Skip to main content

An old man living alone on the outskirts of Tilbury Town has gone into town to fill his jug with liquor. Returning home, he stops along the road and invites himself to have a drink. He accepts the invitation several times until the bottle is empty, after which presumably he makes his way back to his "forsaken upland hermitage." "Turned down for alcoholic reasons" by Collier's, "Mr. Flood's Party," was first published in the Nation, November 24, 1920. The origin of the poem goes back twenty-five years--to the time when Robinson was working on his prose sketches. Harry de Forest Smith had told him of an interesting character that he knew. "I am going to take a change of air," Robinson wrote Smith, "and write a little thing to be called 'Saturday,' of which you will be indirectly the father, as it is founded on the amiable portrait of one Mr. Hutchings in bed with a pint of rum and a pile of dime novels." Mr. Flood is one of Robinson's original "scattered lives," wonderfully transmuted over the years.

"Mr. Flood's Party" is in some ways much like "Miniver Cheevy" and "Richard Cory." It is a character sketch, a miniature drama with hints and suggestions of the past; its tone is a blend of irony, humor, and pathos. Yet it is, if not more sober, at least mote serious, and a finer poem. It is more richly conceived and executed, and it contains two worlds, a world of illusion and a world of reality. A longer poem with a more complex stanza pattern and a heightened use of language, its theme fully informs the poem: it is dramatically represented by Mr. Flood and given emotional and intellectual depth by means of interrelated allusions and images focused on a central symbol. The theme is the transience of life; the central symbol is the jug. Both the theme and the symbolic import of the jug are announced in the line "The bird is on the wing, the poet says," though only the theme, implicit in the image, is immediately apparent. Its relationship to the jug goes back to its source in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring

Your winter-garment of Repentance fling:

    The Bird of Time has but a little way

To flutter - and the Bird is on the Wing.


Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,

Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,

    The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,

The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The transience symbols coupled with the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of the Rubáiyát prepare the way for Mr. Flood's party but also intensify the poignance and sharpen the irony. In stanza three, the passage referring to "Roland's ghost winding a silent horn" is the richest in the poem, both in language and in suggestion. It serves a multiple function. The likening of Mr. Flood with lifted jug to Roland, the most courageous of Charlemagne's knights, blowing his magic horn presents a vivid picture, made both striking and humorous by the incongruity. At the same time, however, it is a means of adding pathos and dignity to the figure of Mr. Flood, for there are some similarities. By the time that Roland blew his horn the last time, all his friends were dead; like Mr. Flood he reminisced about the past, and his eves were dim. Moreover, be had fought valiantly and endured to the end, and these attributes of courage and endurance are transferred to Mr. Flood. (The expression "enduring to the end" has a double reference behind it--it calls to mind the words of Jesus when he sent forth his disciples, "He that endureth to the end shall be saved," a statement that Browning said was the theme of his "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." The Roland allusion is even more subtle. The comparison is not to Roland blowing his horn in broad daylight and surrounded by the newly dead, but to the ghost of Roland, and the horn he is winding is a "silent horn." Roland, the last to die, is seeking his phantom friends. So is Mr. Flood. Lighted by the harvest moon glinting on the "valiant armor" of Roland-Flood, this is a world of the past, dim and mute. Fusion of figure and scene is complete. "Amid the silver loneliness / Of night" Mr. Flood creates his own illusory world with his jug.

The significance of the jug symbol, foreshadowed by the Rubáiyát and Roland references, becomes clear in an extended simile at the mid and focal point of the poem:

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child

Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,

He set the jug down slowly at his feet

With trembling care, knowing that most things break.

The interplay of similarities and dissimilarities in the relationship of mother:child and Mr.Flood:jug is too delicate and suggestive to be pinned down and spoiled by detailed analysis. Suffice it to say here that in the child the future is contained; in the jug, the past. Memories flood in as Eben drinks, and he lives once more, temporarily secure, among "friends of other days," who "had honored him," opened their doors to him, and welcomed him home. Two moons also keep him company, one real and one illusory. A last drink and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," with its "auld acquaintance" and "cup o' kindness," and the party is over. And with a shock we and Mr. Flood are back in the harsh world of reality which frames the poem and his present and fleeting life:

There was not much that was ahead of him,

And there was nothing in the town below.

The loneliness of an old man, the passing of time; Eben Flood, ebb and flood. There is no comment, and none is needed.

The striking and functional contrast between the rich figurative language of stanza three in "Mr. Flood's Party" and the final unadorned lines suggests something of the range of language found in Robinson's poetry.