Edwin Arlington Robinson Essay - Robinson, Edwin Arlington

Robinson, Edwin Arlington

Introduction

Edwin Arlington Robinson 1869–-1935

American poet and dramatist.

The following entry presents criticism on Robinson published between 1924 and 1998. Se also Richard Cory Criticicm.

A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Robinson is best remembered as the author of “Miniver Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” “Mr. Flood's Party,” and other much-anthologized poems that dramatize the isolation and loneliness of small-town individuals. Adhering to strict metrical forms, Robinson worked outside the formal experimentalism of many of his contemporaries, yet his ironic viewpoint, austere style, and often bleak subject matter signaled an end to the baroque sentimentality of nineteenth-century American poetry. A prolific author who was devoted to poetry as a vocation from an early age, Robinson gained recognition late in his career with the publication of his Collected Poems in 1921 and his adaptations of Arthurian legends into blank verse.

Biographical Information

The third son of a lumber merchant and investor, Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine, and grew up in the nearby town of Gardiner, his model for the fictitious “Tilbury Town” that figures prominently in his early verse. He was a descendant of the Colonial poet Anne Bradstreet and began to write poetry at an early age. Robinson attended Harvard University for two years, but a decline in his family's circumstances forced him to return home. Because of his elder brothers' failed financial investments, alcoholism, and drug addiction, Robinson's family was left nearly penniless, yet Robinson rejected a business career in favor of writing poetry. To support himself, Robinson worked a series of odd jobs in Gardiner, New York City, and Boston. Because he was unable to aid his family financially and was often dependent on friends for money, Robinson developed a sense of personal failure and guilt that haunted him for the remainder of his life. Many critics attribute his preoccupation with portraying nonconformists, derelicts, and suicides, and his rejection of conventional models of material success, to his own experiences with poverty and hometown scorn. He published his first book of poetry, The Torrent and the Night Before, at his own expense in 1896. Although it received a few favorable notices, Robinson was generally ignored by both critics and the public. He gained a measure of financial relief when his second volume, The Children of the Night (1897), was reissued in 1905 and attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was impressed with Robinson's work and gave it lavish praise, and in June 1905 he helped arrange employment for Robinson in the New York City customs office so that he could write without financial worry. But Robinson wrote little poetry in his nearly four years on the job, spending much time on aborted attempts to write fiction and social dramas. From 1911 on, he spent summers with a group of artists and writers at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Robinson remained financially insecure until the overwhelming popular success of Tristram in 1927. He died in New York City in 1935.

Major Works

Critics generally divide Robinson's career into two distinct phases: his early work, notable for incisive character sketches presented within traditional forms, and his later work, comprising extended dramatic dialogues and blank verse interpretations of Arthurian legends. Robinson is best known for the tightly structured narrative poems of his early and mid-career, particularly those set in “Tilbury Town,” a fictional locale based on Robinson's hometown of Gardiner, Maine. In such collections as The Torrent and the Night Before, The Children of the Night, and Captain Craig (1902), Robinson maintained the discipline of such conventional forms as sonnet, quatrain, and villanelle, while treating themes of alienation and failure in the lives of ordinary individuals. Demonstrating Robinson's ironic viewpoint, simple diction, and rejection of conventional standards of success, “Richard Cory” portrays a seemingly fortunate gentleman who earned the respect of the townspeople yet “… one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head.” Another work suggesting that appearances and social position can be deceiving is the dense title poem of “Captain Craig”. Robinson presents a dramatic narrative of approximately two thousand lines about a derelict whose bombastic yet erudite observations of humanity serve as a source of fascination for the unnamed narrator. Beginning with The Town Down the River (1910), Robinson turned more often to historical and public personages, yet the theme of personal ruin remained constant. “The Island,” for example, is a dramatic monologue spoken by French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte in which he recalls events leading to his defeat at Waterloo and his exile on the British island Saint Helena. A later companion volume, The Three Taverns (1920), draws notably on biblical figures and allusions, and features historical figures including the abolitionist John Brown and the early American statesmen Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The culmination of Robinson's early career, The Man against the Sky (1916) is generally considered his most successful single volume of verse. Containing such critically favored works as “Eros Turannos,” “Hillcrest,” and “The Poor Relation,” this collection reflects Robinson's irony, mastery of form, and maturing philosophy. In 1922 Robinson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems. In addition to reprinting early works, the volume contained a few new poems considered essential to the Robinson canon. “Mr. Flood's Party” is an often-anthologized depiction of a solitary drinker who has outlived his companions, and “Rembrandt to Rembrandt” depicts the self-doubt of the aging painter as he addresses a youthful self-portrait.

In the second half of his career, Robinson produced a trilogy of Arthurian legends in blank verse: Merlin (1917), a critical and commercial failure, Lancelot (1920), and Tristram (1927). Despite brief passages of substantial lyric beauty, the poems are generally faulted for their length and monotonous tone. Tristram, however, became a bestseller, a rare distinction for a book of poetry, and earned Robinson another Pulitzer Prize in 1928. In the 1920s Robinson produced several book-length dramatic dialogues that further delineate his themes of guilt and dereliction. Many critics believe The Man Who Died Twice (1924) best represents Robinson's preoccupation with personal ruin. Fernando Nash, the poem's central character, is a talented musician and composer who succumbs to alcohol and debauchery for many years before redeeming himself by playing drums in a Salvation Army band. Robinson's final poems explore the subjects found in his earlier verse. Nicodemus (1932) is a collection of medium-length poems that center on biblical themes, the inhabitants of Tilbury Town, and the New England landscape. Talifer (1933), another book-length work, deviates from Robinson's previous domestic tragedies in its rather light-hearted tale of two married couples who decide to exchange partners. Robinson ended his career with Amaranth (1934) and the posthumously published King Jasper (1935), two allegorical works that combine themes associated with vocation, wisdom, and the ability to change.

Critical Reception

Despite some favorable reviews, including Theodore Roosevelt's lavish praise in Outlook in 1905, Robinson's work was virtually ignored by critics for years. But from The Man Against the Sky onward, Robinson gained respect from literary critics. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, for Collected Poems in 1922, The Man Who Died Twice in 1925, and Tristram in 1928. During the final years of his career Robinson was generally considered to be among the foremost American poets of the era. To Modernist critics, including T. S. Eliot and R. P. Blackmur, however, Robinson's importance to twentieth-century poetry was negligible, primarily because of his dismissal of free verse and other forms of technical experimentation. Critics of the mid-twentieth century considered Robinson to be a transitional figure in the development of American poetry. By the late twentieth century numerous aspects of Robinson's poetry appealed to literary scholars, including his focus on ordinary characters, his often ironic point of view, his use of simple, understated language, his concept of redemption, his alienation from a society oriented primarily toward financial success, and his responses to contemporary intellectual and religious trends.

Principal Works

The Torrent and The Night Before (poetry) 1896; reprinted, 1996

The Children of the Night (poetry) 1897

Captain Craig (poetry) 1902; revised and enlarged edition, 1915

The Town Down the River (poetry) 1910

Van Zorn: A Comedy in Three Acts (drama) 1914

The Porcupine (drama) 1915

The Man Against the Sky (poetry) 1916

Merlin (poetry) 1917

Lancelot (poetry) 1920

The Three Taverns (poetry) 1920

Avon’s Harvest (poetry) 1921

Collected Poems (poetry) 1921

Roman Bartholow (poetry) 1923

The Man Who Died Twice (poetry) 1924

Dionysus in Doubt (poetry) 1925

Collected Poems 5 vols. (poetry) 1927; enlarged edition, 1937

Tristram (poetry) 1927

Fortunatus (poetry) 1928

Sonnets, 1889-1927 (poetry) 1928

Cavender’s House (poetry) 1929

Modred: A Fragment (poetry) 1929

The Prodigal Son (poetry) 1929

Collected Poems (poetry) 1930

The Glory of the Nightingales (poetry) 1930

The Valley of the Shadow (poetry) 1930

Matthias at the Door (poetry) 1931

Poems (poetry) 1931

Nicodemus (poetry) 1932

Talifer (poetry) 1933

Amaranth (poetry) 1934

King Jasper (poetry) 1935

Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson (letters) 1940

Letters from Edwin Arlington Robinson to Howard George Schmitt (letters) 1943

Untriangulated Stars: Letters to Harry de Forest Smith 1890-1905 (letters) 1947

Tilbury Town: Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (poetry) 1953

Selected Early Poems and Letters (poetry and letters) 1960

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Letters to Edith Brower (letters) 1968

A Tilbury Score (poetry) 1969

Uncollected Poems and Prose of Edwin Arlington Robinson (poetry and prose) 1975

The Essential Robinson (poetry, drama, prose) 1993; reprinted, 1994

“Miniver Cheevy,” and Other Poems (poetry) 1995

Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (poetry) 1997

Criticism

Marianne Moore (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: The Man Who Died Twice, in Dial, Vol. 77, August, 1924, pp. 168-70.

[In the following essay, Moore favorably reviews The Man Who Died Twice.]

Throughout Mr Robinson's work, one feels his admiration for “courage that is not all flesh recklessness.” This emphasis upon the predominance of the soul's conflicts over those of the intellect, is conspicuous in The Man Who Died Twice. A musician, gigantically endowed—who has “mistaken hell for paradise,” since he is not

… the sanguine ordinary
That sees no devils and so controls itself,
Having nothing in especial to control—

has died, but not...

(The entire section is 893 words.)

Malcolm Cowley (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “Edwin Arlington Robinson: Defeat and Triumph,” in New England Writers and Writing, edited by Donald W. Faulkner, University Press of New England, 1996, pp. 127-33.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1948, Cowley presents an overview of Robinson's career and achievement.]

1

It was in October 1902, not long before his thirty-third birthday, that Edwin Arlington Robinson's third book of poems appeared. He counted on it to rescue him from the furnished room on West Twenty-third Street, in Manhattan, where he lived in fear of meeting his landlord.

His first book, or rather pamphlet, had been printed at...

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Louis Coxe (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Lost Tradition,” in Enabling Acts: Selected Essays in Criticism, University of Missouri Press, 1976, pp. 7-26.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Coxe identifies strengths in Robinson's poetry that place him among the most important American poets of the twentieth century.]

To the contemporary reader it seems strange that Allen Tate, in 1933, should have referred to E. A. Robinson as the “most famous of living poets” and again as the writer of “some of the finest lyrics of modern times.” As far as most of us are concerned, Robinson ekes out a survival in “anthological pickle,” as he called it,...

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Richard Crowder (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Redemption for the Man of Iron,” in The Personalist, Vol. X411, No. 1, January, 1962, pp. 46-56.

[In the following essay, Crowder examines Robinson's concept of redemption as revealed in Talifer.]

… Artistic experience is, deep down, a religious experience, because the world art lives in cannot be made habitable save by religion alone.1

Malcolm Boyd says that “all media of communication are theological.”2 Not only in such deliberate vehicles as The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk but in such plays as Separate Tables and A Streetcar Named...

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Glauco Cambon (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Edwin Arlington Robinson: Knights of the Grail,” in The Inclusive Flame: Studies in American Poetry, Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 53-78.

[In the following essay, Cambon outlines the main characteristics of Robinson's poetry, particularly noting the unique aspects that set him apart from his contemporaries.]

The gentleman from Gardiner, Maine, was an isolated conservative in a literary world that had seen the triumph of an aggressive Imagism. He refused to court public favor by joining the winners, and kept on writing, mostly in a narrative vein which, in the changed climate of American letters, seemed to be obsolete. In the deafening labyrinths of...

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Wallace L. Anderson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “The Young Robinson as Critic and Self-Critic,” in Edwin Arlington Robinson Centenary Essays, edited by Elsworth Barnard, University of Georgia Press, 1969, pp. 68-87.

[In the following essay, Anderson discusses Robinson's theory of poetry as revealed in his comments on his own works and those of his associates.]

“I don't know anything about the poetry of the future,” E. A. Robinson once said, “except that it must have, in order to be poetry, the same eternal and unchangeable quality of magic that it has always had. Of course, it must always be colored by the age and the individual, but the thing itself will always remain unmistakable and...

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Irving Howe (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “A Grave and Solitary Voice: An Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in Irving Howe: Selected Writings 1950-1990, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1990, pp. 229-239.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Howe praises what he considers sincerity and honesty in Robinson's poetry and discusses his lack of appeal among modern readers.]

The centennial of Edwin Arlington Robinson passed—he was born on December 22, 1869—with barely a murmur of public notice. There were a few academic volumes of varying merit, but no recognition in our larger journals and reviews, for Robinson seems the kind of poet who is likely to remain...

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R. W. B. Lewis (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “E. A. Robinson, A Voice Out of the Darkness,” in Literary Reflections, A Shoring of Images 1960-1993, Northeastern University Press, 1993, pp. 154-76.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Lewis identifies Robinson as one of the key figures in American poetry of the period from 1890 to 1910.]

The period from about 1890 to 1910 is one of the hardest to define, and to appraise, in modern American literature. There was, on the one hand, a genuine vigor in the area of fiction—though one masterpiece, Billy Budd, remained unpublished until the late 1920s and another, Sister Carrie (1900), was, at the time of its publication,...

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John Lucas (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in Moderns & Contemporaries: Novelists, Poets, Critics, The Harvester Press, 1985, pp. 27-45.

[In the following essay, Lucas offers an appreciative overview of Robinson's poetry, particularly expressing admiration for his portrayals of ordinary characters.]

When Edwin Arlington Robinson died in 1935, his loss was mourned not only by America's writers but by statesmen and citizens whom one would not readily accuse of an interest in literature. Robinson was a famous man. Now, some thirty years later, the fame has shrunk, and it is my guess that the works are very little read. Certainly it is a matter of some...

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Leon Satterfield (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Bubble-Work in Gardiner, Maine: The Poetry War of 1924,” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LVII, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 25-43.

[In the following essay, Satterfield discusses the controversy surrounding poetic intention in Robinson’s sonnet, “New England.”]

Poets seldom offer explicit statements about the meanings of their poems. Edwin Arlington Robinson, perhaps the most reticent of our New England poets, nonetheless took to the front page of his hometown weekly in 1924 to explain what he intended by a sonnet that had offended some of his townsmen. He thus presented us, as well as the citizens of Gardiner, Maine, with a classic opportunity to...

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Anna Blumenthal (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Ambivalence of Stance in Edwin Arlington Robinson's Early Poems and Letters,” in Style, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 87-112.

[In the following essay, Blumenthal focuses on “New England,” “Dear Friends,” “Doctor of Billiards,” and “Richard Cory” in a discussion of Robinson's ambivalent response to the conventions and values of his hometown, Gardiner, Maine.]

I

Casual readers and professional critics of Edwin Arlington Robinson, both the poet's own contemporaries and his more modern readers, comment repeatedly on his New England reticence, on his penchant for elliptical utterance. Many of these have conveyed...

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Anna Sabol Blumenthal (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tilbury Town Poems and William James,” in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 71, No. 4, Winter 1991/92, pp. 411-37.

[In the following essay, Blumenthal traces the influence of the ideas of William James on Robinson's poetry.]

I

The philandering John Evereldown, the alcoholic Mr. Flood, and best-known of all, the publicly successful and privately suicidal Richard Cory, all these, like many of Tilbury Town's denizens, retain for the reader a remarkable vividness despite the modest reputation of their creator, Edwin Arlington Robinson: few students of American literature or modern poetry are required to read him. Born...

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Robert Pack (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Laughter at the Abyss: Hardy and Robinson,” in The Long View: Essays on the Discipline of Hope and Poetic Craft, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991, pp. 71-114.

[In the following essay, Pack discusses humor in the poetry of Robinson and Thomas Hardy.]

I

E. A. Robinson is the American inheritor of Thomas Hardy's unusual gift for the creation of dramas within the confines of lyric form. In both poets, the ability to tell stories, to create characters who reveal themselves under the pressure of circumstance, is enhanced by their expressive control of image, rhyme, meter, and stanzaic form. They are both able to epitomize a...

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Turner Cassity (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Down There with E. A. R.: Amaranth,” in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vols. 17 & 18, Nos. 2 & 1, 1993, pp. 282-95.

[In the following essay, Cassity argues that Amaranth is “the superior of [Robinson's] medieval poems, and possibly his masterpiece.”]

Encouraged, or rendered avaricious, by the success of Tristram in 1927—it sold over 60,000 copies—Edwin Arlington Robinson devoted the remaining years of his life to bringing out a long poem almost annually: Cavender's House (1929); The Glory of the Nightingales (1930); Matthias at the Door (1931); Talifer (1933); Amaranth (1934); and,...

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Donald Hall (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Essential Robinson, The Ecco Press, 1994, pp. 3-15.

[In the following essay, Hall presents an appreciative overview of Robinson's life and works.]

In 1869, Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in the village of Head Tide in Maine, third son and final child of Edward and Mary Robinson; his brothers Dean and Herman were twelve and four. Because his mother had wanted a daughter, Robinson began life as a disappointment; he went unnamed for half a year. When a summer visitor insisted that the six-month-old baby be named, “Edwin” was chosen by lot; the poet's middle name remembered the provenance of the visitor. As he grew up in Gardiner,...

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Donald Justice (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: An afterword in The Torrent and The Night Before: A Facsimile Edition After 100 Years of his First Book, by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Tilbury House, Publishers, 1996,

[In the following essay, Justice broadly places Robinson and The Torrent and the Night Before in the context of modern American poetry.]

Looking back now, a century having passed, one sees and hears very clearly the dreadful sameness of the poetry Robinson encountered in the magazines of his youth, magazines Robinson himself could scarcely get a hearing in. The versification was competently banal, the diction was usually archaic or otherwise stilted, the subject matter was self-consciously...

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Allen Trachtenberg (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Democracy and the Poet: Walt Whitman and E. A. Robinson,” in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 267-80.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg discusses Robinson's response to the democratic ideals expressed in the poetry of Walt Whitman.]

At certain moments in mid-career Edwin Arlington Robinson chose to play Cassandra to the nation: “Your Dollar is your only Word, / The wrath of it your only fear.” In the poem called “Cassandra” (1916), in “Demos” (1920), in “Dionysius in Doubt” and “Demos and Dionysius” (1925), he adopts an uncharacteristic hectoring tone, warns Jeremiah-like of a money-hungry power in the...

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