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On "The House on the Hill"


Ellsworth Barnard

Sometimes we look in a poem for what is not there and was never intended to be there. We find him protesting to Mrs. Richards, with impatience showing through his jocularity "Good heavens, no! ĎThe House on the Hillí is no house that ever was, and least of all a stone house still in good order. I donít know why they assume and say such fool things, but they do, and they will do so for evermore." 13 The poem seems mainly an effort to embody in words a moment of nostalgia, perhaps much like that which finds expression in On the Night of a Friendís Wedding, and which was caused by the ringing of church bells "for the wedding of two people in whom I had not the remotest interest." These statements prepare us for the grimness of his comment that The Gift of God, where the theme of mother love blind to a sonís shortcomings is so trite that it could have been made into poetry only by a union of pathos and irony and irresistible music such as nothing but genius could command, "has been interpreted as a touching tribute to our Saviour."

13 Letters, p 161. This apparently refers to Amy Lowellís identification of "The House" as the Gardiner mansion in Robinsonís home town. Mr. Neff, similarly specific, finds in the poem "a contemporary local tragedyóthe forsaking of the East for the broader lands and wider opportunities of the West" (p 53). But, as the same critic points out, Robinson was not at that time much interested in social problems, at least as themes for poems. The poetís own comment, beyond which there is no reason to go, is simply that it "is a little mystical perhaps and is an attempt to show the poetry of the commonplace" (Untriangulated Stars, p. 132).

From Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. 1952 Macmillan Company.


Warner Berthoff

Two versions of one of his early success, the much-anthologized villanelle, "The House on the Hill," show him groping toward the characteristic style of his maturity, distinguished (though the advance is slight and uncertain in this instance) by a more concentrated specification of feeling and, coincidentally, a provocative obliquity of statement The first version, written out in a letter of February, 1894, antedates the second and published version by more than two years:

I

They are all gone away,
  The house is shut and still:
There is nothing more to say.

Malign them as we may,
  We cannot do them ill:
They are all gone away.

Are we more fit than they
  To meet the Master's will?--
There is nothing more to say.

What matters it who stray
  Around the sunken sill?--
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
  For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
  In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

II

They are all gone away,
  The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
  The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
  To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
  Around that sunken sill?
They are all gone away.

And our poor fancy-play
  For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
  In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

From The Ferment of Realism (1965).


Louis Cox

One resists pushing the autobiographical too far, yet the House on Lincoln Avenue, decaying New England and the decay of his own family before his very eyes—Dean, hopelessly addicted and very nearly a ghost, haunted the house in the flesh—must have had something to do with "The House on the Hill" and other "houses" in the long catalogue: Cavender's, Matthias’, Old King Cole’s, and above all that notable one with "the stairway to the sea," to mention only a few.

from Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry. New York: Pegasus, 1969. Copyright © 1969 by Western Publishing Company.


Richard Gray

In 'The House on the Hill', the bleakness issues from the sense that, now that the house in question is in 'ruin and decay' and its inhabitants are departed, any comment seems a superfluous gesture. The opening lines announce this perception:

They are all gone away,
  The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

To try to attach words to vacancy, to clothe transience and loneliness in language, is a futile gesture, the poem suggests. More remarks are added to the opening ones: but the constant repetition of the first three lines, in varying sequence, gives the impression that nothing more is really being said. Perhaps there is indeed 'nothing more to say'. Nevertheless, Robinson keeps on trying to say more. . . .

[See also John Newcomb’s comments in "About Robinson’s Poetry"]

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.


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