A Solitary Tree’s Fight for Individuality and Autonomy
- A Discussion on Edna St Vincent Millay’s Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree -
Mankind is known for making the world subject to itself, mankind has gotten itself involved in every imaginable aspect of life. We believe ourselves to govern nature: We build artificial islands, we try to defeat diseases and death, we experiment with genetics to create new life according to our ideals – not yet the lives of human beings, but those of plants and animals. For centuries our ancestors have been selecting suitable cows and bulls for reproduction in order to get promising breeds; they have been mingling different varieties of corn to receive better harvests, to name but a few examples. Another method of changing plants into another variety is grafting, a process that is not primarily used to change genetics, but to combine features of several plants into one. “Grafting is a way to change a large tree from an old to a new variety. It is also a method of using a root system better adapted to soil or climate than that produced naturally by an ungrafted plant” (Rothenberger, 1). Edna St Vincent Millay suggests in her poem Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree that women in the previous century had to bear a very similar fate to that of a tree to-be-grafted: Society wanted women to be housewives, to obey and represent their husbands, to care for the family and to forget about any ideas of developing their selves – as soon as this would go beyond housekeeping. Therefore, women were brought up to put aside their own interests and to be good wives and housekeepers; they were brought up to adapt to social restrictions, just like a tree is grafted to better adapt to a certain environment, cut short of all branches that would develop in another direction. However, the protagonist in Millay’s poem rejects the traditional role of a housewife; she tries to escape and fights for individuality and autonomy in opposition to being grafted.
In the following I will provide evidence for the thesis that this protagonist is not only a woman, but also an individual with distinctive features, yet that she - despite her not entirely fruitless attempts to break free - remains bound by the collective identity of women. Therefore, this paper will start off negotiating the boundary between the individual and the group; it will then focus on the accomplishments and failures of the protagonist’s attempts to escape conformity, paying special attention to society’s role in restricting women’s self-development; and finally, it will attempt to account for Millay’s motivation to write this poem the way she did.
As a first step, I will illustrate that Millay’s protagonist in Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree is part of the collective society of women and thus can function as a representative of that group. This approach will provide a basis for drawing conclusions on whom this poem addresses and will thus allow us to speculate about Millay’s intended messages, to which we will come back at the end of this paper.
As the attentive reader may easily have recognized, Millay’s heroine opposes the traditional role of women of her time; however, at the same time Millay does not describe her as someone completely different from everyone else, but has her displaying numerous traits that are considered to be typically feminine. One example of such a widespread female property is women’s stereotypical fear of spiders, which the protagonist shares as we read on page 608: “No less afraid than she has always been / Of spiders up her arms and on her face.”
Another property she has in common with lots of other women is her function within the family; she is to carry a heavy burden, supporting her husband and providing stability for family life. This aspects is nicely symbolized in sonnet III, where Millay describes her carrying a heavy load of fire wood, “set[ting] her chin / forward, to hold the highest stick in place” (608), which reflects the heroine’s ability to cope with the situation: She has done this task innumerable times before, she knows exactly how to deal with the ballast, she knows perfectly well which movement is necessary to prevent the sticks from falling down. These findings may be used to suggest that she is nothing more than a typical woman of that time; we will see in the following, however, that her personality cannot be reduced to simply being a woman in general.
Yet what is it that makes Millay’s protagonist special and distinguishes her from other women? To begin with, let us have a look at a characteristic feature of women communities: talk. Women love to gossip and - unlike men - discuss all kinds of problems with their friends. The protagonist in Millay’s Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree used to participate in that kind of talk earlier (“She told, in secret and with whispering,” 614), but when her neighbors come around chattering shortly before her husbands death, she refuses to open the door (Millay, 613). This shows her retreat from society as a whole (talking about others) as well as from her former mates (talking with them) – or, as Irene Fairly puts it, “the wife avoids all occasions for bonding with others through talk” (Fairly, 59). Thus she is not simply a woman behaving the same way all women do (if there is any such behavior at all), but rather is an individual rejecting certain conventions.