The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Eros Turannos” (“tyrannic love”) is an incisive verse portrait of forty-eight lines, depicting an aging wife willing to lead a life of self-deception to hold onto her marriage with a worthless husband. The noteworthy twentieth century poet and critic Yvor Winters, in Edwin Arlington Robinson (1946), considers this poem to be not only one of the best in the Robinson canon but also “one of the greatest short poems in the language.” It first appeared in the same 1913 issue of Poetry that published the first group of Carl Sandburg’s award-winning Chicago Poems (1916). While critics’ estimates of Sandburg’s work subsequently have declined, critical esteem of Robinson’s work, for “Eros Turannos” especially, has increased gradually.

Reared in Gardiner, Maine, Robinson often used a small-town New England scene as the setting for verse portraits of lonely people, such as the wife in “Eros Turannos,” who lead wasted, blighted, or impoverished lives. Robinson’s poetry reflected the realism of much European literature of the late nineteenth century, and this poem is almost a realistic short story in verse. The “plot” of the poem involves inertia, regret, and illusory love worsened by the passing of time and middle age.

The title “Eros Turannos” is an echo of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannos (which has been translated as meaning “Oedipus the king” or “Oedipus the tyrant,” although “tyrant” would...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Eros Turannos” is a lyric poem consisting of six stanzas whose prevailing meter of iambic tetrameter (with variations) is as tightly controlled as the wife’s self-deluding hold on her failed romance in marriage (“Sh feárs him, Ánd wíll álwǎys ásk”).

Of particular interest in each eight-line stanza is the unusual and intricate rhyme scheme (ababcccb), which, in the first three stanzas, places the stress on “him”—the worthless husband—to an increasingly ominous degree. The only feminine or weak end rhyme in the entire poem is in the last stanza (“striven,” “given,” and “driven”) to capture the futile, evanescent quality of the blighted marriage through climactic sound effect.

The typical irony of a Robinson poem is here less blatant and more subtle, for the principal irony is the wife’s pitiful self-delusion: She, as well as the reader, sees through the discrepancy between what her marriage was and what it has come to be.

There are two major allusions, one to Eros (the god of passionate love, worshiped by the wife) and the other to Judas (the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ as this husband betrays his wife).

Unifying the poem are recurrent images of declining or destructive forces of nature on sea and land in downward motion: in the first stanza (“downward years,/ Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs”), the third stanza (“A sense of ocean and old trees/ Envelops and allures him”), the fourth stanza (“The falling leafThe pounding wave”), and final stanza:

Though like waves breaking it may be,Or like a changed familiar tree,Or like a stairway to the seaWhere down the blind are driven.

The poem combines Robinson’s distinctive techniques of blending character portrayal, implicit narrative, and abstract, generalized statement, a sparing but careful employment of allusion, an indirect manner of providing the overall meaning, a conscientious use of a regular and restrictive verse form, and a unified pattern of images that make the entire poem cohere.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.