The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Ragged Island” is a twenty-four-line descriptive poem that expresses the poet’s deep connection to the Maine island in Casco Bay where she and her husband summered for many years. She meditates on the distinctive attributes of this island and its beneficial effects. Intimate in its approach, the poem addresses an unspecified “you,” most likely Millay herself, no stranger to Ragged Island.

The opening gesture of the poem is a fifteen-line segment punctuated as a single sentence. The first and last lines of this segment begin with the word “There” to emphasize the island itself. Its outstanding feature is a steep cliff at the top of which spruces grow. Because of the shape of this cliff and the way it plunges into the sea, there is no perceptible wave action—low tide or high tide makes little difference. Instead, the surrounding ocean simply “moves up and down” the cliff face. The speaker meditates on this feature. To her, it seems “as if/ All had been done, and long ago, that needed/ Doing.” Ragged Island emerges from the first ten lines as an extraordinary, memorable place. Nothing clutters the aspect of “Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach.”

In the rest of the poem’s first sentence, Millay draws a contrast between the “eastern wall” of Ragged Island and other, more ordinary seascapes. Because of the cliff and the lack of beach, there are neither people nor...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ragged Island” is loosely rhymed with a predominantly iambic rhythm, some of it strict, some fairly loose. In key places, the iambic foot is strong: “you row with tranquil oars” or “you only look; you scarcely feel.” The last nine lines of the poem are rhymed in an ababcdcdd scheme. This is a poem composed in a traditional manner but with a lack of rigidity about rhyme and meter.

Syntactically, however, the first fifteen lines are tightly constructed. Through a series of independent clauses punctuated by semicolons, Millay creates a long, periodic sentence. The reader is propelled to the end point: “There, thought unbraids itself, and the mind becomes single.” To achieve coherence, Millay employs a series of parallel phrases beginning with the word “no”: “no wave breaks,” “no driftwood there,” “no beach,” and, once again, “No driftwood.” The “no” is understood in lines 13 and 14, where she simply mentions “Barrels” and “Lobster-buoys.” She withholds the “no” in order to focus on the description of objects you’ll find elsewhere than Ragged Island. The choice of “unbraids” as a verb reinforces her dropping of the pattern. “Thought” loosens; there is no intertwining with perceived strands coming together to make a whole. There is simply wholeness or oneness.

Millay employs alliteration in the middle of the poem, where she notes the “Clean cliff,” the driftwood that gets...

(The entire section is 465 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brittin, Norman A. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Freedman, Diane P., ed. Millay at One Hundred: A Critical Reappraisal. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995.

Milford, Nancy. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: Random House, 2002.

Nierman, Judith. Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.

Thesing, William B., ed. Critical Essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.