Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo”: A Close Reading

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                              RECUERDO
                               by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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 all our money but our subway fares.

It seems almost an anomaly to do a close reading of a poem that seems to not withhold anything in its meaning. Millay tells us that the poem entails–its frame if you will–an all night ferry ride, to and fro, of two companions, ending with the two giving away their previously purchased fruit to a woman either on the ferry or on shore at ride end in the early morning, saving for themselves only their subway fare.

Presumably, this is a poem that captures the frenzied excitement of two lovers, for whom time together, even in a humble setting and with little money (they had bought fruit), is what matters. Millay’s lover-friend, Floyd Dell, one of many, tells us in a 1959 letter that Millay had done the ride with Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva, later affirmed that year by Millay’s sister, Norma, who offered the poem’s Spanish title, “Recuerdo” (i.e., “I Remember”), as evidence. (De la Selva is a lover Milford misses in her biography of Millay (Savage Beauty 2001).

Famously, the poem’s initial two lines, “We were very tired, we were very merry,/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry” repeat themselves at the beginning of each stanza. Intriguingly, we anticipate a “but” to set up the contrast between the states of fatigue and exuberance, but it doesn’t occur, adding complication, perhaps suggesting the fervency of their passion. The omission could also imply a fatigue leading to silliness.

In their repetition, Millay ensures her readers’ focus on the activities themselves, separately depicted in each stanza: looking into a fire, leaning across a table; lying on a hilltop underneath the moon (stanza 1); eating fruit (stanza 2); buying a morning newspaper, hailing a mother, her head “shawl covered,” to whom they give their remaining fruit (stanza 3).

The references to looking into the fire and lying on a hill-top under the moon may initially appear incongruous in a poem supposedly confined to an all night ferry ride. A closer reading, however, implies they had exited the ferry at some point, perhaps to visit a tavern or café, enjoy the warmth of a fire and, later, lie on a hill top and gaze at the stars before reboarding: “And the whistles kept blowing….”

The mother appellation suggests the lovers’ own freedom from the encumbrances of marital. love. As such, this is a poem intrinsic to the Greenwich Village bohemianism of that era.

While the poem is sparing of the usual metaphors, it turns sharply poetic in the exquisite “And the sky went wan and the wind came cold,/And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.”

As such, it reflects the poem’s latent contrast between their practiced frugality and the plenitude of their love, reinforced at poem end in their giving their fruit away.The poem haunts with its rhythms–hexameter lines replete with feminine and masculine rhymes along with occasional near rhymes, alliteration and assonance, coalescing into a sensuous ambience.

Redolent with the nuances of memory, the poem sparkles with the effulgence of new love and idealization of a day that endures because of it. And like Whitman, the poem sanctifies the individuality of everyday experience. Despite the denigration of Modernists, the poem’s fundamental strength lies in its very simplicity, affording accessibility and enjoyment.

–R Joly

 

 

 

 

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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2 Responses to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo”: A Close Reading

  1. Pingback: On First Looking Into Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay | Brimmings: up from the well

  2. poetrycurator says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I just studied this in my Stanford poetry class online – Ten Premodern Poems by Women. Great post!

    more info
    https://lagunita.stanford.edu/courses/English/10-poems/Spring2015/about

    Like

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