Tristram is the most romantic of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s works, in theme, poetic treatment, and philosophy. It is the culmination of a lifetime of interest in the medieval legends surrounding King Arthur. Robinson’s interest is reflected in shorter poems (“Miniver Cheevy,” 1910) and other long works (Merlin, 1917; Lancelot, 1920). Although far from light reading, Tristram was a success with the American public, and this is only partly to be attributed to the Pulitzer Prize of 1928. Robinson wrote from a deep belief that the love of Tristram and Isolt paralleled the love of many people, even in his own time. In its elimination of some of the traditional colorful details, Robinson’s treatment of the story may be considered somewhat stark, although his simpler imagery is beautiful.
The chief element in the original legend that separates the lovers from ordinary human experience is that their love springs from a supernatural potion. Prior to imbibing this potion, Tristram and Isolt are content with fulfilling their obligations: he to provide a bridge for his uncle and she to wed a king. After drinking the brew, they cast their commitments aside. Robinson prefers to motivate the story differently, in order to bring it into the sphere of realism.
The brief journey across the sea from Ireland to Cornwall is, in an example of such a realistic touch, long enough for an attraction between two people to begin but not enough for them to become fully conscious of it. Tristram, already pursued by Queen Morgan and adored by King Howel’s daughter, is simply blasé about women finding him attractive. Isolt of Ireland is more aware of her feelings, but she is distracted by wounded pride and by anxiety about her future. Once tender Isolt, with her “dark young majesty,” and jaded Mark of the wet mouth and “senile claws” are placed together, the prospect of such an incompatible sexual union jolts Tristram and Isolt awake to their attraction to each other.
The experience of regret after realizing something too late, reflected in the “soul-retching waves” of the ocean, is universally human. In addition, a story has grown up around Robinson...
(The entire section is 905 words.)