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On "Mr Flood's Party"

Ellsworth Barnard

Robinson's language, however, is always the result of taste and temper, not of conscious theorizing; and therefore in each poem it adapts itself without difficulty to the materials and the mood. Hence, the range of his interests and sympathies, the sweep and intensity of his vision, give birth to more various forms of expression than are to be found in the work of most of his contemporaries. The words are not always those of simple men, nor the music always the steady elemental rhythm of the outward movement of daily life. Beneath the surface of even normal existence are unsounded depths of endurance, unsuspected surgings of desire. To deal justly with these is a task to which the poet must devote the full resources of language, however long and often some of them may have been used before. To reject the old because it is not new is mere affectation.

So it is without hesitation that Robinson resorts at times to the grand style and to the rhetorical devices that have been for centuries an accepted part of the poetic craft of the Western world. The sober and serviceable words that fit the unreflective Reuben Bright, gripped suddenly by dumb grief, yield in the portrait of Eben Flood, for whom derelict years have not dimmed the remembrance of other days when stately doors stood wide to receive him and a world of achievement lay all before him, to a rich and resonant music only a little thinned by distance.

Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He Stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.

On this passage we may pause for a brief analysis of sound effects and the devices by which they are secured. Of these, two are dominant, assonance and alliteration: the placing near each other of stressed syllables in which the same or similar vowel sounds occur in conjunction with different consonant sounds; and the spacing at close intervals of stressed syllables beginning with the same or similar consonant sounds followed by different vowel sounds. Something halfway between these two is the use of differing vowel sounds at the beginning of stressed syllables. Further, the use of the same consonant sound at the end or in the middle, as well as at the beginning, of adjacent words is not without effect.

Thus, in the stanza quoted, we find instances of assonance in such combinations as "valiant," "armor," and "scarred"; "road," "Roland's," "ghost," "below," and "town"; "winding" and "silent"; and "phantom," "salutation," and "rang." Alliteration occurs unobtrusively in "scarred," "stood," and "silent"; and more obviously in "town" and "trees." Different vowels at the beginning of stressed syllables are found in "end," "armor," and "outworn"; in "other" and "honored"; and in "old" and "eyes." The most obvious repetition of a consonant, leaving aside alliteration and rhyme is that of d in "end," "scarred," "stood," "middle," "road," "had," "honored," "dead," and "old"; but the repetition of 1 and n also contributes to the total effect.

There seems no point in carrying such analysis further. If the reader chooses, he may note in the quotations throughout this study the constant presence of the devices just described. The main concern of the critic is not with the process but with the result: with how the sound supports the meaning, how it clarifies or intensifies the character, the mood, or the philosophic conception that the poet is striving to incarnate in words.

[. . . ]

Only, an age of doubt has intervened, and his most common moral is that moralizing is dangerous.

From this attitude springs the practice, already noted in the sonnets, and followed also in some of the finest of his other short poems, of simply telling his story and leaving the application to the reader, only attaching at the end a summary or restatement that may give rise to reflection. Here we find The Gift of God, The Poor Relation, Miniver Cheevy, Vickery's Mountain, and Mr. Flood's Party. The last of these will show the poet's gift for compressing into a few seemingly effortless concluding lines the mood and theme of the whole. Mr. Flood's party—attended by his two selves, his jug, and two moons—is ended, and the hard reality presses in upon him once more:

There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.

from Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. Copyright © 1952 by The MacMillan Company.

James Allen, Jr.

Perhaps none of Robinson s works, though, show better than "Mr. Flood's Party" what Robinson could do, when he would, in subtly and intricately interweaving image and symbol in a way that has come to be thought of as characteristically modern. Though he is no Eliot, Joyce, or Yeats even here, in "Mr. Flood's Party" Robinson so skillfully implements his statement of theme with patterns of symbol and metaphor that it seems certain that if he had written more consistently in this mode and less often in the flat, prosy manner of "Richard Cory" and "Cliff Klingenhagen" his right to designation as major and modern might be more generally agreed upon than it has been in the years since he lived and wrote.

The main theme or point of "Mr. Flood's Party" is a consideration of the effects upon human experience of the passage of time. And to the elaboration of this theme virtually all of the major figures of speech or symbols in the poem are functionally and organically related, either directly or indirectly. The first word in the poem, old, immediately touches upon the theme of the effects of time's passing, while the next two words are also related to that theme as well as being symbolic in their relationship. For in giving the name Eben Flood to his protagonist, Robinson created a sort of symbolic pun, which may be read either ebb and flood or ebbing flood. The former reading, ebb and flood, suggests a pattern of coming and going which proves to be basically related to the poem’s theme and is therefore the preferable reading; also, the latter reading, ebbing flood, has the additional disadvantage of an inherent self-contradiction since ebb and flood are opposite concepts. However, no matter which reading of the pun one prefers, there can be little doubt that in choosing such a name as Eben Food Robinson had in mind the common association between tide and time and perhaps even the familiar adage, "Time and tide wait for no man." Thus in naming his protagonist as he did, Robinson related his character both to the centrally significant pattern in the poem of coming and going; and to the poem's theme of the passage of time, which themselves are interrelated, of course.

Another symbolism carefully initiated in stanza one is that based upon the contrast between Mr. Flood's solitary house high on the hill and the community or town below. The main effect of the passage of time in the case of Mr. Flood, as in the case of many people, has been loneliness; time has taken away those with whom he had any meaningful associations. Symbolically, Robinson has identified this aloneness with the "forsaken" mountain top and the experience of human contact or communion with the populated valley below. However, the dramatic action of the poem takes place neither at the mountain top nor in the valley, but, as Robinson carefully points out in line two, between the two extremes. In keeping with this symbolic in-betweenness of location of the dramatic action, the experience of Mr., Flood's party is somewhere in-between the two extremes of absolute aloneness and communion with other humans, for after imbibing from his jug he has at least another Mr. Flood to be with. The jug, of course, and the whole episode of the party reflect the touching and ironic effects upon a person of time’s leaving him without human associations. Such a person finds that the pain of loneliness can be assuaged by the contents of a jug, as brought out partly symbolically and partly literally by the second Mr. Flood, who is as much of human company as old Eben can now know and who, as such, Eben finds better than no company at all.

Another explanation for Mr. Flood's decision to go ahead and have a party—"Well Mr. Flood,/ Since you propose it, I believe I will"—is brought out symbolically in stanza two where, the decision is made. In that stanza, two more sets of symbols relate directly to the passage of time. First, the moon, whose luminescence pervades the scene just as its metaphorical force permeates the poem's meaning, has been, with its ceaseless coming and going and waxing and waning, an age old symbol of change and the passage of time. Moreover, Robinson stipulates that Mr. Flood's is a harvest or autumn moon, the fall of the year being a traditional symbol for late years in life. The other symbol related to time's passage is the fleeting bird mentioned by old Eben. Birds, usually beautiful and graceful, suggest youth, vigor, life itself perhaps; and such things are transient, like the bird flying swiftly away. Actually, Mr. Flood's reference to a bird goes even further than this, though, for it involves a literary allusion. The poet who had said that the "bird is on the wing"—in about the same figurative sense that Eben and Robinson meant that line—was Edward Fitzgerald in his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which also directly concerns itself with the effects upon man of time's passing. The lines from the Rubaiyat alluded to read as follows: "Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring/Your Winter garment of Repentance fling:/ The Bird of Time has but a little way/ To flutter and the Bird is on the Wing." The reaction to the transience of temporal things expressed in these lines and repeatedly suggested elsewhere in the Rubaiyat is the philosophy of carpe diem, enjoy the day, make the most of this moment for the next moment may take all away. Mr. Flood in his party is grasping what few small pleasures he can from fleeting life; almost with the reader's approval, because of the sympathy evoked for his situation by Robinson's portrayal, he is adopting the philosophy of carpe diem. As in the other cases already examined, then, the symbol and metaphor inherent in the allusion to the Rubaiyat functionally implement Robinson's statement of theme.

Stanza three is perhaps the most thoroughly figurative stanza in the poem. Opening with a word that again reminds the reader of the central theme, the word alone, Robinson then initiates a series of interrelated similes, symbols, and metaphors that make up the next four lines. In line four the image of Roland is evoked, the jug held up to Eben's lips being compared to the horn that Roland blew to signal Charlemagne—all too late—that he needed help. The simile of Roland's ghost is made more effective by the metaphor in the previous lines; instead of armor of iron and steel like that of Roland, old Eben wears an armor of "scarred hopes outworn," in other words, the protective shell of detachment and imperviousness to the buffetings of life that one is able to develop after long years of frustrations, defeats, and losses coming one upon another. And additional element of allusion in the knight and armor imagery may be a suggestion of the glory of time past as compared to the bleak present; the likelihood of such an element of meaning is increased by the fact that such use is made of chivalry and knighthood in other poems by Robinson, the most familiar of which is "Miniver Cheevy." Still another touch of symbolic or metaphorical significance in the Roland image derives from the fact that Roland, though not as old as Eben, was about to die, as one feels that Mr. Flood may be about to die in the not-too-distant future. This notion may be confirmed by the fact that there are a good many suggestions of death in ~stanza three and in the poem in general. For example, Roland's ghost is chosen rather than just Roland himself, and also the answer to Mr. Flood's imaginary blast upon the imaginary horn is a "phantom salutation of the dead." In addition to these elements in stanza three, one recalls that Fitzgerald's line said that "The Bird of Time has but a little way/ To flutter . . ." and that in stanza two Eben had said of the harvest moon ". . . we may not have many more." In short, one feels that Eben and the former friends whose salutation answers his call may soon be reunited in death.

But the poem is not predominantly about death but rather about what Mr. Flood has left of life, which is very little. This heightened moment of communion with himself, artificially stimulated though it may be, is about as rich an experience as is now possible to Eben Flood. And after a fourth stanza in which Robinson does little more than indirectly comment upon Mr. Flood's past experience and knowledge of life's difficulties through a couple of similes in reference to the jug, the poet describes that heightened moment—the party itself—in stanzas five and symbol or metaphor, but it is cast in terms of dramatic dialogue and action rather than in the abstract narrative style of "Richard Cory." The same is true of stanza six, except that in the last lines of this stanza some degree of symbolic suggestion is achieved. The two moons in line seven, of course, represent the alcoholic effects of Mr. Flood's indulgence on the one hand, the degree of the effect of the drink being thus indirectly indicated, but the two moons also symbolically parallel the two Mr. Floods, one of which was also brought into existence the contents of the jug. But by far the most important symbol in the stanza is the song itself, which makes the whole landscape harmonious. The song is important because, as Charles T. Davis points out in his article on Robinson's imagery, Robinson fairly frequently used song and harmony to represent perception or spiritual truth or "understanding or truth in human relationships." One might bend that meaning some, in this case, to suggest that the song simply represents a moment of heightened experience. Davis also shows that Robinson frequently used light as a symbol in much the same way that he used music and harmony, which gives even more meaning to the moonlight that permeates the scene and pervades the poem. However, though the song and light probably both represent a moment of heightened experience—in traditional as well as in Robinsonian terms—any insight, perception of truth, or understanding of human relationships that they might represent in this case would have to be rather limited or negative. Perhaps they could represent Mr. Floods awareness that he might as well make the most of his own company as the only "human relationship" available to him, but hardly, anything more hopeful or optimistic than that. The particular song that is sung itself suggests negativism and lack of a hopeful future, for as with the backward-looking elements of meaning in the knight image, "Auld Lang Syne" suggests a moment’s re-evocation of better times from the past, but only that.

In the final stanza, the words the song being done not only say symbolically that the heightened experience is over but also again suggest that Mr. Flood's life itself may nearly be done, a suggestion corroborated by the weariness of Eben's throat. The line "There was not much ahead of him" says figuratively what the preceding paragraph of this analysis concluded about Mr. Flood’s future—figuratively if the path up the hillside and the empty house at the top are thought of—and also what the symbols of the shut doors two lines later say again. The, open door is another recurrent symbol in Robinson's work which Davis mentions, a symbol of entrance upon a new world or a new life, a symbol of new vistas achieved by men as they progress from stage to stage of life (p. 386). It is symbolically and ironically significant, then, that all doors are now shut to Mr. Flood, who can only look backward with himself to the time when more genuine human associations had made new and meaningful experiences possible, backward to the "many doors/ That many friends had opened long ago." The last two words of the poem, long ago, like the last two lines in general, touch once more upon the poem's central theme, as did the first three words, old Eben Flood. And, as has been seen, the many symbols, figures of speech and images throughout the poem also touch upon the same theme—the theme of the effects upon man's life of the passage of time, of the coming and going of life's tide, the waxing and waning of life's moon, the rising up and dying out of life's song.

Such carefully worked interplay of symbols and richly suggestive metaphorical language make "Mr. Flood’s Party" on of Robinson’s most successful short pieces. If he had written more consistently in the mode of "Mr. Flood's Party," using symbol and metaphor to implement statement of theme and to avoid his "drift toward an abstract and somewhat arid speech" (Davis, p. 381) , Robinson might perhaps today be more generally considered as equal to his fellow regionalist, Robert Frost, in both stature and modernity.

from "Symbol and Theme in 'Mr. Flood's Party.'" Mississippi Quarterly 15 (1962).

Wallace L. Anderson

An old man living alone on the outskirts of Tilbury Town has gone into town to fill his jug with liquor. Returning home, he stops along the road and invites himself to have a drink. He accepts the invitation several times until the bottle is empty, after which presumably he makes his way back to his "forsaken upland hermitage." "Turned down for alcoholic reasons" by Collier's, "Mr. Flood's Party," was first published in the Nation, November 24, 1920. The origin of the poem goes back twenty-five years--to the time when Robinson was working on his prose sketches. Harry de Forest Smith had told him of an interesting character that he knew. "I am going to take a change of air," Robinson wrote Smith, "and write a little thing to be called 'Saturday,' of which you will be indirectly the father, as it is founded on the amiable portrait of one Mr. Hutchings in bed with a pint of rum and a pile of dime novels." Mr. Flood is one of Robinson's original "scattered lives," wonderfully transmuted over the years.

"Mr. Flood's Party" is in some ways much like "Miniver Cheevy" and "Richard Cory." It is a character sketch, a miniature drama with hints and suggestions of the past; its tone is a blend of irony, humor, and pathos. Yet it is, if not more sober, at least mote serious, and a finer poem. It is more richly conceived and executed, and it contains two worlds, a world of illusion and a world of reality. A longer poem with a more complex stanza pattern and a heightened use of language, its theme fully informs the poem: it is dramatically represented by Mr. Flood and given emotional and intellectual depth by means of interrelated allusions and images focused on a central symbol. The theme is the transience of life; the central symbol is the jug. Both the theme and the symbolic import of the jug are announced in the line "The bird is on the wing, the poet says," though only the theme, implicit in the image, is immediately apparent. Its relationship to the jug goes back to its source in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your winter-garment of Repentance fling:
    The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter - and the Bird is on the Wing.

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
    The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The transience symbols coupled with the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of the Rubáiyát prepare the way for Mr. Flood's party but also intensify the poignance and sharpen the irony. In stanza three, the passage referring to "Roland's ghost winding a silent horn" is the richest in the poem, both in language and in suggestion. It serves a multiple function. The likening of Mr. Flood with lifted jug to Roland, the most courageous of Charlemagne's knights, blowing his magic horn presents a vivid picture, made both striking and humorous by the incongruity. At the same time, however, it is a means of adding pathos and dignity to the figure of Mr. Flood, for there are some similarities. By the time that Roland blew his horn the last time, all his friends were dead; like Mr. Flood he reminisced about the past, and his eves were dim. Moreover, be had fought valiantly and endured to the end, and these attributes of courage and endurance are transferred to Mr. Flood. (The expression "enduring to the end" has a double reference behind it--it calls to mind the words of Jesus when he sent forth his disciples, "He that endureth to the end shall be saved," a statement that Browning said was the theme of his "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." The Roland allusion is even more subtle. The comparison is not to Roland blowing his horn in broad daylight and surrounded by the newly dead, but to the ghost of Roland, and the horn he is winding is a "silent horn." Roland, the last to die, is seeking his phantom friends. So is Mr. Flood. Lighted by the harvest moon glinting on the "valiant armor" of Roland-Flood, this is a world of the past, dim and mute. Fusion of figure and scene is complete. "Amid the silver loneliness / Of night" Mr. Flood creates his own illusory world with his jug.

The significance of the jug symbol, foreshadowed by the Rubáiyát and Roland references, becomes clear in an extended simile at the mid and focal point of the poem:

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break.

The interplay of similarities and dissimilarities in the relationship of mother:child and Mr.Flood:jug is too delicate and suggestive to be pinned down and spoiled by detailed analysis. Suffice it to say here that in the child the future is contained; in the jug, the past. Memories flood in as Eben drinks, and he lives once more, temporarily secure, among "friends of other days," who "had honored him," opened their doors to him, and welcomed him home. Two moons also keep him company, one real and one illusory. A last drink and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," with its "auld acquaintance" and "cup o' kindness," and the party is over. And with a shock we and Mr. Flood are back in the harsh world of reality which frames the poem and his present and fleeting life:

There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below.

The loneliness of an old man, the passing of time; Eben Flood, ebb and flood. There is no comment, and none is needed.

The striking and functional contrast between the rich figurative language of stanza three in "Mr. Flood's Party" and the final unadorned lines suggests something of the range of language found in Robinson's poetry.

From Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Copyright © 1967 by Wallace L. Anderson

W. R. Robinson

When nature became inhospitable to spirit for Robinson, he recognized that man, if he stands upright at all, stands alone; he is the only instance of spirit and therefore the only evidence of its nature and destiny. When self-knowledge cannot come through communication with nature, man must turn inward or to his kind—to introspection or to what is "between man and man." With nature dead, man must open himself to man, to his spiritual being mirrored in his own reflection or the fate of others. For this reason Robinson’s immediate subject is man. Nowhere does he announce this fact in so many words, yet there can be no doubt about it, his entire poetic work being cogent testimony of it. Judging from his titles alone—for example, "Luke Havergal," "Eben Flood" . . . .

Correspondingly, as he became more sophisticated about truth, he became more intent upon, and more proficient at, cultivating obscurity. Like Howells, and in accordance with the interests of realism, he regarded his work in the early stage of his career as largely "an attempt to show the poetry of the commonplace." Though his theory and practice were in some ways as incongruent as Wordsworth’s in Lyrical Ballads, he sought, nevertheless, to make poetry out of, or to find poetry in, the real as he understood it at this time—things as they visually are. Consequently, his early poems at their best tended to be tight, succinct, sharp, concrete, lucid, vivid, exact. Poems like "Flammonde," "Richard Cory," "Eben Flood," though each in different ways, derive their power from concreteness, from clarity achieved through sharp observation. Instead of practice resulting in greater concreteness and vividness, which might seem the logical and customary course, he became progressively more obscure, until in the late long poems his narratives are so dimly motivated and tortuously plotted that it is a major task just to determine what happens in them. These poems are in no way devoted to the poetry of the commonplace, and as a consequence the language in them becomes relatively dissociated from things seen, actual speech, and concrete situations. Passionate, long-winded talk; general, abstract diction; relatively formal, "high-toned" syntax; circumlocution and rhetoric become in them the hallmarks of Robinson’s style.

From Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poetry in the Act. Ó 1967 by the Press of Western Reserve University.

Nancy Joyner

"Mr. Flood's Party" doubtless stands in the Collected Poems as Edwin Arlington Robinson intended it, but a manuscript version of the poem included in the Lewis M. Isaacs Collection of Robinsoniana in the New York Public Library concludes in an entirely different manner from that of the printed version. Unfortunately, the manuscript is undated. It is, however, a signed, holographic fair copy. Probably it was written prior to the one that was published, and, since it is not a rough draft, one must assume that Robinson at one time seriously considered that version as the final form. Because the last stanza radically changes the interpretation of the poem, a comparison between the two versions is instructive.

The concluding stanza in the manuscript is as follows:

"For auld lang syne."—The weary throat gave out,
The last word perished, and the song was done.
He raised again the jug regretfully,
And without malice would have ambled on;
But hearing in the bushes a new sound,
He smote with new profanity the cause,—
And shook an aged unavailing fist
At an inhuman barrage of applause.

While minor variations exist in the first six stanzas of the manuscript and the published form of the poem, it is only in the last stanza that the change is significant. The first appearance of the poem concluded with this stanza:

"For auld-lang syne." The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again along.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.

The poem was subsequently included in each edition of the Collected Poems. While minor revisions were made, the poem has not been substantially changed since its first publication.

The differences in the two concluding stanzas are obvious. From almost every point of view the two stanzas stand in direct contrast to each other: the Latinate, polysyllabic diction of the first is exchanged for simple monosyllables; rather than new action and dramatic content there is a reiteration of what has already been established; instead of ironic surprise there is a tone of nostalgia. And most significant is the change in the attitude toward Mr. Flood, from condescension and even mockery in the early version to sympathy with a note of admiration for Mr. Flood's stoic endurance.

"Mr. Flood's Party" is one of Robinson's most often anthologized poems. Emery Neff finds it "the short poem which perhaps best represents the quality of Robinson's personality and art." Robinson himself has been quoted as saying, "I suppose Mr. Flood is the best thing I ever did." The high opinion of this poem may be related to the quality of Robinson's revisions.

from "An Unpublished Version of Mr. Flood's Party.'" English language Notes 7 (1969)

John Lucas

It is the withheld word that does the trick: not wearily, but "warily." This old man has too much native wit to be the object of sentimental pity. For Robinson to draw our attention to this fact is proof enough of the comic regard in which he holds Mr. Flood, but it surely emerges in the very way the story opens. How can you resist a poem that starts as this one does? It is so compelling, so much in the manner of the born storyteller. As the poem continues, the tale becomes more comic, more outrageously strange, more humanly fascinating. Robinson is so completely in command that he can switch the changes in the third stanza from the near-mocking grandiloquence of the opening lines to the closing lines, which shame our smiles:

Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honoured him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben's eyes were dim.

Yet the closing lines clearly need the bracing effect of the mock-heroic that plays about the first half-stanza if they are not to stray into mere pathos. And consider how much Robinson risks, and brings off, in the fourth stanza:

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:

The control of language in that stanza is as perfect as anyone could wish for. The simile of the tipsy old man setting his Jug down, like a mother, with "trembling care," is so audacious and yet so obviously written out of regard for him and not for cleverness' sake, that it doesn't seem the least bit ingenious or self-regarding. Moreover, the laconic phrase, "knowing that most things break," strikes me as exactly the sort of triumph that Robinson's style can bring him: it quite miraculously holds the balance between the poet's resistance to bathos and his need to honour that slightly indulgent but sure knowledge that Mr. Flood carries with him. So it is with the rest of the poem. But here I have simply to quote:

[Lucas quotes the last three lines]

There is really nothing to say about that, except how wonderful it is. You can note the great line "There was not much that was ahead of him," the wit that is unwaveringly attentive towards Eben's caution ("Secure, with only two moons listening"), the comic "Convivially returning with himself"; and so on. But ticking off the points that make "Mr Flood's Party" a masterpiece comes to feel a very trivial exercise. What perhaps is worth saying is that it is precisely because Robinson finds such scenes worth recording that he is so invaluable a poet. For the subject of "Mr Flood's Party" hardly seems to warrant a poem at all and certainly not the major poem that Robinson fashions.

From Moderns and Contemporaries. Copyright © by John Lucas.

"Mr. Flood’s Party"
by Stephen Dunn

"Mr. Flood's Party," one of Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tilbury Town Portraits, above all shows his mastery of tone, and in this case how such mastery rescues--almost entirely--his subject matter from the bathos with which it flirts. "Almost" will be one of the concerns of this essay, though Eben Flood remains a memorable Robinson character, in the good company of Reuben Bright, Miniver Cheevy, Richard Cory, and the less-defeated Cliff Klingenhasen.

Eben Flood, his aloneness intensified by old age, may or may not be a drunk, but on this particular evening he has the regular drinker's comic sense of self-imposed propriety. He needs to give himself permission. For some, it's when the sun is below the yardarm; for Eben, the solitary that he is, it's the need for social drinking, for a companion, to have, as the title suggests, a party. It's one of the smallest and saddest parties ever registered in a poem, made so by Eben's elaborate formalities with his compliant alter ego. But the same formalities make us smile, too, which is Robinson's genius. We are regularly distracted from bathos by felicities both tonal and prosodic.

I found myself admiring Robinson's ambition to work as closely as possible to his subject while still orchestrating all of its effects. "Reuben Bright" and "Richard Cory," are also poems that display Robinson's gift for this kind of intimacy, though their famous endings (one character tears down the slaughterhouse, the other goes home and puts a bullet through his head) succeed with tones so matter-of-fact that they suggest a greater balance of distance and intimacy than Robinson was able to achieve at the end of "Mr. Flood's Party." This may be why the last stanza doesn't resonate beyond what has already been established in the poem.

The poem's first stanza situates us immediately, both physically and psychologically. Its five-line opening sentence couldn't be much better paced or orchestrated.

Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.

Eben Flood is between a place that is forsaken and a town (we will soon learn) that no longer remembers him. And this hermitage of his "held as much as he should ever know / on earth again of home." The word that pricks us is "again," because it suggests that home was once a homier place, and no doubt also because of its consonantal resonance with the other n sounds, as those in "alone" and "forsaken." And how adroitly Robinson emphasizes "paused" after the long clause that establishes Eben's plight. The three iambs before it prepare us for an unstressed syllable. When instead we get a stressed syllable, we feel that a dramatic moment has been properly timed and delivered, Eben has paused, warily. He's about to begin his party, and it would be too embarrassing for him if others were about. In the lines that follow, we don’t quite know how good and ironically understated "having leisure'' is until we read further. And the road Eben is on is "his" in more ways than one, and more ways than one is how Robinson likes it.

Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more

commences Eben's address to himself and, almost in passing, allows us to hear that he doesn't expect to live much longer. The poet of "the bird is on the wing" is Khayyám. Eben has his prop; the social drinker offers a toast to the only companion he has, and acceptance is guaranteed. They drink to the bird in flight. It's a toast to the departed or the departing--an excuse to indulge, perhaps even a death wish. Probably both.

The third stanza deepens what we already know, and the highly stressed "a valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn" distinguishes itself as language while complicating our attitude toward Mr. Flood. (Eben is valiant; he no longer even has scarred hopes.) We learn that he once had been "honored" by his friends. The allusion is either to Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" or to the medieval French poem "Chanson de Roland." The former suggests a quest and the latter a kind of stubborn heroism. If it's the former, it's for purposes of comic disparity (Eben's quest is drink). If it's the latter, there's reason to receive it poignantly, since Roland, trapped by the enemy, refused to blow his horn to signal help from Charlemagne's army until the moment of his death, just as plausibly, it is there to suggest that Eben is already like a ghost. He can hear the town's "phantom salutation of the dead" calling to him.

But in stanza four, his context firmly established now, Robinson most artfully makes his poem resonate beyond its sentimental concerns. "He set the jug down slowly at his feet / Knowing that most things break; / And only when assured that on firm earth / it stood, as the uncertain lives of men / assuredly did not" are arguably the poem's finest moments, the poet allowing himself wise asides happily mitigated--though not reduced--by the fact that he's talking about a jug. No feel of the didactic here. These editorials on the human condition are rooted in setting and circumstance. Moreover, they represent a perfect blending of two sources, Eben's thoughts and Robinson's--just the right intimacy.

Eben's handling of the jug, which carries in it a temporary surcease of loneliness, is likened to the tenderness with which a mother would handle a sleeping child. This action is both comedic and heroic. We can imagine the slowness, the delicacy, with which a drunk puts something down so as not to break it. Eben is in the middle of a journey between two equally undesirable places, home and town; his heroism is in his effort toward good humor while he steels himself with drink. The jug is another character in the poem. In modern parlance, it's his baby, and he will care for it as such.

His invocation to his second self, his drinking companion, is more convivial at this point than self-pitying, though it's an edgy conviviality: "many a change has come / to both of us, I fear, since it was / last we had a drop together." The "I fear" registers with us, as does the end of his toast, "Welcome home!" We feel the irony in that last word, emphasized by its placement and its rhyme. it should be noted that Robinson employs only two rhymes (with one exception) in each of his eight-line stanzas: at the ends of the second and fourth fines and the sixth and the eighth. Here Robinson gets maximum effect out of rhyme, even though it's more near than exact. "Home" stops us, or is stopped for us by both its exclamation point and the click of cooperative sound. We have not forgotten where he is. Home now is stupor, in the middle of nowhere.

The toast complete, Robinson mimics successfully the manners of the drunk who might also be a Puritan: "if you insist" and "Only a very little." This is an engaging burlesque within the larger, pathetic scene. Tonally, at this moment, we as readers are not asked to feel sorry for Eben. We are allowed to enjoy how well the poet, by blending tones, has been equal to the psychological and linguistic imperatives of his task. The lines that follow serve further to demonstrate Robinson's deft comic timing, which is linked to his metrical brilliance.

For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.
So, for the time, apparently it did.
And Eben evidently thought so too;

Throughout, the poem has employed a mixture of blank verse and rhymed, often loose, iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter has been regular enough to permit Robinson many variations and substitutions. The illusion of natural speech has been maintained while "the grid of meter" has served as underpinning. To my ear, the line, "For auld lang syne. No more, sit; that will do," arguably has seven stresses. Only "For" and "No" and perhaps "will" would seem to be unstressed. But the prosodic fun occurs with the semicolon after "air." It breaks the iamb-spondee-iamb flow of the line (a string of two-syllable feet), while conforming exactly to the way that we trust Eben's elaborate formality with himself would be spoken. The ten-syllable line has been kept, but has been metrically fractured right at the point where Eben, or at least half of him, is trying to stop drinking. The narrative coyness inherent in "apparently" and "evidently" also serve the comic. Robinson would have us entertain that the narrator-observer, heretofore omniscient, is suddenly uncertain in this highly managed fiction. The uncertainty serves to underscore the narrative playfulness at this juncture, as does the placement of "did" after "do" as end words in successive lines. These are welcome balancing touches in a poem so potentially sentimental.

In the lines that follow, Robinson returns to a device that worked well for him earlier in the poem, the apparently positive word or phrase that in context suggests a harsh irony. Earlier we were told "The road was his" and that Eben had "leisure." Now Eben is "secure," a word set apart by commas, which denotatively means he's not worried about being overheard singing out loud. We wait a full line before the "until" comes, and then his entire landscape echoes back to him the song of old times, his sad anthem.

I'm not sure what "with only two moons listening" is supposed to mean. It's a curious moment, the "'only" suggesting that Eben expects more than two. My guess would be that Eben's selves each have a moon, or that to Eben's drunken eye there appear to be two moons. Frost's enigmatic reading of the two moons ("Two, as on the planet Mars.") in his "Introduction to Robinson's King Jasper" seems only to beg the issue.

When the landscape echoes "For auld lang syne," the poem reaches its climax. Eben cannot escape the sound of his own lamentation. Afterward, his "weary throat gave out" and the poem spirals into unrelieved pathos. It is in this stanza that Robinson's compositional balance of intimacy and distance--his ability to deliver to us with multiple tones this valiant, sad, and drunken man--fails him. He can only sum up for us what we already know. One longs for some resonance comparable to what he was able to effect in stanza four, a line that would evaluate and measure Eben's condition as much as it declares it, or the sudden rightness that makes poetry poetry.

"Mr. Flood's Party" is a very good poem by a very good poet, as close to a great poet as a very good poet can be. Who knows, perhaps a great poet. I wouldn't argue. But in "Mr. Flood's Party," Robinson's language at the end neither pulls back far enough to position Eben as sufferer, nor does he stay close enough to him to participate sufficiently in his thoughts. Instead Robinson gets caught in the middle, a toneless ground that has to depend on easy (if momentarily effective) wordplay and juxtaposition: ahead/below; many doors/many friends, would have shut/had opened. Closure is accomplished, but tonal resonance is lost.

Compositional intimacy, like most intimacy, may be at its best when one keeps in reserve something peculiarly his own to, at last, give away. Robinson had said all he had to say about Eben halfway through the last stanza. But before that he gave us an exquisitely managed portrait of a man presumably without family and who had outlived his friends, struggling one evening to create his own solace.

From Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem. Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the President and Fellows of Middlebury College.

William Pratt

Of all Robinson’s many failures, perhaps the most sympathetic is old Eben Flood of "Mr. Flood's Party," because in his case the failure is from a weakness not of conscience but of flesh: old age has overwhelmed him and left him friendless, an unwilling exile, doomed to holding an ironic "party" with himself. His name is as symbolic as Richard Cory's, since pronouncing Eben Flood as if Eben is short for Ebenezer leads to the conclusion that while his fortunes may once have been at their flood, they are now at their ebb: "There was not much that was ahead of him." We see Mr. Flood pathetically alone, on a hillside looking down at the town where he was once happy, "Where friends of other days had honored him." Now he has only himself, and he has sought solace in drink, having carried along with him "The jug that he had gone so far to fill," from which he offers a toast to himself in the silence and darkness. Robinson ironically compares his Mr. Flood to two literary figures: Omar Khayyam, the Persian author of "The bird is on the wing" (Robinson quotes these words in "Mr. Flood's Party" from Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubayatt: "the Bird of Time, has but a little while / To flutter, and the bird is on the wing"); and Roland, the medieval knight who in The Song of Roland blew his horn too late to bring reinforcements to the Christian troops of Charlemagne to save them from the attacking Moors. In the first case, Mr. Flood quotes Omar to say, not that he has little time to enjoy wine, women, and song as Omar did, but that he has little time to live, and in the second case, he catches Mr. Flood just as he is raising his jug to drink and says he is "Like Roland's ghost winding a silent horn." The allusions imply a doubly ironic contrast: Mr. Flood's drinking alone in old age shows neither the Persian poet's lighthearted hedonism nor the French knight's heroic martyrdom, but an ironic pathos at the end of life.

Later in the poem, Mr. Flood "lifted up his voice and sang" the familiar New Year's Eve drinking song "For Auld Lang Syne." Burns's Scottish words are nostalgic, but convivial, about "times long past," but they, too, have an ironic ring coming from Mr. Flood’s lips, accented by the additional mockery of his slightly drunken condition, which is "Secure, with only two moons listening." There is a saving humor in this tipsy figure to relieve the pathos in Robinson’s realistic portrait of the old man, who at the end is left with a bleak landscape around him and a lonely fate to contemplate, since

        there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.

Eben Flood is the last of his generation in Tilbury Town, and Robinson’s poem places him in the New England townscape as it dramatizes memorably, yet wryly, the pitiable state of extreme old age.

from Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

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