Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

The woman who wrote “Ragged Island” was not the darling of the New York literary world whose “candle burn[ed] at both ends,” as she once was. Millay was aging, and her speaker sheds worldly concerns such as achievement or ambition and instead seeks spiritual union. “Ragged Island” was published posthumously in 1954. Millay had died four years earlier, and this poem could be read as a desire for a peaceful death. If so, its gestures and images take on an eerie quality. Not a simple poem about the desire for unity with nature, this poem anticipates the end of life. In it, Millay composes the preferred setting for her release from earthly concerns and from her physical being.

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The speaker of “Ragged Island” is exhilarated by coming close to the chosen place. The opening repetition, “There, there,” conveys her excitement. If “no wave breaks,” there is no crash of surf, thus minimal sound. Here it is “as if/ All had been done, and long ago, that needed/ Doing.” Millay knows that “cold tide” and how it moves differently here on Ragged Island’s eastern edge. She longs for that “Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach.” One could read that plunge as Millay’s perception about the end of life. If so, it is chilling.

The poem could be read simply as an expression of an old truth: Spiritual unification with nature is worth seeking. In Millay’s austere “Ragged Island,” this unification comes if one is willing to separate from worldly concerns and social intercourse: The rower is alone. Her theme is clearly articulated: “Care becomes senseless there; pride and promotion/ Remote.” At the same time, the poem takes on more depth and poignancy when read as the poet’s anticipation of her own death. She confronts it bravely and with clear vision.

Millay’s best work often came when she wrote about her experiences in settings such as this Maine island. With its chiseled clarity and the formality of its devices, “Ragged Island” is typical Millay. She always preferred traditional methods of writing poems. Over time she wrote a looser stanza, as here in “Ragged Island,” with its varied line lengths and flexible rhyme scheme. She paints a vivid seascape for her readers, who can appreciate the sonority of her rhymes, her alliteration, and her assonance. The energy of the poem, however, goes toward its series of negations, among them those “Lobster-buoys, on the eel-grass of the sheltered cove.” In order to enter the full experience of the poem, one needs to learn how to shut out such tempting distractions. Most people avoid thinking about death; Millay imagines it coolly and without self-pity. This is the importance of her poem.

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