Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905
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 regarding his love for his sister-in-law, Emma. The facts are these: When a young man of twenty, a year out of high school, with no particular thought of settling down, Robinson met a charming young woman during a lazy summer vacation. Into this slowly evolving friendship burst Robinson’s older brother, Herman, a businessman often on the road, who descended on the vacation resort and wooed and won Emma in the space of few weeks. They were married almost at once. Around the time of this wedding Robinson began a deeply pessimistic work ultimately entitled “The Night Before” (published in 1896 but excluded from his Collected Works). Herman’s marriage was unhappy and destructive. Robinson is believed to have proposed to Emma after she was widowed (possibly reflected in his self-mocking poem, The March of the Cameron Men, 1932).
Regardless of whether one accepts the romanticizing of Robinson’s life, the romanticism of his philosophy is fully a match for the Tristram legend. Robinson grew up in an increasingly materialistic society that seemed on the verge of explaining everything in terms of a mechanized and accidental universe. Robinson opposed this view on many fronts, guided by New England Transcendentalism and other idealistic trends, including Swedenborgianism. His ultimate justification for his views was intuitive. Tristram and Isolt’s love, so intense and yet, as Robinson believed, so typical, rules out the possibility of a mechanistically determined universe. His Tristram argues that before human beings were ever created, first such a love had to be conceived. The universe was created in order to bring love about. Love is too much of a marvel to be an accident; therefore, the universe that created it cannot be an accident. Despite the inherent tragedy of the tale, therefore, the reader comes away with a sense of optimism.
Robinson breaks into once-forbidden territory with descriptions of sexuality that are frank and poetic. The poignancy of Isolt as a tragic romantic heroine is elegantly expressed in the same vocabulary that conveys her sexual appeal: She is dark, trembling, and liquefying. The fact that she melts against Tristram, “with the sure surrender of a child,” even after the years of her marriage to Mark, is a delicate indication that her feelings for Tristram are in a sense virginal. The ability of both lovers to rise above the jealousy of their rivals evolves into selflessness. This evolution of their love beyond the first romantic impulse into something complex and disciplined, is the modern, rather innovative, and not always welcomed part of Robinson’s contribution to the subject.
In their philosophical colloquies, Tristram and Isolt develop Robinson’s ideas of the smallness of life and death, which are two “abysmal little words” in the face of love. When Isolt is dragged by force back to Mark, Mark feels the “smallness” of death when she looks at him. Isolt is often described with irony as “small.” Another word that the lovers discuss and cut down to size is time. Life is not years, and it is not time that fills life full.
The poem is a model of parallel construction. Episodes alternate until, at the conclusion, the original cast is reassembled. The background of the sea, a timeless symbol of human emotions, pervades the story and provides many of the secondary symbols.
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