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The Biblical poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Between 1919 and 1931, when he was the most popular serious poet in the United States, Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote six narrative poems based on stories in the Bible. Two of those poems, "Young Gideon" and "Sisera," are treatments of Old Testament narratives, both from Judges. The others are based on New Testament material. "The Prodigal Son" is a sequel to the well-known parable in Luke; "Lazarus" and "Nicodemus" are about characters in John's Gospel. "The Three Taverns" is a special case; the poem is based on a single line in Acts, but its style and subject matter come from the Gospels and Paul's letters, especially Romans. Robinson published his biblical poems in two collections. The Three Taverns (1920) contains "The Three Taverns" and "Lazarus!' Nicodemus (1932) contains "Nicodemus," "Sisera," "Young Gideon;' and "The Prodigal Son." Robinson evidently thought highly of "The Three Taverns" and "Nicodemus," because he titled the collections after those poems. He was proud enough of "The Prodigal Son" to allow Random House to publish it separately in an illustrated quarto in 1929.

These poems have been neglected by commentators and anthologists. Morton Dauwen Zabel included of the group only "The Prodigal Son" in the selection of Robinson's poems he published in 1965, the selection that was standard until the 1990s.1 The neglect of these poems is unfortunate because they are some of Robinson's finest narratives. They show Robinson using various styles of dialogue, unexpected points of view, and the careful placement of details to portray complex characters and situations with economy and precision. Robinson's biblical poems are similar to the poems on historical figures he was writing at the same time, such as "John Brown," "Rembrandt to Rembrandt," and "Toussaint L'Ouverture." Except for "The Prodigal Son," they are of mid-length. They are character studies in which Robinson develops the characters by means of monologue or dialogue. Like the studies of historical characters, Robinson's biblical poems portray reflections or conversations that are implied, but not given by his sources.

In the biblical poems Robinson reinterprets the stories and challenges the conclusions that generations have taken from them. The shortest poem of the group, "The Prodigal Son" is a good example. The poem is an imaginary conversation between the returned son and his resentful older brother. The prodigal smoothly demonstrates to his brother that his adventure is a blessing. His example ought to make him, the older son, less rigorous in his judgments and more forgiving. The younger brother, who wasted his patrimony and dishonored the family, even claims that he is the one who enjoys the Lord's favor. He predicts that when he is dead, the older brother will regret his harsh words and plant lentils on his grave as a memorial, as if he were Jacob and his older brother, Esau, who traded his birthright for a bowl of lentil porridge.

Robinson wrote "The Prodigal Son" in iambic pentameter couplets, the style of the eighteenth century. It is the only poem Robinson wrote in that manner; the couplets reinforce the younger brother's smugness. Robinson's readers would have known the parable from childhood and thought they understood Jesus's point perfectly well: our heavenly Father will forgive penitent sinners just as human fathers forgive erring children. Robinson, however, makes a different point: Christians may ask for forgiveness, but they are often a little too proud of themselves for having done so.

"Young Gideon" and "Sisera" portray individuals from Old Testament stories who are convinced that the Lord has chosen them to perform great deeds for Israel. Gideon believes that he has been called to lead an army against the Midianites. Jael, in "Sisera," believes she has been selected to fulfill Deborah's prophecy that the Canaanite general would be captured by a woman. As in "The Prodigal Son," Robinson reconsiders the conventional reading of the stories. In Robinson's poems Gideon and Jael are not heroes: Gideon suffers a moment of paralyzing doubt, and Jael commits a disturbing act of treachery.

Robinson suggests that Gideon's calling is a product of his psychological make-up, not of revelation. Gideon, resentful at laboring for the Midianites, waited for some prompting from his heart, to tell him what he should do to assert his honor and that of Israel. Gideon, however, did not hear the "word within," so he unconsciously invented an external agent, the "Voice," to direct him. Once Gideon believes that God has called him. his fctone doubt," his vague suspicion that this calling is a projection of his own imagination, begins to vanish. Gideon tells himself that the Lord has chosen him because he is young and faithful. In fact, Gideon becomes so confident that he pities his own people "for not knowing How many were soon to perish, or be spared" in the coming battle. (2)

According to the account in Judges 6, Gideon asked the Lord for two complementary signs on successive mornings before the battle with the Midianites. Gideon asks for the first sign as if it was a matter of course, but when he asks for the second, his tone is apologetic. Robinson presents Gideon's asking for the second sign as an indication that Gideon has realized that he is risking the lives of his people, and he is suddenly uncertain of his calling. Gideon consequently seeks a second sign to confirm the first. Gideon realizes, however, that in asking for the confirmatory sign he is admitting his lack of faith in the Lord's original call and risking the Lord's anger. The poem ends with Gideon approaching the threshing floor on that second morning, fearing, for the first time, that the previous sign could have been an illusion, and he will have to find in himself the confidence to lead his people into a risky battle.

In "Siseri" Robinson presents Jael's claim to be the Lord's agent as self-serving, and it compromises the Israelites' victory. In the biblical account (Judges 4, 5) the killing fulfills Deborah's prophecy: a woman, not Barak, will have the honor of taking Sisera because Barak insisted that Deborah join him in the campaign against the Midianites. Jael lets Sisera into her tent and lulls him to sleep with milk and erotic language. Then she kills him by driving a tent peg through his temple, all the while imagining the honor she will receive.

Robinson puts Jael's initiative in a new light by introducing the point of view of Barak. When he comes to take custody of Sisera, Barak is displeased at the sight of Sisera's body. Killing Sisera in his sleep was treacherous and unnecessary. Barak knew all along that Sisera would head to Heber's settlement, and his men had surrounded Heber's tent. In any case, Sisera was certain to have remained asleep for some time. Barak wonders to himself if Jael is to be trusted: "She who did this / Might one day flout her fealty to Jehovah / And lust for Baal. She might do anything." (3)

Jael is undismayed at Barak's reaction. She replies scornfully that of course Sisera was asleep when she killed him: the Lord made Sisera sleep and gave her the strength to drive the spike in order to fulfill Deborah's prophecy. Consequently Barak finds himself in a dilemma. He is repelled by Jael's unscrupulousness and dismayed at the prospect of her gaining prestige and influence because of her deed. On the other hand if he were to denounce Sisera's killing, he would appear to be denying Deborah's prophecy, an even more dangerous alternative.

In Robinson's treatment of the story, Israel's victory is cheapened by Jael's treachery and self-seeking. Nevertheless Robinson allows Jael powerful reasons for wanting to distinguish herself by fulfilling Deborah's prophecy. Robinson indicates that Jael's beauty makes her a sexual plaything and hints that she may have been King Jabin's price for allowing Heber to settle in his territory. Perhaps Robinson was not being entirely ironic when he told Laura Richards, "I am pleased that you seem to like 'Sisera.' All the nice ladies who have read it seem to like it. There must be something in it that appeals to the feminine heart."(4)

The three shorter biblical poems, "The Prodigal Son," "Young Gideon," and "Sisera," portray characters for whom conviction turns out to be self-serving. The prodigal son maintains to his brother that his own shameful conduct has provided a valuable lesson for which his brother ought to be grateful. Gideon's call is a psychological response to his feelings of impotence and frustration. Jael's conviction that the Lord chosen her to fulfill Deborah's prophecy is an effort of self-justification by a woman eager for celebrity. None of these characters, as Robinson presents them, is an example of obedience to God. Instead they exemplify the abuse of the prophetic calling.

"Worse Than Death"

"Nicodemus" and "Lazarus" portray characters from the Gospels who have encountered Jesus in person. Like "The Prodigal Son," "Nicodemus" depicts an imaginary conversation suggested by a story in the Bible, in this case the account of Nicode-mus's conversation with Jesus in John 3. In the poem, Nicodemus comes by night to see Caiaphas, the high priest for the year Jesus was executed. According to John's Gospel, Nicodemus and Caiaphas were both members of the Sanhedrin; Robinson adds the detail that the two are old friends. Nicodemus has just come from talking to Jesus, evidently not for the first time.

Nicodemus has become a follower of Jesus because he believes that Jesus's mission is to reform the Jewish leadership. He tells Caiaphas that Jesus has made him understand that the Law he and Caiaphas interpret and enforce no longer serves its purpose. In fact it defeats it. Jesus has shown that the Law no longer sustains the people; now it is a source of sin. The Law is darkness; under its cover prominent men exploit the people who look to them for guidance and protection: "He tells me of light coming for the world, / And of men loving darkness more than light."(5) Robinson's lines echo the words ofjesus to Nico-demus in John 3:19-20:
  This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men
  loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

  For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the
  light, lest his deeds should be reproved.


Caiaphas, who knows Nicodemus better than Nicodemus knows himself, warns his visitor that he is deluding himself. Although Nicodemus may visit Jesus after dark, he won't have the courage to support him publicly. Nicodemus is dismayed at Caiaphas's prediction, but he does not deny it, and Caiaphas's estimate of Nicodemus is borne out later in John's Gospel. After the temple police nearly arrest Jesus during the Feast of the Tabernacles, Nicodemus protests to his fellow Pharisees that they have no right to condemn Jesus without a hearing. Instead of forcefully advocating Jesus, however, Nicodemus lets the others shout him down.

On one level, "Nicodemus" is a portrait of a well-meaning man who lacks the courage of his convictions. Robinson also suggests that although Nicodemus uses the language of Jesus, he has only partly understood Jesus's message. Jesus doesn't appeal to the people in order to change Jewish society; he appeals to the people because God is with him. Nicodemus fails to understand that Jesus is leading a revolution of the spirit, not one of society.

Most of "Lazarus" is a dialogue between Lazarus and the younger of his sisters, Mary, on the evening of the day Jesus brought him back to life. Lazarus is alive, but no one is celebrating; Jesus's miracle has raised disturbing questions. Why did Jesus take so long to come to Bethany? Why did Jesus weep when he saw the neighbors mourning?

Lazarus realizes that Jesus came to Bethany not to cure him but to bring him back from the dead. Jesus knew Lazarus was dead before he left the far bank of the Jordan; in fact, Jesus delayed leaving until he knew that Lazarus had died.(6) Lazarus also realizes that Jesus did not raise him because he loved him and his sisters but because he wanted to show them that there is something that is "worse than death."(7) What is worse than death is life without God. There is no reason for Lazarus to be glad to return to ordinary human life because human life without God is worse than human death. The only good is in dying to human life and entering life with God.(8)

Lazarus, conscious that he is speaking in paradoxes, admits that he cannot explain in familiar language what he has realized. The halts in his lines reflect the difficulty he is having: "That you are not to learn by going back. / To be a child again is to go forward-- / And that is much to know."(9) The only way to go forward, not back to ordinary life again, is to put aside what you already know, to become, as Jesus said on another occasion, "as a little child."(10) But how to achieve even that, is "much to know," more, at any rate, than Lazarus can tell.

For her part, Mary expects an account of the blessings the afterlife holds for the faithful. What Lazarus actually learned, or is beginning to realize, is that human death and human life are equally nothing apart from God. So far all Lazarus can do is to point out that if death is no worse than nothingness, Jesus would hardly have bothered bringing him back: "Why should the Master weep-- / For me, or for the world,--or save himself / Longer for nothing?" (11) Jesus did not come to Bethany in order to save Lazarus from human death. He came to save the world from what is worse than death--existence apart from God.

Lazarus and Mary realize in the course of the poem that in raising Lazarus Jesus brought something new into the world; he changed the rules, so to speak. Jesus did not come to make the world a little better by teaching, by healing, by feeding multitudes, by ending the Roman occupation, or even by bringing brothers and breadwinners back to life. In that case, Jesus might as Lazarus says, just as well have, "held his peace and given his nod / To an old Law that would be new as any." (12) Instead he came to bring the world and the Law to an end for those who believe in him. They will live, but in another world, that of eternal life.

What is baffling and frightening to Lazarus and his sisters is that they don't yet know what believing in Jesus means. They know that it is risky; they know that immediately after raising Lazarus Jesus had to flee Judea for his life for the second time. Perhaps they heard about the man who was expelled from the Temple because he insisted that Jesus had given him sight. They would not have known that the Jewish leaders were about to meet and resolve to arrange Jesus's death, but that would not have surprised them. They do know, albeit imperfectly, that Jesus risked his life to bring life back to Lazarus and that he did so to demonstrate that he was not the Messiah they expected. But for the time being Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are in the dark.

The Inadequacy of the Law

"The Three Taverns," the longest and most ambitious of Robinson's biblical poems, is Robinson's commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans. The central issue of the poem, as it is in the letter, is the meaning of the Jewish law for Christians. The poem portrays Paul speaking to the members of the Christian church in Rome who have come to meet him at the Three Taverns, outside of the city. The meeting is mentioned in Acts 28:15, which Robinson quotes as an epigraph.

The style and structure of "The Three Taverns" imitate the style and structure of Romans. The poem opens and closes with greetings, and includes comments on the spiritual state of the Roman Christians. Paul, in the poem, argues with the same combination of logic and personal conviction that characterize Paul's letter. Both works frequently use paradoxes and rhetorical questions. In the poem Paul speaks as though he is thinking out loud. The section breaks mark pauses and shifts in Paul's thoughts. One gets the impression that Robinson thought of the letter to the Romans as a dramatic monologue. The poem is equally a commentary on Paul's thought and a portrait of the apostle himself.

At the opening of the poem, Paul is greeting the members of the Roman church who have come some distance from the city to greet him. Their names appear at the end of Romans. (13) Robinson's opening echoes the general greeting in Romans and Paul's fervent wish to visit Rome himself. (14) Although Paul was famous among Christians by the time he came to Rome, he is aware that in this situation he is a stumbling block to the Romans. They don't seem to believe that the man before them is Paul; they were expecting a more impressive figure than a short man of late middle age who must have looked even older after years of rugged travel and harsh treatment. Furthermore the Romans would have expected Paul to arrive in triumph--he had told them in his letter that he intended to use the visit to Rome as a springboard to a dramatic missionary campaign in Spain. Instead, Paul has arrived as a prisoner, escorted by a Roman military guard.

Paul tells the Romans that he is "A prisoner of the Law, and of the Lord / A voice made free." (15) (The lines recall the typical opening of Paul's letters.) Paul was a prisoner of the Jewish Law. Now he is a prisoner of the Roman law because he has been set free by the Gospel of Jesus, which he is now bound to proclaim. He is indeed the former Saul of Tarsus "That was a fiery Jew, and had men slain / For saying Something was beyond the Law, / And in ourselves." As a Jew bound by the Law, Paul persecuted the Christians because they claimed to be guided by a principle within themselves rather than the codified Law. To Paul, before his conversion, such an idea was incredible. He could see "no place alive" for anyone who would live beyond the Law and still call himself a Jew. (16)

How can Paul maintain that the Law has been superseded and still call himself a Jew? In Romans Paul states that the Law is an expedient for managing human affairs. However, the Law has force only if it is animated by something beyond the Law. (17) Paul, in the poem, tells the Romans that a man's appearance is no better indication of his moral or spiritual quality than is his outward observance of the Law. To be truly faithful to God is to act out of love, regardless of whether you call yourself a Christian or a Jew. Words--laws, creeds, and observances--are empty sounds unless they are animated by love. (18)

The Law, in fact, was a mixed blessing to the Jews, according to both the poem and the epistle. Through the Law the Jews know right from wrong. The Law, however, is a stumbling block because it leads those who depend on it into the sins of pride and hypocrisy. (19) The Gentiles--most of the Roman Christians were Jews--are not burdened by the Law. They are the first people who are free to follow the law written in their hearts. (20)

Paul's reflections on the inadequacy of the Law lead up to a remarkable claim in the third section of the poem. Paul states that his rigid adherence to the Law, the zeal that led him to participate in the killing of Stephen, was actually a form of resignation:
  Once I had said the ways of God were dark,
  Meaning by that the dark ways of the Law.
  Such is the Glory of our tribulations;
  For the Law kills the flesh that kills the Law,
  And we are then alive. (21)


To depend on the Law for instruction in every aspect of human life is to deny that humans have the capacity for moral judgment at all. Therefore strict adherence to the Law is not faith but resignation. This point is the pivot on which Robinson's interpretation of Romans turns. If we resign our free will in order to keep the Law, have we not defeated the purpose for which we were created? People who would stone a man like Stephen in order to uphold the Law are not reflecting God's image; they are far below it. In Robinson's view Jesus came to restore our free will by showing us how to exercise it responsibly. To act freely we must have faith. Or, to put it another way, faith is what allows us to act both freely and righteously.

Now that God has entered the world in the form of the man Jesus, humanity is undergoing "tribulations" such as the martyrdom of Stephen. These atrocities are indications that the Law is about to be superseded by the Spirit. According to Paul in Romans, the Law brought sin into the world by making every natural impulse sinful, thus leading us into the greater sin of hypocrisy. (22) But through hypocrisy the flesh killed the Law--the flesh exposed the inadequacy of the Law to restrain the flesh, that is, our desires. Therefore the Law is doomed to discredit itself by leading people to kill men like Stephen, who killed the Law by preaching that that faith transcends the Law. When we realize that without love, law is inadequate to govern human affairs, we will be truly alive, confident in our judgment, and able to live to our full potential.

In the poem Paul states that faith leads to wisdom, and wisdom is, in turn, the source of our capacity for love: " out of wisdom has come love, / That measures and is of itself the measure / Of works and hope and faith." (23) By "faith," Robinson means trust in the "coming gleam" of understanding, not faith in the person ofjesus as the Son of God--Jesus is never named in "The Three Taverns." (24) Our faith that there is an ultimate purpose will, in Robinson's view, make us wise--humble and tolerant, and able to love. Our capacity for love, then, is the measure of the depth of our faith and the breadth of our hope, and the scale by which we should judge our actions.

The life of Paul, the sinner who saw and heard on the road to Damascus, illustrates the central point of Romans: faith works from within us outwards. Just as the change in Paul's life began with a change within him, so the outward lives of all of us indicate our internal faith, the extent to which the "Kingdom is within us." (25) Paul's life is all the more evidence of his faith because he is a Jew. The historical Paul addressed Romans to people who were born Jews, explaining that although Christianity is a universal Gospel, it originated in God's promise to Abraham. (26) In the poem Paul likewise reminds his audience that Christ's Gospel is for everyone. If he, Paul, "says not all / To all alike" it is because he is preaching to the Gentiles as well. (27)

Nevertheless, each of us has to understand the Gospel in his own way: " ... none may share it with an understanding / That is not his alone." The labored double negative, with its emphasis on the uniqueness of each person's relation to God prepares the reader for the striking assertion that follows:
  We are all alone;
  And yet we are all parceled of one order--
  Jew, Gentile, or barbarian in the dark
  Of wildernesses that are not so much
  As names yet in a book.(28)


Christ died for the sake of all humanity, including those who occupy "wildernesses" that are still unknown. (29) However, we are all also in the dark in the sense that none of us know what faith really means. Alluding to the famous metaphor in 1 Corinthians, Paul suggests that our knowledge of God's purpose for us is tentative at best; "As long as there are glasses that are dark--/ And there are many--we see darkly through them." (30) Paul in the poem is less certain than Paul in the Bible that we will all achieve full understanding in equal measure or at any time soon.

In "The Three Taverns" Robinson applies Paul's view of the Jewish Law to codes and creeds in general. Just as the Law, for all its value to the Jews, became a source of pride and hypocrisy, so do codes and creeds in the modern world. Morality must come from the heart, from a humble recognition that we are stumbling along in ignorance and darkness. What will save us, according to Robinson, is our capacity for love. Love will emerge out of faith, faith that there is a reason or principle behind what we see in the world, and we will come to understand it eventually. Significandy Paul, in the poem, presents faith as human characteristic Paul had the benefit of the revelation on the road to Damascus, but he does not promise anyone else a similar experience. We will have to find our faith within ourselves, not expect God to provide it through a life-changing event.

Wisdom, Love, and Faith

Robinson wrote these poems at a time of tremendous social and economic change in the United States. The most obvious upheavals were the rise of recent immigrants to political power, the shifts in personal morality due to urbanization and affluence, and the widespread application of science and technology. Many, perhaps most, Americans felt threatened by those changes in one way or another, and they reacted by embracing simplistic solutions: the Palmer Raids, Prohibition, the drastically restrictive immigration laws of 1921 and 1924, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and the upsurge of fundamentalism in some Protestant denominations.

Taken together, Robinson's biblical poems are a reply to the era's enthusiasm for simple solutions and hard positions. They remind us to be careful about accepting claims to revealed knowledge. The Old Testament figures and the one in the parable in Luke claim to have personal revelations, but their interpretations turn out to be faulty or self-serving. The New Testament characters, Nicodemus and Lazarus, have personal encounters with Jesus. However, those men cannot get over their preconceptions about Jesus's mission, so their encounters with Jesus leave them more confused than ever. The faith of Paul alone is both certain and honorable. It is attested by the losses he has suffered for it and his willingness to face death for it in Rome. It originated in a revelation, the most dramatic one of all, but it was sustained by wisdom. According to Robinson, wisdom is the source of love, and love "measures and is of itself the measure / Of works and hope and faith" (31) Wisdom, then, is ultimately the same thing as faith. By wisdom Robinson means self-knowledge; one cannot love without knowing oneself, and one cannot perform worth-while actions without love.

(1.) Morton Dauwen Zabel, Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

(2.) Edwin Arlington Robinson, Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1937) [hereafter "CP' J, 1208.

(3.) Robinson, CP, 1177.

(4.) Edwin Arlington Robinson, Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York: Macmillan, 1940; repr. ed., Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979), 166.

(5.) Robinson. CP, 1164-65.

(6.) See John 11:11-16.

(7.) Robinson, CP, 537.

(8.) Cf. Romans 6:4-11.

(9.) Robinson, CP, 537.

(10.) Luke 18:17.

(11.) Robinson, CP, 538.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Cf. Romans 16:7-11.

(14.) Cf. Romans 1:7, 1:11-13, 15:22-24.

(15.) Robinson, CP, 461-62.

(16.) Ibid., 462-63. Cl. Galatians 1:13.

(17.) See, for example, Romans 2:25-29.

(18.) See Romans 13:8-10, 14:13-22.

(19.) See Romans 2:17-29, 11:7-12.

(20.) Cf Romans 2:14-16. 21 Robinson, CP, 465.

(22.) Cf. Romans 7:7-14.

(23.) Robinson, CP, 470--71.

(24.)Ibid., 468.

(25.) Ibid., 467.

(26.) Cf. Romans 4:13-25.

(27.) Robinson, CP, 468. Cf 1 Corinthians 9:19-21.

(28.) Robinson, CP, 468.

(29.) Cf. Galatians 3:28.

(30.) Robinson, CP, 468.

(31.) Ibid., 470-71.

T. W. HENDRICKS teaches English at Stevenson University in Maryland. He has written previously in Modern Age about Flannery O'Connor.
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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