by Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1927. 12mo. viii+202 pp. $1.50.
ON the whole, the earlier poems of Mr. Robinson, drawn from the stark life of New England, have more tang and flavor than his Arthurian studies. To one who loves the old romances, any modern treatment of them is likely to seem thin, and Tristram, for all its careful work and fine feeling, does not escape the accusation. The greatest mediæval love story has its roots deep in racial life. The richness and complexity of its connotations are one reason why poets are irresistibly drawn to it; no modern has done more than select here and there from the heritage left by the older tellers of the tale, and each has found in it what he desired. So Swinburne, gloating over his lovers in sonorous verbal harmonies, surrounds them with ‘the light and sound and darkness of the sea.’ Tennyson, echoing but stressing the tone of Malory, presents the story as a disagreeable prelude to the moral shipwreck of the Table Round. Arnold, most appealing of the three, dwells on the tragic finale, as found not in Malory but in the finer older versions.
No one can blame Mr. Robinson if he omits the potion, and the charming Tristram Enfances, and makes his own selection from the God’s plenty of his predecessors. Rut how much he has left out, of greater tragic quality than what he has put in! His poem opens with a delicately touched passage on Isolt of Brittany, then passes at once to the marriage night of Mark and the more famous Isolt. These form an excellent beginning. But as we continue we look in vain for Tristram’s chapel leap, for Isolt’s rescue from the lepers, for the exquisite idyl of the life in the forest, so differently handled in Béroul and Gottfried, so enchanting in both. The betrayal of Mark’s presence by reflection or shadow, the return of Tristram in fool’s dress to Tintagel, the ordeal by fire -all omitted! To say nothing of the vivid traits by which the impetuous Irish princess shows character and race, such as her cruel treatment of Brangwaine and her swift repentance. Instead of these, we have a rather pointless insertion of Morgan le Fay, and a use of that late and tame invention, the sojourn of the lovers at Joyous Garde under the patronage of Lancelot — where they converse with one another, if truth he told, at rather tedious length. Their death is handled in an original and interesting way by Mr. Robinson. They are killed, not by Mark, but by Andred, with a hint at the instigation of Morgan. Mark is neither the noble figure of the old versions nor the contemptible king of Malory, but of mixed ordinary clay.
If Mr. Robinson elects thus to subordinate characterization and incident, and to prolong plain delineation of passion, none shall say him nay. But he did better in his Lancelot, where the intricacy of the tragic forces, assumed if not narrated, lent depth and color. Meantime, here as there, the style of the poem is a joy, at least to the few lovers of poetry left who are a little rueful over T. S. Eliot and the Sitwells. For Mr. Robinson writes firmly in the noble old tradition of the great masters. His cadences would have delighted their ear, though he makes more eoncession than they to the natural movement of thought and speech. He is dare’ one whisper it? perfectly intelligible. Moreover, he can move us now and then. The verse, habitually on a high level, even if it seem monotonous at times, can achieve occasionally a release of emotion enhanced by the unfailing dignity and control in phrasing. Nor is it lacking in flexibility. The accents of Morgan are not the accents of Isolt, and Isolt of Brittany has yet another pause melody. This younger Isolt is perhaps the least shadowy figure in the poem. Robinson, like Arnold, renders her with an especial felicity, and it is not easy to forget her, with the pathos of her repeated ’ I am not one who must have everything.’ We gladly refuse to credit the legend that she deceived Tristram about the sails.