"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Edna St. Vincent Millay
People that build their houses inland,
People that buy a plot of ground
Shaped like a house, and build a house there,
Far from the sea-board, far from the sound
Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
Tons of water striking the shore,—
What do they long for, as I long for
One salt smell of the sea once more?
People the waves have not awakened,
Spanking the boats at the harbour’s head,
What do they long for, as I long for,—
Starting up in my inland bed,
Beating the narrow walls, and finding
Neither a window nor a door,
Screaming to God for death by drowning,—
One salt taste of the sea once more?
I’m not a big fan of perfect rhymes. In the hands of an inexperienced writer (or me) they can make the most metaphysical considerations sound like Dr Seuss. But Edna St Vincent Millay was not an inexperienced writer; she was a Pulitzer prize winner. Critic Allen Tate said that she successfully used the vocabulary of the nineteenth century to describe the experiences of the twentieth.
This poem is a meeting of large rhymes and large emotions. The basic rhymes are easy to see, in the second and fourth line of each stanza. Ground/ sound, shore/ more, and so on. And there are extra rhymes and sound effects to strengthen the poem without making the whole edifice collapse. In stanza 2 for instance, we’d expect that rhyme of shore/ more – but Millay lobs in an extra one between them with a line ending in ‘for’. Cheeky.
There is consonance, repeating consonant sounds (ground/ sound echoed in the word ‘inland’). There is assonance, repeating vowels (in that first stanza alone, so many ‘ow’ sounds – ground/ house/ house/ sound). There’s a smattering of alliteration – narrow/ neither/ nor and in sucking/ striking/ salt/ sea. In fact, this poem is heaving with sibilants. The hissing S appears in sea-board, sound, sucking, striking, salt, sea, spanking, starting, screaming. Your English teacher would tell you that this makes the poem sound like the sea, and perhaps it does.
Remember how Adrienne Rich mocked a silly question in her Song by repeating the word ‘lonely’? With Millay, it’s ‘house’ that gets the ironic slow clap. We get ‘house’ three times and ‘build’ twice in the first three lines. Either she’s being damn sloppy, or she’s emphasising an obsession with building. ‘People that buy a plot of ground/ Shaped like a house, and build a house there’ are people without imagination or ambition. Repetition serves for emphasis too – ‘Far from the sea-board, far from the sound’ and ‘One salt smell of the sea once more’, a line almost repeated at the end. ‘What do they long for, as I long for’ is repeated as well, with the sense of urgency that we might nowadays hear in ‘What the hell does Trump think he’s playing at?’
Marvellous. All of the dreary terms your English teacher used to suck the joy out of poetry, employed in one poem. I don’t normally analyse poetry in quite this way. As Michael Donaghy used to say, studying English literature because you like poetry is like studying dissection because you like dogs. It’s a tool that can be over-used and start to squeeze the life out of the thing you love. But these are the tricks of our trade, and Millay uses them to make a visceral cry for exhilaration and fresh air. Inside that tightly rhymed machine is a woman ‘beating the narrow walls’ of the claustrophobic inland life and actually ‘screaming to God for death by drowning.’ These are extreme physical reactions to an extreme physical longing. The inland environment is claustrophobic, arid, populated by those who buy and build. The sea is sensual and embodied – it strikes and spanks and sucks and tastes of salt. The sea, in fact, is downright saucy.
In short, it’s a trick. A poem is never about what it’s about. The open sea and the restrictive inland environment might be the source of the poem, but they stand for something else. It may be freedom versus constraint; sexuality versus inhibition; open hearts versus narrow minds. The whole poem pretends to ask why ‘people who build their houses inland’ behave as they do, what they think about. But it’s nothing to do with them. It’s not about them at all. It’s about the narrator, as most poems are.