Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ragged Island by Edna St. Vincent Millay

‘Ragged Island’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a personal poem about Millay’s days spent on Ragged Island off the coast of Maine. It explores the peace of mind the place was able to bring out in her. 

Ragged Island was the summer home of Millay and her husband Eugen until she died in 1950. It’s located in Harpswell, Maine. This piece explores the island’s landscape and shows how important summers spent in this isolated place were to the poet. The poem is confessional and lyrical in nature, as is much of Millay’s verse

Ragged Island by Edna St. Vincent Millay


Summary 

‘Ragged Island’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a thoughtful poem about the peace the poet experienced on Ragged Island. 

The first part of the poem describes the island, the trees, and the cliffs. She spends a number of lines writing about the water/waves around the island and how peaceful and calm they are. They reflect the poet’s mindset when she’s present on the island. As the poem progresses, she alludes to how quiet it is and how one’s concerns about the real world are entirely meaningless there. 

You can read the full poem here

Structure and Form 

‘Ragged Island’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of uneven lines. For example, stanza one contains ten lines, and the second has four, the third: five, the fourth: two, and the fifth: three. The poet does not use a specific rhyme scheme in this piece. But that doesn’t mean that it is totally devoid of rhyme. There is a great example of a perfect end rhyme at the end of stanza one with “beach” and “reach.” Another example can be found in stand four with “keel” and “feel.”

Themes 

The main theme of this poem is the importance of peace and how nature can bring that. The poet does not discuss nature generally but as it impacts her when she’s on Ragged Island. There, she experiences a calm like no other. It’s reflected in the waves and how it becomes impossible to care about the outside world when one’s living there. 

Literary Devices 

Millay uses a few different literary devices in this poem. They include:

  • Imagery: the use of strong and interesting descriptions that help readers imagine a scene, emotion, and more. For example: “There you row with tranquil oars, and the ocean / Shows no scar from the cutting of your placid keel.”
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “shoal or shelving” and “because there is no beach.” 
  • Repetition: the use of the same literary device multiple times. For example, “There, there” in line one of stanza one. 
  • Juxtaposition: the poet uses contrasting images in order to paint a full picture of the island. For example, the steep cliffs and the poet’s peace of mind. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One

There, there where those black spruces crowd

To the edge of the precipitous cliff,

Above your boat, under the eastern wall of the island;

And no wave breaks; as if

All had been done, and long ago, that needed

Doing; and the cold tide, unimpeded

By shoal or shelving ledge, moves up and down,

Instead of in and out;

And there is no driftwood there, because there is no beach;

Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach;

The first stanza of ‘Ragged Island’ is the longest of the poem at ten lines. The poet writes about the landscape on Ragged Island including trees and a steep cliff that stretches above “your boat, under the eastern wall of the island.” 

There is peace there, conveyed through the poet’s description of no waves breaking against the wall and potentially damaging the boat. It’s a quiet and calm place as if “All had been done, and long ago” that needed to be done. 

Things move easily on the island, and the water is “unimpeded” by “shoal or shelving ledge.” The waves touch rock all the way around the island with “no beach” to allow them to bring in driftwood. This makes the island feel far more secluded as if one would have a difficult time getting onto it and off of it. 

Stanzas Two and Three

No driftwood, such as abounds on the roaring shingle,

(…)

Lobster-buoys, on the eel-grass of the sheltered cove:

There, thought unbraids itself, and the mind becomes single.

(…)

Remote; you only look; you scarcely feel.

On the island, there is “No driftwood” to be taken home. Because of the water patterns, there is nothing to intrude on her isolated life there. Society is very far away when she’s on Ragged Island.

On the island, Millay writes, thoughts unbraid themselves (or uncomplicated themselves). It’s easier to think and process one’s life. Everything is “tranquil,” and no scars (physical or emotional) show themselves. 

On the island, Millay feels as though “care” is “senseless.” It’s easy to let go of one’s life and worries. So much so that it seems as though you “scarcely feel.” One spends far more time “look[ing]” or enjoying the surrounding landscape. Millay is certainly promoting a lack of emotion, stress, or distress of any form as a positive. She loves the escape from the strong feelings and stresses of everyday life. 


Stanza Four

Even adventure, with its vital uses,

Is aimless ardour now; and thrift is waste.

The fourth stanza is only two lines long. Here, Millay notes that the parts of life that one might enjoy in the “real” world are not as important on the island. There, “adventure,” which is vital at times, feels like “aimless ardour.” There is no relief in it. Instead, one can find peace of mind and enjoy that instead. 

The poet also mentions “thrift” as a “waste.” This suggests that there is no reason to save or squander as the island has everything one could want. 

Stanza Five 

Oh, to be there, under the silent spruces,

(…)

Over a sea with death acquainted, yet forever chaste.

The speaker thinks about the island and what it’s like to be there. She feels a great deal of longing for the place and how she felt while she was there “under the silent spruces.” The evenings moved quietly and with intense darkness over a sea that’s “forever chaste.” Life is simple there, as is death. It’s something that the poet clearly misses when she doesn’t have access to it. 

FAQs

What is the theme of ‘Ragged Island?’

The theme is the importance of place, and nature, when it comes to one’s mental health and happiness. The island brought Millay a great deal of peace. So much so that she and her husband continued to spend summers there from 1933 to 1950. 

What is the tone of ‘Ragged Island?’

The tone is appreciative and contended. The speaker spends the lines describing the island and the very personal ways that it improved her life. It was a calm and peaceful place, and somewhere she could escape from society in an instant. 

What is the message of ‘Ragged Island?’

The message is that Ragged Island is an incredibly special place that has the ability to transport one away from their day-to-day life. Generally, it promotes a love for quiet places that allow one to uncomplicate their thoughts. 

Who is the speaker in ‘Ragged Island?’

The speaker is Edna St. Vincent Millay herself. She wrote this poem by drawing on her personal experience on the island. She lived there with her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain for the summer for nearly 20 years. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. For example: 

  • Bluebeard’ – takes the myth of Bluebeard and his secret room and retells it, using the room as a powerful symbol
  • Elegy Before Death’ –  is a poem about the physical and spiritual impact of a loss and how it can and cannot change one’s world.
  • First Fig’ – a well-loved and often discussed poem. In it, readers can explore a symbolic depiction of sexuality and freedom.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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