If you have been to the top of Mt. Battie, you probably will have seen these words inscribed on the tower: “All I could see from where I stood was three long mountains and a wood. I turned and looked another way and saw three islands in a bay.” That description of the view is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of Maine’s best-known poets, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her birthday was this past Tuesday.

Born in Rockland, graduating from Camden High School, and “discovered” during a talent evening at Camden’s Whitehall Inn in 1912, Millay, or “Vincent” as she liked to be called, became one of the most loved and successful poets of early 20th-century America.

You may remember from high school another famous line of hers: “My candle burns at both ends.” But you might not remember much more, since in later years modern teenagers may have found her old fashioned. Although her traditional poetic forms and language harkened back to the 19th century, what she wrote about was the spirit of the times. After her move to New York City, she was known for her riveting readings and performances, her progressive political stances, frank portrayal of free love, and her embodiment and description of women’s experience.

Millay’s popularity as a poet had much to do with her person: She lived the life of a young independent woman — the “New Woman” — and wrote about it. Harriet Monroe in the little magazine Poetry wrote: “How neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Woman!”

The poem, “Recuerdo,” is about a night of riding back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry with her lover of the moment. The free ferry still connects Manhattan to the island and runs all night as it did in Millay’s day. For you Mainers who might have a preconceived idea of a ferry and an island, know that Staten Island consists of 59 square miles, and these days the pedestrian-only ferry service carries about 70,000 passengers a day. On the Manhattan side, it connects to the subway system.

The poem itself mimics with its rhythm and rhyme the back and forth of their riding as well as the lightness of their night out. They might have been footloose and fancy free, but they saved their fare for the subway home at the end. Try reading it aloud to get the spirit of that evening.

Recuerdo

We were very tired, we were very merry —

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable —

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,

We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;

And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

 

We were very tired, we were very merry —

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;

And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,

From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;

And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,

And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

 

We were very tired, we were very merry,

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,

And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;

And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears,

And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Linda Buckmaster was Belfast's poet laureate from 2009-2011.