Travel by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Travel’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a short three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These sets of lines follow the rhyming pattern of abab cbcb dbdb. The poet has chosen to repeat the ‘b’ rhyme throughout this piece in an effort to create a sense of unity and continuity throughout the poem.

 Millay has also chosen to make the second line of each quatrain, the longest, or at least almost to the longest. This establishes a visual and auditory rhythm that will help the reader move effortlessly from line to line. 

Travel by Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Summary

‘Travel’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay speaks of one narrator’s unquenchable longing for the opportunity to escape from her everyday life. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that from where she lives, there is a railroad track “miles away.” It is a feature in her life that is constant. Although she cannot physically see it every moment, it is always there weighing on her mind. 

As ‘Travel’ continues it becomes clear that the speaker has developed an obsession with the train and where it might take her. She can hear the sounds it makes all day, even over the sounds of the many voices around her. The speaker dreams about the train and pictures it perfectly as she sleeps. By the end of the piece, it becomes clear that she is uninterested in where the train is going, as long as it will take her somewhere new. 

 

Analysis of Travel

Stanza One

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

Travel’ begins with the speaker describing a part of her everyday life that is not directly before her, but is always in her sight, a railroad track. The track is miles from where she lives but it weighs on her mind throughout her days. The passing trains are like unshakeable totems that follows her from moment to moment. The presence of the railroad tracks is a reminder of possibilities that are so close, but still out of her reach. 

The first line describes the fact that these tracks, which are so important to the speaker’s being, are “miles away.” They are not something that she sets eyes on everyday, but they do come into her thoughts more often than not. At the present moment, the speaker is in the middle of another noisy day of her life. She is experiencing a sense of claustrophobia around the “loud…voices speaking” wherever she goes. 

The voices that surround her work in two different ways, first, they are an irritant that she is unable to escape, and second, their volume, and the fact that she is still able to hear the train as it goes by, proves how important they are to her. The final two lines describe this second fact quite eloquently. The speaker says that of all the trains that go by, there is not one that she doesn’t hear. She is always able to pick out the “whistle shrieking” in amongst the chaos of her everyday life. 

One important point of setting to note at this time is that the speaker does not say there is a railroad station near her, only a track. There is nowhere for the train to stop even if she could board it. It is always moving past her. 

 

Stanza Two

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

In the second stanza of ‘Travel’, the speaker continues to discuss the importance of this moving train to her everyday life. The speaker is thinking of her own propensity to obsess over the presence of the train, and its ability to make its way into every moment of her waking and sleeping hours. 

It is nighttime at this point and she is describing how once it gets dark, there “isn’t a train [that] goes by.” Perhaps, a reader might think, the speaker is able to take a respite in these moments. If it is night, and she knows that no trains will be passing, maybe that puts her at rest. 

Unfortunately for the speaker, this is not the case. Even though she says, “the night is still for sleep and dreaming” she sees in her mind’s eye, and in the dreams of her sleep, the “cinders red on the sky.” Even when there is no train there to see, she can’t help imagining “its engine steaming,” and feeling the same way she does in its actual presence. She knows exactly what it would sound, smell, and look like if she was directly before it, watching it pass. 

It is clear that this point, if it wasn’t previously, that the speaker has developed a kind of obsession when it comes to the train. To understand why this might be the case, a reader should consider what a train represents. What could it bring to someone who has no way out of their life? The final stanza will shed some light on this topic. 

 

Stanza Three

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

In the final quatrain of ‘Travel’ , the speaker provides the reader with a few more clues as to why she has become so consumed with the sounds and sights of a railroad track. The first topic that the speaker brings up in this section is the “warm[th]” she feels towards her friends. She does not dislike her life, it is full of good friends that fulfill that part of her. The second line takes a step back from the first statement as she says that there are “better friends” out there that she doesn’t know, and will “not be knowing” because she cannot board a train. 

The narrator is thinking into the future that she might have if she was to get on one of the passing trains, and sees herself among new friends she prefers. These are people that she knows she could, but never will, meet. The speaker’s tone is fully developed at this point, it is clear that she is becoming increasingly worn down by the fact that her life is not going to change. 

In the last two lines, the poet considers the fact that a reader will be curious about where the trains are going, and where it is exactly that her narrator would like to end up. The speaker concludes this debate by stating that she doesn’t care where the trains are going. She would get on any one of them without even considering the destination. Her greatest desire is to leave, or, as the title states, to “Travel.”

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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.
  • Vicky Hampton says:

    I cannot agree with this analysis. Yes, the speaker is clearly very aware of trains; that they are the backdrop to their busy life. But there is NOTHING to suggest that trains have become an obsession.

    The emphasis on the trains’ sounds in in stz 1, which over-ride the noise of people in a city (nothing there either to suggest that the human noise is an ‘irritant’ aas this reviewer claims), and then the strong, energetic visual images of stz 2, which invade the speaker’s thoughts at night, contrasting with its otherwise still, silent-ness, imply only the speaker’s heightened awareness of trains against the backdrop of their busy city life – that they act as constant reminder of a yearning to travel.

    Stz 3 does not in any way suggest that “…there are “better friends” out there that she (and what’s to say the speaker is a woman, not a man?) doesn’t know” because they can’t take a train to travel to different places to meet them. The line, ‘And better friends I’ll not be knowing’ is NOT a different thought to that expressed in line 1, IT IS AN ADJUNCT TO IT. The speaker is praising the friends they have, saying they couldn’t have better friends. The key to understanding that is in the word ‘Yet’ in line 3, which (as per it’s use in stz 1) means ‘nevertheless’, ‘even so’, ‘still’ or ‘all the same’.

    Thus, stz 3 is simply saying “I’ve got terrific friends, the best, but I love travel so much I’d leave them if there was an opportunity to get on a train and see somewhere new”. It is illustrating the degree to which the speaker feels the urge to travel – that they yearn for it. The title even serves to underpin how strong this yearning is.

    The poem is NOT about obsession, which is a persistent, disturbing preoccupation about something. It is about yearning, which is an intense longing for something. Quite different to obsession.

    Edna St Vincent Millay (b.1892 – d.1950) wrote ‘Travel’ in 1921 when she was 29 years old. Western society ‘opened up’ between the 1st and 2nd world wars so, being openly bisexual, a pacifist and activist, coupled with memories of travelling with her mother after her parents’ divorce, it is highly likely that Millay felt a strong desire, a yearning even, to travel and get to know the world.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your message. It is clear that you have a yearning for this poem! You’re certainly right in saying that it isn’t always safe to assume the gender of the narrative voice as the speaker of the poem isn’t always the poet themselves. However, it seems your primary argument is that the poem is about passion rather than an obsession and isn’t the line between those two quite blurry?

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