Is “Eros Turannos” by Edwin Arlington Robinson an “overwhelming” work of art? I'd be tempted to say so (and possibly have).

I've written about the remarkable form of the poem as a “hyper-ballad” or “ballad to the ballad power.” Edwin Arlington Robinson does something new with one of the most familiar patterns in English, the alternating fours and threes familiar from ballads, from hymns, from folk songs and rock songs, from Emily Dickinson and “Rock of Ages.” He takes that familiar pattern and multiplies it, cubes it, hyper-extends it.

To say Robinson's poem aloud is to feel directly, through your own breath and ears, the power of that technical feat.

But beyond those technical or formal matters, the poem tells a story, compactly and forcefully, in a way that prevents the dazzling rhymes and cadences from dominating what happens. The poem’s effect on me has something to do with how the story, the emotion, comes out of the verbal music, as in a great aria. Strictly speaking, in that sense, the poem is not “overwhelming” but—in what may be an awkward but accurate term—“whelming.” The story with its ocean setting, does in my mind resemble a strong wave.

How does he do it? Who knows, but it's worth thinking about the abrupt, concentrated telling, also like the most memorable old ballads: “She fears him”; “He sees that he will not be lost/ And waits and looks around him”; “Meanwhile, we do no harm”; and maybe most devastating of all, “She secures him.” Such stark, severely plain sentences ride the elaborately coiled music of the rhymes.

Driven by erotic need, the woman in “Eros Turannos” chooses, consciously, an inferior man. Her humiliation and courage gain stature from being witnessed by the townsfolk of a community—the “we” who “do no harm.” The relation between one who wrestles with a god and the ones who witness that struggle recalls Greek tragedy.

In keeping with that choral or communal element, the Favorite Poem Project received an anonymous letter from a woman who compared the poem's story with her own. We printed her amazing letter with the poem in Americans' Favorite Poems. You can also read what that anonymous reader wrote to the FPP here.

(There is audio of me reading “Eros Turannos,” at the same site.)

[Editor's Note: Please head to Facebook for a discussion of Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Eros Turannos," moderated by Robert Pinsky.]

Originally Published: September 11th, 2013

Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Often called the last of the “civic” or public poets, Pinsky’s criticism and verse reflect his concern for a contemporary poetic diction that nonetheless speaks of a wider experience. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his tenure was marked...