‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ was first published in Vanity Fair magazine in June 1922. It is a dark and memorable fairy-tale-like story that focuses on the memories of a boy who, along with his widowed mother, suffers in poverty. He spends the thirty stanzas recalling what the two endured and how his mother gave her life for him.
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver Edna St. Vincent Millay“Son,” said my mother, When I was knee-high,“You’ve need of clothes to cover you, And not a rag have I.“There’s nothing in the house To make a boy breeches,Nor shears to cut a cloth with Nor thread to take stitches.“There’s nothing in the house But a loaf-end of rye,And a harp with a woman’s head Nobody will buy,” And she began to cry.That was in the early fall. When came the late fall,“Son,” she said, “the sight of you Makes your mother’s blood crawl,—“Little skinny shoulder-blades Sticking through your clothes!And where you’ll get a jacket from God above knows.“It’s lucky for me, lad, Your daddy’s in the ground,And can’t see the way I let His son go around!” And she made a queer sound.That was in the late fall. When the winter came,I’d not a pair of breeches Nor a shirt to my name.I couldn’t go to school, Or out of doors to play.And all the other little boys Passed our way.“Son,” said my mother, “Come, climb into my lap,And I’ll chafe your little bones While you take a nap.”And, oh, but we were silly For half an hour or more,Me with my long legs Dragging on the floor,A-rock-rock-rocking To a mother-goose rhyme!Oh, but we were happy For half an hour’s time!But there was I, a great boy, And what would folks sayTo hear my mother singing me To sleep all day, In such a daft way?Men say the winter Was bad that year;Fuel was scarce, And food was dear.A wind with a wolf’s head Howled about our door,And we burned up the chairs And sat on the floor.All that was left us Was a chair we couldn’t break,And the harp with a woman’s head Nobody would take, For song or pity’s sake.The night before Christmas I cried with the cold,I cried myself to sleep Like a two-year-old.And in the deep night I felt my mother rise,And stare down upon me With love in her eyes.I saw my mother sitting On the one good chair,A light falling on her From I couldn’t tell where,Looking nineteen, And not a day older,And the harp with a woman’s head Leaned against her shoulder.Her thin fingers, moving In the thin, tall strings,Were weav-weav-weaving Wonderful things.Many bright threads, From where I couldn’t see,Were running through the harp-strings Rapidly,And gold threads whistling Through my mother’s hand.I saw the web grow, And the pattern expand.She wove a child’s jacket, And when it was doneShe laid it on the floor And wove another one.She wove a red cloak So regal to see,“She’s made it for a king’s son,” I said, “and not for me.” But I knew it was for me.She wove a pair of breeches Quicker than that!She wove a pair of boots And a little cocked hat.She wove a pair of mittens, She wove a little blouse,She wove all night In the still, cold house.She sang as she worked, And the harp-strings spoke;Her voice never faltered, And the thread never broke. And when I awoke,—There sat my mother With the harp against her shoulderLooking nineteen And not a day older,A smile about her lips, And a light about her head,And her hands in the harp-strings Frozen dead.And piled up beside her And toppling to the skies,Were the clothes of a king’s son, Just my size.
The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver
‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a fairy-tale-like narrative of a mother who sacrifices herself for her only son.
In the first part of this poem, the poet’s speaker, a grown man looking back on his childhood, conveys his mother’s words. She despairs the state of her son, who is quite young at the time. She has no clothing for him to wear or food for him to eat. As winter comes, the two stay inside and are forced to burn their possessions to stay warm. Finally, the only things left are a chair and a harp. The mother plays the harp all through the night creating, from its magical music, a huge pile of clothing for her son to take advantage of. This selfless act results in the child’s mother’s death.
The theme of ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ is the enduring strength of a mother’s love. Through various hardships, the speaker’s mother does everything she can to take care of her son. When their situation worsens and the two are near death in the middle of winter, the mother sacrifices herself so that her son can have clothes to wear and therefore survive the worst the season has to offer.
Structure and Form
‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a thirty-stanza ballad poem that is (mostly) divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a traditional rhyme scheme associated with ballads: ABCB. This pattern is maintained throughout much of the poem. There are a few moments where the end sounds diverge. Or, for example, when Millay changes the structure altogether. In the twelfth stanza and the twenty-seventh stanza, Millay used five lines instead of four (creating a quintain).
Throughout The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: a transition between lines that occurs at a natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza as well as lines three and four and stanza seven.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “clothes” and “cover” in line three of the first stanza as well as “boy breeches” in line two of the second stanza.
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “She” begins almost every line between stanzas twenty-three and twenty-six.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. It is seen through the poet’s depiction of the wind in the middle of the poem. She describes it as “howling” at the door like a dog or wolf.
Stanzas One and Two
“Son,” said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
“You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.
“There’s nothing in the house
To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with
Nor thread to take stitches.
In the first lines of The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,’ the poet begins by conveying the initial lines of dialogue between a mother and her son. The mother tells her child that although he needs clothes she has nothing in the house to use to make him some. He was young, only knee-high (perhaps four or five years old).
From only the first few lines, it quickly becomes clear that the family is quite poor. This is only emphasized in the next lines when the mother says that she also doesn’t have “shears” or “thread.” There is nothing in their home that she could use to make the clothes even if she had the cloth. The two are in a desperate situation, one can assume after reading the first two stanzas. But, the mother’s tone does not convey desperation. She seems to be simply stating facts as they are (at this point).
It should be remembered that this story, while it includes lines of the mother’s dialogue, is being told by the son. He starts off by saying “my mother” and “When I was knee-high.” He’s looking back on his past and remembers what life was like when he was a child. This allows him new insight into the situation. The story would likely be quite different if it was truly told from a child’s perspective.
Stanzas Three and Four
“There’s nothing in the house
But a loaf-end of rye,
And a harp with a woman’s head
Nobody will buy,”
And she began to cry.
That was in the early fall.
When came the late fall,
“Son,” she said, “the sight of you
Makes your mother’s blood crawl,—
The next lines provide readers with more details regarding the situation the mother and son are in. The mother reveals to her son, with growing emotion, that there is also “nothing in the house” to eat except the end of a loaf of rye bread. This won’t last them very long and the mother has no way to make money. The only item of any value they have is a harp with a woman’s head carved into it but no one will buy it. It’s unclear at this point why no one would pay for this, seemingly, interesting and valuable item. But, no matter the cause, the mother is growing desperate.
Time passes and the mother and son’s situation worsens. The two are incredibly poor and thin. Just the sight of her son’s body makes the mother’s “blood crawl.” He affects her in a deep, bodily way. She loves him and feels his pain as if it is her own.
Stanzas Five and Six
“Little skinny shoulder-blades
Sticking through your clothes!
And where you’ll get a jacket from
God above knows.
“It’s lucky for me, lad,
Your daddy’s in the ground,
And can’t see the way I let
His son go around!”
And she made a queer sound.
The son, who is telling this story, has “Little skinny shoulder-blades” that are sticking right through his clothes. His thin, useless clothing items are not suited for the coming winter and the mother has no idea what they’re going to do about this fact. There’s no way she can make him a jacket and they certainly can’t afford one.
She goes on, telling her child that if his father was still alive that he’d be horrified by how his son is going “around.” This small detail suggests how the two got into the situation they’re in. The father died and left the mother and son without any money to support themselves. But, the mother doesn’t spend any time mourning the loss of her husband. She is far more focused on the present and what she’s going to do to help her child.
Stanzas Seven through Ten
That was in the late fall.
When the winter came,
I’d not a pair of breeches
Nor a shirt to my name.
I couldn’t go to school,
Or out of doors to play.
And all the other little boys
Passed our way.
“Son,” said my mother,
“Come, climb into my lap,
And I’ll chafe your little bones
While you take a nap.”
And, oh, but we were silly
For half an hour or more,
Me with my long legs
Dragging on the floor,
The seventh and eighth stanzas of ‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ describe what happened when winter came. Up until this point, readers can assume that the two got by with their meager clothes. But, with the changing weather, things are about to get much harder. The child had no long pants nor “a shirt” to his name. Despite their terrible situation, the speaker recalls that his focus was on the fact that he couldn’t go outside to play with the other children. Like a child, he’s only concerned with what he’s missing out on. He doesn’t have the scope to worry about the coming days.
In a beautiful and highly relatable scene, the son recalls how his mother told him to crawl into her lap and take a nap while she tried to warm him with her body. This suggests that their lack of clothing, food, and likely, proper shelter makes it difficult to get to sleep (this is emphasized in the coming stanzas). She held him for a half-hour and during that brief period of time, the two were happy.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
To a mother-goose rhyme!
Oh, but we were happy
For half an hour’s time!
But there was I, a great boy,
And what would folks say
To hear my mother singing me
To sleep all day,
In such a daft way?
The speaker remembers the simplicity of that moment. It was a bright spot in a period of darkness and cold. The now-grown-up boy remembers how she sang him a nursery rhyme. Now, he wonders what other people would’ve thought if they could hear her singing to him to sleep and see their financial situation. He has a perspective on the situation that he didn’t have before and a new amount of self-consciousness. This has changed, to an extent, the peace he feels when he recalls the memory.
Stanzas Thirteen through Sixteen
Men say the winter
Was bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
And food was dear.
A wind with a wolf’s head
Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
And sat on the floor.
All that was left us
Was a chair we couldn’t break,
And the harp with a woman’s head
Nobody would take,
For song or pity’s sake.
The night before Christmas
I cried with the cold,
I cried myself to sleep
Like a two-year-old.
In the following stanzas, the speaker describes how their situation worsened. They experienced the cold in a way that most readers are going to struggle to understand. The child couldn’t sleep, had nothing to eat, and the two were always aware of the wind howling at their door, threatening them like a wolf (Millay uses an example of personification here).
The year was so bad that others, in better situations than theirs, commented on how rough it was. The two did everything they could to stay warm. This included burning their possessions, like their chairs. They continued in this way until all they had was a single chair that was too heavy for them to break and the harp.
The desperate situation leads up to the night before Christmas when the speaker, acting even younger than his age, cried himself to sleep. The sorrowful story lightens somewhat in the next lines as the mother picks up the harp and plays. Up until this point, the item proved itself to be entirely useless to the two. No one needed it and no one would buy it from them in pity (this suggests that they aren’t the only ones suffering so completely).
Stanzas Seventeen through Twenty
And in the deep night
I felt my mother rise,
And stare down upon me
With love in her eyes.
I saw my mother sitting
On the one good chair,
A light falling on her
From I couldn’t tell where,
And not a day older,
And the harp with a woman’s head
Leaned against her shoulder.
Her thin fingers, moving
In the thin, tall strings,
The speaker’s relationship with the harp, which was likely one of annoyance and frustration up until this point, changed as his mother picked it up and played. She loved him, he remembers and showed her love in her attempts to care for him despite their terrible situation. Her love is also shown through her dedication to the harp in the last stanzas.
The light in the eighteenth stanza is a symbol of both hope and happiness. For another brief moment, the speaker enjoys the warmth and beauty of his mother’s play. She looked incredibly young to him then and her fingers moved smoothly over the harp strings.
She wove “wonderful things” with the harp strings. The repetition of “weav-” in the twentieth stanza is an interesting technique. Millay likely composed the line in this way in order to allude to the layers of the song created through individual finger movements. The word should also take readers back to the initial issue the mother and son faced—a lack of fabric or supplies to make new clothes.
Stanzas Twenty-One through Twenty-Four
Many bright threads,
From where I couldn’t see,
Were running through the harp-strings
And gold threads whistling
Through my mother’s hand.
I saw the web grow,
And the pattern expand.
She wove a child’s jacket,
And when it was done
She laid it on the floor
And wove another one.
She wove a red cloak
So regal to see,
“She’s made it for a king’s son,”
I said, “and not for me.”
But I knew it was for me.
The next lines are beautifully lyrical and should remind readers of much of Milly’s best poetry. The speaker recalls how the harp’s sounds ran together, like thread, creating a “pattern” that expanded throughout the room.
‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver’ takes a somewhat fantastical turn at this point. The speaker describes how, with the harp, his beautiful, youthful mother wove “a child’s jacket” and then “another one.” The threads were “gold” and whistled through his mother’s hands as she played.
Here, the speaker is emphasizing the beauty of the music and how it was capable of transporting the speaker out of his terrible and inescapable situation. What she created was so beautiful and so different from the world he was used to that, for a moment, he couldn’t believe that the clothing items were for him. They were for a “king’s son,” he thought initially.
Stanzas Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six
She wove a pair of breeches
Quicker than that!
She wove a pair of boots
And a little cocked hat.
She wove a pair of mittens,
She wove a little blouse,
She wove all night
In the still, cold house.
Using anaphora, Millay describes in a list-like fashion, how the mother created one item of clothing after another. She made the breeches he so desperately needed, a hat, a pair of boots, a pair of mittens, a shirt, and more. The mother dedicated herself to the task with all of the energy she had left and persevered through the night and within the “still, cold house.”
Stanzas Twenty-Seven through Thirty
She sang as she worked,
And the harp-strings spoke;
Her voice never faltered,
And the thread never broke.
And when I awoke,—
There sat my mother
With the harp against her shoulder
And not a day older,
A smile about her lips,
And a light about her head,
And her hands in the harp-strings
And piled up beside her
And toppling to the skies,
Were the clothes of a king’s son,
Just my size.
The boy’s mother sang as she wove and “never faltered.” This beautiful, magical, and mysterious scene continues until the moment it is revealed that the child was sleeping. When he woke up, he remembers, he saw his mother with the “harp against her shoulder” still appearing as young as she did before. But now, her hands are frozen to the string and she’s passed away.
His mother used her final moments of strength to create something beautiful for her son. The dream-like narrative comes to a close with the revelation that “piled up beside her,” as high as the skies, there were “clothes of a king’s son / Just my size.”
The magic, it appears, was real and the mother managed, through the sheer strength of her love, to create something out of nothing. She gave her life for her child in the only way she knew how. Readers are meant to embrace the beauty and sorrow of the final lines of the poem without trying to reconcile what is real and what’s not.
The purpose is to highlight the lengths a mother will go to in order to care for her child. In this specific poem, the mother uses her last reserves of strength to ensure that her child survives the winter.
The speaker is a grown man who is looking back on his childhood and how he, and his mother, suffered through a terrible winter together. He remembers, in a dream-like fashion, the way his mother played the harp while he slept, weaving him a pile of kingly clothes.
The meaning is that mothers will give anything for their children. Within a very dark fairy-tale-like setting, the poet depicts a mother sacrificing herself for her only son and giving him the only thing she has left—the music from the harp and what it can create.
The theme is the strength of a mother’s love. The poet describes how the mother and son suffered through months of poverty after the father/husband passed away. Then, when the situation is at its very worst, the mother uses her final bits of strength to provide for her son.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. For example:
- ‘Bluebeard’ – takes the myth of Bluebeard and his secret room and retells it, using the room as a powerful symbol.
- ‘Elegy Before Death’ – is a poem about the physical and spiritual impact of a loss and how it can and cannot change one’s world.
- ‘First Fig’ – a well-loved and often discussed poem. In it, readers can explore a symbolic depiction of sexuality and freedom.