Poetry

A Look At The Pulitzer Prize For Poetry In 1923

The Pulitzer Prize is one of the most revered literary prizes in the world.  Poets who receive this award become household names and gain an incredible amount of exposure.  They often go on to receive large grants to continue their work and enjoy a much larger audience after winning the award.

Who Won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923?

In 1923, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry was The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver: A Few Figs from Thistles: Eight Sonnets in American Poetry, 1922, a miscellany by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  It is a remarkable collection of poems and sonnets that are still very impressive today.  Here is a bit more information about Edna St. Vincent Millay and her poems.

Who was Edna St. Vincent Millay?

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine.  Her parents were Cora Buzelle, a nurse, and Henry Tolman Millay, a schoolteacher.  Edna described her childhood home as “between the mountains and the sea where baskets of apples and drying herbs on the porch mingled their scents with those of the neighbouring pine woods”.

In 1904, Edna’s parents separated.  Edna and her two sisters remained with their mother Cora and moved from town to town, living in a state of poverty.  While the family didn’t have much in terms of financial wealth, they were well endowed when it came to literary wealth.  Edna’s mother travelled with trunk full of classic literature including works by Milton and Shakespeare.  These works were the source of Millay’s love of writing.

Edna later mentioned her mother’s influence and support in Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, writing

“I cannot remember once in the life when you were not interested in what I was working on, or even suggested that I should put it aside for something else”.

Eventually, the family settled in Camden, Maine.  Around this time, Edna began writing her own poems.  She continued to write during her school years and quickly developed her literary talents.

Millay had numerous works published between 1906 to 1910 in the famous children’s magazine St. Nicholas.  She also had a poem reprinted in a 1907 issue of Current Opinion.  In 1912, her work received critical acclaim, wining an award in The Lyric Year.  Millay enrolled at Vassar College in 1913 at the age of 21 where she continued to write poems and plays.

After graduation, Millay moved to New York where she worked with Provincetown Players on Macdougal Street and the Theatre Guild.  She later played a role in forming Cherry Lane Theater.  While living in New York she associated with other well known writers including Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, Susan Glaspell, and Floyd Dell.

Her work continued to gain critical acclaim and she gained a great deal of notoriety for her dramatic works including Aria da capoThe Lamp and the Bell, and The King’s Henchman.

A photo of Edna St. Vincent Millay
Photographer: Carl Van Vechten

Millay was a particularly skilful writer of sonnets, which led to many comparisons between her work and the work of Robert Frost.  She had the ability to combine traditional forms of poetry with a modern sensibility, which created a uniquely American form of literature.

Her 1920 collection of poems A Few Figs From Thistles was an interesting piece of work that focussed on the feelings of young people in post-war America.  It expressed the sentiments that many young people had at the time, with rebellion against tradition and female liberation being two central themes.

Some of the poems in this work denigrated traditional American values including female prudence, respectability, and constancy.  Her poems also emphasised that the needs of women are no less important than a man’s in respect to sexuality and desire within relationships.  At the time, this raw expression of female sexuality and feminism drew some controversy.

In 1922 she published The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, which helped her earn the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.  The poem looks through the eyes of a young boy who is being told by his mother of her difficulty feeding and clothing him.  It goes on to describe the hardships of the boy’s life, with harsh winters and insufficient food.

Although the family didn’t have enough clothing or food and they burned most of their furniture for warmth, they still owned a “harp with a woman’s head” that nobody would buy.  One Christmas eve the mother sat down and began playing the harp.  They suddenly realised that the harp is magical and is capable of making clothes.  She continues to play the harp, weaving clothes for the boy while singing him to sleep.

The boy eventually falls asleep, only to wake in the morning to discover that his mother has passed away.  He also find piles of clothing “fit for a king’s son”.  At first glance, this is a very sad poem that shows a family living in desperate circumstances.  However, it also shows how love remained a central part of this family’s life, even as they lived in dire poverty.

Despite being poor, the mother did not blame the child or the child’s deceased father.  There was only a calm sense of sadness in the household as the mother tried to distract her son from their problems with nursery rhymes.

The reader is left wondering if the mother knew of the harp’s magical properties.  If she willingly sacrificed herself to provide a chance of survival for her son.  It is a beautiful poem full of sadness, love, and sacrifice.  You can read the Pulitzer prize winning poem below.

The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver by 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 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 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 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.

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have a great respect for all the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and occasionally dabble in the odd whisky.

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