“Eros Turannos,” the title of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s greatest poem, is Greek for “Love the King”: although the Greek word τυραννος, usually translated “king”, is also the root of the English word “tyrant”: remember that many ancient Greek states were fierce democracies and had no very high opinion of kings.
Using a unique form (four-stress lines in stanzas that rhyme ABABCCCB), “Eros Turannos” tells the story of a relationship, probably a marriage, that takes place partly in the public eye. Perhaps this is a small town. The setting is highly abstract. But the emotional detail in the poem is precisely etched.
The couple in the poem have stayed together for a long time despite many good reasons to separate. The speaker tells their story by alternating between their perspectives. The relationship is intricate, giving the old cliché “love/hate” a deep texture.
But the poem becomes truly great in its fifth stanza. After spinning a story worthy of a novel, the speaker steps back from the situation and admits that he really has no idea what goes on in relationships:
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be.
People have a strong urge – once more, I suspect this is universal – to imagine the lives of others. Laura Kopchick has commented on this in a recent blog post; she was prompted by the coming appearance of PostSecret creator Frank Warren here at UTA. Virginia Woolf wrote a great story, “An Unwritten Novel,” about this phenomenon.
Gossip can sometimes harm people, but the speaker of “Eros Turannos” doesn’t think that he is engaged in malicious gossip. “We do no harm,” we writers of unwritten novels, because living itself is so much more excruciating than anything other people can say about it.