‘Recuerdo’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines. The poem has a simple, consistent rhyme scheme of AABBCC AADDEE AAFFGG. Aside from the repeated refrain, this is the only part of the poem that is structured.
The first two lines of every stanza act as a refrain. They restate the emotions and setting associated with the speaker’s memories. The repetitive nature of the phrases mirrors their consistent structure. The two lines contain six sets of trochees or pairs of syllables, the first of which is stressed and the second unstressed. After these two lines, there is no discernible metrical pattern in the rest of the text. This places an even great emphasis on the lines. To Millay’s speaker, they are the most important part of her description and perhaps the only entirely clear recollection she has of the night.
In contrast to the meter, Millay made use of anaphora or the repetition of a word at the beginning of a line. This is most prominent in the third stanza in which the first three lines begin with “We” and the last three “And.” These two words begin the majority of the rest of the poem as well. “We” appears at the beginning of a line total of eight times while “And” appears seven times. In a longer poem this might not be worth noting, but considering that ‘Recuerdo’ is only a total of eighteen lines long the starting words become quite important.
The repetition of these two words helps Millay build up a list of the evening. The details are added one after another. “And the sky went wan…” is followed by “And the sun rose dripping” as if she is recalling more and more the longer she speaks.
The Title – “Recuerdo”
The speaker’s ability to remember what happened to her when she was “very tired” and “merry” becomes all the more important when one considers the title. ‘Recuerdo’ means “I remember” as well as referring to “a memory” in Spanish. As with all memories, it is often uncertain how dependable they are. As one reads through this piece they are confronted with ever-expanding details, but there is no statement about how accurate those details really are.
The poem begins with the speaker utilizing a two-line refrain which appears in all three of the stanzas. It emphasizes the repetitive nature of the ferry crossings and is likely the clearest recollection she has. If nothing else, she knows that “we” went “back and forth all night on the ferry.”
Whether the remainder of her memories are true or not does not matter in the larger scheme of things. The joy she gets from recalling the night is of far greater importance than accuracy. She describes how they watched the sky, ate apples and pears, and finally disembarked in the morning. After getting off the ferry they helped an old woman by buying a newspaper, giving her the remaining fruit as well as all their money. The only thing they were left with at the end of the night was money for the subway and these memories.
Analysis of Recuerdo
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker starts with the refrain that will mark the beginning of each stanza. She is referring to the listener, someone she was clearly close with. They were both “very tired” and “very merry” in this memory. Whatever they were doing, it included going “back and forth” on a ferry all night. The openness of this beginning allows a reader to cast any number of assumptions on the text. In a way, the same can be said for the speaker who is going to add on details as they come to her.
The details she proceeds with are not coherent. They are not strung together as a natural progression of events. Instead, they resemble true memories, bits, and pieces of moments and emotions. She remembers that the ferry felt “bare” looked “bright” and smelled “like a stable” from all the cooped up men and women. Despite these features there as a lot to love about the journeys she took “back and forth.”
From the ferry, they could look “into a fire” as they “leaned across a table.” Outside, they could lay together and look up at the moon while the whistle blew. This seems to be the general outline of how they spent their night. The details which follow in stanza two and three delve into more moment to moment experiences.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
The refrain repeats again that beginning of this stanza. The speaker moves on quickly to a time within that long night during which “you ate an apple, and I ate a pear.” They are similar and different at the same time. It is likely this action was repeated, just like the crossing. The speaker states that they each had a “dozen” they “bought somewhere.” This is an example of the speaker’s memory slipping a little.
The next two lines are very lyrical and describe the romantic rise of the sun. At first, the sky is “wan” and cold but then the sun presents itself and a wonderful contrast is formed. Its light is so important it seems to drip “gold.”
We were very tired, we were very merry,
Had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
In the final stanza of ‘Recuerdo’ the speaker again uses the two-line refrain. This time it introduces the end of the night. The speaker and her companion disembarked and made their way to land. She remembers them being in very good spirits. When they saw a “shawl-covered” woman and greeted her enthusiastically, wishing her a good morning.
It seems they also “bought a…paper” from the same woman, simply in order to help her. She cried over their kindness and blessed them when they gave her the remaining apples and pears. The two had no intention of reading the paper and furthered their kindness by giving her all the money they had. By the time they headed home all they had was enough money to ride the subway. Their indulgent night ended with a few good deeds, solidifying the experience as a positive one within the speaker’s memory.