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On "The Mill"

Ellsworth Barnard

Another, clearer study of a suicidal mood is The Mill, where the final note is not of tormented conflict between doubt and desire but rather of yearning for release and oblivion.

Black water, smooth above the weir
    Like starry velvet in the night,
Though ruffled once, would soon appear
    The same as ever to the sight.

from  Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. Copyright 1952 by The MacMillan Company.

Glorianna Locklear

A minor flood of critical ink has been spilled over Edwin Arlington Robinson's "The Mill," much of it concerned with whether the miller's wife did indeed drown herself after the miller had hanged himself. Another, even more provocative question has never been asked: did the miller actually hang himself?(1) A close examination of the text suggests that both deaths may be imaginative constructs that exist only in the mind of the miller's wife.

The critics, and most casual readers, have neglected to remember that nothing is a given in Robinson's work. He works in layers of ambiguity, sometimes creating a patina of obvious meaning that must be rubbed away to find the underlying truth. The exegetical evidence in this case rests largely upon Robinson's subtle handling of verb tenses, sentence structure, and punctuation. A close reading of these may lead us closer to the true metal than most readings have come previously.

The first line of the poem, "The miller's wife had waited long," is in past perfect, a tense that implies action previous to the simple past, and a rather more complicated, problematical placement in time than simple past alone suggests. The next two verbs are states of being--"The tea was cold, the fire was dead;"--that exist within the parameters of the past perfect. This enclosing effect continues after the semicolon, which itself heralds dependency, and is indeed followed by a convoluted conditional clause that comprises the last six lines of the eight-line stanza. The first verb of "And there might yet be nothing wrong / In how he went and what he said" is the marker of the conditional clause; "went" and "said" exist within the conditionality. The colon after "said" implies an appositive clause equal in value to what went before, here the thoughts of the miller's wife as she waited by the dead fire. "'There are no millers anymore,' / Was all that she had heard him say" closes the parenthesis of past perfect tense that the first line opens, containing within it the miller's actual words, which we can take to be the objective fulcrum upon which the rest of this intensely subjective poem balances.

It is even clearer that the past perfect is this stanza's essential condition of being when we come to the second past perfect verb, "had lingered," found in a clause subordinate to the one before. Thus, Robinson sets up the stanza as a sort of verbal chandelier, with one clause hanging upon the meaning and mode of that before, and with the framework of past perfect verbs giving definition and tone to the whole. The overall sense of the verse is that the miller's wife had been waiting a long time before thinking at some time nearer the present that "there might yet be nothing wrong," casting a speculative light on all that follows. The waiting and the tenuosity of her thought are all that we know for sure, both reinforced by the last lines, which are a speculative qualification within a speculative memory: "And he had lingered at the door / So long that it seemed yesterday."

Robinson achieves much the same effect in the second stanza, which opens with the miller's wife "[s]ick with a fear that had no form," which implies that the fear has a continuation in the past. Informed by this opening suggestion of continuation is the crucial second line, "She knew she was there at last." These lines contain no evidence that she changes her condition from the first stanza, that condition being sitting by the cold hearth remembering and speculating. A certain poetic inertia militates against supposing change, and much more is needed to indicate or certify such change than exists. This lacking, the distinct possibility remains that she is just where she was, still in her reverie. This is borne out by the subordinate clause that follows the signifying semicolon: "And in the mill there was a warm / And mealy fragrance of the past." On a connotative level, this clause makes it much less likely that she has gone out to the mill in actual fact, as it would not be warm and fragrant when out of use, but only in memories formed before the miller brought his pain into the house.

This hypothesis is reinforced by the rest of the stanza, a single sentence formed by a pair of past conditional clauses. "What else there was" is intensely speculative in itself and is the subject of the predicate "would only seem / To say again what he had meant," in which the "would" marks the past conditional tense. "[W]hat he had meant," as direct object, parallels "What else there was," as subject, forming a nice balance of speculation within the triple-layered clause. This is continued within the second clause by "what was hanging from a beam," forming a seesaw of supposition that is given another push by the predicate "Would not have heeded," another past conditional verb.

This back and forth structure intensifies the pervasive aura of speculation that surrounds all we know of the miller's wife so far. This ongoing verbal balancing act also underscores the connotative probability of the miller's wife's never having left her cold hearth and colder ruminations. Surely a woman who sees her husband's body dangling from a beam would be in an active, definite mode of being, not in one as delicately suggestive as past conditional. The overall structure of the stanza bears this out as well, with two equally balanced sentences of two clauses each, with each part carrying equal weight. The implication is that all is part and parcel of the same thing, which I believe to be the thoughts of the miller's wife as she broods by her dead fire. A formless fear cannot be equated with the actuality of a husband dead by his own hand. It can, however, be equated with an intense anxiety that the husband might hurt himself. This shapeless fear resolves itself into a strong image in the second sentence, but we know that it is merely an image from the phrase "would only seem" and from the sentence structure as we have explored it. Looking this closely, we see that there is little textual proof that the miller's wife has gone out to the mill and found her husband hanging. There is, however, much textual reason to believe that she is letting her worst fears act upon her fancy.

The third stanza makes an even stronger case for the power of the imagination. The first two words--"And if"--cast the entire stanza into the speculative mode. This stanza is also one sentence, like the first, and "And if" is the peg from which everything else hangs. The verbs are all conditional: "She may have reasoned"; "one ... would hide her and would leave"; "water ... would soon appear." The second clause is appositive to the first, as in the first stanza, and both clauses express conditionality stemming directly from "And if." Robinson practically flaunts it in our faces that this drowning is a very speculative thing, not something that we are to take as an accomplished fact. This interpretation is further supported by the sensuousness of the central image of the stanza, the "starry velvet" of the "Black water, smooth above the weir," that may be "ruffled." These couturial images emanate from the sensibility of a woman's mind ranging through imaginative possibilities, and we must know that we are indeed inside her mind, not directly the mind of the poet. This is made so clear that critics have often taken the bait and overlooked the subtler hook in the first two stanzas.

"The Mill" is more than a sad little tale of double suicide brought on by the encroachment of the modern world and by personal loss. The true subject is the enormous power of the creative imagination, which seizes the miller's wife in its fearful grasp, and many a reader along with her. The only thing we know for certain is the miller's words, and everything else depends upon them. Even the woman herself is called only the miller's wife, with no name or identity separate from his. As we know him by his words, we know her by her thoughts, and only by her thoughts, as we never catch the smallest glimpse of her. Robinson's subtle use of form seduces the reader into following the miller's wife into a depth of imaginative fear that has no grounding except the miller's one sad statement. She may get up, go to the tavern, and find him bemoaning his fate with Miniver Cheevy, having a good gossip about the strange end of Richard Cory. Or she may not. But there is little internal evidence that she has already found him hanging from a beam or has cast herself into the weir.

As in much of Robinson's work, all we can know for sure is that we cannot know much for sure; but he has left us some powerful suggestions that we would do well to heed. The miller's statement is the interpretive balance point of the poem. The reader must decide which direction to choose to find what it is that the mill of fate grinds so fine and smooth.


(1.)The only exception that I have been able to find is in Norman Holland's The Brain of Robert Frost: A Cognitive Approach to Literature (1988). This book is a continuation of his investigation of how reading is done, which Holland began so provocatively in 5 Readers Reading in 1975. In the chapter entitled "The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors," Holland compares the answers of six college professors to certain carefully planned questions that he poses about the poem. One, Professor Five, suggests that the miller's wife has "'fears of her husband's suicide: she sees him as if hung'" (64). Holland discounts this response, saying, "He thus wards off literal fear," that his "whole set of responses reflects some anxiety of his own, leading to his error" (65). By dismissing this reading as "a mistake" (65), Holland fails to recognize a perfectly tenable new lane of inquiry into the poem's "cognitive meaning," and reveals more than a little about his own presuppositions about reading.


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_____. Edwin Arlington Robinson. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1946.

from The Explicator 51.3 (Spring 1993)

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