10 March 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/11


We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable –
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold;
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna St Vincent Millay

This poem is framed by its title, Recuerdo, a Spanish word that means not only a memory, a recollection, but also a memento, a keepsake, a memorial. What is the speaker recalling and commemorating: a giddy, by-gone night? the friend or lover she spent it with? her youth? Though she doesn't indicate her age by anything specific, this seems a poem about youth in the way that Puccini's La Bohème is: seen through the golden haze of memory, there's a rapturous, insouciant approach to the daily hassles and encroaching tragedies of life. These are people young and energetic enough to stay up all night, without much worry about getting to work the next morning, and optimistic enough not to worry too much about work and money, and to feel very merry while also very tired. (Things like this make me feel that I was not very good at being young; I never had the ability to stay up all night, I was always too anxiety-ridden about things like having subway fare. . . .)

The repetition of the first two lines in each stanza helps create the sense of memories being summoned; it interesting that the dash that ends the first line in the first two stanzas gives way, at the end of the first line of the third stanza, to a comma, as if the lines were being spoken with increased certainty, the break of the dash giving way to the light pause of the comma. (Similarly the dash at the end of the third line in the first stanza gives way to a comma in the third line of the second stanza, as the memories come with increased fluency; in a poem like this with a structure built on repetition and similarity, these small changes are telling.) The opening lines also create a mysterious ballad-like effect by raising questions that are not answered – they're tired because it's night and people get tired, but why are they merry? why are they riding back and forth aimlessly on the ferry, particularly if they're so tired; wouldn't sensible people go home and go to bed? – creating a sense of emotionally extravagant youth: they do these things because they are together, and because they can.

In each of the stanzas, the opening lines give way to the memory of tangential but vivid details of the sort that tend to linger in the memory for no discernible reason, except that they make the past come back to life (in the manner of Proust's madeleine dipped in lime-flower tea). And each stanza ends with the return of morning – night is a magical time of delightful silliness, in which even the stable smells and the whistle are part of the charm; morning seems to bring with it a grim reminder that the workaday world awaits. (Perhaps there is a reflection here of the poetic tradition of the aubade, the song of parting that lover sings to beloved when dawn arrives to part them.) The first stanza ends "the dawn came soon"; to me, the implication is "too soon," and farewell then to lying on a hillside beneath the moon. The second stanza ends with the image of the sun rising "dripping, a bucketful of gold," which is lovely and striking, but also carries a mercenary hint of what it takes to survive in the daytime world (by contrast, these night voyagers give away all their money except the bare minimum needed to get home). And when the sun rises the sky "went wan"; that is, it became sickly, pale, weary (not the usual associations with sunrise), and the wind blows cold. The third stanza ends with the sadly emblematic and isolated figure – aged, struggling to make ends meet – of an old woman selling newspapers in the cold dawn. She weeps with gratitude for the fruit and the spare change. The ferry riders buy a morning paper which "neither of [them] read": they'll discover the news of the morning, the struggles with money and age and loneliness, soon enough.

I took this from the Collected Poems of Edna St Vincent Millay.


Michael Strickland said...

Love Ms. Edna, and thanks for her poem which I'd never read before. Also glad I was probably better than you at being young, although I also wasn't crazy about staying up all night since sleep has always been a great pleasure and a profound need. Still, there were those occasional stay-up-until-dawn marathons that usually involved adventures (the ferry boat) and kissing (which isn't actually mentioned in the poem but feels implied).

And that's my dipped in lime-flower tea moment.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Very glad you liked the poem. I agree, kissing feels very strongly implied in the poem.

Unknown said...

I love this, and love the way it ends, and what you said about the ending. I think it's beautiful to find a way to not end their joy (after all, they found something to do instead of read that paper) but to remind us that there must be an end. I have to say that, as I was reading, I was dreading the third stanza because I assumed that it was going to end badly, and I had gotten caught up in their fun night. Were you reminded of Before Sunrise? I was.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I had not thought of Before Sunrise, but I should have. Thanks for the reminder. I really liked that movie, but then I saw it at the right time: I wasn't young enough to think life (at least my life) was going to be like that, but I wasn't old enough to be bitterly indifferent to them.