Gripped by a Tyrannical Love

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Since I am vacationing in Maine and spent time yesterday with my favorite cousin, who is a huge Edward Arlington Robinson fan, I devote a post to the state’s greatest poet.  Whenever I visit Dan Bates in Gardiner, we have to visit Robinson’s grave and look at his house.

My favorite Robinson poem is “Eros Turannos” (it’s Harold Bloom’s favorite as well).  It is a haunting work whose power, like much of Robinson’s poetry, lies wrapped up in its elegiac tone and suggestive mystery.  I offer it up to anyone who has been trapped in a hopeless relationship, feeling helpless in its stagnant grip and unable to end it. 

“Eros Turannos” doesn’t propose a way out.  Just the opposite.  By making poetic the women’s fatalistic acceptance of what may be her husband’s betrayals and abusive neglect, the poem may enable self-destructive behavior.  It also lends dignity to a desperate existence, however, and sometimes we need whatever consolations we can find.  That, at any rate, is how I read the poem, whose title can be translated as “love’s tyranny” (translating it, however, diminishes it).  You may well have your own interpretation.  Check it out:


Eros Turannos

By Edwin Arlington Robinson

She fears him, and will always ask
   What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
   All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
   Of age, were she to lose him.

Between a blurred sagacity
   That once had power to sound him,
And Love, that will not let him be
   The Judas that she found him,
Her pride assuages her almost,
As if it were alone the cost.–
He sees that he will not be lost,
   And waits and looks around him.

A sense of ocean and old trees
   Envelops and allures him;
Tradition, touching all he sees,
   Beguiles and reassures him;
And all her doubts of what he says
Are dimmed with what she knows of days–
Till even prejudice delays
   And fades, and she secures him.

The falling leaf inaugurates
   The reign of her confusion:
The pounding wave reverberates
   The dirge of her illusion;
And home, where passion lived and died,
Becomes a place where she can hide,
While all the town and harbor side
   Vibrate with her seclusion.

We tell you, tapping on our brows,
   The story as it should be,–
As if the story of a house
   Were told, or ever could be;
We’ll have no kindly veil between
Her visions and those we have seen,–
As if we guessed what hers have been,
   Or what they are or would be.

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
   That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
   Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
   Where down the blind are driven.

There is much that I find enigmatic—hauntingly enigmatic—about “Eros Turannos.”  In one way it is like a soap opera where one imagines a couple in an unhappy marriage.  Because she is so dependent, he is assured that she will always be there and feels free to look around.  While she has no illusions, she fears “the foamless weirs of age,” which she imagines will be all the more terrifying if she is alone.  Yet she feels alone anyway, especially as the leaves begin to fall and she feels autumn, and old age, coming on.  She retreats into the home “where passion lived and died” and the town and harbor side “vibrate with her seclusion.

But then the poet cautions that we can never understand, or give advice to, another relationship.   We may tap our heads and think we know what is best, but who can ever tell the story of a house?  In any event, it doesn’t matter what we think.  After all, this woman is struggling with forces beyond her (and us) and won’t hear much of what we have to say.  She takes what love has given her, even though, in doing so, it is as though she is being driven blindly down a stairway into the sea.

It may be that Robinson was writing about his sister-in-law, who chose to marry his wealthy but good-for-nothing brother rather than Robinson himself.  (Robinson never got over his love for her.).  But despite her confusion and her fears and her disillusion and her blasted pride, she grows in stature.  The tyrannical god that dominates her also bestows upon her a kind of majesty.  We, looking in from the outside, can’t begin to do her justice. 

The poem is as close as Robinson can come.

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7 Comments

  1. Barbara
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Give that woman a copy of “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside” (Doris Lessing). To me, the poem reads as a glorification of needless and pointless suffering. With a side of “if it’s painful, it must be right” or what God wants or valuable or will, at least, make me stronger if it doesn’t kill me first (apologies to Nietzsche). But the really interesting question is whether or not this is love or something else: pride, obsession, inverted machismo (feminismo??) When does one “declare victory (or acknowledge defeat) and leave”?

  2. Posted July 29, 2010 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    This is a real smart comment, Barbara, not to mention a very healthy one. I’ll have more to say about it when I’m not in transit (we are driving south today) but one thing you alert me to is a certain addictive quality to the experience. I think leaving was less an option in those days.

  3. Rachel Kranz
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, I don’t find the poem a glorification of suffering but a question about it: why, when it is so obvious to the poet that these people (especially the woman) are suffering–the image of the blind being driven down a stairway is pretty awful–do the people themselves not recognize their own suffering? How does she explain it to herself? Why is she so oblivious to any explanation HE might offer? “Eros” is an evocative word–not necessarily love (as in “agape,” selfless love)–but erotic love, and Eros was a god whose arrows caused their victims to be in complete thrall to mindless, destructive passion. Tyrranos indeed.

    Maybe I’m projecting my horror at some of the marriages I know, where I think I understand–but can’t quite be sure–why the woman continues to live in a relationship that in my mind is bad for her, but that in her mind must seem quite different, or why does she stay? The idea of having striven with a god and then having to take what the god has given doesn’t sound like a glorification to me but like a portrait of struggle and defeat–you want the relationship to fit your ideas of it, but really it only isolates you and eventually, in your blindness, drives you down a staircase to the sea…! To me (but again, maybe projecting) the dominant mood of the poem is both the poet’s horror at the woman’s choice (since she has chosen not to leave, however difficult that might have been) and his bewilderment: after all, why doesn’t she? He tries to understand but realizes that he can’t…and that sense of isolation–that he can’t reach her, even in his thoughts about her–may be the worst part of the whole thing…

    As I say, this speaks to my own sense of watching people I care about in marriages I think are bad for them, but I THINK it’s what the poet is saying as well…Maybe not! 🙂

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I’m trying to figure out what draws me to this picture of a unhealthy marriage. Part of it is what Rachel says–I’ve seen some supposedly very smart people in these kinds of relationships and can’t understand why they continue on but they do. When I was younger, I thought I could just point out co-dependency or enabling or psychological abuse and all would be well, as though invoking enlightenment psychological feminism would do the trick. That’s why Lessing’s book (which I don’t know) might be a powerful wake-up call. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that some people don’t seem to want to wake up and I’m no longer so confident that I either understand what’s really going on in their relationship or that I know what is best for them. In fact, Robinson’s image of someone standing outside of the relationship tapping his head in wonderment is, as Rachel notes, a kind of comment in itself–does the speaker have his (or her) own house in order? Robinson certainly didn’t.

    In certain ways, it’s a nightmarish poem about not being able to reach someone who is in a self-destructive relationship when you think you have a healthy alternative–but whether you do or whether you don’t, it doesn’t matter because that person can’t hear you.

    There’s a powerful chapter in Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place that this puts me in mind of. A character, I think named Madde, sees a friend entering into a relationship that can’t possibly work out with a minister. She also knows that there’s nothing that she can stay or do to stop it. But when her friend is dragging herself home late at night, having come to this realization belatedly, there is Madde waiting up for her and playing her favorite records. She can’t save her but she can be there in support when her friend gets hurt.

    I think part of the poem’s power for me takes me back to those years when I wasn’t comfortably in a relationship (the early years of college) and felt driven by a tyrannical god. I no longer wake up in sweats when I think of those days–but I certainly wasn’t being true to the forces of reason that I had been raised to believe in.

    The poem also pulls me because there are lines that, regardless of the relationship drama, blow me away. Like

    The falling leaf inaugurates
    The reign of her confusion:
    The pounding wave reverberates
    The dirge of her illusion;

    That’s not just about being stuck in a bad relationship–it also gets at one’s doubts about oneself as one ages.

    In a way, reading the poem and then reading Barbara’s comment was like reading James Stephens’ poem “The Shell” (or maybe it’s “The Beach”). Here it is:

    And then I pressed the shell
    Close to my ear
    And listened well.

    And straight away, like a bell,
    Came low and clear
    The slow, sad, murmur of distant seas

    Whipped by an icy breeze
    Upon a shore
    Wind-swept and desolate.

    It was a sunless strand that never bore
    The footprint of a man
    Nor felt the weight

    Since time began
    Of any human quality or stir,
    Save what the dreary winds and waves incur.

    And in the hush of waters was the sound
    Of pebbles, rolling round;
    For ever rolling, with a hollow sound:

    And the bubbling sea-weeds, as the waters go,
    Swish to and fro
    Their long, cold tentacles of shiny grey:

    There was no day;
    Nor ever came a night
    Setting the stars alight

    To wonder at the moon:
    was twilight only, and the frightening croon,
    Smitten to whimpers, of the dreary wind.

    And waves that journeyed blind……
    And then I loosed my ear–oh, it was sweet
    To hear a cart go jolting down the street.

  5. Barbara
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    As an aside, I now see why you have to close comments.

    Just a quick addenda; I think what disturbs me most is the elegiac quality of the poem that seems to blur and romanticize what looks like a living hell. After “she fears him” what is left to say, I wonder. And it seems to reverberate with an implicit approval of the choice of sticking it out as a noble alternative. My inner economist keeps muttering “Sunk costs are sunk!” and ” Cut your losses” and “stop throwing good money after bad!” Because the poem doesn’t mention obstacles to leaving except the bonds of this relationship, it strikes me as even more terrible. Being driven blind into the sea is worse, I think, if your blindness is self-imposed.

  6. Rachel Kranz
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Barbara: I so agree with your last line about it being worse when blindness is self-imposed. But I think the economist’s perspective–not unlike many actual economists–falters when it comes to imagining not just reinvesting resources from a functioning economy but rather overhauling the entire economy and creating it on a different basis. I think that IS the tyranny of “Eros” and what too many of us come to view (perhaps out of what feels like necessary self-delusion) as love: that since we are unable to conceive our lives alone or without this other person, since we are unable to imagine (when there are children) how to raise the children or continue to attend the church or remain within the communities we and our partners have built, since we have only one life which for years has been a shared life that has no meaning without the sharer–then, rather than accept how awful our choice has become, we impose blindness upon ourselves and allow ourselves to be driven down to the sea. And the viewer–the poet, or any of us standing on the outside–can’t understand why or how such a self-destructive choice is being made, and maybe we are right not to understand. Or maybe that lack of understanding is an unwillingness to accept just how invested the person has become in a relationship that we see as costly and toxic.

    Maybe the analogy (Arlington isn’t saying this, but I am!) is how difficult it is to conceive of really rewriting the U.S. economy into one of global responsibility–no more of 4% of the population getting the lion’s share of the earth’s resources, no more allowing people to be homeless or illiterate because of inadequate housing and schools, no more extorting billions from the interest on 3rd World debt, no more of the top 1% of the U.S. population getting richer while the rest of us get poorer…I’d love to see that list of (to me) destructive injustices ended–and I would say that every dollar invested in them is throwing good money after bad–but I understand why it seems daunting to rework our world and our lives in that way, as much as leaving the man who has been your life, seems daunting to the character in the poem and to so many others…The ultimate tyranny is the one that sits in our own imaginations and ultimately, our own souls, and I think that’s why the poem has such a chilling title (and why I don’t believe the poet is glorifying what he portrays). Eros the Tyrant–and maybe there’s a reference to blind Cupid in there, too…isn’t he portrayed with a blindfold over his eyes, careless of where he shoots his arrows and what the results may be?

    I wouldn’t call it love, and I think by the time the relationship has reached the stage of this poem, it isn’t even lust or “eros” in any form. Whatever it is, I agree with you that it’s a self-imposed blindness–and a tragic waste.

  7. Robin Bates
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    A spam attack has forced me to close down comments on this post. If you like to add a comment, send it to me at rrbates[at]smcm[dot]edu and I will post it. My apologies for forcing you into this circuitous route.


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