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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Number 177: Edwin Arlington Robinson "The Tree in Pamela's Garden"

The Tree in Pamela's Garden

Pamela was too gentle to deceive
Her roses. "Let the men stay where they are,"
She said, "and if Apollo's avatar
Be one of them, I shall not have to grieve."
And so she made all Tilbury Town believe
She sighed a little more for the North Star
Than over men, and only in so far
As she was in a garden was like Eve.

Her neighbors—doing all that neighbors can
To make romance of reticence meanwhile—
Seeing that she had never loved a man,
Wished Pamela had a cat, or a small bird,
And only would have wondered at her smile
Could they have seen that she had overheard.

--Edwin Arlington Robinson

Hap Notes: Almost everything I'm going to say about this poem is unorthodox so if you are writing a paper on this and you use my explication of it, which I think is sound, be prepared to defend it rigorously.

First off, Pamela has had an experience with love and passion which moved her so deeply she knew the company of another beloved was unnecessary and would not be as rich or as meaningful. Robinson/Pamela calls her beloved "Apollo's avatar" and I suppose this could mean that she had an affair with someone and the memory of it was enough for her life.

OR, let's think on the Apollo reference a bit more deeply because this is about a tree, remember, and there's a good story about Apollo and a tree.

One day, up where the gods hang around, Cupid was playing with Apollo's bow and arrows and Apollo gets mad at him and says something to the effect of "You stupid child! Put down my bow! Don't you know I killed a monstrous serpent with that weapon? It's not for the likes of you who only shoot silly little arrows at dumb mortals!"

Cupid is more than a bit put off by this dismissal of what he does so he teaches Apollo a lesson about the true and terrible power of love. Cupid has two arrows in his arsenal: one will repulse love at all costs ( a leaden dull arrow), one will cause burning passion (a sharply pointed golden arrow.) Cupid takes up his bow and shoots the leaden arrow at a nymph named Daphne, a wild child of the river god Peneus, who loved sports and running and being free. One wonders if she even needed the leaden arrow to oppose a suitor, many of which she had already spurned. She was a wild beauty who loved her freedom. Cupid shoots the golden arrow at Apollo who falls helplessly and hopelessly in love with her.

Daphne's dad would really like her to settle down and give him some grandchildren but she tells her dad she wants to be chaste (there's a pun here with" chased" but, nevermind) and free like Apollo's sister Artemis/Diana. She begs her dad to promise her that he will help her maintain this lifestyle, which he reluctantly does.

The smitten Apollo tries to woo her to no avail. He starts chasing Daphne with all of his unbridled ardor and manly speed. He keeps begging her to stop and even says, "Hey! Don't you know who I am? I'm no shepherd or peasant, I'm a god and a son of Jupiter." This cuts no ice with Daphne whatsoever. Just as Apollo is about to get to her, just as he touches her, Daphne calls out to her father to save her. He, with some amazingly strange sense of helping, changes her into a tree- a laurel tree. Apollo finds himself the first literal tree-hugger. (We won't make the wood joke but it 's there.)

Apollo says he will care for the tree and that her boughs will grace the heads of champions and great men hence the crowning of prizewinners with laurels.

Now let's go back to the poem which I believe can easily be interpreted to mean that Pamela had a lesbian lover. It's that phrase "never loved a man" coupled with the idea that the tree is Apollo's avatar, do you see it? It's possible. The poet could be saying that the story of Daphne, as Apollo's avatar, makes her feel like male-female love is not worth grieving over. She is only like Eve in that she lives in a garden- another possible reference to her not procreating with a man. I'm just saying all this is possible in the poem. Look at the poem's title, eh? And that roses reference has some interest in this case, maybe?

If you choose to see this as Pamela having one male lover, that's fine, too. I can see this, also. Regardless of male or female, Pamela looks to the north star, a symbol of constancy, and pledges her constant love to one who is no longer there. In this case, Pamela or her memories may be the tree she nurtures in her garden.

Pamela smiles at the townsfolk, who wish she at least had a little pet for her to love, because her deeply passionate affair has and will nourish her need for love for the rest of her life. And I think the smile might be because her lover was not a man. Just sayin'.

Let's not also forget the possibilities of Pamela having a rich imaginary life in her own thoughts, her private garden, where we have only some small semblance of what's happening there. All this may be in her head-- gazing up dreamily at the stars-- this doesn't make it any the less real to her, who is the only one who counts in it, anyway. Although that "Eve" comment suggests otherwise in that she has "tasted" "sin."

Here's where we have talked about Robinson before. You might want to refresh your memory on him because his life has a similar tone to Pamela's. In the poem- he COULD be Pamela or the "Apollo" to some Pamela:
and here:

Here is the famous and exquisite statue of Daphne and Apollo by Bernini, pictured today in the masthead, with a bit of helpful commentary:

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