Could anything express the isolation and desolation of old age better than the closing four lines of this poem? It makes an interesting comparison with Robert Frost’s ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’, and indeed Robinson may be counted as one of Frost’s influences. Robinson’s diction may be more consciously literary, but there is the same awareness that sometimes the more simply things are said the better they are said.
I remember when I first read the poem at school my literal mind was puzzled by the phrase ‘with only two moons listening’. I felt we could rule out the possibility that the action was taking place on Mars. So did this mean Eben was seeing double because he was drunk? Didn’t seem very poetic. In the end I decided that the second moon must be the remembered harvest moon of other days. For ‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’
Mr Flood’s Party
Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:
‘Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.’ He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: ‘Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.’
Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.
Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:
‘Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!’
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
‘Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.
‘Only a very little, Mr. Flood —
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.’
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang —
‘For auld lang syne.’ The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below —
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
Edwin Arlington Robinson