Edwin Arlington Robinson
(December 22, 1869- April 6, 1935)
Son of Mary Elizabeth Palmer and Edward Robinson.
descendant of Anne Bradstreet.
worked in obscurity until granted a job in the New York custom house by
President Theodore Roosevelt, an admirer of his poetry.
1869: born in Head Tide, Maine.
grew up in Gardiner, Maine. People he encountered while growing up in this
small New England town became the inspiration for the characters in his
poems years later.
1891-1893: studied at Harvard. Left after two years due to father's illness.
Published his first poems during these years in Harvard Advocate.
1893-1896: supported himself with work in Boston and Gardiner for a number
of years while attempting to devote himself fully to his poetry. Did freelance
writing for magazines and publications in the New England area.
1896: published his first, full collection of poetry, The Torrent and
the Night Before, at his own expense.
1897: published The Children of the Night
1899: worked as a confidence clerk to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot.
In October, moved to New York City and settled in Greenwich Village. Held
variety of jobs there, including work as a time checker for construction
of IRT subway.
1902: published Captain Craig. The initial reviews for the book
were poor, but Robinson and his poetry were defended by Trumbell Stickney
in The Harvard Monthly.
1903-1904: began to drink heavily, possibly due to depression from lack
of professional success and difficulty in getting his work published. Encouraged
in his work by Edmund Clarence Stedman, who anthologized a number of his
poems. Introduced by Stedman to fellow poet Ridgely Torrence, who becomes
a close friend. He also renewed his friendship with former Harvard acquaintance
William Vaughn Moody.
1905: his poetry gets the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who
quickly becomes an admirer of his work. In an act of patronage, Roosevelt
appoints him to a job at a New York City custom house, where he worked
1910: published The Town Down the River (dedicated to Roosevelt)
and The Man Against the Sky (1916). Both books were instrumental
in gaining him wider attention as a poet.
From 1911 until his death, Robinson spent his summers at the in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a commune-like
setting for young writers and artists. Beginning in 1916, the expenses
for his summers there were donated anonymously as a financial stipend provided
by his friends. Much of his later, more successful poetry was written here.
1914: published his play Van Zorn
1915: published his play The Porcupine
1917: published Merlin, first part of a trilogy of book-length poems
based on Arthurian legends. This book marked a turn in fortune for Robinson,
as his work began to finally attract the attention of both critics and
the public at large.
1920: published Lancelot, part two of his Arthurian trilogy. Also
published The Three Taverns.
1921: won first of the three Pulitzer Prizes that he would receive in his
life, for Collected
Poems. Also published Avon's Harvest.
1923: traveled to England, his only trip outside of the country. Published
1924: won his second Pulitzer Prize of his career for The Man Who Died
Twice, published that same year.
1925: published Dionysus in Doubt
1927: published Tristram, third and final book in his Arthurian
series. It was also the third book of poetry to win Robinson a Pulitzer
Prize. Tristram was Robinson's greatest critical and popular success
to date, cementing his reputation as a skilled poet and finally gaining
him true financial stability
1928: published Sonnets
1929: published Cavender's House. Awarded the gold medal of the
American Institute of Arts and Letters for his accomplishments in poetry.
1930: published The Glory of the Nightingales
1931: published Matthias at the Door
1932: published Nicodemus
1933: published Talifer
1934: published Amaranth
1935: published King Jasper
1935: Died in New York City on April 6th
Arlington Robinson's poetry has been considered by some literary critics
to be the stylistic benchmark for English/American poetry. Robinson's poetry
was stylistically simple and neat, and it fits the common preconception
that everyone seems to think of when they hear the word "poetry". It rhymes,
with basic rhyme
schemes, has simple feet and meter, and has a consciously lyrical,
musical construction. It is divided into segments, usually of quatrains
or some other poetic convention. In terms of form, Robinson owes much more
to his English poetical predecessors such Shakespeare,
Ben Johnson, and John Milton than to those who were his American poetic
contemporaries, writers such as Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, who were
introducing new styles rooted in free verse.
whatever older influences Robinson's poetry show in its form, it shunned
in its content. Robinson's writing was forever shaped by the conflicts
and problems of his life and the lives of those around him. Robinson absorbed
most of these characters during his formative years growing up in Gardiner.
His work is filled with these people, most of them residing in fictional
New England areas more than passingly similar to his own hometown, who
are studies in personal failure, frustrated desires, and simple bad luck.
The best examples of these "burned out" characters are the subjects of
Robinson's two most often reprinted poems "Richard Cory" and "Miniver
Cheevy". This very real-life, non-romantic take at writing, especially
in the realm of poetry, was an anomaly in the time of Thoreaus, Whitmans,
and Emersons. These writers wrote "personal" pieces that were more idealistic
and theoretical than truly personal. Whereas Thoreau and Emerson wrote
about their lives to edify others, as examples for others, Robinson's writings
were true exercises in personal expression. His writings were trying to
express things and truths that he, Edwin Arlington Robinson, had seen,
ideas that he believed in, as opposed to simply being a vehicle for thinly
disguised life lessons. Although Whitman set the gold standard for personal
poetry, the examples in Robinson's writing were often times situations
from his real life simply set to verse, not the dressed-up, highly glossed
"experiences" of Whitman or the romantic daydreams common to other poets
of this time. These situations, such as the references to Robinson's real-life
alcoholism in "Miniver
Cheevy" and "Mr.
Flood's Party," were the real grit and grime of life, not the polished
celebration of life that was common in others' works.
It is the juxtaposition of this old, highly rigid, formulated, classical
style with this very modern, personal subject matter that continues to
intrigue readers of Robinson's works to this day. This next poem, considered
by some to be Robinson's finest work, is a perfect example of this conflict
of form and content, and how it melds to form Robinson's singular poetic
Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from head to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But he still fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
he was rich--yes, richer than a king--
and admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
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.
poem's structure is, as I have hinted before, simple and classic. The rhyme
scheme is set up in a basic abab cdcd efef ghgh pattern, with the
lines divided up into four stanzas, quatrains to be exact. The feet and
meter of the lines are also classic. The entire poem is written in iambic
pentameter, one of the oldest meters used in English verse. This pattern
of five feet of unstressed syllable - stressed syllable per line is easiest
seen in the following way, with the bold, capitalized areas corresponding
to the stressed syllables, and the feet divided by a "/":
u / u
/ u /
WhenEV /er RICH /ard COR /y WENT /down TOWN,/
u / u
/ u /
We PE /ople ON /the PAVE /ment LOOKED /at
u / u
/ u /
He WAS /a GEN /tleMAN /from SOLE /to CROWN,
u / u / u
Clean FAV /ored AND /imPER/iAL/ly SLIM./
This stress pattern continues for the rest of the work, and structures
the poem in a very consistent, easy to read, lyrical manner. On the other
hand, the content of the poem is as harsh and radical as the form is classical
and neat. The poem is basically an extended description of a man, a very
rich, successful man, named Richard Cory. The narrator of the poem spends
a full three quarters, the first three stanzas, of the poem doing nothing
but genuinely praising this man. He paints this Richard Cory as the envy
of all those around him, the object of everyone's attention as "we people
on the pavement looked at him". He refers to Cory as a "gentleman from
sole to crown", and even uses language that sounds suited to describe royalty
when he calls Cory "Clean favored, and imperially slim."
The second and third stanzas go on in much the same way. In the second
stanza, the narrator describes Cory's social standing. In the narrator's
eye's, Cory continues to be the perfect, polite gentleman, as he was "always
human when he talked.". Cory was certainly not the picture of a snobbish
or rude man. Cory was also a very popular fellow, as he "fluttered pulses"
with a simple "Good-morning". Add that he "glittered when he walked.",
and Cory is an impressive social figure indeed.
In the third stanza, the narrator's picture of Richard Cory's perfect life
is completed, as the narrator goes on to tell us about Cory's financial
success and his refined nature. Cory is described as "richer than a king"
and "schooled in every grace." To finish this wonderful picture of this
wonderful man the narrator simply says, "we thought that he was everything
/ To make us wish that we were in his place."
However, the poem takes a sudden, dark twist in the last stanza. Robinson
does this by first revealing a little more about the narrator. In the first
two lines of the fourth stanza, the narrator says: "So on we worked, and
waited for the light/ And went without meat and cursed the bread . . .
." This is obviously a reference to the narrator's own poor financial and
social state. For the narrator, work is a place of darkness and hardship
where you simple "wait for the light." For the narrator, there is no meat
to eat at dinner-time, and after so many meals without it, you begin to
curse the cheap bread that you do have to eat. This is a sharp and stark
contrast to the fairy-tale like glory that is the life of Richard Cory,
and reminds the reader of the poem that for every Cory in the world, there
is someone less fortunate looking upon that same Cory in awe.
Also, this revelation puts everything that the narrator has said about
Cory into a new light. As a poor, destitute man/woman, the narrator had
every excuse to be envious or jealous of Cory's luck in life--not just
envious, but downright hateful, and spiteful of Cory. However, not one
bad word about Cory passes from the narrator's lips. This speaks volumes
about Cory's character, and makes the reader think that maybe this Richard
Cory is as great a guy as he seems. If even the poor and unfortunate, the
very people that have every excuse to curse him and his success, say all
of these wonderful things about him, then he must be truly great. It's
that very idea that makes the last past of the poem such a shock.
In the last two lines of the last stanza, with a minimum of detail and
no explanation Robinson simply tells how Cory "...one calm summer night,/
Went home and put a bullet through his head."
With that, the poem ends, but the questions remain. Robinson never even
gives us a clue as to why this successful, good-natured, popular, and rich
man would do a horrible thing such as this. The questions are all left
for us, and the narrator, to ponder, while the irony from the narrator's
line about how he/she/they "wish that we were in his place" begin to drip
off of the page and form a puddle on the floor.
Publication: 1921 in Collected Poems
Robinson paints Cory as the pinnacle of human accomplishment, but then,
in one stanza reveals to the reader the true tragedy behind Cory's existence.
What is Robinson hoping to accomplish by "springing" this ending on us
What is Robinson trying to tell the reader about the difference between
outward apperances/success and inward happiness? Which does he feel is
more important? Does Robinson seem to support Cory's actions at the end
of the poem, or does he simply let the actions speak for themselves? What
is the tone of the poem itself? Cite specific examples.
Read the poem out loud, listening for rhyme scheme, meter, feet and other
classical poetic devices. How does Robinson use these devices to focus
the reader's attention throughout the poem? What is the overall style of
the poem? Does Robinson stringently adhere to classical devices--iambic
pentameter or strict rhyme schemes, for example--or does he take certain
liberties with these concepts for his own purposes? Cite specific examples.
After reading the poem, what do you think Robinson's idea of success truly
Robinson never comes out and actually explains what causes Cory's actions
at the end of the poem. Do you think that this adds or detracts from the
power of the ending? How could this ending have been made more clear and
The poem is fraught with many examples of irony working on multiple levels.
Cite some of these specific uses of irony and examine how they add or detract
from the meaning of the poem.
Examine these lines: "So on we worked, and waited for the light,/And
went without the meat, and cursed the bread . . . ." What does Robinson
mean by these lines? Who is this "we" that he uses as his point of view
in the poem? Examine their role in the poem, and in the scheme of Richard
Cory's life and death.
Compare Robinson's examination of life to that of Walt Whitman. What different
takes on life do these two poets have? Where do their opinions join? Where
do they differ? How does Whitman see life in comparison to Robinson's view?
Publication: 1921 in Collected Poems
Miniver Cheevy has been described as one of Robinson's great comic characters,
but this poem addresses some very serious problems for the title character.
How does the tone of the poem go to emphasize or downplay these problems?
How does Robinson feel about this man? Cite specific examples.
Compare the problems of this unsatisfied character to those of Robinson's
other famous, unsatisfied character, Richard Cory. How are their problems
different? How are they similar? Do their problems stem from the same type
of dissatisfaction? How does each character go about solving his problems?
Do they in fact solve their problems? Cite specific reasons for your feelings.
Diyanni, Robert. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions.
New York: Random House Inc., 1987. 544-548.
Wolf, H.R. "E.A. Robinson and the Integration of the Self." Modern American
Poetry: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Jerome Mazzaro. New York: David McKay
Company Inc., 1970. 40-59.
Hollander, John. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. Volume Two:
Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals.
New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1993. 586-599. 912-913.
Baym, Nina, et al. "Literature Between the Wars 1914-1945." The Norton
Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Fourth Edition. New York
and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995. 1709-1720.
Written by Steven Byrd, student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke