Edwin Arlington Robinson

                                (December 22, 1869- April 6, 1935)




            Issues and Themes

            Edwin 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.
           However, 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 style.

             "Richard Cory"

            Whenever 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.

            And 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.

            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.

            The 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      /      u      /           u         /
                                            WhenEV /er RICH /ard COR /y WENT /down TOWN,/

                                            u      /      u      /      u       /          u            /          u     /
                                            We PE /ople ON /the PAVE /ment LOOKED /at HIM: /
                                             u      /      u     /      u     /          u       /        u         /
                                            He WAS /a GEN /tleMAN /from SOLE /to CROWN, /
                                                u       /       u        /       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.


                  "Richard Cory"  

                  "Miniver Cheevy"




                Written by Steven Byrd, student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
                Edited by Mark Canada, Ph.D.