Week 187: Mr Flood’s Party, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

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

Week 152: How Annandale Went Out, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

A poem first published more than a century ago, in 1910, but still topical given the ongoing debate on assisted dying, and the recent decision of our MPs that cats and dogs may be put out of their misery but human beings must, like Shakespeare’s Gloucester, be tied to the stake and stand the course.

How Annandale Went Out

‘They called it Annandale – and I was there
To flourish, to find words, and to attend:
Liar, physician, hypocrite, and friend,
I watched him; and the sight was not so fair
As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:
An apparatus not for me to mend –
A wreck, with hell between him and the end,
Remained of Annandale; and I was there.

I knew the ruin as I knew the man;
So put the two together, if you can,
Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself, as I was, on the spot –
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this?… You wouldn’t hang me? I thought not’.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Week 95: For A Dead Lady, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

The American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) is probably best remembered today for that fine poem of old age, ‘Mr Flood’s Party’, but I like this one too, for all its datedness. Yes, the diction is dodgy in places: a line like ‘Whereof no language may requite’ creaks now and probably creaked when it was written. And yes, it may seem not quite the thing now to speak of women in that tone of courtly adulation that always carries a hint of patronage. But if you can accept the poem on its own terms, you may find it a moving enough indictment of ‘Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent’.

For a Dead Lady

No more with overflowing light
Shall fill the eyes that now are faded,
Nor shall another’s fringe with night
Their woman-hidden world as they did.
No more shall quiver down the days
The flowing wonder of her ways,
Whereof no language may requite
The shifting and the many-shaded.

The grace, divine, definitive,
Clings only as a faint forestalling;
The laugh that love could not forgive
Is hushed, and answers to no calling;
The forehead and the little ears
Have gone where Saturn keeps the years;
The breast where roses could not live
Has done with rising and with falling.

The beauty, shattered by the laws
That have creation in their keeping,
No longer trembles at applause,
Or over children that are sleeping;
And we who delve in beauty’s lore
Know all that we have known before
Of what inexorable cause
Makes Time so vicious in his reaping.

Edwin Arlington Robinson