Demos and Dionysus Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Demos and Dionysus,” which first appeared in Theatre Arts Monthly and later in Dionysus in Doubt (1925), is a heated dialogue between two characters: Dionysus, whose name recalls the ancient Greek wine god associated with the resurrection of new life each spring, and Demos, whose name derives from the word for ancient Greek administrative districts that governed local citizens. Together they represent competing impulses within humanity. Dionysus defends human freedom, an independence of inner spirit that fosters love and art. Demos dismisses love and art as merely frivolous “playing” with “feeling and with unprofitable fancy.” Disgusted by “the insurgent individual/ With his free fancy and his free this and that,” Demos wants people to be controlled by a more economically productive rationality.

Dionysus speaks for Robinson, who viewed forced social conformity, including the eighteenth constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol in 1919, as a threat to human happiness and creativity as well as to American democracy. Dionysus calls Demos’s version of utopia a prison of “amiable automatons” (robots) and “compliant slaves.” He also contends that Demos hides a secret desire behind his efforts to convert the world into a beehive of worker drones. He accuses Demos of deceitfully wearing a “suave and benevolent mask” to conceal his real motives, which he “dare not show” to his followers. His secret is the wish to be the king over subdued humanity, though Dionysus substitutes the word “tyrant” for “king.”

Demos’s impulse to order the self only toward productive ends derives from within humans just as does Dionysus’s love of unruly, creative freedom. The Demos side of humanity has a legitimate claim, and so does the Dionysus side. Humans experience a tug-of-war between both inclinations. However, Robinson maintains that trouble develops when one side gets out of balance. Robinson remains hopeful despite the problems he sees in the 1920’s. Demos may win for now, Robinson suggests, but not forever because the joyous and free Dionysian spirit in humanity always returns like the season of spring.

Demos and Dionysus Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anderson, Wallace L. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Coxe, Louis. Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry. New York: Pegasus, 1969.

Franchere, Hoyt C. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Twayne, 1968.

Joyner, Nancy Carol. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Murphy, Francis, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965.