Popular interest is a fickle thing. This year’s critically acclaimed, best-selling novel may be completely forgotten five years from now, and then re-discovered a couple of decades after that when Hollywood finally makes a movie out of it.
Even Shakespeare’s tragedies for a time were so unfashionable that they were re-written with ham-handed happy endings to please the audiences of that day.
So it is that Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), a poet who was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1922, 1925 and 1928, and received the American Academy of Arts and Letters 1929 Gold Medal for Poetry, has dwindled into a shadowy inspiration for this 1960s song by Paul Simon, Richard Cory, and even Simon’s lyrics are probably unfamiliar to the class of 2016:
Here’s the original Edwin Arlington Robinson poem:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he 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.
If you’re over 50, this poem may be familiar from an American Lit class:
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
…Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
…And he had reasons.
Miniver sighed for what was not,
…And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
…And Priam’s neighbors.
Miniver mourned the ripe renown
…That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
…And Art, a vagrant.
Miniver loved the Medici,
…Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
…Could he have been one.
Miniver cursed the commonplace
…And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
…Of iron clothing.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
…But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
…And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
…Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
…And kept on drinking.
You could never call Robinson a cheerful poet, but I find this poem especially moving — the story of an old man who has fallen on hard times and outlived everyone who knew him, boy and man:
Mr. Flood’s Party
Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.” He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: “Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.”
Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.
Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!”
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
“Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.
“Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.”
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang—
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
Edwin Arlington Robinson had much to overcome in life. Born in Alma, Maine, he immediately disappointed his mother because he was her third son, not the longed-for daughter she expected.
He didn’t even get a name until six months later, when the family was vacationing at a sea-side resort, and the ladies on the veranda persuaded his mother to allow them to put possible names into a hat. “Edwin” was pulled out, but it was shortened to “Win” by his family, a nickname he detested. “Arlington” became his middle name because the lady who had put “Edwin” into the hat was from Arlington, Massachusetts.
He was a thin awkward child, unlike his athletic older brothers. He later described his boyhood self as “an incorrigible fisher of words.” Neighbors remembered him appearing in their doorway to announce some newly-acquired word, often obscure and difficult, like “Nebuchadnezzar” or “Melchizedek.”
A local doctor was an early mentor who recognized Robinson’s raw talent, and encouraged him to write, tutoring him in classic poetic forms like sonnets and villanelles. The doctor was a member of a poetry group that met weekly, and they soon invited young Edwin to join them.
Robinson went to college at Harvard, where he was further exposed to a wide spectrum of literature, and found a circle of like-minded friends.
He considered himself a rival to his middle brother Herman in courting Emma Shepherd, but Emma didn’t take a youth still in school seriously, and accepted Herman’s proposal. When they were married in 1890, Edwin refused to attend the ceremony, staying home to write an embittered poem about their leaving on the train for a new life in St. Louis.
His father had been a successful lumber merchant who dabbled in local politics, and later became the director of a bank, but the family fortunes changed drastically in the financial panic of 1893, and then his father died. “Win” was called home, his college career ended.
Robert Gilbert in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography called Edwin Arlington Robinson “America’s first important poet of the twentieth century.” However, his initial efforts to get his poems published resulted in a pile of rejection slips he claimed “must have been one of the largest and most comprehensive in literary history.”
In 1896, he decided to publish his poems himself, and paid a vanity press to produce an edition of The Torrent and The Night Before, named after the first and last poems in the book. Harry Thurston Peck, editor-in-chief of The Bookman magazine, commented unfavorably on the poet’s bleak outlook and sense of humor: “the world is not beautiful to [Robinson], but a prison-house.”
Robinson wrote in a response to Peck: “I am sorry that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colors. The 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.”
His mother died of diphtheria just a few days before he received the shipment of copies of his book.
When other critical response was much more favorable, Robinson quickly put out another vanity press collection, The Children of the Night, paid for this time by Harvard professor John Hays Gardiner. Unfortunately, there were few reviews or sales.
In 1899, his eldest brother Dean, who was a pharmacist, died of a drug overdose. Then the business investments failed of his brother Herman, who sank into alcoholism. When their St. Louis house was seized for debt, Emma and their three daughters returned to Maine. Widowed, Emma rejected two further proposals of marriage from Edwin, but did accept some financial support from him for her children. He never married.
In 1902, a third book, Captain Craig, was published by Houghton Mifflin because two of his friends promised to subsidize the publishing costs. It also failed, and Robinson began drinking heavily, drifting from one job to another, mostly in New York City. A monetary bequest from John Gardiner kept him from starving.
In 1904, he was saved from complete alcoholic dissolution by an unexpected rescuer — the President of the United States. Kermit Roosevelt gave a copy of The Children of the Night to his father Theodore Roosevelt, and the President was so enthusiastic that he persuaded Charles Scribner’s Sons to republish the book, then found the poet a position at the New York Customs House —a post Robinson held until 1909. The two thousand dollar annual stipend gave Robinson financial stability. It was the only sinecure that political reformer Teddy Roosevelt ever granted. In 1910, Robinson repaid his benefactor when he dedicated his collection of poems, The Town Down the River, to Roosevelt.
As his success grew, he wrote constantly. In all, Edwin Arlington Robinson published 28 volumes of poetry, and his poems were republished in newspapers and poetry anthologies. Three Pulitzer Prizes added to greatly to his reputation, and he became one of the few American poets to earn his living entirely from poetry.
At the age of 55, Robinson fell ill with cancer. He spent his final hours in a hospital bed correcting galley proofs of his last poem, King Jasper, before slipping into a terminal coma on April 6, 1935. The national press mourned the passing of “America’s foremost poet” in editorials and obituaries.
April is National Poetry Month, so it seems a fitting time to shine some light on a melancholy and prolific American poet who was once a household name.
Sources and Further Reading
- “Richard Cory” from The Children of the Night, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174248
- “Miniver Cheevy” from “Miniver Cheevy” and Other Poems, Dover Press, 1995
- “Mr. Flood’s Party” from Collected Poems, Macmillan, 1921 https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mr-floods-party
- Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/edwin-arlington-robinson
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/edwin-arlington-robinson
- Gardiner Library Association: http://www.earobinson.com/pages/HisLife.html
- The Torrent and The Night Before, Riverside Press, 1896, reprinted by Tilbury House, 1996
- Children of the Night: a book of poems, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905
- Captain Craig,Houghton, 1902, revised and enlarged edition, Macmillan, 1915
- The Town down the River, Scribner, 1910
- The Man against the Sky, Scribner, 1916
- Merlin, Macmillan, 1917
- Lancelot, Thomas Seltzer, 1920
- The Three Taverns, Macmillan, 1920
- Avon’s Harvest, Macmillan, 1921
- Roman Bartholow, Macmillan, 1923
- The Man Who Died Twice, Macmillan, 1924
- Dionysus in Doubt, Macmillan, 1925
- Tristram, Macmillan, 1927
- Collected Poems,5 volumes, Dunster House, 1927, new edition in one volume published as Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Macmillan, 1929, enlarged edition, 1937
- Sonnets, 1889-1927, Crosby Gaige, 1928
- Fortunatus, Slide Mountain Press, 1928
- Modred: A Fragment, Brick Row Bookshop, 1929
- Cavender’s House, Macmillan, 1929
- The Prodigal Son, Random House, 1929
- The Valley of the Shadow, Yerba Buena Press, 1930
- The Glory of the Nightingales, Macmillan, 1930
- Matthias at the Door, Macmillan, 1931
- Nicodemus: A Book of Poems, Macmillan, 1932
- Talifer, Macmillan, 1933
- Amaranth, Macmillan, 1934
- King Jasper, introduction by Robert Frost, Macmillan, 1935
- Collected Poems, Macmillan, 1937
- “Miniver Cheevy” and Other Poems, Dover Press, 1995
- The Poetry of E. A. Robinson, selected and with notes by Robert Mezey, Modern Library, 1999
- A Gentleman’s Dinner Attire, 1898
- Knight on His Charger, illustration from When Knighthood Was in Flower by Edwin Caskoden (pen name of Charles Major), 1898
- A cold and lonely road, detail of photograph by Nick Bramhall
- Photograph of Edwin Arlington Robinson
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud