Michael Callon: On "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree"

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.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Michael Callon: On "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Callon Criticism Target Edna St. Vincent Millay
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media