The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1173

Isolt of the White Hands is too pensive and preoccupied for a young woman. She is always looking to the north, toward England. Her father, King Howel of Brittany, loves his daughter too much to let her attitude go unquestioned. Isolt tells her father she is waiting for Tristram, who some time before made a visit to the Breton court. Fond of Isolt as an adult is fond of a child, Tristram gave her on his departure an agate for a keepsake and promised to come back. Now Isolt is a woman of eighteen, and she waits for Tristram as a woman waits for her lover. King Howel tries to tell her that Tristram thinks of her as a child, and that he probably will not return; but Isolt will not be convinced.

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In Cornwall it is the wedding day of old, lecherous King Mark and the dark and beautiful Isolt of Ireland, his bride. With the wedding feast in full swing, the wine cup is often passed. Sick of the drunken merriment and sicker with inner torment, Tristram, nephew of the king, leaves the feast and wanders in the fresh night air. King Mark, displeased by his nephew’s absence, sends Gouvernail, Tristram’s preceptor and friend, to ask him to return. Tristram says only that he is sick. Then Queen Morgan comes to talk to Tristram. She uses all her arts and blandishments on the brooding knight, and they are cunning indeed, for Queen Morgan, much experienced in the arts of love, is more than a little attracted to Tristram. Tristram repeats stubbornly that he is sick.

Then there is a soft step on the stair, as Brangwaine comes, followed a moment later by dark-caped, violet-eyed Isolt of Ireland. She looks at Tristram but says nothing as he takes her in his arms. Memories hang about them like a cloud.

King Mark is old and unattractive, and he wants a young wife in his castle. Yearning for Isolt of Ireland, he sends as emissary his gallant nephew, Tristram, to plead his cause. Tristram has to fight even to get to the Irish court. After he slays the mighty Morhaus, Isolt’s uncle, he makes a bargain of state with the Irish king and takes Isolt back to Cornwall in his boat. One night they are alone with only the sea and the stars to look upon them. Isolt waits in vain for Tristram to speak. If he does, she will love him then, and there will be no marriage of convenience with King Mark. Bound by knightly fealty Tristram keeps silent and delivers Isolt to his uncle. Now he looks at her and regrets bitterly that he did not speak on the boat.

Andred steals behind them to spy on them. He is a faithful servitor of King Mark, but jealousy of Tristram and love for Isolt motivate him as well. Tristram sees Andred skulking in the shadow, seizes him, and throws him on the rocks. When King Mark himself comes out to inquire about his absent guests, he stumbles over Andred’s unconscious body and stands unseen long enough to hear the passionate avowals of Tristram and Isolt. Since Tristram is his nephew, King Mark does not have him killed, but he banishes Tristram forever from Cornwall on pain of burning at the stake.

The sick Tristram wanders in a fever. When he recovers, he finds himself the captive of Queen Morgan in her castle. Queen Morgan eventually gives up her siege of Tristram’s heart and lets him go. Next Tristram goes to Brittany, where a griffin, giant scourge of the Breton land, threatens King Howel and his court. Knightly Tristram, fierce in battle although sick for love, slays the griffin. As a hero, Tristram has a secure place at King Howel’s court, and there he marries Isolt of the White Hands. He pities her and she loves him, although she knows of his sorrow. For two years Tristram is a faithful husband and a reigning prince.

Then from the north comes another ship with Gawaine aboard bringing a message from King Arthur. For his deeds Tristram is to become a Knight of the Round Table; hence he is summoned to Camelot. Isolt watches her husband go with quiet despair, for she fears he will not come back. She has little dread of King Mark, for Gawaine tells her in secrecy that King Mark is in prison. The Cornish king forges the pope’s signature on a paper ordering Tristram to go fight the Saracens, and his forgery is detected. Isolt nevertheless knows that Tristram’s danger lies in Cornwall.

Guinevere, Arthur’s queen, and her lover, Lancelot, plot to bring Irish Isolt and Tristram together. Lancelot takes Tristram to Joyous Guard, his trysting castle, and Guinevere brings Isolt of Ireland secretly out of Cornwall. So the lovers are together again, while King Mark is in prison. They have a happy summer together and as autumn draws near Tristram loses a little of his apprehension. Early one morning he goes out on the sea while Isolt sleeps. When he returns, there are strangers in Joyous Guard and Isolt is gone. King Mark, released from prison, has abducted his wife and carried her off to Cornwall.

Tristram mopes in silence until he has a letter from Queen Morgan. She chides him for his lovesickness and urges him to see his Isolt once more. Goaded by the wily queen, Tristram rides to Cornwall prepared to fight and to die for a last look at Isolt. When he arrives at his uncle’s castle, he enters easily and in surprised joy seeks out Isolt. She tells him that she is near death. King Mark, in pity for her wasting figure and sick heart, gives her permission to receive her lover. Isolt and Tristram, sad in their love because Isolt is to die, sit on the shore and gaze out at a still ship on the quiet ocean. While they sit thus, the jealous Andred creeps up behind them and stabs Tristram in the back. Tristram, therefore, dies before the ailing Isolt. King Mark finally realizes that Andred is also in love with Isolt, and he regrets that his lecherous lust for a young queen brought sorrow and death.

Gouvernail goes back to Brittany to convey the grievous news of Tristram’s death to Isolt of the White Hands, who divines the truth when he disembarks alone. He tells her only part of Tristram’s sojourn in England, only that Tristram saw the dying Isolt of Ireland a last time with King Mark’s consent, and that Andred killed Tristram by treachery. Isolt is silent in her grief; no one knows what she is thinking, nor how much she divined of Tristram and of the other Isolt. Now Isolt looks no more for a ship from England. On the white sea the white birds and the sunlight are alive. The white birds are always flying and the sunlight flashes on the sea.

Places Discussed

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*Brittany. Historical region of France that projects into the sea between the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel. In the opening and closing moments of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s narrative, Isolt of the white hands, daughter of King Howel, gazes over a blank, bleak ocean view to the north. Waiting for Tristram in the beginning, she sees only white birds flying. At the poem’s end, after Tristram’s death, she again looks north to white waves, a “phantom” sky, sea foam, white birds, and white sunlight, a world bleached of all warmth and color. However, in section 5, Tristram and Isolt of the white hands spend a two-year interlude in Brittany in sunlit gardens away from the chilly seascape, a brief respite for “the other Isolt.”

*Tintagel Castle

*Tintagel Castle. Castle of King Mark on the coast of Cornwall which some legends claim was the birthplace of King Arthur. This site probably never actually witnessed all the scenes that Arthurian legends have placed there; however, the castle is real and still exists. It is a romantic and dramatic setting for love, forbidden or otherwise. A key scene early in Robinson’s poem is not located, strictly speaking, in the castle at all, but rather on a steep stone exterior palace staircase down to the sea, on which Tristram and Isolt of Ireland stand poised in the cold, misty moonlight above the noisy waves pounding a rocky shore—halfway between King Mark’s palace and the ocean, halfway between heaven and hell. The intensity of the scene, to which Tristram returns often in memory, evokes a similar powerful image of place from Robinson’s often anthologized poem, “Eros Turannos,” in which love is described as being “like a stairway to the sea/ Where down the blind are driven.” After Tristram leaves Tintagel, he finds himself in a silken, snaky trap—a house belonging to the jealous Queen Morgan: a dim room, a red window, low light. As soon as he is able to escape, he returns to Brittany.

Joyous Gard

Joyous Gard. Seaside castle of Sir Lancelot. When Gawaine arrives from Camelot to take Tristram back to England, the road leads eventually to Joyous Gard. There, Tristram and Isolt of Ireland enjoy a brief idyll, a time together that is, for once, not cold, not dark, not starlit. Instead the sea is bright with summer, a small forest displays new leaves and “laughing trees”; it is a scene of “precarious content” until Mark’s men capture Isolt and take her back to Cornwall, where Mark, seeing her spirit and life force broken, allows her to see Tristram again. It is a brief coda, however, as on a day of dead calm sea, Andred, Tristram’s “lizard” cousin, creeps up on the lovers and murders Tristram.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Anderson, Wallace L. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967. Examines Robinson’s life and work. Absorbs all the preceding scholarship. Bibliography.

Carpenter, Frederick Ives. “Tristram the Transcendent.” In Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson: Twenty-eight Interpretive Essays, edited by Richard Cary. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1969. A mature and subtle interpretation of the fates and choices of Robinson’s characters. Addresses the theme of time.

Davis, Charles T. “Image Patterns in the Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson.” In Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson: Twenty-eight Interpretive Essays, edited by Richard Cary. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1969. Guides the reader through the fully developed imagery of Tristram as a symbolic system.

Franchere, Hoyt C. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Twayne, 1968. A concise and focused study of the life and work, balancing external events with the poet’s internal evolution. The author’s thorough research turns up interesting details not found in other general works.

Neff, Emery. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1948. Lively biographical account, with emphasis on external factors in the genesis of the works. Tristram is discussed for its sexual frankness and modern attitude toward women.

Romig, Edna Davis. “Tilbury Town and Camelot.” In Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson: Twenty-eight Interpretive Essays, edited by Richard Cary. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1969. Brings out the beauty and poignancy of Tristram.

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Critical Essays