September 2023

David Alpaugh

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 poem.

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 murder.

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 again.

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 death?

"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.


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David Alpaugh 's newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh's visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

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