Sandra M. Gilbert: On "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree"

[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.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Sandra M. Gilbert: On "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author William B. Thesing Criticism Target Edna St. Vincent Millay
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication "Female Female Impersonator: Millay and the Theatre of Personality"
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