It might be a shock to many people after they read “Afternoon on a Hill” by Edna St. Vincent Millay because of the theme of the poem.
If you are familiar with the works of Millay, you must know the recurring theme of sadness and loss in her works. So is there a hidden, morose meaning behind this seemingly happy poem?
Afternoon on a Hill is a poem about anticipation, joy, and happiness. It is about expecting that something good and beautiful is about to happen.
In the analysis and meaning of the poem, we will find out how even this happy poem is in a way related to sadness. Here’s the poem.
Afternoon on a Hill by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will be the gladdest thing Under the sun! I will touch a hundred flowers And not pick one. I will look at cliffs and clouds With quiet eyes, Watch the wind bow down the grass, And the grass rise. And when lights begin to show Up from the town, I will mark which must be mine, And then start down!
Meaning of the Poem
Afternoon on a Hill is about waiting for the moment when the poet can do all the things she has described in the poem. It is a poem filled with imagery, color, and hope.
Millay talks about the beauty of nature, and how wonderful it is to be alive and feel all the things created by nature. But she does not stop at that.
When nighttime comes and the natural world gets dark, she turns towards the city lights and basks in the beauty of the glow coming from the “artificial world.”
Let’s look at the meaning of each of the three stanzas in a deeper and closer way.
I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
The poem starts with an “I will” showing that whatever situation the speaker is in right now, it is not a happy one. She is anticipating a future where she will be the “gladdest thing.”
The speaker says that she will be under the brilliant sunlight touching all the flowers she can see, but not pick one. She wants to enjoy being with the flowers and in nature, not taking them away or destroying them.
I will look at cliffs and clouds
With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
And the grass rise.
The second stanza describes a very simple natural phenomenon but in a very beautiful way. The speaker will look at the cliffs and clouds with “quiet eyes.” But what does that mean?
“Quiet eyes” mean eyes that are not too expressive. These eyes are fixated on something, not moving around too much, just lost in what they are seeing.
The speaker wants to be lost in the motion of the clouds and the rise of the cliffs. She wants to see the grass sway up and down as the wind plays with them.
While the first stanza was about enjoying the beauty of nature, the second paragraph is about enjoying the peace. She just wants to take all that in quietly and feel the serenity.
And when lights begin to show
Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
And then start down!
The final stanza is about life. The speaker says that after the sun has gone down, she will stop enjoying things. She will look at the beautiful glow that comes from the city and “mark” which light must be hers.
It means that she would just look at the lights coming and choose wherever she wants to go without any apparent reason. She wants to live and enjoy this carefree style of living.
The Sadness in this Happy Poem
It is rare to find a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that does not deal with the emotion of sadness. While “Afternoon on a Hill” seems like a happy poem, there is sadness hidden beneath it.
Notice in what tense the speaker is speaking. She is not saying that she is enjoying all the beauties of nature or watching the clouds and grass. But rather, she says that she will.
This “will” is very important to understand the theme of the poem. The theme is anticipation, and expectation, which means she is not in a happy place in life.
The speaker is unhappy but expects and anticipates doing all these things once the hard times are over. The understanding makes the poem a sad one as well.
But it is not entirely a sad poem. The fact that the speaker is expecting all the beautiful things to happen shows hope, and hope gives us the power to go through any challenge or difficulty.
This poem may be an answer to all the sorrowful questions asked in her sad poems. It was saying that no matter how painful life gets, a bright and warm hope still lives inside her and keeps her going.
Read more by Edna St. Vincent Millay: The Meaning and Analysis of Sorrow by Edna St. Vincent Millay