‘The Mill’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson is a twenty-four line poem written in 1920. It was during this time period that technological advancements were driving a number of professions to extinction. That of the miller was one of them. It is likely these societal changes inspired Robinson to write this piece.
A reader should also take note of the rhyme scheme utilized by Robinson throughout the poem. The lines follow a pattern of ababcdcd, and so on, alternating for the rest of the piece. This back and forth, sing-song like rhyme scheme simplifies the poem’s dark subject matter. The talk of suicide and death is lightened and transformed into something more matter of fact.
Summary of The Mill
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the “miller’s wife had waited long.” She is up late waiting for her husband to return home. As she waits she entertains all the worst possible reasons he could be delayed. She recalls a moment in which he told her that there are “no millers any more.”
Her thoughts become darker as she imagines going to his workplace and finding his body hanging from a beam. The sight of his corpse, and the movements it makes in the “mealy” smelling mill, would stay with her. She imagines that this situation would drive her to commit suicide as well.
Rather than hang herself, she thinks that she would jump off of a bridge into the river at the top of a weir. She would disappear into the water after a brief ruffle. This way she would leave no mark.
Analysis of The Mill
The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
“There are no millers any more,”
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long it seemed like yesterday.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing the “miller’s wife.” A miller is someone who operates a machine to grind grain to make flour. His wife has been waiting for a long time, expecting her husband to arrive home at any moment. Like every other day, she has prepared “The tea.” She has waited so long it has grown “cold” and the “fire” that was lit has died. These are unusual circumstances, but no cause for immediate alarm.
The speaker states that there “might yet be nothing wrong.” Just because the miller is late doesn’t mean something bad has happened. There could be a number of other explanations.
While the wife is worrying over what happened to her husband she recalls what he said to her that morning. He left the house and mentioned off-hand that “‘There are no millers any more.’” This line likely meant that there is no place for a miller in the workforce. On top of the husband’s extended absence, this line is worrying. Perhaps depression over his changed and changing circumstances drove him to do something drastic.
After speaking these lines he remains in the doorway, looking at his wife, for “so long.” The passage of time makes it seem as if his words were spoken the day before.
Sick with a fear that had no form
She knew that she was there at last;
And in the mill there was a warm
And mealy fragrance of the past.
What else there was would only seem
To say again what he had meant;
And what was hanging from a beam
Would not have heeded where she went.
The narrative continues to develop in the second stanza as the wife’s fear increases. There has been no change in the circumstances of the evening and she has become racked with a fear that “had no form.” She cannot name it or describe it, it is so overwhelming.
In the second line of this section, the wife casts her mind out to the mill where her husband works. She imagines that she is “there” where it smells “mealy” and feels “warm.” There is not an only grain in this place though. There is something else that emphasizes the statement he made that morning.
She imagines looking up above her and seeing that there is something “hanging from a beam.” The poem takes a very dark turn here and the wife imagines her husband has committed suicide. He wouldn’t be able to take care of her if he lost his job, and might’ve chosen to take his own life.
And if she thought it followed her,
She may have reasoned in the dark
That one way of the few there were
Would hide her and would leave no mark:
Black water, smooth above the weir
Like starry velvet in the night,
Though ruffled once, would soon appear
The same as ever to the sight.
In the final set of lines, the speaker describes the lasting impact of suicide on the wife’s life. It is important to keep in mind that this event has not necessarily occurred. The wife is only imagining a possible, and worst case, scenario. If it were to happen, the circumstances would not leave her. The picture of her husband dead and the loss of him from her life would “follow…her.” Just as the body would swing from the beam, the darkness would stay by her side.
There is only one sure way to escape from these prospective terrible events. The wife imagines that after her husband’s death she would take her own life. She thinks the easiest way of doing this, so there would be “no mark,” would be to jump into a river. She would aim for the “smooth” and “Black water” situated “above the weir.”
If she were to kill herself, her body would enter the water, “ruffle” it, and then disappear. There would be no evidence she was ever there.