The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver

- 1892-1950
“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 say
To 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 upon 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 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.
 
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 shoulder
Looking 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.

More by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
    And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
    And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
    In the sun 'tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
    Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can, 
    And her ways to my ways resign; 
But she was not made for any man, 
    And she never will be all mine.

The Suicide

"Curse thee, Life, I will live with thee no more!
Thou hast mocked me, starved me, beat my body sore!
And all for a pledge that was not pledged by me,
I have kissed thy crust and eaten sparingly
That I might eat again, and met thy sneers
With deprecations, and thy blows with tears,—
Aye, from thy glutted lash, glad, crawled away,
As if spent passion were a holiday!
And now I go. Nor threat, nor easy vow
Of tardy kindness can avail thee now
With me, whence fear and faith alike are flown;
Lonely I came, and I depart alone,
And know not where nor unto whom I go;
But that thou canst not follow me I know."

Thus I to Life, and ceased; but through my brain
My thought ran still, until I spake again:

"Ah, but I go not as I came,—no trace
Is mine to bear away of that old grace
I brought! I have been heated in thy fires,
Bent by thy hands, fashioned to thy desires,
Thy mark is on me! I am not the same
Nor ever more shall be, as when I came.
Ashes am I of all that once I seemed.
In me all's sunk that leapt, and all that dreamed
Is wakeful for alarm,—oh, shame to thee,
For the ill change that thou hast wrought in me,
Who laugh no more nor lift my throat to sing
Ah, Life, I would have been a pleasant thing
To have about the house when I was grown
If thou hadst left my little joys alone!
I asked of thee no favor save this one:
That thou wouldst leave me playing in the sun!
And this thou didst deny, calling my name
Insistently, until I rose and came.
I saw the sun no more.—It were not well
So long on these unpleasant thoughts to dwell,
Need I arise to-morrow and renew
Again my hated tasks, but I am through
With all things save my thoughts and this one night,
So that in truth I seem already quite
Free,and remote from thee,—I feel no haste
And no reluctance to depart; I taste
Merely, with thoughtful mien, an unknown draught,
That in a little while I shall have quaffed."

Thus I to Life, and ceased, and slightly smiled,
Looking at nothing; and my thin dreams filed
Before me one by one till once again
I set new words unto an old refrain:

"Treasures thou hast that never have been mine!
Warm lights in many a secret chamber shine
Of thy gaunt house, and gusts of song have blown
Like blossoms out to me that sat alone!
And I have waited well for thee to show
If any share were mine,—and now I go
Nothing I leave, and if I naught attain
I shall but come into mine own again!"

Thus I to Life, and ceased, and spake no more,
But turning, straightway, sought a certain door
In the rear wall. Heavy it was, and low
And dark,—a way by which none e'er would go
That other exit had, and never knock
Was heard thereat,—bearing a curious lock
Some chance had shown me fashioned faultily,
Whereof Life held content the useless key,
And great coarse hinges, thick and rough with rust,
Whose sudden voice across a silence must,
I knew, be harsh and horrible to hear,—
A strange door, ugly like a dwarf.—So near
I came I felt upon my feet the chill
Of acid wind creeping across the sill.
So stood longtime, till over me at last
Came weariness, and all things other passed
To make it room; the still night drifted deep
Like snow about me, and I longed for sleep.

But, suddenly, marking the morning hour,
Bayed the deep-throated bell within the tower!
Startled, I raised my head,—and with a shout
Laid hold upon the latch,—and was without.

* * * *

Ah, long-forgotten, well-remembered road, 
Leading me back unto my old abode, 
My father's house! There in the night I came, 
And found them feasting, and all things the same 
As they had been before. A splendour hung 
Upon the walls, and such sweet songs were sung 
As, echoing out of very long ago, 
Had called me from the house of Life, I know.
So fair their raiment shone I looked in shame
On the unlovely garb in which I came;
Then straightway at my hesitancy mocked:
"It is my father's house!" I said and knocked;
And the door opened. To the shining crowd
Tattered and dark I entered, like a cloud,
Seeing no face but his; to him I crept,
And "Father!" I cried, and clasped his knees, and wept.

* * * *

Ah, days of joy that followed! All alone
I wandered through the house. My own, my own,
My own to touch, my own to taste and smell,
All I had lacked so long and loved so well!
None shook me out of sleep, nor hushed my song,
Nor called me in from the sunlight all day long.

I know not when the wonder came to me
Of what my father's business might be,
And whither fared and on what errands bent
The tall and gracious messengers he sent.
Yet one day with no song from dawn till night
Wondering, I sat, and watched them out of sight.
And the next day I called; and on the third
Asked them if I might go,—but no one heard.
Then, sick with longing, I arose at last
And went unto my father,—in that vast
Chamber wherein he for so many years
Has sat, surrounded by his charts and spheres.
"Father," I said, "Father, I cannot play
The harp that thou didst give me, and all day
I sit in idleness, while to and fro
About me thy serene, grave servants go;
And I am weary of my lonely ease.
Better a perilous journey overseas
Away from thee, than this, the life I lead,
To sit all day in the sunshine like a weed
That grows to naught,—I love thee more than they
Who serve thee most; yet serve thee in no way.
Father, I beg of thee a little task
To dignify my days,—'tis all I ask
Forever, but forever, this denied,
I perish."
        "Child," my father's voice replied,
"All things thy fancy hath desired of me
Thou hast received. I have prepared for thee
Within my house a spacious chamber, where
Are delicate things to handle and to wear,
And all these things are thine. Dost thou love song?
My minstrels shall attend thee all day long.
Or sigh for flowers? My fairest gardens stand
Open as fields to thee on every hand.
And all thy days this word shall hold the same:
No pleasure shalt thou lack that thou shalt name.
But as for tasks—" he smiled, and shook his head;
"Thou hadst thy task, and laidst it by," he said.

Second Fig

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: 
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!