalized in jaunty, unsentimental, devil-may-care poems that were formal, richly rhymed, musical, frequently in the sonnet form, which had the cachet of poets from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

As a young girl, Millay—or Vincent, as she liked to be called—was lovely, though perhaps no more so than...

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