Places: Tristram

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1927

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Arthurian romance

Time of work: Arthurian period

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Brittany

*Brittany. TristramHistorical 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 Mark’s palace and the ocean, halfway between heaven and hell. The intensity of the scene, to which Tristram returns often in memory, evokes a similar powerful image of place from Robinson’s often anthologized poem, “Eros Turannos,” in which love is described as being “like a stairway to the sea/ Where down the blind are driven.” After Tristram leaves Tintagel, he finds himself in a silken, snaky trap–a house belonging to the jealous Queen Morgan: a dim room, a red window, low light. As soon as he is able to escape, he returns to Brittany.

Joyous Gard

Joyous Gard. Seaside castle of Sir Lancelot. When Gawaine arrives from Camelot to take Tristram back to England, the road leads eventually to Joyous Gard. There, Tristram and Isolt of Ireland enjoy a brief idyll, a time together that is, for once, not cold, not dark, not starlit. Instead the sea is bright with summer, a small forest displays new leaves and “laughing trees”; it is a scene of “precarious content” until Mark’s men capture Isolt and take her back to Cornwall, where Mark, seeing her spirit and life force broken, allows her to see Tristram again. It is a brief coda, however, as on a day of dead calm sea, Andred, Tristram’s “lizard” cousin, creeps up on the lovers and murders Tristram.

BibliographyAnderson, 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.
Categories: Places