In the traditional story, Bluebeard’s wife is the latest in a long line of wives, the rest of which have mysteriously disappeared. She is given the run of his castle, aside from one forbidden room, while her husband is away. He asks her to keep away from this single space in the castle. Once he’s gone, her curiosity gets the best of her and she looks inside. There, she finds a bloody mess and the remains of the previous wives. In her fright, she drops the key and attempts to hang it back where she found it. Unfortunately for her, it is covered in bloodstains that return as soon as she rubs them off.
Bluebeard arrives home before the wife and her sister can flee the castle and figures out what happened. He’s going to kill them both but they stall for long enough that other members of their family arrive and save them.
Millay takes this dark story and rearranges the plot to put the focus on the wife’s betrayal and what the room (which is empty in this version) symbolizes. The poem speaks on themes of trust, privacy, and truth.
Summary of Bluebeard
In the first lines, the speaker, who a reader may assume is Bluebeard himself, addresses his wife. He speaks calmly but with a clear disappointment and solemnity. His wife went into the one place in the entire castle that he asked her not to. Now, in his irritation and disappointment, he shows her around the empty room, thus proving to her that there’s nothing to fear. Unlike the original story, the room is empty. It doesn’t contain the heads of his previous wives. She betrayed him for nothing.
He calls her action greedy. She took the one thing from him he wanted to keep for himself. The poem concludes with Bluebeard telling the wife that she can have the whole “place”. He’s going to find somewhere else that he can live without the threat of betrayal and the invasion of his personal physical and mental space.
You can read the full poem Bluebeard here.
Structure of the Poem
‘Bluebeard’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a fourteen-line sonnet that conforms to the traditional rhyme scheme of an English sonnet. This sonnet form is more commonly known as a Shakespearean sonnet, named for one of the most famous writers of sonnets of all time, William Shakespeare.
It is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
Millay makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Bluebeard’. These include alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and symbolism. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, the fourth line of the poem: “No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring,” or line eight that include the phrase “cobwebbed and comfortless”.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. The third line of the first stanza is a great example, as is the fourteenth line that reads “This now is yours. I seek another place”.
Symbolism is when a poet uses objects, colors, sounds, or places to represent something else. In this poem, the room is a symbol for Bluebeard, for a general speaker’s, personal mental space. It is an area that he sought to keep separate from the rest of the world so that he may have one thing of his own. When it is encroached upon, he feels as though he has been betrayed.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, such as the transition between lines two and three.
Analysis of Bluebeard
This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed… Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
In the first lines of ‘Bluebeard’ the poet, speaking from the perspective of Bluebeard, addresses “you”. The “you” in these lines is his latest wife, the one who stole the key to the single locked room in his castle. He shows her around the space, proving to her that she betrayed him for this “slight thing,” an empty space. There is no treasure or anything evil to behold.
The sought-for truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress,
But only what you see… Look yet again—
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
In the next four lines, Millay alludes to the original Bluebeard story in which he murdered all of his wives and hid their bodies in that same room. This time though, there are “no heads of women slain”. This, he emphasizes, is all you’ve betrayed me for, “An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless”. Her greed to learn more, see more, be more in control, only lead her to loss. There are no “writhings of distress” in the room to look upon.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.
In the last sestet of the poem, the speaker tries to explain why the room was important to him. It symbolized the last bit of himself he wanted to keep private and separate from the rest of the world. He kept it “Unto [him]self”.
She profaned his trust and his space by entering the room. He decides at this moment that he never wants to look upon her face again and leaves. The castle ended up in her hands, just as it did in the original telling of the tale. He leaves, as there is nothing else for him there, she already knows and owns it all after opening that last door.