Summary

Dedicated to Millay’s mother, this collection of thirty-nine sonnets, “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” and twenty-seven other short poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It displays the poet at work in a more serious vein on the perplexities of life and love and particularly on the struggle of the artist to find eternal truths obscured by changing nature.

The eponymous ballad fathoms the currents of maternal love and self-sacrifice. Too poor to buy clothing for her son, a mother weaves on her harp clothes fit for a prince, singing in “a daft way” as she works her magic. The situation clearly represents Cora Millay’s talents as a poet and a weaver. At poem’s end, the mother, looking not a day older than nineteen years, is found with fingers “Frozen dead” in her harp.

Several of the lyrics probe the problematical aspects of erotic love. It delights, but it cloys. The poet likens its joys to those of wine, noting that as thirst augments wine’s pleasures, so desire intensifies love’s thrills. Love exercises sovereignty over the lover and the beloved, but the thralldom expires with the season. Millay’s persona is satisfied to let love’s play end with the summer and knows well that love dies in little ways, with hurtful words and lies. She even blesses Death for taking a lover in the full bloom of youth because it “cuts in marble/What would have sunk to dust!”

The seventeen-sonnet sequence titled “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” reflects upon the self-sacrifice of a wife who tends a dying husband long after their love has withered away. She looks upon him as a stranger sleeping in a familiar bed. The poet captures the agony of lingering time in a memorable metaphor likening the man to a clock, the “mainspring being broken in his mind.” For all the despair and hopelessness of her situation, she manages to escape bitterness by feeling relief in having been unburdened of love and by experiencing the rapture of “making mean and ugly objects fair.”