The House on the Hill by Edward Arlington Robinson

The House on the Hill’ by Edward Arlington Robinson is a six stanza villanelle that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets, and then one final set of four lines, or quatrain. The lines follow a very simple rhyme scheme of ABA, with the traditional repetition one can expect from a villanelle.  The first and third lines of the first stanza is repeated, alternatively, in the next five. 

Villanelles do not require one specific metrical pattern, but the lines are very consistent in their number of syllables. All the lines contain either six or seven syllables. Six is the most prominent, but with the addition of a seventh (seen in the lines starting with “There is…”) the arrangement of stresses changes providing a bit of rhythmic variation. Other examples of poems using the villanelle form include Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by Sylvia Plath, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas, and One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Alliteration is one of the most prominent techniques in ‘The House on the Hill’. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the fourth stanza, “sunken sill” and in the second “blow bleak”. 

The House on the Hill by Edward Arlington Robinson

 

Summary of The House on the Hill 

‘The House on the Hill’ by Edward Arlington Robinson describes the fleeting nature of memories and the haunting qualities of the past.

The poem begins with the speaker describing an old, shut-up house that is still and empty. There is no one living there or populating the rooms, and there is nothing the speaker (or anyone he is directing the lines to) can say to change that. As the poem progresses it becomes likely that the house represents more than a sadly decaying structure. It is meant to be a symbol for the speaker’s past and it’s decay a representative of how he’s losing contact with his own past acquaintances and experiences.

 

Analysis of The House on the Hill 

Stanza One 

They are all gone away, 

The House is shut and still, 

There is nothing more to say. 

In the first stanza of ‘The House on the Hill’ the speaker begins by making a simple statement that “They,” (an unclear group that is never fully described) have “gone away”. The people he’s thinking of have left one particular house and there is nothing left for anyone to say about it.

What is interesting about the second line is that Robinson chose to capitalize on the word “House”. This certainly makes it seem as though he is thinking of one particular house, not just the concept of a house. But, this is only one possible interpretation. Others might read these lines and those which follow, and hear something very different. The house could be a symbol for the past, and everything the speaker has left undone and is now out of reach. 

The phrase “nothing more to say” could be related to his inability to reach back into the past and change what has happened. There’s no point, he explains, in even trying to “say” anything. There is an obvious irony to this line as it appears at the beginning of a poem that goes on for another five stanzas. Apparently, the speaker did have a lot more to say. 

 

Stanza Two 

Through broken walls and gray 

The winds blow bleak and shrill: 

They are all gone away. 

As is the case with villanelles, the first line of the first stanza of ‘The House on the Hill’ appears as the third line in the second stanza. There is also a degree of alliteration in the repetition of words beginning with “t” in this stanza (and the previous) as well. 

In order to emphasize how empty the house is, and how there is no one left at all to care for it, he describes the way the wind enters into the building. It comes in through the “broken walls” No one is around to repair the crumbling structure, they have “all gone away”. 

This refrain is interesting to consider with the concept of the house as a symbol for the past in mind. “They” would refer to his memories or those who now populate those memories. Just as the past itself is, the people are out of reach. 

 

Stanza Three

Nor is there one to-day 

To speak them good or ill: 

There is nothing more to say. 

The line “There is nothing more to say” appears again in the third stanza. This time it is connected to the present and those who are (or aren’t) still living. Not only is the past in the past, anyone who might have provided the speaker with some physical connection to his memories is gone as well. There is no one “to-day / To speak them good or ill” is a reference to his past companions (or the memories themselves) and how they exist only within the speaker’s mind. He is the sole reason they still exist in the world at all. 

 

Stanza Four 

Why is it then we stray 

Around the sunken sill? 

They are all gone away, 

In the fourth stanza of ‘The House on the Hill’ it seems as though the speaker is ready to acknowledge the fact that the past is not going to be so easily put away. He cannot just command himself (or others) to stop speaking about it. Everyone still “stray[s]” into the realm of their personal loves, losses, triumphs, and disappointments. 

Robinson represents this feature of the human mind physically by questioning the reason why everyone is around the “sunken sill”. He sees people, like his speaker, looking into the windows of the past, trying to catch a real glimpse of things that now only exist in one’s mind. He reminds himself and the reader at the end of this stanza that this is purposeless and that “They are all gone away”. No one is going to see anything at the window. 

 

Stanza Five 

And our poor fancy-play 

For them is wasted skill: 

There is nothing more to say. 

Anything the visitors to the windows do is “wasted skill”. No matter the twists and turns they complete in order to get a better look at the past, nothing is going to change. This is again exemplified by the phrase “There is nothing more to say”. 

 

Stanza Six 

There is ruin and decay 

In the House on the Hill: 

They are all gone away, 

There is nothing more to say. 

The sixth stanza of ‘The House on the Hill’ is different than those that came before it. It is a quatrain, meaning it has six lines, and it contains both refrain lines. The speaker refers to the house again, this time evoking very dark images that relate to loss and total death. His symbolic house is in “ruin and decay”. His memories are fading fast, and as usual, there is nothing he can do about it. 

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