Poems Reaching Over the Decades

IN a recent letter my sister recalled memorizing ``The Ballad of the Harp Weaver'' in the 1920s. ``I went down to the barn to study the poem,'' she wrote. ``I'd say the lines while horses and cows watched me out of the corner of their eyes.'' She confessed that the animals looked ``pretty disgusted,'' but didn't blame the poetry. Edna St. Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer prize for ``The Harp Weaver and Other Poems'' in 1923.

She was born in Rockland, Maine, in 1892, and attended Vassar College. Graduating in 1917, she went to New York and made a living by writing short stories under pseudonyms. She also wrote poetry, translated songs, and acted with the Provincetown Players. After her marriage to Eugen Boissevain, a wealthy importer in 1923, she lived in the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts, leaving home only to travel and go on reading tours.

No other poet in the second and third decades of the 20th century enjoyed a greater popularity. She was hailed as one of America's chief poets. Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, rated her as the greatest woman poet since the Greek poet, Sappho. Some critics placed her next to Frost and Robinson. By the end of the 1920s she had published five volumes of poetry, three plays, some fiction, and a number of articles. Her poems, published in England as well as in the United States, attracted worldwide attention.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's romanticism appealed to young people of my generation. From a high-school anthology of late American writers I discovered the harp-weaver poem and her interesting life. As a university sophomore in 1929 I heard Miss Millay read her poems before an enchanted audience in an overcrowded auditorium.

She made a striking appearance on stage. Her long red hair and an iridescent gown of purple and gold drew praise from her admirers. I was impressed by the mystical tone of her low, melodious voice that easily reached the high balconies.

Though she read a number of poems and bits from plays, the most moving selection to me was ``The Ballad of the Harp Weaver.'' Millay's interpretation was the rare kind that would send a tingling up and down your spine or break you out in goose bumps! Seeing and hearing a live poet for the first time was a highlight of my growing up.

The ballad is an allegory on the protective power of mother love that transcends death. In a destitute home the mother says there is nothing ``But a loaf end of rye/ and a harp with a woman's head/ nobody will buy.'' Her son lacks clothes against the cold, so in the night before she dies the mother weaves on the harp strings ``clothes for a king's son'' just his size. The artistry of the poem saves it from sentimentality.

Beginning a teaching career in 1930, I found that well into the 1950s Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry had not lost its attraction in public schools. I learned this fact through participation in interscholastic league meetings as a judge in speaking contests. A selection for declamation more popular than all others was ``Renascence'' by Millay.

Since I had attended these annual contests throughout my student days, I was in a position to observe that ``Renascence'' was replacing Walt Whitman's ``O Captain! My Captain!'' and Elbert Hubbard's ``A Message to Garc'ia,'' - both long-time favorites for declaimers.

Millay wrote ``Renascence,'' a long poem of beauty and insight, when she was barely nineteen. Published in The Lyrical Year for 1912, it received critical acclaim from distinguished poets of the time. The poem, opening in the voice of a little girl, is one of exultation in earthly beauty, self discovery, and divine knowledge. Near its close the speaker cries ``The soul can split the sky in two./ And let the face of God shine through.''

It seems regrettable that Edna St. Vincent Millay's high place in poetry would reach a saturation point. Yet a dozen years before her death, critics reviewing her last poems found them prosy and pretentious. She was accused of carelessness and criticized for assuming a destructive ``feminine laureate'' role.

The final estimate of the poetry notwithstanding, her influence on a generation of admirers and aspiring poets will go unchallenged. And the famous little poem she titled ``First Fig'' will remain unforgettable:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -

It gives a lovely light!

`First Fig' by Edna St. Vicent Millay, from ``Collected Poems,'' Harper & Row. Copyright 1922, 1950 by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Reprinted by permission.

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