Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010
Edwin Arlington Robinson, Collected Poems
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(New York: Macmillan, 1937)
Although his work fell into critical neglect almost immediately after his death, Robinson ranked among the most prominent American poets early in the century. In 1922 he was awarded the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Born in Head Tide, Maine, on 22 December 1869, Robinson was raised in nearby Gardiner. His parents, Edward and Mary, descended from solid, though not distinguished, New England stock; Mary claimed the early Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet as a distant relative. By the time the youngest of his three sons was born, Edward had amassed a comfortable fortune of $80,000 through lumber speculation. The family’s move to Gardiner in 1870 was prompted by his retirement at the age of fifty-one.
Robinson began writing as early as eleven or twelve without much encouragement. Near the end of his high school years he joined a group of amateur poetry enthusiasts called the Gardiner Poetry Club, headed by Alanson Tucker Shumann, who prescribed technical exercises that instilled in Robinson the necessary discipline of craft. Beginning in 1888, however, a series of family disasters threatened to derail his ambition to write full-time. Robinson worked on his poetry throughout this period and privately published his first collection of poems, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), just ten days after his mother’s death. The collection demonstrated his mastery of various verse forms such as the sonnet and his lifelong preference for rhymed and blank verse as opposed to the more formless free verse popularized by Whitman. Despite the collection’s small print run (some three hundred copies) and the fact that Robinson personally mailed editors copies of the collection, The Torrent and the Night Before received a surprising amount of press, with notices appearing in prominent outlets such as Bookman. In part because Robinson eschewed the elevated language of poets such as James Whitcomb Riley, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Richard Henry Stoddard, his outlook was misinterpreted as stark and pessimistic. As he complained to a friend, “Because I don’t dance on [an] illuminated hilltop and sing about the boblinks and bumble-bees, they tell me that my world is a ‘prison house, etc.’”
In 1897 Robinson expanded The Torrent and the Night Before with forty-three additional poems in his first commercially distributed collection, The Children of the Night. Among the new inclusions was “Richard Cory,” a portrait of gilded gentility reputedly based on the suicide of a prominent Gardiner resident. Narrated from the perspective of “we people on the pavement,” the poem explores the deceptiveness of public appearances. Despite Cory’s enviable wealth and social poise (“In fine, we thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place”), this epitome of gentlemanly grace commits a desperate act that those admiring him from a distance cannot begin to fathom:
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
In his later years Robinson expressed disgruntlement that anthologists selected “Richard Cory” to represent his entire career. His ambivalence toward the poem may reflect its muted autobiographical origins. At the time of its composition, the author was living in the family home in Gardiner with an increasingly embittered and volatile brother. Robinson did enjoy the support of a coterie of artistic friends in Gardiner, including the city’s most famous author, Julia Ward Howe’s daughter Laura E. Richards (1850-1943).
Yet, family tensions proved too stifling for Robinson to remain at home. His middle brother, Herman, had wooed away the love of Edwin’s life, Emma Shepard, creating an irreparable fracture between the brothers. After one particularly explosive confrontation, Robinson agreed to leave Gardiner, even though he and not Herman had maintained the house over the course of their parents’ decline. Despite his exile, Robinson’s feelings for Emma never faded. He would ask her to marry him on the heels of Herman’s death in 1909 and again in 1918 and 1927. Not surprisingly, romantic triangles are a recurrent motif in Robinson’s poetry. “Eros Turannos” (1913), in particular, is an empathetic exploration of Emma’s dependency on Herman. The poem at once condemns the traditions that lock a woman in an unhappy marriage while respecting its protagonist’s dread of being alone: “But what she meets and what she fears / Are less than are the downward years, / Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs / Of age, were she to lose him.”
After leaving Gardiner, Robinson briefly affiliated with a group of bohemian writers in New York. Among them was Alfred H. Louis, a colorful tale-teller who inspired the title poem of Robinson’s third book, Captain Craig (1902). At two thousand lines, Captain Craig is the poet’s first foray into the long-form verse that dominated his later career. The poem is also Robinson’s most overt statement of philosophy, rejecting pessimism and despair in favor of an Emersonian optimism tempered by the wizened awareness of life’s ultimate defeats. “There is no servitude so fraudulent / As of a sun-shut mind,” the Captain preaches. “For ’t is the mind / That makes you craven or invincible, / Diseased or puissant.” Robinson found this roseate outlook difficult to sustain during a nearly two-year effort to find a publisher for the piece. Houghton Mifflin finally agreed to issue it—but only if Robinson’s chief supporters, Laura E. Richards and John Hays Gardiner (a Harvard professor), agreed to subsidize printing costs. The poem’s tortured journey may explain its author’s wavering opinion of its merits over the years; ultimately, the poem is more intriguing as a character sketch than compelling as a credo. Of more interest is one of the half-dozen shorter poems Robinson also included in Captain Craig. “Isaac and Archibald,” a meditation on aging, accomplishes the technical feat of creating a dual point of view in which the narrating “I” speaks as both a child and an adult, not unlike James Joyce’s story “Araby”:
The old men smoked while I sat watching them
And wondered with all comfort what might come
To me, and what might never come to me;
And when the time came for the long walk home
With Isaac in the twilight, I could see
The forest and the sunset and the sky-line,
No matter where it was that I was looking:
The flame beyond the boundary, the music,
The foam and the white ships, and two old men
Were things that would not leave me....
With poetry proving unremunerative, Robinson was forced to seek employment for the first time in his life. In 1898 he worked briefly for Harvard president Charles W. Eliot before returning to New York. President Theodore Roosevelt read The Children of the Night and, impressed, secured for him a position at the New York customhouse. Roosevelt’s patronage also paid a literary dividend: thanks to a glowing review of The Children of the Night that Roosevelt published in Outlook, Scribners released a new edition of the book.
Robinson produced little poetry during his four years at the customhouse, preferring to dabble in playwriting. One poem he did complete in this otherwise uninspiring period was “Miniver Cheevy,” a light satire about a man obsessed with the “mediaeval grace” of the past:
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.
For many biographers, the poem represents Robinson’s mocking of his own susceptibility to nostalgia and his disinterest in material possessions. The character’s name even captures his estimation of his career as he neared forty: he was a poet of “minimum achievement.”
Robinson’s sinecure ended when Roosevelt left the presidency in 1909. He repaired to Maine to assist his sister-in-law in raising his nieces and to prepare The Town Down the River (1910), a collection of verse portraits that, not surprisingly, features a prominent tribute to Roosevelt. The volume is notable for the variety of forms it attempts: in addition to the light verse of “Miniver Cheevy,” there are sonnets, dramatic monologues, and elegies. Despite its maturity, the book received only modest reviews.
For the next several years, Robinson again focused on drama, eventually publishing two plays of middling quality, Van Zorn (1914) and The Porcupine (1915). Their completion was enabled by summer residencies at MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Although Robinson was initially leery of the colony, he flourished in its supportive atmosphere and found the rustic environment helped him control his drinking. Beginning in 1911, he returned annually for the rest of his life.
Robinson’s career finally took off in 1916 with the publication of The Man against the Sky, a rapturously reviewed collection that includes some of the poet’s most accomplished work. Several poems, including “Eros Turannos,” “Gift of God,” and “The Poor Relation,” offer stirring insight into the romantic disappointments of women, reflecting his continued compassion for Emma. “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford” is a long dramatic monologue exploring the rivalry between Shakespeare and his titular contemporary, while “The Man against the Sky” itself plumbs the global mood of anxiety and despair brought on by the Great War. The collection’s reception inspired a dozen supporters to contribute to a $1,200-per-year stipend to ease Robinson’s financial pressures. Equally important, the book’s critical success vaulted him to the forefront of American poetry. Robinson died of pancreatic cancer on 6 April 1935.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Because Robinson was opposed to verbal abstraction and preferred to write within traditional forms and meters, his verse can appear deceptively old-fashioned, despite the fact that his simplified diction and avoidance of archaic language were quite novel for its time. Compare Robinson’s innovations to the insistent experimentation of contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and even Robert Frost, with whom Robinson maintained a testy rivalry. As the modernist canon came to define the development of post-World War I poetry, Robinson’s prodigious output—twenty volumes, the bulk of it after 1916—declined in both popularity and stature. What was the basis for the critical support from enthusiasts such as James Dickey, Donald Hall, and W. S. Merwin, who continued to advocate for a renaissance of interest? Robinson is remembered by many for a single poem, “Richard Cory” (1897), which the folk-pop duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel adapted to song in 1965. Consider the effect of the transformation of Robinson’s poem to music.
- 2. The Torrent and the Night Before introduced Robinson’s fictional “Tilbury Town” poems, proto-Winesburg, Ohio character sketches that glimpse into the despair beneath the placid surfaces of small-town life. In efforts such as the oft-anthologized “Luke Havergal” as well as “John Evereldown,” “The Dead Village,” “The Clerks,” and “The House on the Hill,” Robinson fused deceptively simple language with a tonal Realism that demonstrated how even within the formal rigor of a meter and rhyme scheme poetry could speak disconcertingly directly in expression. Discuss the effect of Robinson’s character sketches. Is his simple, direct language and formal meter and rhyme effective?
- 3. The apparent simplicity of Robinson’s style has worked against his reputation, with the directness of his expression seeming to leave little room for interpretation. Nevertheless, his Realism and diction mark important breaks from the contrived, self-consciously poetic language of the preceding generation, and his empathy for the Miniver Cheevys and Mr. Floods—the beautiful losers of the world—offers a compassionate alternative to the satire with which modernists treated their Mauberlys, Prufrocks, and Sweeneys. Is poetry less effective or less interesting if it fails to invite interpretation?
Scott Donaldson, Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
The definitive biography, drawing from recently unsealed correspondence and providing and fresh insight on a poet previously considered too placid and reserved for biographical analysis.
E. A. Robinson, Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry de Forest Smith, 1890—1905, edited by Denham Sutcliffe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947).
Often cited in Robinson’s biographies and criticism, a selection of correspondence between Robinson and his close friend that allows one to witness the poet formulating his aesthetics in his early years.
Chard Powers Smith, Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York: Macmillan, 1965).
Until Donaldson’s biography, the most in-depth view of the poet available. The work is particularly important for its treatment of Robinson’s feelings for Emma Shepherd and is marred only by Smith’s insistent commentary on the poetry.