“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 and 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 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,
Shw 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 nineteeen,
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 beside her
And toppling to the skies,
Were the clothes of a king’s son,
Just my size.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver

20 Comments

  1. Marilyn Anderson says:

    I remember we all had to memorize this poem in the 8th grade. I still remember all the words.

  2. Betty Eichhorn says:

    My sister read this poem to me when I was about 10 years old. Act that time, we slept 2 or 3 to a bed, There were 11 children in our family and were not wealthy. I thought at that time , we were so lucky. We had warm clothes and enought to eat so we felt rich. my sister has been dead for 30 years as she died at the age 52. I cried I remember her reading this poem as if it were yesterday. for some reason today, I decided to try and find it. I thought the title was “” The Ballard of the Hearth Weaver. I have it saved so I can read it often. Thanks for the memory and this web site. My age is 73.

  3. Pat Tyson says:

    My Mother told me this poem many years ago. I memorized for my 8th grade talent show and then did it for one of my daughter’s talent shows in elementary school. It has always stayed with me through all these years. She also told me the poem “The House With Noboby in It. I do not know who wrote it.

  4. cynthia l. kelly says:

    I am so happy I finally found this poem! I have been searching for it for years and never knew the name of the author. I read it when I was ten years old and re read many times it until the book was lost. I have always loved this one!

  5. Lorelei Stewart says:

    We memorized this poem in the 8th grade. I loved it. It always has stayed with me about a mother and her deep love for her child, and the fact that she gave all to take care of him. What a lesson to learn as a young child. I only hope that I can portray the same love to my children and then my grandchildren. I love the fact that my teacher loved this poem enough to share it with us.

  6. Deb says:

    I hand copied this poem from my 6th grade English book thirty nine years ago. I cried over it and decided to memorize it. From then on my mom would ask me to recite it for friends when they were over especially near the Christmas season. By the way, it still makes me tear up.

  7. Dwight says:

    I first read this poem when I was in Jr. High School and it was at the direction of my English teacher. I loved the poem then and still have the original sheet that the teacher gave out. I think I linked with the poem because it was as if the young boy in the poem had the same life I did. No matter where I go in life and no matter what I accomplish this poem reminds me to be humble through it all.

  8. Trina Flores says:

    I first heard this poem when I was in the third grade 1938 in Phila,Pa. When I was in the 6th grade our class had to learn this poem and I learned it all over night The next day I had to recite it in front of the class twice, the first time because i had stage fright and said it so fast, my teacher, made me do it all over again. I love this poem and have never forgot the verses. All my children the oldest, my daughter Maria Elena age 58 sent this link to me. My son Johnny who died in 1982 at the age of 28 loved me to recite this and act it out. My other two sons Mike and Martin and all my grand children,great-grand-children enjoy listening to me as i recite this favorite poem of mine.

  9. 777 says:

    I LOVE THIS POEM!!!!!!! YOU DEFINATELY HAVE TO READ IT!!!!!!! YOU’LL LOVE IT TO DEATH TOO!!!!!!!

  10. Angela Tirrell says:

    i was first introduced to this poem by my English teacher when I was in tenth grade. The teacher is still very influential and I still haven’t forgotten this poem!

  11. helo says:

    im sure edna st vincent millay was NOT smoking anything when she wrote this poem.
    it is awesome!

  12. Sherry Mannon Cole says:

    I first read the poem many years ago in my senior English class. I had a wonderful teacher who inspired me and left a positive influence on my life. He had me read this poem as a read aloud to the student body of a small high school in northwest Arkansas. I have never forgotten the poem or him!

  13. N. Wisniewski says:

    I became familiar with this poem through forensics during the 70’s. I often wondered what Ms. Millay was smoking when she wrote it. It is so creepy it makes me laugh.

  14. Jay Lee says:

    I learned of this poem from master magician and seance artist Eugene Burger’s book, Spirit Theater, although I think he recites a slightly edited version of it. I am using it (EB’s edit) in my own macabre piece of dark theatrical magic, as a segue into the dark sequence (when the lights go out and really weird stuff begins) It never seems to fail to get a reaction! Thanks Edna!

  15. Mike says:

    Johnny Cash did a touching recitation of it on Feb 24 1962 in a Louisiana Hayride broadcast and is on a CD
    called Johnny Cash Live Recordings from the Louisiana
    Hayride. I knew later he was a great folklorist but didn’t know a poor Arkansas guitar picker would have
    the early depth he did.- I had never heard the Ballad
    of the Harp Weaver til I bought this CD and did this google search after. Somehow you just know when you have the real thing like this poem. It immediately grabbed me and would have grabbed even a rural listener/ on Scene Records 2003

  16. John R. Gallup says:

    I discovered The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver in my American Literature course in 1942-43. Our teacher, Miss Long, interpreted it well as she was a trained actress. Her students learned to love the poetry that she dramatically performed. I now still appreciate the mittens knitted for me by a poor neighbor lady who in this way paid me for shoveling snow off her sidewalls and carrying in coal for her little stove. Later in life I acquired the vinyl tape recording made by Edna St. Vincent Millay herself. The pathos of the poem has touched me through the years every time I hear it. How profoundly a motherly love can be manifested in the way she clothes her child.

  17. n jimison says:

    Am so glad to find this poem.I forgot the Author and
    wanted to read it again .I first read it in English class years ago, I feel better now. Thank You

  18. J Prine says:

    This is a classic tale. Depressing in its simplistic description of a mother’s love for her son. I see to it every new mother of a boy-child I know gets a copy.

  19. Jeanne Finn says:

    We were very poor and my father had left my mother and us. She used to recite this poem when we were going to sleep. I still recite it in my mind at night. It helps to relax me and help me to sleep. Through the years I’ve forgotton some of the lines. Thank you for posting it on your website.

  20. j evans says:

    I used to recite this poem in competitions and at holiday banquets. Is it still recited widely. I picked it up at a high school forensics competition in the early 60’s. Inspirational in spite of the grief and poverty; the lightness of the merry verses of the mother & child are delightful in the midst of strife.
    “Love conquers all!”

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