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Poetry Daily: “Poet’s Pick” Series

This short essay was originally published in the “Poet’s Pick” Series through Poetry Daily. Every year, twenty poets who have been featured on Poetry Daily within the previous twelve months receive an invitation to present a poem for the series. Participating poets are asked to select a poem from their “personal pantheons of beloved work” and write a brief introduction to the piece. Caitlin presented “Eros Turannos” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. The full text of Robinson’s poem is available below, and you can also find it on the Poetry Foundation website by clicking here. To learn more about Poetry Daily, you can click here

INTRODUCTION TO EROS TURANNOS

When I discovered “Eros Turannos” in an anthology at a garage sale during my sophomore year of high school, I felt a vertiginous pull in my stomach unlike anything I’d ever experienced while reading a poem. The language’s forward-thrusting rhythm, hypnotic echoes, and charged enjambments gave me the sensation of losing my balance, falling rapidly and slowly at the same time, as if I had been pitched by some mysterious force down a steep decline (“a stairway to the sea / Where down the blind are driven”). I was “blind” at that age, of course, to Robinson’s methods, including his innovative engagement with balladic elements, his deft maneuvering between tetrameter and trimer, and his unnervingly addictive ababcccb rhyme scheme in which a proliferation of multisyllabic rhymes, common to comedic verse, paradoxically intensifies the poem’s darkness. But though I couldn’t yet name the mechanisms at work in Robinson’s language, I felt them driving me into a headlong tumble, as momentum gathered with every stanza, until I seemed to land, precariously, on a final creaking step.  

Without entirely grasping the complexities of the romantic relationship explored in “Eros Turannos,” I discerned an elemental truth behind the poem’s eventual drop into an oceanic abyss. I sensed that the sea, with its impersonal vastness, mirrors the emotional and spiritual negation facing the poem’s central character, a woman who becomes isolated, both within and beyond her marriage, until “all the town and harbor side / vibrate with her seclusion.” As I’ve read the poem over and over through the years, I’ve grown to realize that the sea imagery applies not only to the woman but also to her husband, the townspeople surrounding them, and the poem’s readers. Robinson suggests that we’re all caught in cycles of mendacity that threaten to deliver us, whether figuratively or literally, to the edge of annihilation. 

Through the use of “we,” Robinson avoids assuming moral superiority. He invites us to view the poem’s speaker (and arguably, by extension, the poet himself) as one of the gossiping locals: “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.” Nobody, real or fictional, escapes culpability in “Eros Turannos.” But if humans are guilty of performing false selves for those around them, as the husband and wife do, and if people can’t resist indulging, like the villagers and the poet-speaker, in speculation about the private lives of others, Robinson implies that perhaps neither flaw compares to what may count as our most dangerous failing: self-deception. 

The woman’s beau allows himself to be lured into marriage by “a sense of tradition,” a culturally-inherited ideal that “beguiles and reassures him,” despite any unexpressed misgivings that he might have. Similarly, though she “meets in his engaging mask / All reasons to refuse him,” the woman pushes aside her uncertainties about him for the sake of outward appearances. She decides to overlook the “Judas” aspect of his character because it strikes her as safer to convince herself and others that the two of them comprise a happy couple. In essence, the man and woman enter a kind of co-dependent devil’s bargain, a covenant that relies on their mutual willingness to believe and enact a fabricated rendition of their relationship. Each of them benefits from this unspoken arrangement in various practical and self-serving ways, but Robinson wants us to recognize that their refusal of the truth precludes them from achieving fulfillment. 

No matter how the woman might try to wrap herself in a fantasy of lasting passion and domestic contentment as the two of them live, bound together by law, in their seaside home, she can’t completely evade what she has always known: “The pounding wave reverberates / The dirge of her illusion.” Likewise, though the gossiping villagers and the poet-speaker claim to “do no harm” by talking about the couple, and though they acknowledge that no tale-teller can ever fully convey somebody else’s reality, Robinson suggests that they’re lying to themselves about the harmlessness of their discourse. Just as the husband and wife participate in a self-deluding dynamic that damages them in the end, the chatterers deny that their confab contributes to a social order in which people find themselves pressured into prescribed roles. 

Another quality that has always drawn me to “Eros Turannos” is Robinson’s vision of poetry as a means of mythologizing commonplace experience. If Robinson gestures toward the potential pitfalls of such mythologization, he ultimately demonstrates a galvanizing belief in poetry’s ability to illuminate and dignify ordinary lives. In the poem’s small-town context, the collective voice of the “we” magnifies the couple’s situation until it takes on the gravitas of a fable or parable, an effect through which Robinson emphasizes our hunger to memorialize the world around us. Healso knows that one of our primary impulses after reading the first few lines of any literary work – fiction, poetry, or nonfiction – is to wonder what will happen next. The character-driven, novelistic tenor of “Eros Turannos,” in combination with Robinson’s virtuosic formal prowess, powerfully affirms poetry’s capacities as a narrative medium. 

At fifteen, I discovered that “Eros Turannos” does everything that I want a poem to do, and this feeling has never left me: It sings, it surprises, it bends the heart, it breathes through the body, and it lives in the aural memory, all while asking that most irresistible of questions: “Do you want to hear a story?”

EROS TURANNOS

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.

— Edwin Arlingon Robinson