Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)
About the Poet
The rare poet to succeed critically and financially, Edwin Arlington Robinson rejected the twentieth century's liberalized verse forms. His diverse application of traditional forms to the close-clipped, unconsciously cynical character study distinguished him in an era of rash experimentation. Only Robert Frost surpassed Robinson in Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes. Skilled at creating sustained ironies, Robinson preserved the best in nineteenth- century rationalism and respect for the individual — in particular, losers who cope daily with failure and falter without having attained their full potential. To criticism that his poetry was exceedingly depressing, he cryptically replied, "The world is . . . a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks."
Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine, on December 22, 1869, and his poetry reflects the tastes and outlook of the New Englanders of Gardiner, where he grew up. A writer from age 11, he excelled at Latin and English. However, in 1893, after two years at Harvard, Robinson no longer had the money to stay in school and returned home to care for his ailing father. Following his father's death and a brother's mismanagement of family funds, he settled among family to write and play his violin and clarinet.
Robinson was distraught after the death of his mother from diphtheria in 1896 and left Maine permanently. He worked briefly at Harvard as a secretary and as a subway agent in New York City, then resettled in Peterborough, New Hampshire, at the MacDowell artist colony, where he stayed until 1935. His self-publication, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), reissued as The Children of the Night (1897), demonstrates a gripping, dramatic seriousness, particularly in "Richard Cory" and "Luke Havergal," two of his more frequently anthologized and recited poems. Robinson's blank verse, influenced by his celibacy, agnosticism, binge drinking, and withdrawal from friends, showcases his pervasive distrust of humanity.
A turning point for Robinson occurred with Captain Craig (1902), which he wrote while living in midtown Manhattan. The volume found favor with President Theodore Roosevelt, who offered Robinson first a consular post in Mexico, then a job at the New York Custom House. For four years, Robinson lived in a Greenwich Village townhouse and profited from the undemanding customhouse post, which gave him time to rewrite and refine spare verbal portraits that became his trademark. He served on the Poet's Guild with Robert Frost, Edwin Markham, and Vachel Lindsay and wrote full time from 1910 until his death in 1935.
Robinson, who was influenced by Thomas Hardy's romanticism and the naturalism of Emile Zola, refused to freelance, teach, or otherwise lower his literary standards. While living in Staten Island, New York, he completed two plays, Van Zorn (1914) and The Porcupine (1915). He lived off an inheritance and trust fund while earning three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry for Collected Poems (1922), The Man Who Died Twice (1925), and a trilogy, Lancelot (1920), Tristram (1927), and Modred (1929), a popular verse narrative that restates romantic situations from Arthurian lore. In addition, Robinson received acclaim for The Town Down the River (1910), which he dedicated to Roosevelt, The Man Against the Sky (1916), The Three Taverns (1920), source of "Mr. Flood's Party," and the biography of a hate-driven man, Avon's Harvest (1921), which the poet once characterized as a "dime novel in verse." In all, he published twenty-eight works.
After his death from stomach cancer at a New York Hospital on April 6, 1935, Robinson was cremated, his ashes interred in Gardiner, and a plaque erected on Church Square commemorating his writings about Tilbury Town. Posthumous works include King Jasper (1935), an allegory of the Industrial Age he proofread only hours before his death; an anthology, Collected Poems, issued in 1937; and Selected Letters (1940), a glimpse into his private, self-concealing correspondence. His papers are housed at the University of New Hampshire.
A speaker for the dispossessed, Robinson achieved greatness with "Miniver Cheevy" (1910), a frequently anthologized portrait of a shortsighted malcontent, often taken for the poet himself. Like Cliff Klingenhagen, Fleming Helphenstine, and John Evereldown, the name "Miniver," perhaps a combination of "minimum" and "achieve," sets the main character apart from the ordinary New Englander. The poet selected a complex quatrain stanza with an alternating rhyme scheme that conveys order and control. He overleaps the constraints of a simple four-beat line with lengthenings — "When swords were bright and steeds were prancing" — and ominous shortenings, "Could he have been one."
The autumnal note of longing that anchors the tone of the poem derives from the speaker's sighings for past valor and the distant settings and legendary figures found in classic literature. To Miniver's dismay, the warriors of Troy and Arthurian Camelot give place to the humdrum khaki of modern warfare. Such mundane figures have no place in his extensive fantasies. Lost in daydreams, he accepts fate, foreshadowed by a cough, and embraces alcohol as his only escape.
"Luke Havergal" (1896), a somber, incantatory address, dramatizes a suicidal mood brought on by the loss of a lover. In the poet's words, the poem is "a piece of deliberate degeneration . . . which is not at all funny." The text, composed in iambic pentameter couplets, echoes with double beats spoken by a ghost. The poet creates beautiful lines with a single protracted rhyme in Havergal/ wall/fall/call and skies/eyes/flies/paradise/skies for a rhyme scheme of aabbaaaa. The subject, deprived of his love, faces physical and spiritual oblivion, symbolized by the western gate, which faces the setting sun. Colored with the fall reds of climbing sumac, the wall is the final barrier that separates Luke from death, where he hopes to reunite with his beloved. In lines 20 and 21, the poet states the crux of his dilemma: "Yes, there is yet one way to where she is, / Bitter, but one that faith may never miss." The poem's final line impels Luke to a dread decision with two commands. The second, with some exasperation, orders, "But go!" and observes that trust is the seeker's only hope.
"Richard Cory," a sober piece from the same collection as "Luke Havergal," is a poem filled with implied meanings. The poem's title invests the character with "richness at the core" and makes a connection with Richard the Lion-Hearted. Additional references to a crown, imperial slimness, and glittering step imply that Cory stands out among "We people on the pavement" like a king appearing before his subjects. Characteristic of Cory's situation as separate from everyone else is the necessary separation between royalty and commoner, which, for Cory, symbolizes the desperate solitude of his life.
Robinson chooses a disarmingly simple form for the poem. Composed in iambic pentameter, the four quatrains rhyme abab and come down cleanly on masculine end rhymes — for example, town/him/crown/slim. The transitional "So" in the fourth stanza shifts the poem's focus from Richard Cory to the laboring class, which has its own mundane difficulties. The surprise of suicide achieved by one bullet to the head suits the "calm summer night," which masks the turmoil of Cory's life.
"Eros Tuarannos" (1916) is a complex psychological portrait. At its heart is an obsessive female attracted to a no-good man whom she can't live with but fears living without. Taking its title from the domineering god of sexual love, the poem depicts the woman's "blurred sagacity," a diminished sense of acceptance in taste and behavior. By the end of the third stanza, she achieves a flawed victory and "secures him," the Judas figure. The declining action, epitomized by "The falling leaf," makes its painful downward slide as she comes to grips with illusions. In a home where "passion lived and died," she must admit that she has made her own hell.
An unusual feature in "Eros Tuarannos" is stanza five, which intrudes with a sanctimonious "we," who perceives hard truths about unbalanced marriages. Gliding on with the easeful rhyme scheme of ababccbb, the final stanza distances observer from observed as the rhymes pound out striven/given/driven, a commentary on doom. With a considerable amount of self-satisfaction, the "we" speaker chooses to "do no harm," but to leave the distraught wife to battle the forces she has challenged. As though willing herself to failure, she becomes her own Judas by betraying her finer instincts.
Robinson's most debated title, "Mr. Flood's Party" (1920), is a more generous verse told in gracious lines that lull at the same time that they reveal. The text epitomizes one of Robinson's hard-bitten losers, Eben Flood, and reflects Robinson's firsthand knowledge of two derelict older brothers, one an alcoholic and the other a drug addict. The poem describes a public nuisance who lets drink drive him away from the hospitality and home life that once filled him with hope. Like a mirthful drinker, he hoists his spirits to "the bird . . . on the wing," a suggestion of the state of flux typical of human interactions. Too late "winding a silent horn," he makes empty gestures, like the French epic figure of Roland sounding the alarm when it is too late for rescue. The sounds of the final two stanzas reiterate plaintive oo's and oh's in do, too, moons, loneliness, alone, below, opened, and ago. Well under the influence of a night's drinking, Eben gazes up at a double moon, an emblem of instability and duplicitous face.
The social climate of Tilbury Town in the final four lines is ambiguous. Either Flood is ostracized for carousing or else has outlived old friends and is now an unknown consoling himself with drink. Composed in tight octets linked by masculine end rhymes in a pattern of abcb in conversational iambic pentameter, the poem speaks with third-party knowledge of the events that have estranged Eben from his neighbors. The mellow sot approaches sentimentality by watching over his jug in token of the fact that "most things break." He toasts himself "for auld lang syne" and contemplates the nothingness of no place to return to and no hope for a better future.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Summarize regional touches in Robinson's poems. Compare his insight into New Englanders with that of Robert Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Robert Frost.
2. Contrast the tone and atmosphere of Robinson's "Luke Havergal" with Edgar Allan Poe's "Lenore," "Ulalume," or "Annabel Lee."
3. Discuss Robinson's characterization of women in "Eros Tuarannos."
4. Compare Robinson's apparent obsession with losers to that of novelists Edith Wharton and John Steinbeck.
5. Compare Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters in the use of somber tone.