George Goodwin Kilburne’s painting is a perfect evocation of one of the early scenes in Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” a long poem that was a hit for decades among the Victorians. Two boys vie for the affections of a young girl. She marries one and puts the other one in the “friend zone,” but he burns the torch for her and never gives up. Enoch Arden, her husband, goes to sea to earn some funds to support his young family, but he gets shipwrecked on an island for 10 years. Given up for lost, his wife–still hoping for his return–won’t marry the friend for almost the full 10 years, but then she finally gives in. About that time, poor Enoch gets rescued, finds his way home, only to find his wife living a quiet, happily married life, with his friend from childhood. He spies on them through the window of their new home, but when he sees her happiness, he vows not to spoil it and goes away to die of a broken heart.
The poem saw many adaptations. The Dalenberg Library has a couple such treasures. Richard Strauss adapted the poem as a narrative set to solo piano in 1897, five years after Tennyson’s death. A rare recording has long been a collector’s item, but it is now available in the complete Glenn Gould boxed set, recorded in 1961 with Glenn Gould on the piano and movie star Claude Rains (of The Invisible Man and Casablanca) reading the poem. D.W. Griffith filmed it in 1911 as an 18 minute short feature. The actors are rather frumpy in their parts, so the Kilburne painting is much more like what one envisions reading the poem. It is obvious from the Griffith version that audiences in 1911 knew the poem very well, as Griffith elides over several details that audiences would know without explanation. For instance, when Enoch Arden is on his deathbed in the movie his eyes flash wide open and he spreads his arm before he collapses in death. It wouldn’t make much sense if you hadn’t read the poem, but once you’ve read it you know that the angels are calling him to Heaven.