(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.
(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