The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.