The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612

“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.

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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 not necessarily have the same implications the word has today). Robinson intends irony by contrasting the ancient play with his own pathetic story, a bourgeois domestic drama in which the woman is a self-deceived slave to her husband—her eros (a Greek word meaning love in the form of passionate desire).

The first stanza indicates that the wife sees through her husband’s false front (“engaging mask”) but, although she may even fear him, she is more afraid of losing him as she ages and loses her attractiveness (“the foamless weirs” are water traps too far above the water level to capture fish).

The second stanza enumerates the psychological factors behind her self-delusion that the husband recognizes and complacently exploits her “blurred sagacity,” or an original wisdom about his real self that she has allowed to fade from her mind. The survival of her love for him prevents her from writing him off as the Judas she knows he really is (she discovered his betrayal of her in the past). Her husband exploits her vanity, which makes her keep up appearances and preserve a marriage that she had chosen long ago, however wrongly.

The third and fourth stanzas depict the couple’s coastal New England surroundings. The husband complacently enjoys “tradition”—including his domestic arrangement of long standing, especially if the community is ignorant of the actual nonexistence of romance in their relationship, and even though the wife knows their love is a delusion. The wife retreats to her house as the community buzzes with suspicions; she lives in an autumnal mental state of distraction from recognizing the death of their once ignited love.

The fifth stanza is an intrusive statement by the poem’s narrator who, aligning himself to literary realism, claims to tell a greater truth about this bleak relationship than the wife admits to herself. Yet even the narrator must acknowledge, in fitting humility, that nobody knows the full truth about human lives, including the lives of the subjects of the poem.

The sixth stanza ends where the poem began: The couple’s doomed marriage is like a losing battle with the false god Eros, and it seems headed for the death and destruction suggested by a crashing wave, a tree losing its leaves, or a suicidal walk by a blind person into the sea.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

“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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 88

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.

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Themes