Richard Cory, Edwin Arlington Robinson
“Richard Cory” Edwin Arlington Robinson
The following entry represents criticism of Robinson's poem “Richard Cory.”
Though it was the latter part of Robinson's long career as a poet that brought him prestige, including three Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920s, it is for several early, short poems that he is best known. “Richard Cory,” which first appeared in Robinson's self-published 1897 volume, The Children of the Night, is perhaps the most famous of these. “Richard Cory” is a complex tale in sixteen compact lines that discusses themes of self-deception and spiritual emptiness. It shows Robinson's characteristic combination of traditional poetic form and lean, modern diction. The poem's themes and form lend themselves well to classroom discussion, and it has been frequently studied and anthologized.
Plot and Major Characters
“Richard Cory” is a story told at a remove by a narrator who “went without meat and cursed the bread.” The narrator speaks for the rest of the poor in the town when he claims that “we people on the pavement looked at him” and “we thought that he was everything.” In the first three stanzas the narrator praises Richard Cory, painting him as a “gentlemen from sole to crown” who “glittered when he walked.” The rich, popular, and refined Cory is envied by those around him for seemingly having all that life has to offer. The fourth stanza, however, takes a tragic turn and ends with Cory's suicide: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head.” There are no clues given in the poem as to why Cory commits suicide. An 1897 letter of Robinson's quoted in Wallace L. Anderson's Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction suggests that “Richard Cory” was based on, or at least instigated by, the suicide of an acquaintance of Robinson’s. Harry R. Garvin cautions against attaching too much importance to this origin, remarking, “I find autobiographical elements of highly limited critical relevance to Robinson's poems.” Still, a reader of “Richard Cory” might note that in his correspondence Robinson more than once displayed a sympathetic attitude toward suicides.
”Richard Cory” is the portrait of a man who appears to have everything. The poem ends when this glorious figure commits an apparently incomprehensible act of suicide. Ellsworth Barnard wrote that “the first fourteen lines are a painstaking preparation for the last two, with their stunning overturn of popular belief.” Critics generally have read the poem as the tale of a rich man with a hollow center, or as a comment on the gulf between appearance and reality. Dissenting critical voices have pinned the blame for Richard Cory's death on a variety of factors, including rejection by other townspeople, mental illness, and frustrated artistic impulses.
While some critics have attacked “Richard Cory” as didactic and overly neat in its ironies, others have been impressed by its diction and construction—Ellsworth Barnard describes the poem as “carefully put together.” Charles Burkhart contends that “Richard Cory” is a paradox. The critic is unable to dismiss the poem's “obtrusive didacticism,” but at the same time finds in Robinson's methods “an organic scheme which enhances the interest of [the poem] and enlarges [the poem's] intention considerably.” This is rather guarded praise and suggests that “Richard Cory” is admired more as an example of fine skill than as a work of literary inspiration, but they reflect a critical consensus on Robinson's craftsmanship. Concerning the ending of “Richard Cory,” critical reaction is more sharply divided. Yvor Winters called the shock of the suicide “a very cheap surprise ending.” Wallace L. Anderson defends Robinson’s use of the surprise ending as a legitimate literary device, and claims that the poem “has a rich complexity that becomes increasingly rewarding with successive readings.” In any case, “Richard Cory” engages readers' imaginations—the poem has survived a series of dismissals and reappraisals of its author's place in American literature, and it remains the most-read effort of the writer Robert Frost called “the prince of heartachers.”
The Torrent and the Night Before 1896
The Children of the Night 1897
Captain Craig 1902; revised edition, 1915
The Town Down the River 1910
The Man Against the Sky 1916
The Three Taverns 1920
Avon's Harvest 1921
Collected Poems 1921
Roman Bartholomew 1923
The Man Who Died Twice 1924
Dionysus in Doubt 1925
Collected Poems. 5 vols. 1927; single-volume edition published as Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1929; enlarged edition, 1937
Sonnets, 1889-1927 1928
Cavender's House 1929
Modred: A Fragment 1929
The Prodigal Son 1929
Collected Poems 1930
The Glory of the Nightingales 1930
The Valley of the Shadow 1930
An Introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson and Selected Poems 1931
Matthias at the Door 1931
Nicodemus: A Book of Poems...
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SOURCE: “The Note of Futility: New England and New York,” in From Whitman to Sandburg in American Poetry: A Critical Survey, The Macmillan Company, 1924, pp. 184-92.
[In the following excerpt, Weirick assesses Robinson's place in the pantheon of great American poets, concluding that Robinson and his contemporary, Robert Frost, are craftsmen rather than geniuses. Additionally, the critic examines “Richard Cory,” and argues that the mysterious distance between Cory and his neighbors mirror Robinson's own perceived distance from the rest of humanity.]
To step from [Robert] Frost to [Edwin Arlington] Robinson is to go from rural New England to the cultivated environment of a cosmopolitan recluse in the city of New York. Yet though its material changes, Robinson's world, like Frost's, is quiet and sometimes tired, disregarding wearily very much of the tumult of the times. Instead of Frost's simple world, Robinson offers us a world of art, of subtlety, of libraries and books, of curious cultivated persons of immaculate clothes and interesting psychology. He is a poet of infinite polish, infinite care, and impeccable reserve. In him we have less nature and more art. I am not sure that we have more poetry.
The steady level of his poetry may be matched by the steadiness of his career. Since 1890 he has lived in New York, a bachelor, carefully eschewing wealth and easy occupations, always...
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SOURCE: “Poems Pickled in Anthological Brine,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 20, No. 7, October, 1958, pp. 1, 4.
[In the following essay, Garvin advocates a fresh and careful rereading of “Richard Cory,” as well as of other poems whose impact has been blunted by fame.]
Famous poems have a ready-made audience with ready-made appreciations. If through a chance ignorance a reader comes innocently and freshly upon a famous poem, its reputation may subsequently bestill his first vibrant impressions, particularly if he teaches poetry, with the result that his first emotions toward the poem will readily be recalled but no longer be felt. Sometimes the immediate success of a fine poem—[Edwin Arlington Robinson's] “Richard Cory,” for example—keeps it from being read properly. Readers eventually exhaust the aesthetic possibilities of merely good poems; but a poem that is greatly good or even finely good is inexhaustible; and a failure in sensitiveness towards such a poem lies with the reader.
A peccant humour of the professor is a failure in sensitiveness towards anthological poems. Famous poems force their reputations and accepted meanings upon the unsure and the unwary teacher. And even if an experienced professor makes a careful study of the poem and actually experiences it deeply, his subsequent aesthetic perceptions into the whole poem, after teaching it a dozen times, may become...
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SOURCE: “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” in Explicator, Vol. 19, No. 2, November, 1960, item 9.
[In the following essay, Burkhart analyzes the role of word choice in “Richard Cory,” pointing out that Robinson creates a series of contrasts between Cory and the townspeople as well as between Cory's inward and outward selves.]
The paradox on which [Edwin Arlington Robinson's] “Richard Cory” is constructed is one familiar enough that the poem itself may seem to lack poetic “surprise,” despite the neatness of the anecdote and the effectively colloquial, almost vulgar, terseness with which Robinson concludes it. The surprise of the poem seems closer to O. Henry than to poetry. One can treat it as no more than an exemplum, and it lends itself to several clichés—appearances are deceiving, the grass is always greener, etc.—so easily that it may seem merely to point a prosaic and tritely ironic moral and to lack all richness of implication.
Without quite dismissing the obtrusive didacticism of the poem, however, one can find in Robinson's methods an organic scheme which enhances the interest of it and enlarges its intention considerably. The entire poem is built upon the use of contrasts which support the fundamental contrast between the splendid appearance of Richard Cory's life and the harsh reality of whatever disease of the soul led him to end it.
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SOURCE: “‘Comprehensive Criticism’: A Humanistic Discipline,” in Bucknell Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, May, 1962, pp. 313-21, 324-25.
[In the following excerpt, Garvin elaborates on his earlier ideas about “Richard Cory” in the course of discussing a new method of criticism. Garvin stresses the importance of Robinson's choice of and attitude toward the poem's narrator.]
In critical analyses of artists of the highest rank like Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe—and even of their major individual works—all the critical methods and all relevant objective, subjective, and cultural elements can, in principle, be fruitfully used. A practical critic, especially one doing comprehensive criticism, should be austere and discriminating in what he tries to make relevant, and he should remember how short-winded readers of criticism can be. In my attempt to animate some of these generalizations on relevance and comprehensive criticism, I shall therefore analyze Edwin Arlington Robinson's “Richard Cory” rather than a major work. My purpose is not to write a model comprehensive criticism—I am suspicious of models—but to indicate, in a self-conscious way, what is involved in doing a comprehensive criticism of even a single poem. Here I shall be more concerned with the method of inquiry than with my own resulting interpretation.
Recently I have become interested in why we...
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SOURCE: “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” in Explicator, Vol. 23, No. 7, March, 1965, item 52.
[In the essay below, Morris argues that Robinson's choice of British-sounding words in “Richard Cory” evokes the class divide between Richard Cory and the townspeople who narrate the poem.]
Holding a different view on Edward Arlington Robinson's “Richard Cory” from that which marks Mr. Burkhart's comment (explicator, Nov., 1960, xix, 9), I am inspired to try again. Cory is made a king, it is true, but, judging from “pavement,” “sole to crown,” “clean favored,” “imperially slim,” “schooled,” and “in fine,” he is made an English king. For “pavement” we Americans would say “sidewalk”; for “from sole to crown” we would say “from head to foot.” Physically, this “gentleman”—a word used with special overtones in England—was “clean-favored”; Americans might say “trim” or “shapely.” And his education? He was “schooled in every grace”; to the English it would probably mean “trained in the arts of leisure.” “In fine”—we would say “in short”—he seemed to be everything and to have everything. Yet, “He put a bullet through his head.” Why?
Amy Lowell gives us part of the answer in describing the English character of Gardiner, Maine, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917, p. 11). “I know of no place...
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SOURCE: “The Two Corys: A Sample of Inductive Teaching,” in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3, March, 1969, pp. 414-15.
[In the following essay, Clifton reports on her use of Robinson's poem “Richard Cory” together with the Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel song of the same title, to help high school students get at issues of authorial intent.]
When I teach poetry I try to lead the students to discover that a poem is not a message, it is an organism, that the words and rhythms and patterns of which it is made are an integral part of its being, and that it is made by plan rather than by accident. Because I love poetry, the poems I use as samples for the students to explore in finding what a poem is are often chosen primarily because they are poems I like, though they do exemplify concepts I want the students to grasp. Thus, as part of one poetry unit for a heterogeneously grouped eleventh-grade English class, I chose “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson to present as an example of the use of carefully chosen detail.
I began by reading the poem aloud, and the students' first comment was, “There's a song called “Richard Cory” by Simon and Garfunkel. “It's real good.” So I asked if anyone could bring a recording of it and delayed discussion of the poem until we had both versions available. The next day we played the song twice, so everyone could catch the words. As I...
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SOURCE: “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” in Explicator, Vol. 28, No. 9, May, 1970, item 73.
[In the following essay, Turner argues against Charles R. Morris' thesis that Robinson's word choices in “Richard Cory” are intended to associate Cory with British royalty.]
In his discussion of Edward Arlington Robinson's “Richard Cory,” Charles R. Morris (explicator, March, 1965, xxiii, 7) seems to go to extreme lengths to justify the poet's use of “anglicisms” in describing Cory. Although the terms noted—“pavement,” “sole to crown,” “clean favored,” “imperially slim,” “schooled,” and “in fine”—may indeed have British overtones, I would suggest that several of the expressions, as well as Cory's name itself, have a more rewarding technical purpose.
Americans might, in fact, normally refer to themselves as people “on the sidewalk” rather than “on the pavement”; nevertheless, “on the pavement” in American slang usually means that one is down and out, figuratively—sometimes literally—scraping the asphalt. Surely this description fits those people who “went without the meat, and cursed the bread.”
As for “sole to crown” and “in fine” rather than “head to toe” and “in short,” rather than establishing Cory's English background the puns seem to justify themselves. From sole (soul) to crown (head), from...
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SOURCE: “A Re-examination of ‘Richard Cory,’” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 11, September, 1972, pp. 579-82.
[In the following essay, Sweet proposes that “Richard Cory” be read as a parable in which envious townspeople simultaneously reject and idealize the wealthy Cory, heightening his isolation and propelling him toward suicide.]
“Richard Cory,” one of Edwin Arlington Robinson's most anthologized poems, is also one of the least examined. Those critics who have considered the poem cast it in a familiar mold: that Richard Cory's “soul is black with despair,”1 that the people possess “the light,”2 and that finally the people ironically fail to see their wishing to be like Cory is ultimately ludicrous because of their own intrinsic spiritual values.
The main problem with the popular interpretation is that it fails suitably to account for the tale being filtered through the mind of a narrator, a single one of the “people on the pavement.” The resulting view tends to thrust Richard Cory into the spotlight and de-emphasize the character of the narrator. Perhaps we would do well to remember D. H. Lawrence's admonition, “Trust the tale, not the teller,” and begin to view Richard Cory through the eyes of an unreliable, unaware narrator. Moreover, such a focal point has the distinct advantage of helping to explain why Richard...
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SOURCE: “Richard Cory's Suicide: A Psychoanalyst's View,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 150-59.
[In the following essay, Kavka responds to Charles A. Sweet's essay on “Richard Cory” with a diagnosis: “Richard Cory” (see above) is the portrait of a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.]
What prompts me, as a psychoanalyst, to interpret [Edwin Arlington] Robinson's famous poem, “Richard Cory,” is the intriguing thesis of Charles A. Sweet, Jr. that the poem is a depiction of an oedipal conflict with the suicide a realization of regicidal wishes.1 While psychologically plausible, Sweet's theory is not sufficiently capacious to account for Cory's disastrous deed or his highly unusual personality.
According to Sweet, Cory comes down town as a “Promethean figure bringing the word of the necessity of human communication for survival.” The townspeople are passive and have erected a silent barrier around themselves; they fail to “approach him, much less respond to him.” Cory's suicide is not the result of “inner emptiness,” or “an absolute commitment to despair” or because he was “sick.” Rather, “through their own mental prejudices and unfounded exaggerations the people, like eagles, claw at Prometheus so that the chains of inhumanity imprison him forever; it matters not that it is Cory who pulls the...
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SOURCE: “Richard Cory: Artist without an Art,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 160-61.
[In the following essay, Kart adds to Jerome Kavka's psychoanalytic reading of “Richard Cory,” (see above), asserting that Cory is an artist who does not find an outlet.]
(The following is a response to Jerome Kavka's “The Suicide of Richard Cory,” a somewhat longer version of his “Richard Cory's Suicide: A Psychoanalyst's View.”)
Accepting Jerome Kavka's view that the suicide of Richard Cory had a narcissistic basis, and reading the poem [“Richard Cory”] as [Edwin Arlington] Robinson's account of the effect on society of such an extreme act of narcissism, leads one to make a further corroborative point. If this reading of the poem is placed alongside the pattern of Robinson's career (which Kavka has described as an attempt by the poet to master his own somewhat narcissistic nature), then Richard Cory can be seen as an artist without an art, or an artist whose practice lacked certain qualities that might have sustained him.
That Richard Cory was something of an artist, that at least he had an aesthetically sensitive nature, is clear from the first three stanzas of the poem, which suggest that Cory's trips down town were events in which the people were spectators and Cory was the performer or the object on exhibit. Cory's role, it...
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SOURCE: “Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Department of English, Theatre, and Languages, Major American Authors, Homepage (website,) edited by Mark Canada, December 20, 2000 http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/canam/robinson.htm>.
[In the following essay, Byrd discusses how Robinson juxtaposes traditional structure and radical content in “Richard Cory.”]
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 [as] Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, 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[ed] 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....
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Anderson, Wallace L. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967, 175 p.
Explores the complexity of Robinson’s work.
Barnard, Ellsworth. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952,.
Study of Robinson's works.
Pritchard, William H. “Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Prince of Heartachers.” The American Scholar 48, No. 1 (Winter 1978-79): 89-100.
Argues that the most interesting aspect of Robinson's work is not his ideas, but Robinson’s poetic voice.
Rein, David. “The Appeal of ‘Richard Cory.’” The CEA Critic 26, No. 2 (November 1963): 6.
Argues that Robinson's choice of British-sounding words in “Richard Cory” evokes the class divide between Richard Cory and the townspeople who narrate the poem.
Stageberg, Norman C., and Wallace L. Anderson. “Indirection: Irony.” In Poetry As Experience, pp. 189-92. New York: American Book Company, 1952.
Explores the use of irony in “Richard Cory.”
Untermeyer, Louis. “Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reappraisal.” InEdwin Arlington Robinson: A Reappraisal, pp. 1-25. Washington: U.S. Library of Congress, 1963.
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