Sunday, April 19, 2009

National Poetry Month, Day 19

Edna St Vincent Millay

Edna St Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine on 22nd February, 1892. Cora St Vincent Millay raised Edna and her three sisters on her own after her husband left the family home. When Edna was twenty her poem, Renascence, was published in The Lyric Year. As a result of this poem Edna won a scholarship to Vassar.

In 1917, the year of her graduation, Millay published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems. After leaving Vassar she moved to New York's Greenwich Village where she befriended writers such as Floyd Dell, John Reed and Max Eastman. The three men were all involved in the left-wing journal, the Masses, and she joined in their campaign against USA involvement in the First World War.

Millay also joined the Provincetown Theatre Group. Others who wrote or acted for the group included Floyd Dell, Eugene O'Neill, John Reed, George Gig Cook, Susan Glaspell and Louise Bryant. Millay was considered a great success as Annabelle in Floyd Dell's The Angel Intrudes. In 1918 Millay directed and took the lead in her own play, The Princess Marries the Page. Later she directed her morality play, Two Slatterns and the King at Provincetown.

In 1920 Millay published a new volume of poems, A Few Figs from Thistles. This created considerable controversy as the poems dealt with issues such as female sexuality and feminism. Her next volume of poems, The Harp Weaver (1923), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Millay married Eugen Boissevain, the widower of Inez Milholland, in 1923. Both were believers in free-love and it was agreed they should have an open marriage. Boissevain managed Millay's literary career and this included the highly popular readings of her work. In his autobiography, Homecoming (1933), Floyd Dell commented that he had "never heard poetry read so beautifully".

In 1927 joined with other artists such as John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Floyd Dell in the campaign against the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The day before the execution Millay was arrested at a demonstration in Boston for "sauntering and loitering" and carrying the placard "If These Men Are Executed, Justice is Dead in Massachusetts".

Later Millay was to write several poems about the the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. The most famous of these was Justice Denied in Massachusetts. Her next volume of poems, The Buck and the Snow (1928) included several others including Hangman's Oak, The Anguish, Wine from These Grapes and To Those Without Pity.

In 1931 Millay published, Fatal Interview (1931) a volume of 52 sonnets in celebration of a recent love affair. Edmund Wilson claimed the book contained some of the greatest poems of the 20th century. Others were more critical preferring the more political material that had appeared in The Buck and the Snow.

Her next volume of poems, Wine From These Grapes (1934) included the remarkable Conscientious Objector, a poem that expressed her strong views on pacifism. Huntsman, What Quarry? (1939) also dealt with political issues such as the Spanish Civil War and the growth of fascism.

During the Second World War Millay abandoned her pacifists views and wrote patriotic poems such as Not to be Spattered by His Blood (1941), Murder at Lidice (1942) and Poem and Prayer for an Invading Army (1944). Edna St Vincent Millay died in 1950.

The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver

"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,

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

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.

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