Edna St. Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems, making her the first woman and only the second poet to win this award. She had been a finalist for the prize in 1922 for her book of poetry, Few Figs (1920). When The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems was published in November, 1923, Millay was already well-known as the author of the groundbreaking Renascence, and Other Poems (1917), as well as for stories written under the pseudonym Nancy Boyd, magazine articles, and five other poetry collections published in 1920 and 1921.
In 1922, while writing for the American magazine Vanity Fair, Millay had planned to write a novel, “Hardigut,” for which she even received an advance of five hundred dollars. Ill and tired in Europe, where she had been assigned as a correspondent, Millay returned to the United States, however, and in July married Eugene Boissevan, whom she had met while attending Vassar College. They bought a farm in upstate New York, which they named Steepletop and remained until their deaths. As her career progressed, Millay, who liked to be called Vincent, wrote an opera libretto, The King’s Henchman (1927), toured and read her poetry on the radio, recorded her poetry for RCA, translated Charles Baudelaire’s controversial poetry collection Flowers of Evil (1857) with her friend George Dillon in 1936, and continued to publish poetry in books, magazines, and newspapers.
The poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” had been privately published before Millay collected it for the 1923 publication. Its placement as the last poem in part 2 of The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems marks the end of the first third of the book, as the publication itself marked the end of the first third of Millay’s career. Divided into five sections and dedicated to her mother, Cora Buzzell Millay, the book includes a variety of lyric poems and forty sonnets on subjects ranging from the seasons and flora and fauna to reflections on love, friendship, and death. Unlike her contemporaries, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, Millay eschewed experimentation and idiomatic American English, relying instead on the British poetical traditions of Robert Herrick, John Donne, William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Part 1 of The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems presents in ten rhyming lyric poems the themes of longing, frustration, and loneliness tempered with the poet’s appreciation of nature’s power and beauty. Each poem has a degree of tension as the speaker moves from a mood of restlessness in “My Heart, Being Hungry” to a spirit of action in “The Dragonfly,” wherein Millay personifies the poet and the writing process in the metaphor of an insect breaking out of its cocoon and flying to freedom and life: “Over the jewel-weed and pink marshmallows,/ Free of these and making song of them,/ I shall arise, and a song of the reedy shallows!”
Part 2 of the collection begins with the abab rhyming stanzaic poem “Departure,” hauntingly describing the speaker’s mental flirtation with suicide and how she is abruptly brought back to reality by the steady voice of her mother asking, “Is there something the matter,/ dear, she said/That you sit at your work so silently?” The nine poems that follow profile the various ways in which love can be expressed.
The intensity of feeling created in the first ten poems of the book is sustained through the next ten poems as Millay introduces dialogue to broaden the perspectives and give depth. Her use of tetrameter, the ballad stanza, archaic expressions, and repetition give the poems timeless qualities. In “A Visit to the Asylum,” for example, the speaker recollects a childhood memory of passing a mental institution as a child with hair “so red, you know.” The “queer folk in the windows/ Would smile at me and call” and offer her flowers and fruits and other delicacies so that she would pass that way again. She would call to them as she passed, “You come see me!” The image the poem evokes of windows latticed “up and down” contrasts with the happiness of the people inside, who with “The merriest of eyes would follow me/ And make me compliments.”
In other poems of part 2, the sea is an important symbol of nature’s power, which Millay uses in a conventional manner. “The Curse” allows the poet to project herself as cremated ashes that are blown out to sea, then onto farmland, and finally into her mother’s house, where no one recognizes her in this new form. The metaphysical quality of the poem and the speaker’s symbolic homelessness create a tension in the poem about the theme of identity. In “Keen,” Millay adopts the character of a woman whose lover has died at sea, who laments her loss but closes the meditation with pride that she loved a daring man rather than a timid one.