Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The
Blue-Flag in the Bog,” which first appeared in
her Second April collection (1921), never
fails to disarm me. Its unpretentious structure
belies the nuance of its blasphemies. And by
blasphemies, I don’t mean strictly sacrilegious
sentiments. I mean, too, the assertion of seeking
your own private symbols in times of need.
Blue-Flag in the Bog
The poem has 43 stanzas, each with four
seven-syllable lines. Of the four lines in each
stanza, the second and fourth always rhyme. In four
of the 43 stanzas (the second, fourth, 35th and
36th), the first and third lines rhyme too. Here are
the first two stanzas:
God had called us, and we came;
Our loved Earth to ashes left;
Heaven was a neighbor's house,
Open flung to us, bereft.
Gay the lights of Heaven showed,
And ’twas God who walked ahead;
Yet I wept along the road,
Wanting my own house instead.
You can see how the singsong, nursery-rhyme
innocence of the structure is so disarming. Yet the
complexity of the blasphemy is immediate--and
surprising. There’s respect for God in the first
line. Then the third line calls heaven “a neighbor’s
house.” There’s no metaphor or simile cushioning the
blow with feathers of figurative comparison. Heaven
is not like
a neighbor’s house, nor is heaven, say, as toasty as
a neighbor’s house. Heaven simply was
a neighbor’s house. Which changes everything.
It tells us, first and foremost, that heaven was on
earth. Further, it tells us heaven was within a
human-built structure--but not a church. More than
this, it tells us heaven was not within the
speaker’s house. And she’s none too happy about
that: “Yet I wept along the road, / Wanting my own
house instead.” By the 10th stanza, the speaker’s
rebellion is clear in her mind--and in her heart--if
not yet in her actions:
God had called us, and we came,
But the blessed road I trod
Was a bitter road to me,
And at heart I questioned God.
I love how this poem chronicles the curve of a
contrarian idea. Before the speaker acts on it, she
muses on it, tests it, talks it out. Then physical
rebellion occurs, nine stanzas later:
All their eyes were fixed on Glory,
Not a glance brushed over me;
Up the road,--and I was free.
Everyone else is chanting, but it’s the speaker in
jubilation. She’s escaped unnoticed! And then-- most
charming--she looks around for her own sign or
symbol: Something, anything, that will validate what
she’s felt in her heart and now acted upon, in
breaking away from the masses. In the 27th verse,
she finds it. And in it, she finds a source of
And I peered into the smoke
Till it rotted, like a fog:–
There, encompassed round by fire,
Stood a blue-flag in a bog!
Little flames came wading out,
Straining, straining toward its stem,
But it was so blue and tall
That it scorned to think of them!
Red and thirsty were their tongues,
As the tongues of wolves must be,
But it was so blue and tall–
Oh, I laughed, I cried, to see!
All my heart became a tear,
All my soul became a tower,
Never loved I anything
As I loved that tall blue flower!
As a human being, when are you most unassailable? It
varies from person to person, from hour to hour. It
might be when you’re in the fever-grip of a new
idea. It might be when you’re praying or meditating.
Or picking apples. Or watching football. It might be
when you’re drunk and dancing to “I Know You Got
Soul,” either the Bobby Byrd version or the Eric B.
& Rakim version.
Here, our speaker beholds an unassailable blue-flag
flower, an iris lording it high above threatening
flames. Its insouciance under duress moves her to
lovelorn declarations about her own “heart” and
“soul.” Tears are flowing, love is in the air. She
sees the flower and she knows, instantaneously, that
it has soul. That will happen, when you find the
right sign--or the right person--at the right time.
There is also the feeling of feeling needed: By a
plant, by a pet, by a friend, by a lover. The theme
of mutual rescue dominates the last third of the
poem, beginning in the 33rd stanza:
In a breath, ere I had breathed,–
Oh, I laughed, I cried, to see!–
I was kneeling at its side,
And it leaned its head on me!
And a funny thing happens after the speaker finds
bliss in the blue-flag. She finds, too, that she
wants to protect it. And with this new need, this
new love, this new priority, she finds herself
returning to--and reconciling with--a newfound
appreciation for God.
I will tell Him all my grief,
I will tell Him all my sin;
He will give me half His robe
For a cloak to wrap you in.
It’s one thing to rebel when you’re on your own.
It’s different when you feel responsible for others.
The gift of “The Blue-Flag in the Bog” is in the way
it recognizes how our needs for protection, divine
and otherwise, can vary depending on inner and outer
circumstances. There are times you’ll savor nothing
more than your presence at a religious ceremony or a
holiday party. There are other times you’ll want
nothing more, during these occasions, than to take a
long walk, by yourself, in search of your own blue
flag to believe in.
Ilan Mochari is the author of the
Pushcart-nominated debut novel Zinsky
the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2013).
The novel earned rave reviews from Publishers
Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. It was also
featured in the Boston
Globe and on Boston's NPR station. His
short stories and poetry have appeared or are
forthcoming in Keyhole,
Midway Journal, and elsewhere. Another
story received an honorable mention in a Glimmer
Train competition. He
has a B.A. in English from Yale University.