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Robert P. Tristram Coffin was one of America s most famous regionalist poets from the 1930s through the 1950s. A talented teacher and artist who often illustrated his works, Coffin wrote more than forty books, including novels, essays, and a biography. But he is most noted for his poetry that concerns the old American traditions of Puritan New England—simple values and self-reliance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born to be a Man of Letters
Robert Peter Coffin was born on March 18, 1892, in Brunswick, Maine. He grew up in a house near Bowdoin College, an institution with which he would have a relationship with for the rest of his life. His mother, Alice Mary Coombs Coffin, was the second wife of James William Coffin, a Union Army veteran and widower. James Coffin, who raised two families, was a jack-of-all-trades who worked all kinds of jobs. When he died in 1908, he left a skill and a house to each of the ten children from his second marriage.
Coffin’s early years were spent on farms far to the south of town. He was educated at home by his parents. Coffin enjoyed listening to his father’s songs and stories, and began writing at an early age. His father knew Coffin would be a man of letters, as did poet and neighbor Sarah Orne Jewett, who predicted that Coffin would be a great poet. Coffin unquestioningly accepted this direction, and assumed as his own poetic mark a family name, Tristram.
When he was about thirteen years old, Coffin was sent to school in Brunswick, and according to his father’s wishes, entered Bowdoin College in 1911. Coffin was an excellent student and graduated summa cum laude in 1915. The following year, he took his master’s degree in English at Princeton on a graduate scholarship. When he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, he left the United States to study poetry at Trinity College, Oxford. His schooling there was interrupted when America was drawn into World War I and Coffin enlisted as an artillery officer. Like many Americans, his plans were put on hold until after the war. When he was discharged from the army, he returned to Maine and married Ruth Neal Phillip on June 22, 1918.
Bringing Oxford to Maine
In just a few years, Coffin returned to Oxford where he was awarded two more degrees in 1920. A year later, he returned to the United States and took a teaching job in Wells College, New York. During his tenure at Wells, Coffin introduced Oxford’s teaching style, implementing lectures and private lessons. While teaching, Coffin wrote poems and published his first collection, Christchurch, in 1924. These poems share the tales from the religious background of Coffin’s New England ancestors, and are regarded as a testament to his Puritan faith.
Coffin continued to publish more poetry, refining his style with each new work. In 1931, he published a biography of his father Portrait of an American in which he shares his father’s personal experiences, opinions, and spirituality. The respect he had for his father and family continued in his next collection of poetry, Ballads of Square-toed Americans (1933). In this book, he presents his father as Beowulf (a classic literary hero), and also recasts the Aeneid, the epic poem by Virgil, as an American adventure story in which he takes a panoramic look at America from ”John Brown” to the “Mormons” and ”Henry Hudson.”
In 1934, Coffin left Wells to teach at Bowdoin College, his alma mater. He was named Outstanding Poet of the Nation at the Ninth Annual Poetry Week observances in 1935, and given a gold medal in recognition of his achievement. His next book, Strange Holiness (1935) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1936, and Robert Frost spoke for him at the presentation ceremonies.
A Poet’s Patriotism
Coffin continued to write verse in a unique manner that was classically New England. Despite his apolitical nature, in the 1930s he unexpectedly found himself hailed as a Republican poet in a country swept by the New Deal. Unfortunately, the few Republicans with whom he was associated were largely people concerned with appearances, and he had very little in common with them. Coffin found the association troubling, as he preferred to remain apolitical.
At the start of World War II, Coffin decided to visit and teach at Indiana University. There Coffin was excited to find himself in the heartland of America, with people he believed had similar values, thoughts, and experiences as he did. A surge of patriotism poured out in his Primer for America (1943), in which he presented the ”first lessons in the first principles of being American; the primary stages of the American myth.”
Fading Into Obscurity
Coffin’s family survived World War II intact, and his joy spilled over in his mythically titled People Behave like Ballads (1946). Some of these poems are hauntingly poignant, while others roar with a hearty humor. However, Coffin’s Puritan patriotism, which featured an increasingly unpopular sense of isolationism, was not well received by many of his colleagues at Bowdoin. His contemporaries considered his ideas outdated, and Coffin began to spend more time lecturing off campus.
At one of these lectures, Coffin was stricken suddenly with a heart attack just before he was scheduled to speak in the chapel of Westbrook Junior College in Portland, Maine. He died in 1955 at the age of sixty three. As proof of how unsympathetic Bowdoin College had become to Coffin’s ideas, the Coffin Room in the college union was dismantled shortly after his death. In addition, the Pierce Chair that he held was filled by someone with markedly different tastes. Macmillan, the publisher that held copy rights on most of his works, did little more than see through the production of Selected Poems (1955), the verse that had been most popular with his audiences. The rest fell into a sudden silence. Though Coffin was immensely popular during his lifetime, his name and works fell into obscurity after his death.
Works in Literary Context
Epic Puritan Poems
All Coffin’s work—poetry, essays, fiction, criticism, history, biography, lectures, and drawings—reflects his Puritan perspective. Everything he wrote celebrates life from the biblical creation to the apocalypse.
Coffin is best known for his narratives that celebrate the life of his family and Puritans. He wrote what he saw, learning to use common speech, ordinary people, and usual sights in his verse as did Robert Frost. Coffin captured the essence of New England life and speech very eloquently. He was a learned, authoritative, and consummate assimilator, enriching his own work with refractions of the past. His true role was that of the traditional epic poet who gives living voice to the past in the context of the immediate present.
Works in Critical Context
Coffin was named Outstanding Poet of the Nation in 1935, won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1936, and received the Golden Rose of the New England Poetry Society that same year. He enjoyed fame and popularity during his lifetime. His works appeared in magazines and journals, and he often shared his works at readings.
Coffin drew on his broad literary education to create a style of classical poetry filled with contemporary themes. He refined his own style of verse that blended history with a modern vision of America. Not all critics embraced his style, however. Many complained his verse was too parochial and homespun. On the other hand, writers such as William Rose Benet called Coffin ”our most pictorial poet.”
There Will Be Bread and Love
Mary M. Colum in her New York Times review of There Will Be Bread and Love (1942) recognized in Coffin the ”breath of the divine afflatus that gives him the rare power of revelation. . . . More than anyone except de la Mare, Coffin can touch people and things with mystery and strangeness.” She sensed, too, his orphic vitalizing capacity: ”his animals are always alive.” He was also revered by a more famous poet, Robert Frost, who once said of Coffin, ”He may, in time to come, since he will probably outlive me, stand a head taller than I in the world of poetry.”
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 45: American Poets, 1880-1945. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 1986.
- Oxford Companion to American Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.
- Swain, Raymond Charles. A Breath of Maine: Portrait of Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Boston: Branden Press, 1967.
- Robert Peter Tristram Coffin Collection. George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://library.bowdoin.edu/arch/mss/rptcg.shtml. Last updated on 2004.
- ”Robert Peter Tristram Coffin” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003. Retrieved September 15, 2008 from http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/
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