Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

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

Poetry, for me, is an emotional thing. I ignore all that stuff about meter and grammar, and react purely on how it makes me feel. That may be an uneducated way to go about things, but has given me a joy and love of poetry throughout my life, something that not everyone can say. Later, I may learn about the technical aspect of a poem, but the initial response is the emotional impact. The work I’m going to discuss today has perhaps the most, I cannot read it without crying.
For those of you unfamiliar with the poem, here’s a capsule summation (and a link to read it). A boy and his widowed mom are living in abject poverty in a cabin. There’s little to eat and they burn their chairs to keep warm. The boy is unable to go to school because he only has raggedy clothes. Things keep getting worse and on Christmas Eve, as the boy is trying to sleep in the freezing cold, his mother sits down at “a harp with a woman’s head” that they’ve not been able to sell and begins playing it. As she does, the harp becomes a magical loom and she weaves piles of clothes for him as she sings him to sleep. When the boy wakes in the morning, he finds his mother dead at the harp, the house filled with clothes.
The bare cabin feels both Appalachian and medieval, but I suppose stark poverty feels the same in any place or time. Despite being poor, the home is not filled with blame or arguments, but a calm sense of sadness. The mother tries to distract her son from their hardship with silliness and nursery rhymes.
There is a strong sense of isolation, yet the boy speaks of “other little boys/passed our way”, so there had to be people nearby. He also wonders “And what would folks say/to hear my mother singing me/to sleep all day”. Yet there seems to be no relatives or friendly neighbors that they could ask for help.
The poem has a sing song rhythm, with the second and fourth line of every stanza rhyming. The span of time; from early fall, late fall, winter to Christmas Eve are distinctly mentioned, yet run together in the poem. We have only the sense of less and less in the cabin. The “harp with a woman’s head” is mentioned several times, bracketing “a wind with a wolf’s head” as winter gets worse. The personalization of these objects gave them a stronger force than they’d otherwise have.
As for the harp, did the mother know it had magical properties? If so, did she know that it would mark her end? That would make the harp both a blessing and a curse.
The poem is a fairy tale in many ways, and aren’t many fairy tales about orphans? For that is what he is when the story ends and I can’t help wonder what will happen to the boy now;who will care for him, what will he eat? Will he sell the clothes to buy food? But all those questions only occurred to me recently, with an adult’s cynicism. Despite that, it remains a heartbreakinging testament of a mother’s love.

Originally published by Flying Cloud Press in 1922

Johnny Cash set this poem to music. There are various performances of it to be found on YouTube.
Millay was the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. She also won the Frost Medal in 1943, as well as numerous other awards and honors.

5 comments on “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver by Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. kirstyjane
    June 19, 2012

    I really enjoyed this, Jackie. Needless to say I only knew the Johnny Cash version! I like the idea of wondering what became of the boy… that does give me food for thought. Thank you for this piece and for Poetry Week!

  2. pam
    June 19, 2012

    I listened to the author herself and Andrew Calhoun reading the poem – very different style. Economic conditions were very bad at the time it was written.

  3. Hilary
    June 20, 2012

    What a fascinating find for me, Jackie! I knew the name Edna St Vincent Millay, but did not know her work before. One thing that intrigues me is that it is clothing that is the focus here, and not food for sustenance. It is impossible not to wonder whether the boy survived anyhow. Thank you for this lovely post!

  4. Pingback: Edna St. Vincent Millay – “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” « Real Poetry

  5. Nick Fortis
    April 6, 2014

    Doing a poetry class here in an retirement home in Saratoga. Planned to do short poems by Millay and TS Eliot. In putting things together came across Harp Weaver.
    The piece did it to me. I have difficulty reading it; I find it that touching.

    Simply beautiful.

    Naf senior

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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