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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Number 109: Edwin Arlington Robinson "The House on the Hill"

The House on the Hill

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 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.

---Edwin Arlington Robinson

Hap Notes: As you can see, I am determined to show you the power and variety of the villanelle. The Robinson poem illustrates its deceptively simple form- it's almost nursery-rhyme like and yet, the form, if you've tried it, has constraints. Robinson is one step away from writing a simple little poem, here. But it's loaded with extras.

"Our poor fancy play" could easily be construed as children playing around the house. But look at that wording- remind you of anything? How about a Shakespeare passage we've spoken of earlier? i.e. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more." This oft-quoted passage from Macbeth was well known to Robinson who studied Shakespeare assiduously at Harvard during his short time there.

The poem asks us why we search for things or people that we know to be gone. What are we looking for? Have you ever gone to an abandoned house and peered in the windows, wanting to see the inside? Unless we are in the market for real estate, why do we do that? What are we looking for? It's a good question when you think on it- tells us much about ourselves and others.

In addition to what we've already said about Robinson here: let me add a couple of things.

First off, his name was acquired in an unusual manner. His mom wanted a girl and Baby Robinson was un-named for six months. Robinson's parents were at a holiday resort and the other vacationers urged them to name the child. They put a bunch of names on slips of paper in a hat and a man from Arlington, MA was selected to draw out the paper. Hence, Edwin Arlington.

Robinson spent 24 summers of his life from 1911-1935 at the MacDowell artist colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Robinson went reluctantly the first time to the artist sanctuary made by composer Edward McDowell and his wife Marian at their farm as a place for artists to work and socialize with other creative folks. Robinson was so skeptical of the arrangement that he arrived at the colony with a fake telegram in his pocket so if he didn't like it he could scram out in a hurry. In addition to Robinson, the colony has been a refuge for many others including Willa Cather, painter Milton Avery, Leonard Bernstein (he wrote "Mass" there), Aaron Copeland (He wrote "Billy the Kid" there) and Thornton Wilder (Peterborough served as the model for Grover's Corners in Wilder's Our Town.) The colony still continues today.

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