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Edwin Robinson was arguably the first great American poet of the twentieth century. Ironically, his greatness came not through the experimental or modernist forms that were beginning to predominate around the time he wrote, but by sticking with well-established, straightforward forms and rhymes inspired by the Romantic poets of Britain.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Hardships and Guilt
A descendant of the colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine, and he grew up in the nearby town of Gardiner, his model for the fictitious Tilbury Town, which figures prominently in his early verse. Fascinated by the sounds and rhythms of words, he began to write poetry at an early age. Robinson attended Harvard University for two years, but a decline in the family’s financial situation forced him to return home. His elder brothers’ bad financial investments, alcoholism, and drug addiction left the Robinson family nearly penniless. Despite these hardships, Robinson subsequently rejected a business career in favor of writing poetry. His inability to aid his family financially forced them to become dependent on friends for money and caused Robinson to develop a sense of personal failure and guilt that haunted him for the remainder of his life. These themes and problems show up repeatedly in his work—Robinson’s portraits of nonconformists, derelicts, alcoholics, and suicides, as well as his preoccupation with human failure, are attributed by many commentators to his personal experiences with poverty and alienation.
A Presidential Favorite
Early in his career, Robinson mastered the poetic form for which he became well known: the dramatic lyric marked by firm structure based on stanzas, deft rhyming patterns, and colloquial, or everyday, speech. His first book of poems, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), is a forty-four page pamphlet that Robinson printed and distributed to numerous critics at his own expense. In addition to dramatic lyrics, this work demonstrates a myriad of styles: blank and rhymed verse, villanelles and ballades, as well as traditional sonnets and quatrains. While The Torrent and the Night Before received a few positive reviews for its stark portraits of Tilbury Town, it was generally ignored by both critics and readers.
Robinson’s next volume of verse, The Children of the Night (1897), consists of psychological portraits of such odd characters as Aaron Stark, a vindictive miser, and Luke Havergal, a deprived lover. The frequently anthologized poem ”Richard Cory” is about a seemingly fortuitous gentleman who earned the respect of the townspeople, yet one night committed suicide. The Children of the Night attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt after his son, Kermit, sent him a copy of the book from school. Roosevelt was impressed with Robinson’s work and gave it lavish praise. In the summer of 1905, Roosevelt helped arrange employment for Robinson at the New York City Custom House so he could write without financial worry. Robinson’s finances, however, remained less than solvent until the late 1920s.
Despite his financial issues, Robinson continued to create verse. The title poem of Captain Craig (1902), Robinson’s third book, is a dramatic narrative of approximately two thousand lines about a derelict whose bombastic yet learned observations of humanity serve as a source of fascination for the unnamed narrator. The theme of personal ruin continued in his next work, The Town down the River (1910), in which Robinson began composing poems that centered on historical and public personages. A companion volume, The Three Taverns (1920), features such individuals as abolitionist John Brown, the biblical figure Lazarus, and the early American statesmen Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The Man against the Sky (1916) is generally considered Robinson’s most successful single volume of verse. It continues the deft psychological portraits that marked his earlier efforts and reflects Robinson’s belief in the moral superiority of seemingly worthless characters over their more materially successful neighbors.
America’s First Pulitzer Prize-Winner
In 1922 Robinson earned the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems (1921)—the first Pulitzer ever awarded for poetry. In addition to reprinting his earlier verse, this volume also includes new poems that are now considered essential to the Robinson canon: ”Mr. Flood’s Party,” ”The Tree in Pamela’s Garden,” and ”Rembrandt to Rembrandt.” Avon’s Harvest (1921) is the first of several book-length dramatic dialogues in which Robinson further delineates the theme of guilt and dereliction. For most critics, The Man Who Died Twice (1924) best represents Robinson’s preoccupation with personal ruin. The book was also one of Robinson’s most accessible books and earned him his second Pulitzer Prize. Robinson’s other book-length poems include Roman Bartholow (1923) and Cavender’s House (1929), which centers on domestic tragedies depicting betrayal, unrequited love, and adultery.
Around the time Collected Poems was published, Robinson produced Lancelot (1920), which was preceded by Merlin in 1917 and followed by Tristram in 1927. Commonly referred to as his Arthurian trilogy, these book-length works were composed in blank verse and were well received, but are no longer thought to be as important as Robinson’s earlier verse. Despite brief passages of substantial lyric beauty, the poems are generally faulted for their length and monotonous tone. Tristram, however, became a best seller, a rare distinction for a book of poetry, and earned Robinson his third Pulitzer Prize in 1928.
A Pure Poet
In an age when most prominent poets were engaged in many different pursuits, Robinson stood alone in his unmitigated devotion to writing poetry. Poet T. S. Eliot, for example, had a career in publishing; William Carlos Williams had a medical practice. Wallace Stevens held an executive position in an insurance company, while Robert Frost, seemingly the most ”professional” poet, held teaching jobs and went on speaking tours. Robinson, on the other hand, did virtually nothing in his life save write poetry. He neither married nor traveled; he neither taught nor gave public readings; he neither had professional preparation nor any extended occupation other than poetry writing. On the occasion of his fiftieth birthday he was treated to an encomium in the New York Times Book Review (December 21, 1919), which published comments by sixteen writers, including this statement from Amy Lowell: ”Edwin Arlington Robinson is poetry. I can think of no other living writer who has so consistently dedicated his life to his work.”
This pure focus on poetry continued through the end of his life. Robinson’s final poems explore the subjects found in his earlier verse, as well as some new ones. For example, Nicodemus (1932) is a collection of medium-length pieces that center on biblical themes, the inhabitants of Tilbury Town, and the New England landscape. Talifer (1933), another book-length effort, deviates from Robinson’s previous domestic tragedies—in this rather light-hearted tale, two couples decide to exchange partners. Amaranth (1934) is an allegory concerning a disillusioned painter who enters an alternate world populated by artists with thwarted dreams. Robinson’s last work, King Jasper, was published posthumously in 1935. While favoring his Arthurian trilogy in tone and structure, King Jasper consummates Robinson’s aesthetic principles and thematic concerns. Although the work was not successful because of its ambitious scope, most commentators agree that its examination of humanity in a transitory world best concludes Robinson’s career. Robinson was diagnosed with cancer in 1935 and died that same year, just hours after completing corrections on the final proofs of KingJasper.
Works in Literary Context
Edwin Robinson achieved a hard-won prominence in American literature during the early twentieth century. During a period of intense experimentation in verse, his poetry adheres to the terse diction, careful metrical forms, and philosophical themes found in the work of his British predecessors Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold. Nonetheless, Robinson’s poetic style signaled an end to the baroque sentimentality of nineteenth-century American poetry. While he is best known for his powerful narrative poems that dramatize the tribulations of small-town individuals, Robinson was not a systematic philosopher. His works, despite their sad, ironic tone and often tragic conclusions, are considered to be life-affirming, revealing a transcendental belief in God and in the value of human existence. Robinson stated: ”I prefer men and women who live, breathe, talk, fight, make love, or go to the devil after the manner of human beings. Art is only valuable to me when it reflects humanity or at least human emotions.”
Location as Metaphor
Perhaps the best known of Robinson’s poems are those now called the Tilbury Town cycle, named after the small town that serves as a physical setting for many of Robinson’s poems. Through the town and its residents, Robinson metaphorically explores the human condition. These poems expound on some of Robinson’s most characteristic themes: ”his curiosity,” as Gerald DeWitt Sanders and his fellow editors put it in Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America, ”about what lies behind the social mask of character, and . . . his dark hints about sexuality, loyalty, and man’s terrible will to defeat himself.”
Tilbury Town is first mentioned in ”John Evereldown,” a ballad collected in The Torrent and The Night Before. Tilbury Town reappears at intervals throughout Robinson’s work. The title poem in Captain Craig concerns an old resident of the town whose life, believed wasted by his neighbors, proves to have been of value. The Children of the Night contains the story of Richard
Cory, a poem in which Tilbury Town itself is personified. Finally, The Man against the Sky includes the story of the man ”Flammonde,” in one of the poet’s most anthologized Tilbury verses.
A Focus on People and Their Pain
While Robinson frequently wrote poems on conventional topics, his subject matter was new in his heavy emphasis on people. Unlike other Romantic poets, he generally avoided the celebration of natural phenomena, bragging to a friend about his first volume that one would not find ”a single red-breasted robin in the whole collection.” Instead, many of his short poems are character sketches of individuals, while his long narratives deal with complicated human relationships. Frequently they explore psychological reactions to a prior event, such as Avon’s Harvest, Robinson’s ”ghost story” about a man destroyed by his own hatred, and Cavender’s House, a dialogue between a man and his dead wife that deals with questions of jealousy and guilt. The people inhabiting Robinson’s books include imaginary individuals as well as characters modeled on actual acquaintances. Whether real or imaginary, many of them evoke themes of personal pain, guilt, betrayal, unrequited love, adultery, and other domestic tragedies.
Despite these themes, Robinson never saw himself as a pessimist. For example, in 1897 he responded to the charge that he was a pessimist in a letter to the British magazine the Bookman, in which he explained, ”This world is not a ‘prison house,’ but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” Several critics, too, see his work as life-affirming. May Sinclair, writing an early review of Captain Craig for the Fortnightly Review, said of the Captain, ”He, ragged, old, and starved, challenges his friends to have courage and to rejoice in the sun.” Robinson’s pessimism was similarly denied by fellow poet Robert Frost, who, in his introduction to Robinson’s posthumously published King Jasper declared, ”His theme was unhappiness itself, but his skill was as happy as it was playful. There is that comforting thought for those who suffered to see him suffer.” Robinson may instead be called an impersonal romantic, breaking with the nineteenth-century tradition by objectifying and dramatizing emotional reactions while at the same time emphasizing sentiment and mystical awareness. His combination of compassion and irony has become a familiar stance in modern poetry, and his celebrated advocacy of triumphant forbearance in the face of adversity anticipates the existentialist movement.
Works in Critical Context
One of the most prolific major American poets of the twentieth century, Robinson is, ironically, best remembered for only a handful of short poems. Aside from a few that he complained were ”pickled in [the] brine” of poetry anthologies—”Richard Cory,” ”Miniver Cheevy,” and ”Mr. Flood’s Party”—most of his work is not widely known. The fifteen-hundred-page collected edition of his work contains the twenty volumes of poetry published during his lifetime, including the thirteen long narratives that critics have ignored or denigrated but which he regarded as among his best work. Indeed, the long poems that occupied his energies during the last dozen years of his life were not designed for popular appeal, and his stubborn insistence on traditional forms at a time of extraordinary technical experimentation led to the critical attitude that his work is anachronistic, a throwback to the nineteenth-century triumphs of Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold. As Robert Frost, in his introduction to King Jasper, put it, Robinson was ”content with the old-fashioned way to be new.”
Allen Tate has said that ”Mr. Robinson’s genius is primarily lyrical” and indicates that ”Richard Cory” is ”a perfect specimen of Mr. Robinson’s dramatic powers—when those powers are lyrically expressed.” W. R. Robinson points to ”Richard Cory” as an example of the cycle of poems set in the fictional Tilbury Town that links Robinson with ”the repressive, utilitarian social climate” of small-town New England. Louis Untermeyer says that Robinson is ”at his height” in such poems.
Critical reactions to ”Richard Cory” hinge almost exclusively on how individual critics interpret and react to the ending (when the character unexpectedly commits suicide). Richard P. Adams sees the poem as antimaterialistic and says that Cory’s suicide ”leaves the reader free to decide, if he has his own courage to do so, that working and waiting and going without, and even cursing on occasion, may be a pretty good life after all.” William H. Pritchard apparently agrees—he sees Robinson as ”someone who relished ironic incongruities” such as the difference between the perceptions of Cory and the actual nature of his personality. Yvor Winters, on the other hand, does not hold such a high opinion of the poem, instead referring to it as a ”superficially neat portrait of the elegant man of mystery,” and calling Cory’s suicide ”a very cheap surprise ending.” Winters feels that ”all surprise endings are cheap in poetry, if not, indeed, elsewhere, for poetry is written to be read not once but many times.”
- Hogan, Charles Beecher. A Bibliography of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1936.
- Joyner, Nancy Carol. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Murphy, Francis. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
- Robinson, W. R. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poetry of the Act. Cleveland: Press of Western Reserve University, 1967.
- Ruby, Mary, ed. ”Richard Cory.” Poetry for Students. Vol. 4. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1999.
- Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
- White, William. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Supplementary Bibliography. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971.
- Adams, Richard P. ”The Failure of Edwin Arlington Robinson.” Tulane Studies in English 11 (1961): 97-151.
- Pritchard, William H. ”Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Prince of Heartbreakers.” American Scholar 40, no. 1 (Winter 1978-1979): 89-100.
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