The Hyper-Ballad and Edwin Robinson

By Robert Pinsky on 4.07.09

Edwin Robinson works a unique transformation of the ballad form in this poem: it could be called formal exaggeration; the astounding rhymes creating a hyper-ballad. The folk-culture roots of the form, the ballad’s suggestion of traditional community, give force to Robinson’s evocation of tragedy and myth in the final image of “a stairway to the sea / Where down the blind are driven.”

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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.

In one conception of tragedy, the hero gains tragic stature in a fate that unfolds before a witnessing community, while the community gains significance as the scene of that heroic individual’s fate. In “Eros Turannos,” the intensified ballad-structure provides a way to bring its story from the level of village gossip toward that tragic scale.

My wonder at the force and elegance of Robinson’s rhymes—I find myself more or less gasping at the poet’s technical mastery—that feeling merges with the harbor side community’s wonder at the woman’s story.

The Favorite Poem Project received an interesting, anonymous letter about “Eros Turannos.” A reader wrote (as quoted in Americans’ Favorite Poems, page 235):

“I discovered the poem many years ago as a newly married girl living in a small town, which in fact possesses a harbor side. My husband had an intractable (it seemed then) drug and alcohol problem and was away a lot for his job. I didn’t have a job at the time, knew no one, and spent many days in solitude, riding my bike, reading, and reflecting on what my life had become since my decision to marry. I just recognized completely the state of wishing to be united with a man because of what I knew or thought I knew of days and the onward years. I lived then and now in an ancient house left me by my father, whose father left it to him, whose father left it to him. It is one mile from the ocean, surrounded by old trees. These facts made up no small part of my husband’s decision to marry me. I copied that poem into the journal I kept then and it sits before me on the table as I write. I have always felt the woman was as I was. The knowledge that I’ve gained about “the god” has lent a retrospective dignity to events experienced as utter failure. The discovery of the poem, with its eerily large number of coincidences with my own situation, was like a gift, or maybe a clue in a giant game of charades, from “the god” himself, who saw he had perhaps midjudged his opponent”


topics: Essential Pleasures