'The Theory' by Russell Edson

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The big one went to sleep as to die and dreamed he
became a tiny one. So tiny as to have lost all substance. To have
become as theoretical as a point.

Then someone said, get up, big one, you're not doing
yourself any good. You puddle and stagnate in your weight.
Best to be up and toward. It irrigates you.

What, said the big one, have I not disappeared? Have you
not mistaken a cloud for me? Perhaps some local hill fulfills
your expectation?

No, it's no mistake, it's you; those interconnecting puddles
of flesh pulling at your bones, attempting that world-weary fall
toward the great waters of the world.

How you manage against gravity is one of the greater
triumphs of nature.

Do you think, said the big one, there's a woman who
would like to marry me?

Yes, had such a woman done everything in the world except
marry you, she might think it worthy before dying to complete
her catalogue. Or having done everything, go meekly
without decision or care to such a consummation.

Then you really feel, said the big one, that this woman
could come to care very deeply for me?

All is theoretical. Who knows enough to say the outcome
of any event, save that it was past us, and we saw the back of it
moving slowly into the Universe, seeking other settings to
repeat the fall of fate. . .

That sounds wonderful, that a woman like that could be in
love with me, said the big one.

But in a few moments the big one was back asleep, dreaming
that he had come to such enlargement that he constituted
all the matter in the Universe, which must include the earth
and the woman he would have loved. . .

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Theory: A Deeper Dive into Russell Edson's Masterpiece

If you're a fan of surreal poetry, then you're most likely familiar with Russell Edson's The Theory. It's a poem that defies convention, leaving readers with more questions than answers. And yet, despite its oddness, The Theory manages to capture the human experience in a way that few poems can.

So, what exactly is The Theory about? On the surface, it tells the story of a man who sits down to write a theory about the universe, only to be interrupted by his wife's demands. But as with most surrealist works, there's more going on beneath the surface.

The Role of Language

One of the most striking elements of The Theory is its use of language. Edson plays with words in a way that is both playful and profound. For example, the man in the poem writes that "the universe is a man's dream," which at first seems like a simple statement. But as the poem progresses, we see the man's wife come in and interrupt him. Suddenly, the dream-like quality of the universe takes on a new meaning. Is the man's theory just a dream, or is it something more concrete?

This playfulness with language is a hallmark of surrealist poetry, and Edson's use of it in The Theory is masterful. He takes seemingly ordinary words and twists them in unexpected directions, creating a sense of disorientation that mirrors the man's own confusion.

The Theme of Control

Another theme that runs through The Theory is that of control. The man in the poem is trying to exert control over the universe by writing a theory, but his wife's constant interruptions remind him that he is not in control of everything. He can try to impose order on the chaos of the universe, but ultimately, he is at the mercy of others.

This theme resonates with many readers, as we all struggle to find control in our own lives. The man's frustration is something we can all relate to, whether it's the boss who won't listen to our ideas or the partner who always wants things their way.

The Subversion of Expectations

One of the joys of reading surrealist poetry is the way it subverts our expectations. We expect a poem to follow a certain structure or to convey a clear message, but surrealist works like The Theory throw all of that out the window. Instead, we're left with a sense of uncertainty and confusion.

And yet, despite – or perhaps because of – this uncertainty, The Theory manages to resonate with readers. It captures the human experience in a way that more straightforward works cannot. We may not always understand what's going on, but we can still feel a sense of connection to the man in the poem.

The Role of Absurdity

Finally, it's worth noting the role of absurdity in The Theory. Surrealist works often rely on absurdity to create a sense of disorientation, and Edson is no exception. The man's theory about the universe is absurd on its face, and his wife's demands only add to the absurdity.

But beneath the absurdity lies a deeper truth. The man's theory may be nonsensical, but his need for control and understanding is all too real. We may laugh at the absurdity of the situation, but we also understand the man's frustration and confusion.


Russell Edson's The Theory is a masterpiece of surrealist poetry. Its use of language, themes of control and subversion of expectations, and reliance on absurdity all work together to create a poem that is at once playful and profound. It may not be a straightforward work, but it captures the human experience in a way that few other poems can.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Theory by Russell Edson is a classic poem that has been celebrated for its unique style and thought-provoking content. The poem is a perfect example of Edson's ability to use surrealism and absurdity to explore complex themes such as identity, existence, and the human condition. In this article, we will take a closer look at The Theory and analyze its meaning and significance.

The poem begins with the speaker stating that he has a theory that he is a tree. This statement immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as it introduces the central theme of identity. The speaker's theory is not a literal one, but rather a metaphorical one that explores the idea of what it means to be human. By comparing himself to a tree, the speaker is suggesting that he is rooted in the earth, connected to nature, and has a sense of permanence.

The next few lines of the poem describe the speaker's experience of being a tree. He talks about how he feels the wind blowing through his branches and how he is nourished by the sun and rain. These descriptions are vivid and sensory, and they create a strong image of the speaker as a tree. However, the speaker's experience is not entirely positive. He also talks about how he is vulnerable to disease and how he is at the mercy of the elements. This suggests that the speaker's theory of being a tree is not a perfect one, and that there are drawbacks to this identity.

The poem then takes a surreal turn, as the speaker describes how he is visited by a man who is also a tree. This man-tree tells the speaker that he is not a tree, but rather a man. This exchange is significant because it challenges the speaker's theory of identity. It suggests that identity is not fixed, but rather fluid and subject to change. The fact that the man-tree is also a tree suggests that identity is not a binary concept, but rather a spectrum.

The poem then takes another surreal turn, as the speaker describes how he is visited by a woman who is also a tree. This woman-tree tells the speaker that he is not a man, but rather a tree. This exchange is significant because it challenges the man-tree's assertion that the speaker is a man. It suggests that identity is not only fluid but also subjective. The fact that the woman-tree sees the speaker as a tree suggests that identity is not only a spectrum but also a matter of perception.

The poem ends with the speaker stating that he is confused about his identity. He says that he doesn't know if he is a tree or a man, and that he feels lost and alone. This ending is significant because it suggests that the exploration of identity is not a simple or easy task. It suggests that identity is a complex and multifaceted concept that requires deep introspection and self-reflection.

In conclusion, The Theory by Russell Edson is a classic poem that explores the theme of identity through surrealism and absurdity. The poem challenges the notion of fixed identity and suggests that identity is a fluid and subjective concept. The poem also suggests that the exploration of identity is a complex and multifaceted task that requires deep introspection and self-reflection. The Theory is a timeless poem that continues to resonate with readers today, and it is a testament to Edson's unique style and vision.

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