(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

“The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which lends its name to the collection, is its longest and most famous poem. Utilizing a deceptively simple ballad form, Millay spins the tale of an impoverished mother who dies, weaving garments for her little son on her magical harp. Millay’s fantasy is rooted in the reality of her childhood, as her own divorced mother struggled to provide for her three daughters. She not only met their physical needs by working as a nurse but fed and clothed their minds and souls as well, sharing her talent for music and writing. The ballad is a tribute to Millay’s own mother and to motherly love and its sacrifices everywhere; it is no surprise that the entire collection is dedicated to her.

The rest of the poems that make up the first third of the collection can be divided roughly into four categories in which Millay expresses her acknowledgment of beauty, grief, death, and acquiescence. Unlike many of her earlier poems on the adoration of the beautiful, these lyrics tend to demonstrate Millay’s developing philosophy on the discovery of beauty in unexpected places. In “My Heart, Being Hungry,” the poet claims to hunger for a “Beauty where beauty never stood”; in “The Wood Road,” she defies even grief to deaden her appreciation of nature’s dying loveliness. This love of nature is a theme introduced early in Millay’s work and one that she never abandons, though her initial swift embracing of it may be less enthusiastic now. “The Goose Girl” is Millay’s most outspoken comment on the theme when she states, “all the loveliest things there be/ Come simply, so it seems to me.” “A Visit to the Asylum” illustrates Millay’s respect for the unrespected in a tale of a little girl’s visit to the local institution. Throughout the collection, Millay finds beauty where it may not typically be found and translates it into a language of appreciation.

Millay champions the expression of truth from the simplest, least expected natural sources, and she illustrates her philosophy with the deceptively simple method of lyricism that she employs in most of her poetry. A silk-spinning dragonfly becomes a metaphor for her own verse-making in “The Dragonfly”; however, the poet’s identification with the unlovely takes on a threatening tone in “The Curse.” Here, Millay describes her ashes, a metaphor for her poetry, as “a strange thing” that will continue to plague those who have not...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)