The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

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.

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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 things here, only the ocean and that wall of rock. Whatever might have crashed up against the cliff has left no sign. With no seaside detritus to distract the observer, Ragged Island’s cliff face offers a transcendental experience: “There, thought unbraids itself, and the mind becomes single.” Overall, the effect of the island is peaceful and unitary.

Composed of nine lines, the second segment of the poem also begins with the word “There” but contains three sentences, each set apart yet all leading to the same conclusion. Departing from the description of the cliff, the speaker describes someone rowing a boat peacefully toward Ragged Island. The rower causes no unseemly disturbance; the ocean simply folds back over the place where the rower has been, and there is “no scar from the cutting of your placid keel.” This delicate image is followed by statements underlining Ragged Island’s effect: “Care becomes senseless there; pride and promotion/ Remote.” Millay stresses the importance of observing well in order for the island’s full effect to occur. Taken up by observing the place, the rower is free from the intrusion of ordinary feelings.

To clarify Ragged Island’s effect, Millay contrasts it with experiences and passions of the world beyond this seascape. While she recognizes the importance of engagement with the world, Ragged Island makes passionate involvement in the world seem pointless. The island experience is definitely outside the ordinary realm; even “thrift is waste.” What is the point of ordinary virtues in a place whose effect is so extraordinary and spiritual?

The poem culminates in an expression of deep longing to be in the island environment, mainly because the speaker can experience peace and quiet “under the silent spruces.” Even the evening descends differently; without hurry, it simply gets dark. Thus there is no anxiety about time passing or about mortality. When death occurs, it does not sully the ocean, which remains intrinsically pure.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

“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 “hefted home,” and the “Barrels, banged ashore.” The sounds here are percussive, the brevity of the syllables akin to the speaker’s clarity and sharpness of vision. The clipped quality of the diction mellows somewhat in the quatrain about rowing “with tranquil oars.” While there is alliteration in “Shows no scar,” Millay employs a softer sound and reinforces it with the sibilance in “placid keel.” “Scar” is a significant metaphor. The rowboat may “cut” through the ocean, but there is no division, no separation, no violence.

Lines 20 and 21 are notable for the assonance contained in the statement concerning “adventure” as “aimless ardour.” Also striking is the paradox of “thrift is waste.” In both instances, Millay views the values of the outer world—whether “adventure” or “thrift”—as being useless on Ragged Island. Her poetic devices heighten her meaning.

The imagery and diction of the final three lines introduce a somber, almost funereal tone. The speaker longs to be on Ragged Island “under the silent spruces.” The preposition “under” suggests a burial. There is no more rowing, the evening is “quiet,” and “the sea [is] with death acquainted.” The element of eternity is introduced with the description of the sea as “forever chaste.” With all its teeming life, the ocean hardly seems a pure place. Perhaps chastity has more to do with the speaker’s ultimate state of being, no longer sullied by physicality but totally enveloped in the spiritual realm.


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

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.

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