Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

While other volumes of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry debated the struggle between life, love, and beauty versus loss, bitterness, and death, The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems was the first collection to focus on Millay’s acceptance of death’s inevitability. Love of life and adoration of beauty—two of Millay’s prominent themes—are still present in this work, but they are relegated to a position of lesser significance as she concedes to perhaps the greater force. Her concession, however, is tinged with an ever-present defiance as she attempts to turn the ugliness of loss into another form of beauty.

Infamous for her many love affairs during her time spent in Greenwich Village, Millay finally settled down, marrying Eugen Boissevain, the widower of feminist Inez Milholland, in 1923. The poems of this collection reflect the maturation and commitment that Millay demonstrated in her marriage and subsequent lifestyle that same year. They also echo the strains of wistfulness that she may have felt as she entered her third decade and subdued her wilder ways. Many of these poems provide a voice for all women, restricted from individual expression or exploration of their identities by outdated patriarchal conventions.

The collection is divided into three parts—thirty lyrical and free-verse poems, twenty-two sonnets, and a seventeen-sonnet sequence—all of which comment on Millay’s theories on beauty, love, or death. The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems suggests a more mature poet coming to terms with disillusionment and grief. “Call me in all things what I was before,” she cautions in the sonnet “Say what you will,” but in these poems she will “tell you I am what I was and more.” The poems conclude with the image of the poet as a tree in autumn or a rose that “hugs the brown bough and sighs before it goes.”


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Crowned “the greatest woman poet since Sappho” by critics of her day, Edna St. Vincent Millay personified the essence of her time. According to critic Anne Cheney, she became the “living symbol of women who would live, think, and love as freely as they chose.” Her first published work, “Renascence,” written at nineteen, won awards and secured her the opportunity for a Vassar degree. She followed its publication with three successive collections, introducing her smooth lyrical style and ensuring her place as the most popular poet of her day. Her next volume, The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems, however, was Millay’s most mature work to that date and, many would argue, her greatest contribution to women’s literature. It won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Many of the sonnets in the volume add another dimension to Millay’s established treatise on beauty, love, and death: an outspoken feminist perspective. “Oh, oh, you will be sorry” spews disdain on her “enemy,” who thinks that women should be content as objects of physical love, rather than as free-thinkers. Though she plans to bide her time, playing the “sweet . . . soft” role for now, it will be a “sane day” when she leaves him to follow her own intellectual pursuits. She protests, too, the value that men place on physical love and the subordinate position to which they have subjected women in “I, being born a woman,” finding “this frenzy insufficient...

(The entire section is 492 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Atkins, Elizabeth. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Her Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936. Compiled during Millay’s lifetime, this study addresses all the poet’s work through 1934. A spokesperson of the times in which Millay lived and wrote, Atkins lacks the necessary perspective required for thoughtful scholarship, though her observations appear sound and insightful. Includes an index but no chronology or bibliography.

Britten, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Offers a solid overview of the poet’s life and work. Britten’s analysis of “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree” is particularly good.

Cheney, Anne. Millay in Greenwich Village. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1975. Cheney examines Millay from a psychoanalytical approach, providing deep and detailed insight into Millay’s personal life and promoting greater understanding about what she wrote and why. Includes a chronology, an index, and a bibliography.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Still the only adequate anthology of women’s literature, this volume, which includes Millay and her more feminist contributions, is invaluable for women’s studies. Regards Millay from a feminist perspective.

Gould, Jean. The Poet and Her Book: A Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969. Interprets the work through the lens of Millay’s life. Illustrated.

Gray, James. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1967. This slim volume of criticism is intense, concise, and thorough. Gray provides an excellent introduction to Millay for the first-time student or a tightly constructed review for the returning scholar. A select bibliography is included.

Gurko, Miriam. Restless Spirit: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1962. Gurko’s well-written biography for the younger student includes a thorough bibliography.

Millay, Norma, ed. Collected Poems: Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper & Row, 1956. Edited by the poet’s sister. Has no index, explanatory notes, or introductions, and poems are not left in their original sequences, but contains previously uncollected material.

Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Reprints reviews and early articles on Millay’s work along with some newly commissioned critical essays.