"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.