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BlogOctober-November-December, 2014
The Blue-Flag in the Bog

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.

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; 

“Alleluia! Alleluia!”
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 inspiration:

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, Hobart, Stymie, 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.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari