The Hairbag Poet-Edna St. Vincent Millay

Hi and welcome to my Friday series The Hairbag Poet.

In the blogging world Fridays are known as Poetry Friday.  You can read about Poetry Friday here. I will plan on posting The Hairbag Poet each Friday.

Tara Smith at Going to Walden is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday.

You can read about the history of this series here.

I know it may sound weird but I often treasure the time I spend in my car, waiting, while my children are at their activities. I call this my “found time.” I use it to read, write or do homework depending on my mood, or my deadlines. Last night, while waiting for my daughter’s swim practice to end, I decided to read. I had been doing some research on female poets and had begun researching Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Although I had known of Millay’s work, I didn’t know much about Millay the women, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the cold and empty parking lot I was sitting in, outside of the pool my daughter was swimming in, just happened to be on the campus of Millay’s alma mater, Vassar College, and the inspiration for her Drama in 5 acts “The Lamp and the Bell.” Millay wrote this play for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Vassar College Alumni Association, and dedicated the play to members of the Class of 1917. It was performed at Vassar in 1921 with an all female cast. You can read the play here.

Vassar College

Millay was a poet who garnered success and fame during her lifetime. Her career launched at the early age of 20 when she won recognition in a poetry contest for her poem Renascence. Though she was born into poverty, a wealthy fan paid her way to Vassar College. It was at Vassar that Millay explored her sexuality and her writing. In 1923 she received the Pulitzer-Prize for poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.  Though Millay was world renown, she eventually married, and settled in the town of Austerlitz, NY, on a 700-acre farm named Steepletop. She died at the age of 58 after suffering a cardiac arrest, and falling down the stairs inside her home. Her work speaks for itself.

The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver

BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

“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 an 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 on 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 the 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,

   She 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 nineteen

   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 up beside her

   And toppling to the skies,

Were the clothes of a king’s son,

   Just my size.

Millay is also most famously known for coining the phrase “My candle burns at both ends…” from Figs from Thistles: First Fig.

Figs from Thistles: First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

(Poetryfoundation.org, 2019)

I hope you enjoy these posts. Thanks for stopping by and reading, and please feel free to post your own poetry in the comments if you feel inspired by the photographs. I always love reading other peoples perspective on “art”.

 

The Hairbag Poet

 

10 thoughts on “The Hairbag Poet-Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. I remember reading her in grammar school but never Harp Weaver. I guess the nuns thought it would be too depressing. And, depressing it is! I have to read up her life now. Thanks for making me think.

  2. Oh yes, I do enjoy Edna St Vincent Millay–and I learned some more about her. I did not realize she coined burning the candle at both ends–I’ve been guilty of doing so. In college, I had a candle stub that was burnt on both ends as a reminder to slow down. I came across it the other day.

    • Yes Michelle I was drawn right in as well. It’s a bit haunting. When I read it was a sort of tribute to her own mother who worked so hard, I think I understood more about why I was drawn in.

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