I was in an antique shop, called Dappled Gray Antiques, in the downtown section of my suburb in St. Louis. The “dappled gray” came from a carousel horse in the window, and the shop was filled with both antiques and stuff that was old if not valuable. I ignored the stuff, antique or not, and found my way to the back, where the bookcases were filled with old books.
The books were generally of two kinds. Most obvious and most beautiful were sets from the 19th century, like Ulysses Grant’s Autobiography (published by Mark Twain), William Prescott’s three-volume Ferdinand and Isabella (eighth edition published in 1841), and Theodore Mommsen’s four-volume History of Rome (1868). The second category of books were fiction and poetry from the late 19th and early 20th century.
None of the books were outrageously expensive, as most were not first or even second editions. The Ferdinand and Isabella set was $75 and the Grant Autobiography was $35. The individual novels and poetry books, priced considerably less than the sets, were all hardbacks; the shop didn’t handle paperbacks.
Looking through the shelves, I saw a small, slim little volume entitled The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems. The poet was Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), and this volume was the sixth edition published in 1928. Looking at the printing history page, I could see that all six editions had been published in 1928, and all of them between September and December, with three printings in September alone.
Consider that a book of poetry had six printings in four months. Either the publisher, Harper & Brothers, had seriously miscalculated demand, or the collection had proven wildly and unexpectedly popular. Or both. Now consider the odds of a book of poetry being published today and going through six editions in four months.
I looked at the price of the book. Seventy-five cents. The condition was excellent; someone had taken good care of this little book. The someone’s name was even written on the inside cover page—Winifred Donlea. My imagination went into overdrive when I saw the name; I could imagine an elderly schoolteacher named Winifred Donlea who would insist that students and fellow teachers alike call her “Miss Donlea.” Then again, perhaps I was only channeling Jennifer Jones in Good Morning, Miss Dove.
I had read some of Millay’s poems in high school English classes, but I had never read her poetry in depth. The one poem I could easily recall was the short “First Fig, ” with the famous line about burning one’s candle at both ends. But with my new purchase for 75 cents (plus tax), I took Winifred’s book home and decided to learn more.
Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver, and by the time The Buck in the Snow was published five years later, she was a “presence” in American poetry. The years between the Pulitzer and The Buck in the Snow were occupied with writing more poetry, opera librettos, getting married, traveling, and moving to Steepletop, the home that’s most closely associated with her today.
While she was associated with Romantic poetry (and something called “women’s poetry”), Millay also epitomized, for some at least, the “new woman” who had emerged in the 1920s. She was generally shy but could also be outspoken and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. Her reputation faded in the generation after her death until she was rediscovered as part of the feminism movement.
I’ve since read her Collected Poems, and one thing I can say is that she liked exclamation points. Her poetry exhibits a sense of life, perhaps a sense for life. She sees very clearly indeed with her poet’s eye. This is the title poem from the collection I found in the antique shop.
The Buck in the Snow
White sky, over the hemlocks bowed with snow,
Saw you not at the beginning of evening the antlered buck and his doe
Standing in the apple-orchard? I saw them. I saw them suddenly go,
Tails up, with long leaps lovely and slow,
Over the stone-wall into the wood of hemlocks bowed with snow.
Now he lies here, his wild blood scalding the snow.
How strange a thing is death, bringing to his knees, bringing to his antlers
The buck in the snow.
How strange a thing—a mile away by now, it may be,
Under the heavy hemlocks that as the moments pass
Shift their loads a little, letting fall a feather of snow—
Life, looking out attentive from the eyes of the doe.
And what of Winifred Donlea? There is a reference to a Winifred Donlea, a resident Barrington, Illinois, by the Barrington Review for Nov. 8, 1928: “Miss Winifred Donlea of W. Main street and Miss Edna Anderson of Summit street spent Saturday in Chicago.” Another reference cites a Winifred Donlea, born about 1920, who married a man named Harrington and had a child in 1945.
If it’s the same Winifred Donlea in both references, she would have been about eight years old when she made her trip to Chicago (Barrington is a suburb). A little young, perhaps, to buy a book of poetry, but in the manner of sophisticated girls making a visit to the big city, perhaps it’s not too farfetched. I could easily imagine two little girls in a Chicago bookstore, looking for something appropriate to mark the trip in memory and Winifred seeing a display of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s new volume of poems.
It might have happened that way. But there’s no explanation for how the book ended up in an antique store in suburban St. Louis. And the shop itself closed some years ago.
But give me time, and I’ll think of a story.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish