Edna St. Vincent Millay

poetry

Recuerdo

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 hilltop 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.

– – –

I don’t know much about Edna Millay. Although she’s quite popular and her name is well known, I never read much of her work in school – at least that I remember. But we’ve read a number of her poems in my weekly poetry class, and this poem, Recuerdo, struck me in particular. I went out and picked up her Selected Poems. Her life in poetry started very quickly; she won a contest in 1917 with the poem Renasence, and a member of the audience to which she read offered to pay Edna’s way through Vassar College. There she studied and wrote, but was never one for academia; apparently Edna was quite a feisty gal. I read a story that the dean wanted to expel her, except the she was such a fine poet. When she left Vassar she moved to Greenwich Village, still under patronage, and was quickly wrapped up in what Fitzgerald called “The Jazz Age.” She went to all the parties and was well loved; indeed, she was quite beautiful, with fiery red hair and a wit to match. She had men practically proposing to her by the ends of her readings. But after years on the circuit she became ill and retired to the country, quietly living and writing the rest of her years.

Back to Recuerdo (which means “I remember” or “I record” in Spanish). It has a very simple rhyme: aabbcc. In fact most of Millay’s poems rhyme, a choice that made her work accessible, popular, and entertaining. (Meanwhile the avant garde was working toward very different goals – remember the Imagists?) Much of her poetry too is metrical – Recuerdo is lightly attached to (forgive me) “dactylic tetrameter,” meaning four sets of three-syllabled “feet.” In this way it makes the poem much like a waltz, – or – the swaying of a ferry. But some of the lines have one syllable too many – the definition of that lovable word “sesquipedalion.”

Recuerdo resonates with that end-of-the-night euphoria, that combination of exhaustion and absolute joy. There is only a slight sense of the actual events of the night – a hilltop, a fire, the moon – the poem focuses on the shaggy feeling of going home. They cross on the ferry eating apples and pears, vivid, crisp fruits, sensory anchors to hold us in the poem as Edna takes us swaying on the water. One can see her and her companion munching away on a basket of apples – it’s such a sensual moment. The most radiant image, though, is the “bucketful of gold.” I picture a big ladle dipping into the ocean. The sun seems at once both warm and crisply-cold like water. The last stanza finds them pouring that bucket out onto the streets of New York, giving their euphoria away as fruit and newspapers and change. A moment of beauty ending with a moment of charity.

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