How Annandale Went Out
Edwin Arlington Robinson
"They called it Annandale – and I was there
To flourish, to find words, and to attend:
Liar, physician, hypocrite, and friend,
I watched him; and the sight was not so fair
As one or two that I have seen elsewhere:
An apparatus not for me to mend –
A wreck, with hell between him and the end,
Remained of Annandale; and I was there.
I knew the ruin as I knew the man;
So put the two together, if you can,
Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself as I was, on the spot –
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this . . . You wouldn't hang me? I thought not."
"How Annandale Went Out" was first published in 1910, long before Jack
Kevorkian, even longer before medically assisted suicide became legal in
Edwin Arlington Robinson's Maine and nine other states. Many Robinson
poems are set in an imaginary town called "Tilbury," so I thought it might
be helpful (and fun) to imagine the way that town's local paper might have
covered the doctor's testimony and the jury's verdict versus Robinson's
The reporter's mission is to give us the "Who, What, Where, When, How,
and Why" of the "story." You can never have too much information in a
news report. This article presumably follows many earlier articles on
Annandale's death, the police investigation that followed, the arrest of
Annandale's doctor, and day by day accounts of trial proceedings. Everyone
in Tilbury Town and the nation has been tuned in to the "Doctor Death"
trial and longs to know the outcome. The article begins with the large-size
headline announcing that the jury has acquitted Tilbury's physician of
Notice that the reader is placed in a passive position, being merely the
receiver of bits of information which diminish in importance as the article
proceeds. In a poem, however, the reader is an active participant who
collaborates with the poet to complete his meaning. Whereas news articles
answer questions by providing lots of details, poets often intrigue readers
by making language generic or ambiguous rather than specific.
What, for example, does the title's "Annandale Went Out" mean? Did he get
dressed and go out to dinner or to see a movie? We soon learn that it refers
to the way Annandale died and that invites us to return to the poem's title
and possibly see it as metaphorical.
A candle flame is a stock metaphor for the tenuous nature of life. Candles
"go out" and Annandale's spirit has been "put out" by his doctor/friend.
The implicit metaphor becomes literal as we imagine the defendant
showing the jury precisely how he euthanized his patient:
We "snuff out" a candle flame with our fingers. The doctor snuffs out what
is left of Annandale's spirit by pressing his fingers on the levers of an old
-fashioned medical syringe which he calls "a slight kind of engine." As a
doctor, it was easy for him to put his patient to death quickly and
Prose accounts are written via sentence and paragraph. There isn't any
absolute limit on length in a news article. Ours includes the doctor's
testimony and the jury's verdict and goes on to add post-verdict statements
from the prosecutor and a quotation from a New York Times interview with
Tilbury mayor (Richard Cory!).
The article has a whopping 323 words; the poem, just 118. Robinson could
not possibly add more than a few more words to his poem because he has
chosen to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter. He is limited to fourteen
lines, and each line is limited to ten syllables. Prose is in love with
expansion. Poetry with compression. Brilliantly executed, the challenging
constraints that meter, rhyme and a fixed form impose make the poem feel
pithy, memorable, musical—encouraging us to revisit and savor it again and
Robinson focuses entirely on the doctor's testimony. By not over defining
the doctor relationship to Annandale (letting us know that he was his best
man, tennis partner, and fishing buddy) Robinson makes it easier for us to
imagine ourselves in the doctor's position, compelled to help a "friend."
Rather than give all away from the get-go as newspaper headlines must,
Robinson allows the setting and situation to dawn on us gradually. At first,
the doctor appears to be speaking directly to us. As the poem proceeds
there are hints that he is talking to people who know him, but it is only as
we get well into this sonnet's sestet that we realize that his own life is at
stake, that he is on the witness stand, defending himself against a charge of
first-degree murder. This dynamic allows us to enjoy the poem as an
incremental dramatic experience.
It's amazing how much drama Robinson manages to pack so gracefully into
his fourteen lines. We keenly feel the tragic dilemma Annandale's doctor
faced: to act or not to act—to allow a friend to endure a terrible death or to
risk his own life to assure a painless, peaceful one. The defendant asks his
jurors to "view yourself as I was, on the spot." Overhearing his plea, we are
in the courtroom and on trial as well. How would we act were we cursed
with his dilemma? How would we hope to be judged?
Robinson's opening line ("They called it Annandale—and I was there.")
nudges us towards rather than saddles us with meaning. Who does "they"
refer to? Annandale's wife? Children? Hospital staff? Whoever they are
they have no inkling that Annandale is not the man he used to be. Only our
doctor is aware of the grim fact that Annandale is transitioning from a
human being to an "it." We don't need to know what disease Annandale is
cursed with. ALS? Alzheimer's Pancreatic cancer? Annandale is a "ruin," a
"wreck," "an apparatus not for me to mend." Cause of death is expected in
an obituary or newspaper article. Naming a specific disease or condition
would detract from the power of Annandale's decline.
It takes a great poet to infuse a non-imagistic adverb like "there" with so
much meaning and emotional angst. And I was there—on the spot. It was
my misfortune to be placed in this emotional and ethical quandary, but I
was, there, and only I could help.
"Flourish" is the most vibrant word in this poem. The doctor is
extraordinarily healthy, in the prime of life. He keenly feels the horrific
difference between his flourishing and Annandale's decline. Why is my
friend on his way out while I remain full of life? How unjust is fate, luck, or,
as W.H. Henley would say, the intervention of "whatever gods may be."
The fact that Annandale is not asked whether or not he wants to "go out"
reminds us that we are not dealing here with "assisted suicide" but a
"mercy killing." Does a doctor have the right to hasten the process by weeks
or months to make death easier? Like Shakespeare, Robinson presents a
tragic figure but leaves it up to each reader to judge him as a hero or anti
-hero. How do we feel about Macbeth? Hamlet? Lear? Tragic irony suffuses
Robinson's poem at every point.
Mary Oliver says she'd rather end a poem with a question than an answer
and that's what Robinson does via his somewhat chilling last line: "You
wouldn't hang me? I thought not." Annandale's doctor calculated the
possibility that he might face a murder charge. His confidence that he
could convince his fellow townspeople to give him a pass clearly affected
his decision. Had he thought it likely that he would be hanged would he
have euthanized Annandale or consigned him to the misery of a hellish
"Poetry," Ezra Pound says, "is news that stays news." That's true because it
so widens its scope towards the universal that poets writing hundreds, even
thousands of years ago—still feel relevant. Though "How Annandale Went
Out" focuses fiercely on a decision to execute a mercy killing it widens out
to apply to all either-or, no-win situations. Call it fate, call it chance, our
doctor whispers. Call me a murderer or an attending angel, I was there. I
did what I thought right.
Eighty-nine years after Annandale was published,
Dr. Jack Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree murder
for assisting the death of a patient suffering from ALS.
Since 1994, ten states (including Robinson's Maine) have
legalized assisted suicide.