The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems

by Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1923. 12mo. x+93 pp. $2.00.
NEVER did ashes-in-the-mouth sing a sweeter song; never did the poetry of disillusion pipe a tenderer note than in this small, distinguished volume of lyrics. In most of the poetry books of our twentieth-century versifiers we expect to turn over empty page on page for the sake of the gleanings, the real poem here and there, half a dozen in a hundred pages: ‘So-and-so at his best,’ we say. But open this little book where you will, and the perfect lyric flashes from the page.
Passion’s mutability is Miss Millay’s absorbing, brooding preoccupation, and the oftener one reads these simple, unpretentious, starkly tragic lyrics, the surer one is that here is no pose, but a clear-eyed, singularly generous acceptance of experience. And always it is not the going of love that she laments, ‘But that it went in little ways.’ The signal exception to these records of transient emotion is the title-poem, the tragical, whimsical, strange ballad of mother-love, that won the Pulitzer prize for 1922. No fifteenth-century ballad ever moved to a rhythm more inevitable and more naïve, nor told its tale with more elusive magic. None of the old simplicities are lost; modern woof on ancient warp, the Harpweaver weaves her song.
Two sonnet-sequences complete the collection. A grim seventeen ‘Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree,’ each one bound off with an Alexandrine line, the acid, knurly, harsh record of unlovely days beside a deathbed, when love is already dead. And twenty-two sonnets regular in form and celebrating the little book’s main themes, ‘of a love turned ashes and the breath gone out of beauty.’
The love that stood a moment in your eyes,
The words that lay a moment on your tongue,
Are one with all that in a moment dies,
A little under-said and over-sung.
They sing more than most, these sonnets; and again and again they stand the Shakespearean test of passion saturated with imagination.
This I have known always: Love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales;
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
Among twentieth-century sonnets they are perhaps nearest to Olive Tilford Dargan’s lovecycle, commingling as they do passionate imagination and intellectual clear-sight. For Miss Millay is a poet of the mind as well as of the heart. The sombre feeling that wracks her verse is intellectually conscious of itself. But hers is still the subjective genius, bespelled with the agelong tragedy of personal passion. Heartbreak would sing in her songs even though Russia had never had a Revolution and there were no German children starving.
The key to her quest of the heart’s disciplines is in a little lyric called ‘Feast,’ wherein, having drunk at every vine and gnawed at every root, she finds no wine so wonderful as thirst, no fruit so wonderful as want, and cries out,
Feed the grape and bean
To the vintner and monger.
I will die down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.
What shall fill her cup of experience to the brim, who dare say? It is not a shallow cup.