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On "The Tree in Pamela's Garden"

Ellsworth Barnard

The same sort of quiet reconciliation with the inevitable, told in the same quiet tones, appears in The Tree in Pamela's Garden, in which Pamela makes

                    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.

And having deceived her neighbors, she indulges in a gentle smile at their overheard wish that she might find a substitute for romance. She too has found a kind of contentment in the second best.

from  Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. Copyright 1952 by The MacMillan Company.

Edwin S. Fussel

But more usually the Tree of Knowledge accounts for Robinson's interest, and once more in "The Tree in Pamela's Garden" he uses it symbolically. Again the symbolism starts in the title, and, in spite of a degree of implicitness rare even in Robinson, its associations control the poem's meaning very basically. A brief reference to Eve, and the fact that the poem turns on the opposition between two levels of knowledge and understanding, calls attention to this central symbol, and serves to recall the meaning Robinson had imposed upon it as early as "Llewellyn and the Tree." From Robinson's preoccupation with this one aspect it may be surmised that theological and philosophical implications concerning the nature of man were of less direct importance in his reading of the Genesis story than its usefulness in manipulating situations involving knowledge and ignorance, though it is also true that Robinson began to use the story skillfully only after he had modified his earlier uncritical assumptions about the divinity of man.

from Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Literary Background of a Traditional Poet. Berkeley: University of Calfornia Press, 1954. Copyright 1954 by The Regents of the University of California

Chard Powers Smith

The family legend identifies with the Woodland Girl The Tree in Pamela's Garden, with its humorous identification of  Robinson with Apollo; but equally respectable opinion attributes it to a friend of his, a supposed old maid, who had a happy affair with someone else. . . .

from Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965. Copyright 1965 by Chard Powers Smith

Eric A. Weil

"The Tree in Pamela's Garden" is one of very few poems about which E. A. Robinson would admit to some obscurity, according to Esther Willard Bates, his friend and part-time amanuensis (22--23). Bates would present a reading of the poem, but Robinson would not acknowledge whether or not her interpretation matched his intent. Apparently, he gave her only a smile to wonder at.

I wonder if "The Tree in Pamela's Garden" might be open to interpretation in the same fashion in which "Aunt Imogen" often is read, that is, with Robinson switching genders in order to reveal another side of his own psyche and the choices he made for his life. The poem has inspired a variety of critical comment. Ellsworth Barnard includes Pamela among those who settle for "contentment in the second best" (135); Marvin Klotz assesses her as "destructively frigid"; Elizabeth Wright believes that she is merely "pathetic"; Laurence Perrine proposes a more likely interpretation that she had, or has, a secret lover; and Chard Powers Smith recites the Robinson family's Woodland Girl legend (181--82). These readings either suggest Robinson's presence as "Apollo's avatar" or ignore autobiographical possibilities altogether.

Equating Robinson with Pamela makes another interesting reading possible. The roses, which Pamela raises but cannot deceive, are her art, suggesting that Robinson knew that his own truth lay in his poems. The roses are both figurative and autobiographically literal. Although he spent most of his adult life in New York, Robinson was not a stranger to gardening, as some of his letters to Harry de Forest Smith (written in the 1890s, while Robinson still lived at his boyhood home in Gardiner, Maine) reveal (Sutcliffe 17ff).

The men who can "stay where they are" are the group from which Pamela's singular object of love could come, but they are to keep their distance, even if the true poet is among them, because Pamela has made her choice. I agree with Perrine in supposing that Pamela has experienced love; although her lover is not evident to others, he lives in her memory and her heart.

There is no reason to believe that because Robinson led a celibate life he also led a loveless one. This poem was first published in 1920 in the New Republic, a year after the fifty-year jubilee celebration of his birth. A number of women were attracted to Robinson because of his growing fame, but his usual response was to avoid them. Given the legend of Robinson's love for Emma Shepherd, who married his brother Herman, it is entirely possible that Robinson experienced a love to which he would remain faithful, even if it never attained a sexual aspect. In this case, the second quatrain shows that Pamela appears to the townspeople to prefer knowledge of the world, represented by the North Star, the symbol of navigation and direction, but, actually, she prefers the love that she recalls and tells to her roses. As Edwin Fussell writes, the Tree of Knowledge image had more value for Robinson "in manipulating situations involving knowledge and ignorance" than with "philosophical implications concerning the nature of man" (159). Therefore, this tree represents the difference between Pamela's (or Robinson's) knowledge of love and the towns-people's ignorance of the true state of her heart.

The dichotomy between private feelings and public speculation is reinforced in the sestet, where the neighbors "make romance of reticence." Certainly Robinson's own reticence is well attested, and this may be the most autobiographically revealing statement in the poem. Robinson spent every summer after 1911 at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He must have been aware that at least occasionally he and his reticence around women were the subject of conversation among the other colonists. "Aunt Imogen" has long been read as Robinson's acceptance of an unmarried and childless life, but Imogen reveals that she does know a special kind of maternal love for her nieces and nephew. In "The Tree in Pamela's Garden," Robinson again trades gender to reveal that he was not a stranger to heterosexual love and perhaps, to follow Perrine's suggestion, not a stranger to sex.


Barnard, Ellsworth. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. New York: Macmillan, 1952.

Bates, Esther Willard. Edwin Arlington Robinson and His Manuscripts. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Library, 1944.

Fussell, Edwin S. Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Literary Background of a Traditional Poet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1954.

Klotz, Marvin. "Robinson's 'The Tree in Pamela's Garden.'" Explicator 20 (1962).

Perrine, Laurence. "Robinson's 'The Tree in Pamela's Garden.'" Explicator 30 (1972).

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. Collected Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1937.

Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Sutcliffe, Denham, ed. Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith. 1890--1905. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1947.

Wright, Elizabeth. "Robinson's 'The Tree in Pamela's Garden.'" Explicator 21 (1963).

from The Explicator 51.4 (Summer 1993)

Nathan Cervo

Critics have not read Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem as closely as it deserves to be read, particularly in light of Robinson's own statement that the poem is "an oblique attack" on those ridiculing the "alleged emotional and moral frigidity" of New England.(1)

The key to the poem lies in the name Pamela. In Greek, melea signifies apple tree; melon (plural, mela), fruit, especially the apple. In Italian, melo signifies apple tree; mela, apple. But it is in Latin that Robinson's meaning is more sharply indicated: malum, an evil, mischief; malum, an apple. Pan, in Greek, not only designates the goat-footed god of flocks but also means "all" or, when used with adverbial force, "pervasively, wholly, completely, or totally." In addition, Greek pammelas, which is the nominative, masculine form of the adjective, means "all black, all dark, blackest, darkest." In his poem "Another Dark Lady," published in The Man Against the Sky (1916), Robinson compares the "lady" unfavorably with Lilith, whom he identifies as "the devil" (line 8).

Robinson's Pamela is another dark lady. Although remaining a mystery, or dark secret, to "Her neighbors" (9), she is "too gentle to deceive / Her roses" (1-2). Roses are traditionally emblematic not only of carnal beauty but of female sexuality, just as the tree traditionally represents virility. If the "Pamela's" of the title accurately, that is thematically, chimes the masculine adjective pammelas, then the tree in Pamela's garden is Pamela herself.

In keeping with the above, Robinson's incorporation of "Apollo's avatar" (3) in Pamela's expression of misandry hardly points to Daphne and, beyond that, to the poet's laurel. Apollo is introduced to tilt the poem's meaning toward a Greek explanation. Pamela smiles, when she hears her neighbors talking, because she is amused at their naivete: "Seeing that she never loved a man, / [they] Wished Pamela had a cat, or a small bird" (11-12). The irony here is subtle but intense because both "cat" and "bird" (a metathesis of Old English bryd, "a young woman just married or about to be married") are traditionally associated with women (cf. Byrd Helen of the famous ballad).

Like a troubadour poet, Pamela pretends to be focused on a cool and distant ideal ("the North Star," 6). Similarly, "she made all Tilbury Town believe" that "only in so far / As she was in a garden [she] was like Eve" (5, 7-8). Robinson's clear implication is that Pamela, like Eve, has already tasted the forbidden, or mischievous (malum), fruit (melon; plural, mela), that is, the apple (malum) traditionally identified as the occasion of Eve's temptation by "the devil" ("Another Dark Lady," 8). "Her roses" (1) translates to "apples." Whether Pamela's fall from grace has occurred in narcissistic fantasy or otherwise is left undecided. The fall is relative to Tilbury Town's "moral frigidity."


1. Qtd. in Sculley Bradley, Richmond C. Beatty, and E. Hudson Long, The American Tradition in Literature, 1 vol., 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1967) 1370. For a concise summary of critical views on the poem, see Eric A. Weil, "Robinson's 'The Tree in Pamela's Garden,'" Explicator 51:4 (Summer 1993) 230-32.

from The Explicator 54.1 (Fall 1995)

Retrun to Edwin Arlington Robinson