The poem-novel that made her, as they say, ‘a household name’ went into eleven editions between September 16 and December 12, 1940 in the United States.
Within four years it had sold nearly seven hundred thousand copies, more than half of these in the UK.
A 27-minute reading of the work, with orchestral accompaniment, was recorded by movie star Lynn Fontanne and broadcast on US national radio—then broadcast again – due to popular demand. A third broadcast in western Canada was followed by a Canadian concert performance. During one of the rehearsals, the first violinist ‘laid his bow on the stand in front of him, covered his face with his hands, and burst into tears.’
No, I haven’t mentioned the author’s name yet. Nor the work. She is no longer a household name. She is rarely mentioned at all, though she can be found on the net, mainly in places and formats that do her no favours. The literary waters that protect poetry from the masses have closed over her head.
But she wasn’t just a poet. She worked her way through a degree in maths and astronomy in Barnard College in the late 1890s. She would have pursued a career in pure maths, had she not fallen in love. She was an ardent advocate of the women’s vote: her widely published satirical verse aided the cause. She is listed as one of the associate editors on the first edition of the New Yorker. She was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. (No, I’m not talking about Dorothy Parker.) She wrote popular and successful romantic novels when her husband’s business collapsed. Some were made into films. She advised on films. She was even in one (unsuccessful) Hollywood film, Soak the Rich. She read poetry all the time, and when circumstances moved her deeply, she wrote it.
She was not a modernist. She loved Tennyson, and Scott, and Matthew Arnold. And she loved a good story. So three times, in the old tradition, she set about verse narrative, though she brought to it a twist of her own that has not been replicated before or since. Her poetic tales were stories of the human heart – romantic drama, if you like – cast in verse form. Not a single mode, but a sequence of lyric poems seguing from one to another, in and out of ballad, sonnet, pantoum, villanelle, blank verse, heroic couplets – you name it, she would do it. And at the same time she set up dramatic pace and cliff hangers, so the reader, even now, can find herself flicking from one page to the next, compelled to read on.
She was a satirist too, and a campaigner for women’s suffrage. One should never think her romantic writing is not barbed with irony. Here is her ‘Advice to Heroines’, for example:
A heroine must shrink and cling
When heroes are about,
And thus the watching world will think:
‘How brave his heart and stout!’
But if he chance to be away
When bright-faced dangers shine,
It will be best for her to play
The oak-tree, not the vine.
In fact, the most important thing
Is knowing when it’s time to cling.
And one of her women’s suffrage pieces:
Why We Oppose Pockets for Women
1. Because pockets are not a natural right.
2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.
3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.
4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.
5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.
6. Because it would destroy man’s chivalry toward woman, if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.
7. Because men are men, and women are women. We must not fly in the face of nature.
8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whiskey flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. We see no reason to suppose that women would use them more wisely.
I had better mention her name now, so you can help it not be forgotten. Why?
1. Because she was remarkable, as a person and as a writer.
2. Because she was reticent, funny and friend to the great and arguably good (Harpo Marx, Irving and Ellin Berlin, Alexander Woollcott, Noel Coward, Harold Ross, John Buchan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clarence Day).
3. Because she was passionate about baseball and a grand walker who wouldn’t wait for a taxi.
4. Because she had vertigo and believed whole-heartedly in ghosts.
5. Because she dreamed the sinking of the Titanic the night it happened.
6. Because she was a water colourist, and kept a travel diary in sonnet form with illustrations.
7. Because ‘thin volumes of modern verse lay on every table of her library’.
8. Because ‘the bookstand by her bed, held only Matthew Arnold and Shakespeare.’
9. Because she adored cribbage, and Harpo Marx would wire her about his cribbage successes.
10. Because her formal verse, no matter what she writes about, is metrically flawless.
11. Because she couldn’t be bothered with buying new clothes.
12. Because she didn’t like giving advice.
13. Because she believed certain mathematical curves possessed almost supernatural properties.
14. Because you can read her poetry narratives and want to know what happens next.
The author in question is Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942), author of the best-selling volume The White Cliffs. You can still get it in second-hand bookshops (currently even the copy she inscribed to Eleanor Roosevelt) because so many were printed. A full biography of Alice—I have no idea why—has never been written. It certainly should have. The detail here is mainly drawn from her husband’s memoir (Henry Wise Miller, All Our Lives, 1945).
I am not laying claim to her as a great forgotten twentieth century poet. Goodness knows what that would mean anyway. I am saying Alice Duer Miller was an extraordinary writer, who did some things in verse form that were remarkable. Including, of course, selling more than half a million copies of a volume of poetry.
She wrote an epitaph for herself once, as her contribution to a party game. Here it is.
Within the churchyard of the Kirk,
The grass grows green upon the heart
Of one who thought about her work
And never talked about her art.