‘Afternoon on a Hill’ by Edna St. Vicent Millay is a short nature poem in which the poet, or at least the speaker she’s channeling at that moment, describes her intentions for an afternoon. Millay uses simple language in ‘Afternoon on a Hill,’ ensuring that any reader who comes across the peace can understand and appreciate it. She also uses images that should be relatable to a wide swath of the population. One is meant to leave this piece feeling as the speaker will feel after her afternoon, refreshed and ready to return to life.
Explore Afternoon on a Hill
This poem is quite straightforward. It takes the reader into the future where the speaker plans to spend time alone on a hill, surrounded by hundreds of flowers. She’s not going to pick them, but she is going to touch them. She’ll savor the moment while it’s occurring but not do anything to persevere it longer than it naturally lasts. At the end of the afternoon, when the sun has gone down and she’s looking out over the lights of the town, she’ll pick out her home among them and head down to it.
Millay engages primarily with the theme of nature in ‘Afternoon on a Hill.’ The short lines of this piece are almost entirely concerned with the speaker’s intentions in the natural world. She plans to head out onto a hill and enjoy the afternoon sun. There, she’ll watch the grass blow in the wind and touch the beautiful flowers around her. These moments are simple and peaceful, but they’re ones that will improve her life as a whole. It’s clear that the speaker is seeking out this experience in order to step away from her life, however briefly, and return improved.
Structure and Form
‘Afternoon on a Hill’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are quite simple. They follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The meter is also fairly consistent. The odd-numbered lines contain seven syllables while the shorter even-numbered lines contain four.
Millay makes use of several literary devices in ‘Afternoon on a Hill.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, alliteration, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important techniques a poet can make use of in their work. It refers to the creative and poignant descriptions that a poet uses. For example, these lines from stanza two: “Watch the wind bow down the grass, / And the grass rise.” They are evocative of a very specific moment, but one that multiple readers will be able to relate to and feel.
Alliteration is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Watch” and “wind” in line three of stanza two and “mark,” “must,” and “mine” in line three of stanza three.
Anaphora is another kind of repetition. This one is focused on the repetition of words at the beginning of lines. For example, “I will” begins four of the twelve lines.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
In the first stanza of ‘Afternoon on a Hill,’ the speaker begins by describing her intentions for herself when she’s outside. She’s going to stand on a hill in the afternoon, as the title reveals, and experience joy. There, she’ll enjoy the feeling of the sun on her skin and admire the flowers around her. What’s special about this moment is that she’s acknowledging that it’s temporary. She will choose not to pick any flowers and instead appreciate them as they grow in that instant.
I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.
The stanzas expressing the speaker’s intentions continue into the next stanza where she starts the third line with “I.” It’s clear in these moments that she’s experiencing them alone. She’s taking pleasure in the natural world and doesn’t need to share it with anyone for it to be real. She uses more imagery in these lines as well, describing herself looking out at the “cliffs and clouds / With quiet eyes.” The last two words, “quiet eyes,” are unusual but make a great deal of sense. She’s going to observe her world peacefully and without any great outbursts of energy or excitement. Through her quiet eyes, she’s going to watch “the wind bow down to the grass” and then watch it rise back up as the wind passes.
These simple movements define the speaker’s experiences with nature at that moment. They are entirely gentle and meditative. With the joy of the previous stanza, readers should be able to imagine the speaker’s emotional state as these lines add to it.
And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!
In the final four lines of ‘Afternoon on a Hill,’ the speaker declares her intent to stay on the hill until she starts to see the lights turn on in the town. She’ll look out over all those who live around her and pick out her specific home. This allows her a wide-reaching perspective and an opportunity to step away from her life and see it from a distance. Her afternoon on a hill is a perfect refreshing moment before she starts down back to her home.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Afternoon on a Hill’ should also consider reading some of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s other poems. For example:
- ‘I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed’ – describes how overwhelming and controlling relationships can be and how it’s up to women to not let themselves be consumed by them. They should walk away, “unpossessed.”
- ‘Wild Swans’ – depicts the speaker’s desire to get out of her mind and seek out new, bird-like freedom. She wants to change herself and find a way to live differently.
- ‘God’s World’ – is a beautiful poem in which the speaker describes the wonders of nature and all the sights one can observe in the world God made.