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The Mill -- Edwin Arlington Robinson

       
(Poem #821) The Mill
 The miller's wife had waited long,
 The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
 And there might yet be nothing wrong
 In how he went and what he said:
 "There are no millers any more,"
 Was all that she heard him say;
 And he had lingered at the door
 So long it seemed like yesterday.

 Sick with a fear that had no form
 She knew that she was there at last;
 And in the mill there was a warm
 And mealy fragrance of the past.
 What else there was would only seem
 To say again what he had meant;
 And what was hanging from a beam
 Would not have heeded where she went.

 And if she thought it followed her,
 She may have reasoned in the dark
 That one way of the few there were
 Would hide her and would leave no mark:
 Black water, smooth above the weir
 Like starry velvet in the night,
 Though ruffled once, would soon appear
 The same as ever to the sight.
-- Edwin Arlington Robinson
           (1920)

A morbid poem, the storlyline echoing that of many of the more depressing
sort of ballad. However, while 'The Mill' does rely in part upon the little
atmospheric touches common in the genre - the dying fire, the miller's wife
'sick with a fear that had no form', the velvet blackness of the night - its
main impact lies more in the tension between the story's development and the
quietness with which it is told.

Notice how there is no attempt to introduce the characters, to gain the
readers' sympathy for them that their death may have all the more impact.
Instead, the very casualness and lack of commentary with which the story is
told, the anonymity of the miller and his wife, the absence of any motive
other than the enigmatic "there are no millers any more", seem to say that
the double suicide was nothing particularly noteworthy, and that, like the
waters of the millrace, the continued passage of life would hide them, and
leave no mark.

By rights, the poem ought to feel a lot more hurried - in three short
verses, the scene is set, builds up to the discovery of a suicide, and
follows with another. Exeunt omnes. And yet, the actual effect is the very
opposite of hurried. The poem moves, rather, with a quiet grace; the curtain
opens, the characters are introduced, have their brief moment on stage, and
exit again, but so smoothly and naturally that at no point does the
transition between scenes feel hasty or abrupt. And yet, in counterpoint,
there is the increasing urgency of the protagonist, the buildup from
apprehension to fear to despair, the suggestion of a barely contained thrill
of horror that permeates the 'warm and mealy fragrance' of the mill and the
smooth black waters outside.

Afterthought:

"There are no millers any more" sounds like it could be a bit of social
commentary, an attribution of the miller's suicide to the loss of his job
when economic conditions overwhelmed the self-employed miller. Comments?

Biography: poem #234

Links:

  http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/robinson/mill.htm is a
  fascinating grammatical analysis of the poem, suggesting that Arlington is
  playing subtle games with the reader's perception of reality, and that
  "Another, even more provocative question has never been asked: did the
  miller actually hang himself?" Highly recommended.

  http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/robinson/robinson.htm has links
  to several other essays on the poet's life and works

-martin

37 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Deborah Ottinger said...

I was prompted to visit your site by a reference to "The Mill" in the
excellent film, "The Lives of Others." One of the characters, Albert
Jerska, has been blacklisted by the GDR apparatchiks and has therefore
not directed a play in ten years. He says that he has begun to feel
like a projectionist without a screen, or a miller without a mill.
Right then, if you're familiar with "The Mill," you understand what will
happen next. The film does a superb job of conveying the spiritual
destruction wrought by the police state, using suicide as the chief
symptom and symbol of this destruction. The reference to "The Mill"
enriches this message further.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone running the site anymore? Id hoped to find an explication on The Three Taverns by Edwin Arlington Robinson... I've enjoyed your emails & site for a long time. Thanks to whoever thought of this site.

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