Robinson, Edwin Arlington
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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 completely. Brought back to life, he finds in moral triumph “more than he had lost,” and gives what is left of his reviving genius to those who have reclaimed him. An early friend descried him among
The caps and bonnets of a singing group That loudly fought for souls,
… beating a bass drum And shouting Hallelujah with a fervor At which … no man smiled.
Reserved though he is, and non-committal in respects in which the psychoanalysis-infected poet is not, Mr Robinson is entirely explicit in trusting the reader with his beliefs, tastes, and judgements; and his intuitively dramatic expanding of a theme carries conviction even in respect to “the...
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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.]
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 his own expense in 1896, when he was still in Gardiner, Maine, the “Tilbury Town” of his poems. The second, called The Children of the Night, had been issued in 1897 by one of the “vanity publishers” who earn their profits by charging authors for the privilege of having their work appear between stiff covers. Robinson was by then nearly penniless, the family fortune having trickled away in speculations by an older brother, and it was one of the poet's Harvard friends who paid for the edition of 550 copies. It received some praise from a handful of reviewers.
This third book had traveled in manuscript to six or seven publishers. One of them—Small, Maynard of Boston—had first accepted it, then withdrawn the...
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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, and few readers try to go beyond, for if any poet has been damned by the anthologists it is Robinson. Why the decline in his reputation? Did critics puff him far beyond his deserts? Can a critic today judge him on the basis of the old chestnuts, “Miniver Cheevy,” “Flammonde,” “Richard Cory”? Should criticism reiterate that he ruined himself writing those interminable narratives and dismiss him as a “transition figure” between somebody and somebody else, both presumably more “important”? Yvor Winters, in his recent book, has gone far to disestablish the transitional and place the essential Robinson; yet neither he nor Tate has told why he considers the poems he praises praiseworthy. In his brief study, Winters has given an...
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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 Desire religious truth can reach the sensitive spectator. The converse, however, is also true: for the person who is not sensitive to religion, a plot even intentionally concerned with the kerygma can be nothing conceivably more than mere entertainment.
The thesis presents itself in the other arts as well as in drama. A case in point is Edwin Arlington Robinson's book-length narrative poem Talifer,3 which Yvor Winters thinks very little of; for him it is hardly worth a summary, because he sees in it nothing beyond a story of the most unimaginative realistic kind.4
True, the plot could be the scenario for a radio serial. A man betrothed to a fine girl breaks off the engagement...
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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 Manhattan he would walk like a shadow of his own characters besieged by time and enlightened by defeat—Captain Craig, Fernando Nash, Merlin, Lancelot, Ferguson.
Yet today, when a generation of careful craftsmen has succeeded yesterday's iconoclasts, and the New England voices of Robert Frost and Robert Lowell have won enduring attention, it does not seem right to relegate Robinson to a prewar poetic interregnum, or to make him the mere gifted epigone of a discursive nineteenth-century romanticism. Perhaps Robinson's best achievement is to be found not in the long Arthurian poems but in the short compositions sprung from native New England soil. Thus we shall peruse volumes like Children of the Night (1890-97),...
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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 indefinable.”1
In a like vein but somewhat earlier, Robinson had written to a friend, “… he [Goldwin Smith] thinks Tennyson is great because he can call ‘hydraulics, astronomy, steam railways, balloons, etc.’ by poetical names. … Nothing in the world tickles me quite so much as this prophetic analysis of the poetry of the future. When it gets to be great it will be very much like certain very smooth and inevitable places in Sophocles and Shakespeare. It will be great for what it is, not in spite of what it is.”2
Strikingly similar as these two statements are, they were made in totally different contexts. The first was made in 1913 in an interview with William S. Braithwaite at a time...
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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 permanently out of fashion. At first, thinking about this neglect, I felt anger, since Robinson seems to me one of the best poets we have had in this country. But then I came to see that perhaps it doesn't matter whether the writers we most care about receive their “due.” Writers like Robinson survive in their work, appreciated by readers who aren't afraid to be left alone with an old book.
Robinson himself would hardly have expected any other fate, for he was not the sort of man to make demands on either this world or the next. Shy of all literary mobs, just managing to keep afloat through a mixture of stoicism and alcohol, he lived entirely for his poetry. Most of the time he was poor, a withdrawn and silent bachelor. He...
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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, generally ignored. Still, Stephen Crane flared brilliantly, if briefly, and Henry James was passing through some of the ripest years of his career; Sarah Orne Jewett and other gifted women were writing quietly in various sections of New England. But the situation in poetry was a good deal murkier: to the literary historian, figures seem to loom in a kind of cultural fog and disappear; reputations are made overnight and as quickly forgotten. Out of this general darkness, the poetic voice that now comes through to us most clearly is that of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
Literary achievement is always to some extent a matter of luck: the luck, quite simply, to have been born at the right time—a time when one's vision coincides with...
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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 difficulty to find a copy of his collected works. Not that Robinson has been neglected by literary historians or wiped from the record of American poetry. Far from it; his position has never been more secure. But that is just the trouble. Talking recently with some American undergraduates about modern American poetry, I asked them why it was that Robinson was so little read nowadays. ‘Well, you see,’ one of them explained, ‘we know just about where he stands’. The implication was that once you had got your author firmly placed, any need to read his works had more or less disappeared. It was an unnerving instance of what can happen to the ideal of discrimination, and even more of what literary history frequently comes to mean to students...
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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 compare poetic intention and execution.
Gardiner in the mid-1920s did not look much like the movie set of a New England village; a manufacturing town producing paper and lumber, shoes and Kennebec River ice, it was more practical than picturesque. The townspeople, moreover, did not always behave in stereotypical New England fashion. In the summer of 1924, for example, a rally of the Ku Klux Klan was held in Gardiner, and some 539 Klansmen, many of them local folk, paraded down the main thoroughfare, Water Street. Sixty new members were initiated.1
In at least one episode of its history, however, Gardiner exhibited what many would call true New England style: Poetry was front-page news in the...
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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.]
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 their sense that he is unnecessarily obscure, bent on frustrating a rapport between reader and author. Robinson himself protested the reverse, urging friends to warn him of obscurity in his work lest such passages should make their way into print. But his concern was not sufficient to keep Yvor Winters from contemptuously labeling his lyric approach that of “the ingenious Yankee.” Winters accuses the poet of a kind of provincial gaucherie: he suspects Robinson of being the sort of man who would “at any moment sit down on the rug and begin inventing a watch or a conundrum” (48). More sympathetic views of the poet's indirection like Louise Bogan's imply that the compressed quality of the utterance in a Robinson poem is the result of...
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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.]
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 in 1869 in Head Tide, Maine, where his father Edward Robinson made his fortune in the logging industry, the poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, moved in that same year with his family to nearby Gardiner, the village which Robinson re-created in the parochial and repressive Tilbury Town of his early short poems. In the discursive poems of his last decade, the poet failed by all estimates to regain the intensity and the inevitability of the early poems, those based on what might be called the matter of Tilbury/Gardiner. But in the early Tilbury pieces, those written between 1890 and the early 1920s, he dramatized the life situations of Tilbury's characters with a remarkable specificity which has helped to keep him from being dismissed entirely as...
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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.]
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 human life in the rendering of a particular incident and the behavior it elicits. Hardy and Robinson combine similar lyric and narrative techniques, and they are philosophically akin in their gloomy assessment of human endeavor: their main theme is failure—failure in love, failure to prevent or avoid violence, and failure to find ultimate consolation or happiness in an indifferent universe. Yet both employ laughter and comic effects in their poetic styles, and both envision laughter as a great human power, perhaps the last defense in the face of the existential void. Hardy wrote: “Life laughed and moved on unsubdued,” and Robinson, describing the fatal weakness of spirit of a character named Clavering, asserted that he “died because...
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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, posthumously in 1935, King Jasper. None was the financial equal of the Arthurian narrative, but each of them enjoyed sales that were by any other standard impressive, and I am prepared to argue that Amaranth is the superior of his medieval poems, and possibly his masterpiece. Certainly, in subject matter, it is the most Robinsonian of Robinson poems, a full-scale treatment of artistic, personal, and professional failure, as monumental as O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, which may owe something to it, and as purely American.
Taken as a group, the late narratives comprise a very curious body of work. Seamless in their prolixity, they occupy a full third of the 1500-page Collected Poems. So far as the tone...
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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, where the family moved shortly after his birth, this poet of failure and defeat was known as “Win”; he preferred “Long Robinson” himself—at six-foot-two, he was tall for his generation—but his friends later settled for “E.A.R.,” which was appropriate enough: The near-anonymity of initials fitted the shadowy silence of his character; and he had a beautiful ear.
Perhaps because she never welcomed him, Robinson doted on his mother. His father prospered while the Union did—storekeeper, small-time banker, investor—and favored his second son, Herman, businessman and entrepreneur. Robinson loathed Herman (not coincidentally, he adored Herman's wife, Emma) while he admired his elder brother, Dean, who became a...
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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 poetical. Nor was this the worst that could be said of it. It was much then as it is today: only certain views, only certain feelings were felt to be proper for poetry. (Of course, our acceptable views differ vastly from those of a hundred years ago.) It is no more than a slight exaggeration to claim, with Malcolm Cowley, that all books and magazines intended for the parlor table at the tail-end of the genteel tradition were to be kept as “innocent as milk.” It was this piety of sentiment that seems so tiresome now and from which Robinson quite deliberately though politely turned aside. This first book of his had in it, he was to boast, “very little tinkling water,” and there was not a single “red-bellied robin” in the whole...
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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 land prepared “To moronize a million for a few,” and decries the “Miscalled Democracy” in whose name the country has been ransomed to wealth, power, and mass-production. “All are niched and ticketed and all / Are standardized and unexceptional, / To perpetrate complacency and joy / Of uniform size and strength.” In 1872, in Democratic Vistas, Whitman had castigated the “mean flat average” of an emerging mass culture industry, whose main objects are “to amuse, to titillate, to pass away time, to circulate the news, and rumors of news, to rhyme and read rhyme.” For Robinson, in his fits of rage against the drift of his country, the threat of conformity and mediocrity only worsened in the media-drenched culture of...
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Barnard, Ellsworth. “Edwin Arlington Robinson.” In Sixteen Modern American Authors: A Survey of Research and Criticism, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 473-98. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1974.
Traces the publishing history of works by and about Robinson.
Joyner, Nancy Carol. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reference Guide. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978, 223 p.
Surveys writings about Robinson from 1894 to 1976.
Barnard, Ellsworth, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson: Centenary Essays. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1969, 192 p.
This collection aims “to illuminate for present and potential readers of Robinson's poetry certain aspects of his achievement which, one hundred years after his birth, attract the critical attention of persons of varying ages, backgrounds, and tastes.”
Cary, Richard. Early Reception of Edwin Arlington Robinson: The First Twenty Years. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1974, 321 p.
Includes newspaper and journal reviews arranged by volume. Among the works covered are The Torrent and the Night Before, The Children of the Night, Captain Craig, and The Town Down the River.
———. “Introduction.” In Uncollected...
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