Poem Analysis of ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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When Som Mazumder approached me and asked me about my interest to host ‘Poet Speaks’ on KONECT E-ZINE, I was intrigued by the serendipitous timing. I had just written two short poems during the lockdown last week, and still in that headspace. 

I am no English Literature student, but I’ve been raised in my maternal family of English Literature professors – my mother, aunts, and now my SIL. Interestingly, my husband Ryan’s uncle, late Prof. Issac Sequeira, was an English scholar and noted academician.

I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction since childhood. However, poetry was a form that I’ve come to appreciate only in the last couple of years. I began appreciating the form once I started writing poems, and found it to be an exciting process ever since.

I look forward to reading and writing more poetry of late. I find it a soothing experience in the current pandemic times. Writing poetry is a wholesome and satisfying experience. Poetry is the meeting of the heart, mind, and soul. What I find the most fascinating about the poetry form, compared to the other types of writing, is its finesse and aesthetics. 

The month of May celebrates all things motherhood, so I chose to focus on the beautiful poem ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which explores the experience and truth of maternal love. 

About Edna St Vincent Millay 

Edna St Vincent Millay was a superstar in the ancient times of anonymous writers and poets. A literary cult figure, she was considered ‘the greatest woman poet since Sappho.’ 

However, her ingenuity was overshadowed unfairly by her reputation as a bisexual, party animal, and drug addict. She was food for gossip in times of stringent societal norms and etiquettes, especially expected of its women. However, it’s her words that continue to stay luminous over the decades, and let’s rightly focus on them today. 

Edna was the first woman to win a Pulitzer, and only the second person to receive the prize for poetry for her fourth volume of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1923). In 1943, she was the sixth person and second woman to win the Frost Medal for her lifetime contribution to American poetry.

She was an early poetry enthusiast dabbling in Shakespeare, Keats, Longfellow, Shelley, and Wordsworth since childhood. 

At the age of 19, she sent her poem “Renascence” to The Lyric Year, a magazine that held a yearly poetry contest and published winning entries. Though she didn’t win, the poem brought her into the spotlight and launched her writing career. Renascence and other poems (1917), includes the 200-plus line poem and six outstanding sonnets that brought her wide acclaim. 

Even though Edna’s traditional poems were in stark contrast to the experimental modernist poets of her time like TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens, she expanded the scope of the Shakespearean sonnet form like no other. She reversed the point of view, presenting them in a novel, bold female perspective, with sexual tones.

Edna had a particular affinity for Petrarchan sonnets, an Italian form of sonnets with a distinct rhyme scheme and flexible structure. Petrarchan sonnets include two stanzas: an octave, or eight lines, and a sestet, or six lines. It can also be written in three stanzas with two quatrains, or four lines each, and a sestet. In the former style, the octave or first eight lines follow the ‘abbaabba’ rhyme scheme, but the rhyme scheme of the concluding sestet or six lines varies. A few notable poems by Edna in this style are “Love Is Not All: It Is Not Meat nor Drink,” “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,” and “Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no.”

Edna’s ‘Fatal Interview,’ is among the finest collections of love poems in history. Interestingly, it was written in times of economic depression, and when love sonnets were considered banal and cliched. Edna has a way with romance from its flow, language, and journey. Edna brought the forgotten gender to the forefront and wrote effusively about love from a woman’s perspective. 

Edna had an original, non-traditional, and revolutionary style of writing poetry, and she doesn’t shy away from presenting the human form in its entirety, especially its vulnerability. 

She is at her best when she muses on her yearning for rebellion against a society that constrains women’s lives and voices. Some of the poems to read in this aspect are “Witch-Wife,” loosely written in the style of a short folk ballad, “But she was not made for any man,” and “Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree.”

While Edna was controversy’s favourite child, her fall from grace came when she took an explicit political stance by directly collaborating with the Writers’ War Board for poetry that championed the allied forces. Unlike other famed writers like Siegfried Sassoon, one of the leading poets of the First World War who wrote about the destruction and carnage of war! Edna’s bisexuality, and addictions added to decline in her success, even though she continued writing until her end. 

Rather than digging into the dark skeletons in her cupboard, let’s dig for inspiration and a treasure of richness waiting to be discovered in her legendary work.

Poetry Analysis of ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ 

At the outset, “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” reads like a simple poem. The narrative ballad is a heartening testimony to a mother’s unconditional love. A mother’s love seen through the eyes of her boy. It reads beautifully when you look at it from this universal perspective alone.

But, it gets interesting when you dig deeper.

A revisit to the poem reveals many hidden layers that unlocks – one of the most potent feminist works in literary history. It takes a hard look at how we have lived, are living, how we have illusions about ourselves, and how we are warped in our so-called liberations.   

The “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” is Edna Millay’s loud outcry against the traditional role of women in society. As in most of her poems, she attempts to overturn the tables on male tradition here. 

In the “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” Millay reminds us through the strong symbolism of harp — women’s ambitions outside of motherhood will always remain, regardless of whether society accepts it. The poem urges society to see women as more than one-dimensional entities, hoping that all women can reach freedom outside of death.

Millay employs the use of the harp imagery throughout “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.” The harp with a woman’s head is deemed worthless and stands as a metaphor for a woman’s choice; it is also considered useless by society. The mother has to sacrifice her unholy choice at the divine altar of motherhood. 

Millay doesn’t explicitly speak of a woman’s choice, and mother’s sacrifice, as society is blind to them. Her son is blind to them and thinks nothing much of her gifts and talents. He never questions his mother what a worthless harp is doing in their home. The boy believes the harp to be useless for its womanly qualities. It doesn’t occur to the son that a woman can indeed have a choice.

But the last thing that the woman finds refuge, hope, and peace in is her dear harp. She dies with “her hands in the harpstrings,” indicating how significant it is in her life and how she yearns to play it, but motherhood has left her little time for indulging in her joyful pleasures. 

Motherhood transforms the woman’s joyous harp into a dutiful loom. Weaving replaces music, as Millay writes about weaves with a swaying melody: “Were weav-weav-weaving / Wonderful things.” The mother hums and goes back to her happy place, only when she is done with her worldly duties, and her son is asleep. 

Millay explores and questions the power of unconditional love in “The Ballad of Harp-Weaver.” While the mother and son live in abject poverty, the mother does all that is in her capacity to transform her love into tangible forms of beauty, and wealth for her son. Love is presented as a heart-wrenching struggle, and the poet wonders if it’s worth it.

When the mother dies, you are left wondering if her sacrifice was sufficient for her son. Where will he go, or to whom will he turn to after her death? Has the mother’s love and sacrifice saved her child, or has her death gone in vain? Millay leaves the readers pondering on these questions about love and sacrifice. 

The poet does not change the setting of the poem even though the weather changes from fall to winter. All the events occur inside the home, and the mother is completely isolated from the world. She is only responsive to her son. 

The mother holds all control inside the home as dangers lurk on the outside such as “A wind with a wolf’s head”. The son cannot go outside and play like the other children, as he doesn’t have clothing to wear. This can happen only when the mother weaves proper clothing for him. She tries to keep him warm inside by burning the chairs. The boy attains freedom after the mother’s death.

The poet uses the simple, uncomplicated voice of a young boy to explore the mother-son relationship and a woman’s role in society.

The son views his mother’s only role in life is to provide for him. Her sacrifice is easily accepted at the end, and her work underappreciated. This is witnessed in the subtext, such as: 

“Through my mother’s hand. I saw the web grow, And the pattern expand”

The son belittles the task of weaving and imagines his clothes to magically appear like the spider’s web. He discounts the hard work that goes into the craftsmanship of weaving clothes he lists each item of clothing – a child’s jacket, and another one, a red cloak, a pair of breeches, a pair of boots, a little cocked hat, a pair of mittens and a little blouse. Using the words’ little’ to describe the blouse, or ‘a pair’ undermines the fact that it takes double the time to create two of each item. The son is not thankful to his mother for “the clothes of a king’s son.” He considers himself to be his mother’s prince, and his clothing or her love is his birthright. Like his cocked hat, the son is overconfident, thinking his sex makes him deserving of a dominant role.

Freud’s Oedipus complex appears subtly in “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.” Sitting (apparently naked since he lacks clothing) in his mother’s lap, the young boy is at first “happy” to be so close to his mother. But, he quickly questions their relationship: 

“But there was I, a great boy,

And what would folks say

To hear my mother singing me

To sleep all day,

In such a daft way?”

What was once “silly” has now become “daft.” This scene marks the son’s distancing from his mother as he later says, “I cried myself to sleep.” He no longer seeks his mother for comfort. 

The Oedipus complex reaches its resolution in “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” as the son twice identifies the clothing his mother weaved as being for “a king’s son.” Even though the boy’s father is dead and completely absent from the poem, the son still finally chooses to identify with his father and not his mother, who sacrificed her life for him. 

“The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” highlights how culture places significance on the son-father relationship. A culture that quickly dismisses and ignores women and mothers. Through the poem’s resolution, the boy makes his way into the male world, the world of patriarchal law and order. 

The use of a male narrator is vital to the poem “The Ballad of the HarpWeaver” by Edna St. Vincent Millay as a piece of feminist writing.

The poem has a sing-song rhythm, with the second and fourth line of every stanza rhyming. The personalization of objects such as the “harp with a woman’s head” and “a wind with a wolf’s head” gives them a more potent force than they’d otherwise have.

‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Poetry recitation of ‘The Ballad of the Harp Weaver’ in Johnny Cash’s inimitable style

“Son,” said my mother,

When I was knee-high,

“you’ve need of clothes to cover you,

and not a rag have I.

“There’s nothing in the house

To make a boy breeches,

Nor shears to cut a cloth with,

Nor thread to take stitches.

“There’s nothing in the house

But a loaf-end of rye,

And a harp with a woman’s head

Nobody will buy,”

And she began to cry.

That was in the early fall.

When came the late fall,

“Son,” she said, “the sight of you

Makes your mother’s blood crawl,—

“Little skinny shoulder-blades

Sticking through your clothes!

And where you’ll get a jacket from

God above knows.

“It’s lucky for me, lad,

Your daddy’s in the ground,

And can’t see the way I let

His son go around!”

And she made a queer sound.

That was in the late fall.

When the winter came,

I’d not a pair of breeches

Nor a shirt to my name.

I couldn’t go to school,

Or out of doors to play.

And all the other little boys

Passed our way.

“Son,” said my mother,

“Come, climb into my lap,

And I’ll chafe your little bones

While you take a nap.”

And, oh, but we were silly

For half and hour or more,

Me with my long legs,

Dragging on the floor,

A-rock-rock-rocking

To a mother-goose rhyme!

Oh, but we were happy

For half an hour’s time!

But there was I, a great boy,

And what would folks say

To hear my mother singing me

To sleep all day,

In such a daft way?

Men say the winter

Was bad that year;

Fuel was scarce,

And food was dear.

A wind with a wolf’s head

Howled about our door,

And we burned up the chairs

And sat upon the floor.

All that was left us

Was a chair we couldn’t break,

And the harp with a woman’s head

Nobody would take,

For song or pity’s sake.

The night before Christmas

I cried with cold,

I cried myself to sleep

Like a two-year old.

And in the deep night

I felt my mother rise,

And stare down upon me

With love in her eyes.

I saw my mother sitting

On the one good chair,

A light falling on her

From I couldn’t tell where.

Looking nineteen,

And not a day older,

And the harp with a woman’s head

Leaned against her shoulder.

Her thin fingers, moving

In the thin, tall strings,

Were weav-weav-weaving

Wonderful things.

Many bright threads,

From where I couldn’t see,

Were running through the harp-strings

Rapidly,

And gold threads whistling

Through my mother’s hand.

I saw the web grow,

And the pattern expand.

She wove a child’s jacket,

And when it was done

She laid it on the floor

And wove another one.

She wove a red cloak

So regal to see,

“She’s made it for a king’s son,”

I said, “and not for me.”

But I knew it was for me.

She wove a pair of breeches

Quicker than that!

She wove a pair of boots

And a little cocked hat.

She wove a pair of mittens,

Shw wove a little blouse,

She wove all night

In the still, cold house.

She sang as she worked,

And the harp-strings spoke;

Her voice never faltered,

And the thread never broke,

And when I awoke,—

There sat my mother

With the harp against her shoulder,

Looking nineteeen,

And not a day older,

A smile about her lips,

And a light about her head,

And her hands in the harp-strings

Frozen dead.

And piled beside her

And toppling to the skies,

Were the clothes of a king’s son,

Just my size.

One comment

  1. Quite an extensive analysis. I love the attention to detail. I wish more articles were with comprehensive. I try my best to write as extensively as I can but this is good work. 👏

    Like

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