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On "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree"

Michael Callon

Millay's "Sonnets From an Ungrafted Tree" beckons the reader to consider marriage, gender, and identity within the context of a household that is crumbling under the weight of a failed marriage and the patriarch's death. The woman returns to the house and husband as a kind of familiar stranger, and the fact that she returns "Loving him not at all," highlights a seemingly irreconcilable fissure between them. As much as the poem is about this wound in their relationship, it is also about the woman's confinement in "his house" and the possibility of her constructing a new identity after his death.

In stanza "X," the narrator queries, " And if the man were not her spirit's mate, / Why was her body sluggish with desire?" (lines 137-8). This "desire," at first glance, seems to be sexual, but much of the rhetorical weight of the poem works against this kind of energy. For example, the woman contemplates the "cold bed" that she spent "many a night in" (line 227). Also, earlier in the poem, while trying to ignite a fire in the hearth, we see her "softly stepping forth from her desire, / (Being mindful of like passion hurled in vain / Upon a similar task, in other days)" (lines 49-51). This "similar task" is, arguably, not something as mundane as starting a fire in the hearth but a previous effort to kindle "passion" in her marriage. When the woman finally gets the fire started, there is a note of surprise: ". . .the flame swept up flue!" (line 55). She has succeeded, but her success with this flame is immediately juxtaposed with her inability to ignite the flame of passion in her marriage. Likewise, the warmth of the hearth contrasts sharply with the "cold bed" that she once shared with her husband. Millay is drawing a subtle parallel between two of kinds kindling here, and deftly bridging past and present to subtly sketch a failed marriage.

The desire that surfaces at various nodes in the poem seems to belie sexual energy, it defies it and displaces it within the bleak walls of a house and husband that are returned to out of duty instead of love. Perhaps, it's not even duty that brings the woman back, but a need for closure. Either way, the woman is no longer in love with her husband, and her desire seems more akin to a deep wish for an identity that is not subsumed in the patriarchal shadow of "his house" than a form of sexual energy. This desire for selfhood is hinted at in stanza IX:

They had become acquainted in this way:
He flashed a mirror in her eyes at school;
By which he was distinguished; from that day
They went about together as a rule. (lines 117-20)

This flashing of her eyes with a mirror resonates with the husband's potential power over her, one that is directly related to his male desire. Initially, she is attracted to him because of the attention that he shows her, but it's evident that this kind of happiness always coexists with a certain dependence, one that ultimately leads her into a marriage that seemingly ends in unreconciled conflicts and cold numbness where love once resided. The woman seems very much like the apron mentioned in stanza XI that is blown off of the clothesline and "buried in the deepening drift, / To lie till April thawed it back to sight" (lines 150-1). If the wife's identity was "buried" in a cold and lonely marriage, her husband's death just might "thaw" and "unearth" her.

We witness no dialogue between the husband and wife, only patches of their past and present, and we are given no reason to believe that they have been reconciled before his death. In fact, the only mention of a direct communication between the two is in stanza "XII," where the husband ". . .turned and fell asleep at length, / And stealthily stirred the night and spoke to her" (lines 161-2). Even though the husband speaks, Millay does not privilege us with the text of his speech, nor does the woman seem to reply, except he does seem more "familiar" to her after her speaks. This familiarity is no substitute for a language that will promote forgiveness and/or resolution. Ultimately, Millay leaves the reader guessing about the (im)possibility of reconciliation, and, in doing so, brings the stifling reality of "his house" into even greater prominence.

A curious moment occurs in the poem when the wife hears the grocer approaching to make a delivery. She runs and hides on the basement stairway, enveloped in a cold and silent darkness: "Sour and damp from that dark vault / Arose to her the well-remembered chill; / She saw the narrow wooden stairway still / Plunging into the earth. . ." (lines 65-7)s. The "stairway" plunges into the "earth" in a basement that is also a "vault." This evokes a tomb-like atmosphere that not only foreshadows the husband's death but also re-articulates the idea that wife's identity has been "buried" or subsumed in the marriage. She hides on the stairway "breathless" and listens to the grocer come and go, in a precarious position somewhere between the vivacity of life and the silent embrace of death.. Her fear of being seen highlights her desire to avoid circumstances that reinforce her confining and, it seems, unwanted marital identity.

When she returns from the cellar, she is ever aware of her own desire for selfhood, of her need to literally not be seen as his wife. This need to remain unseen is also present in her decision to "let them leave their jellies at the door / And go away, reluctant, down the walk" (lines 99-100). She shuns human interaction and the prying eyes of outsiders until her husband dies. At this point, her obligations to him have dissolved. Arguably, it is her husband's death coupled with her reasons for coming "back" that allows the opportunity for a new self to emerge. There are no tears shed for her deceased husband at the close of the poem, but his burial must be arranged, and the woman despairingly imagines "The stiff disorder of a funeral" as a "hideous industry" with "crowds of people calling her by name." Her aversion to the funeral is obviously not located in any grief for her husband, rather it is yet another moment when she will have to be "attached" to her husband, even if it is only in memory. Ultimately, the possibility of a new identity emerges, the possibility of moving beyond the past that confined her within an unhappy marriage. However, the poem is not a celebratory one about the joy of this possibility, rather Millay seems more interested in circumstances that lead to its creation. Furthermore, Millay avoids reconstructing the woman's identity after her husband's death, so, while we are not privy to the fruition of her new identity, Millay has allowed us to grasp the importance of its possibility.

Copyright 2001 by Michael Callon

Sandra M. Gilbert

[Millay’s] analysis of the courage of women and the authority of the female experience is offered in her finest sonnet-sequence, "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree." This beautifully poised early narrative, set on a bleak New England farm, explores the privations of a failed marriage from the point of view of a disillusioned wife who left her husband but, hearing that he is ill, "came back into this house again / And watched beside his bed until he died, / Loving him not at all." Millay here celebrates womanly "endurance," documenting her argument with domestic details which become resonant symbols of both the daily drudgery against which her protagonist’s spirit must contend and the determination to survive through which this woman transforms housewifery into heroism…

Significantly, it is only when the husband dies that he becomes a figure of tragic dignity and, indeed, an icon of new life for his widow. The concluding sonnet of "An Ungrafted Tree" examines the inscrutability of death in a manner reminiscent of such great modernist meditations as Rainer Maria Rilke’s "Corpse-Washing" or D.H. Lawrence’s short story "Odour of Chrysanthemums." …But where Rilke emphasizes the corpse washer’s recognition of the dead man’s authority and the widow in Lawrence’s story feels "fear and shame" at the otherness of her dead husband, Millay’s protagonist feels joy that his new stranger is "not hers, unclassified" and, by implication, exultation that she is no longer his and classified.

From Sandra M. Gilbert, "Female Female Impersonator: Millay and the Theatre of Personality" in Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. William B. Thesing, ed. New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1993; 302-303.

 Cheryl Walker

In January 1922, [Millay wrote in a letter to Arthur Ficke]: "I hold a very nervous pen lately. Does your hand get that way sometimes, so that you want to dig in the earth with it, or whittle it, or thrust it into a broad fat back, – anything but write with it?" (Letters, 143). In "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" it is possible to see her using her art to develop a perspective on the aggressive impulses she was feeling…

This sonnet sequence is notable in Millay for its rendering of character, its imagism (since almost everything is "told" in pictures of the body and the domestic and natural worlds), and for its restraint. We are never informed… of the reasons the woman left her husband or precisely why she returned "loving him not at all." …As readers we are the ones who see her engaging in the tasks assigned to women: setting the house to rights, making the tea and the fire, giving "of her body’s strength" to the man as though he were a child whose hands needed steadying about the cup. Furthermore, Millay invites us to see this woman’s impulses as both mediated by culture and masochistic in the sense Mary Ryan uses that term, where gratification comes from an activity which is stressful and self-defeating. Like a magazine housewife, this woman learns to

Polish the stove till you could see your face,
And after nightfall rear an aching back
In a changed kitchen, bright as a new pin,
An advertisement, far too fine to cook a supper in.

The use of "you" and "your" … seems to make this activity a ritual of capitalism, "an advertisement" of the role assigned to women who must make their kitchen "bright as a new pin" despite the fact that it then becomes unusable.

The last line of the couplet, with its extra syllables, suggests a metaphor for the disillusionment the woman feels with her life in general. In pursuing the pattern of romantic love given by patriarchy, she discovers not that her husband is a brute, but that he becomes an accomplice in continuing, rather than a partner in terminating, her frustration.

…[T]he woman now seems to feel that her body has in some way betrayed her. By flashing a mirror in her eyes at school, [her husband] appeared to give her her body in a new way. He appealed to her narcissism. But like the male gaze which promises subjectivity to the woman only to betray that promise in the end, desire for the other’s body that is actually desire for her own selfhood confuses the woman as to her real goal. The young woman cannot know herself by looking into this mirror. But she believes her needs addressed by the desire he seems to arouse in her: "And if the man were not her spirit’s mate, / Why was her body sluggish with desire?" …

Only when her husband is dead, and "From his desirous body the great heat / Was gone at last," can she begin to find her own way. At the end the poet says:

She was the one who enters, sly and proud,
To where her husband speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers, unclassified.

In this way she becomes "an ungrafted tree," set free from her younger self who has been inscribed within the structure of another’s life. The poem suggests that even during their separation the woman was not wholly free, so that when she returns to "the wan dream that was her waking day," she is merely "borne along the ground / Without her own volition." Who, then, is the "strange sleeper on a malignant bed"? Is it her husband or herself, grafted onto his need for her?

Cheryl Walker, Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991; 153-155.

 Norman A. Brittin

In "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" Millay relates the experience of "the New England woman" who returns in winter to her dying husband’s house to care for him although she has no love for him. The stark directness and the physical and psychological realism of the sequence are notable. The same observation of details that one finds, for example, in "Souvenir"… appears in these sonnets with utmost vividness; the startling precision of the imagery, both visual and auditory, is impressive…

Sister M. Madeleva [Chaucer’s Nuns and Other Essays. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1925; 144-53.] thought the sonnets of this sequence were "so deeply rooted in New England soil that they might have been done by Robert Frost." In fact, she thought Frost "unquestionably" Millay’s teacher. True, the situation might make one think of "The Hill Wife" and "An Old Man’s Winter Night"; but Millay’s work in its rhythms and in its use of concrete detail is much closer to the honest, direct poetry of the early William Morris… As a sonnet sequence, it is related to [George] Meredith’s Modern Love and [Arthur Davison] Ficke’s Sonnets of a Portrait Painter… Meredith used a sixteen-line "sonnet" in Modern Love; similarly, Millay took liberties with the sonnet form in "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree." She used three quatrains and a couplet, but the third quatrain rhymes e f f e, and the fourteenth line has seven feet. The usual Shakespearean content-divisions are ignored in most of the sonnets, which are treated as stanzas, fourteeners.

Norman A Brittin, Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967; 116-118.

 Francis Hackett

"Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" is flawlessly realized, without hiding its rigor. Intense feeling goes with "chastity of soul," and the humblest of details, like the commonest of creatures, win dignity from the art they incite, both to very great height and to equally great depth.

From The New Republic 135 (December 24, 1956): 21-22.

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