“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 1932
King Jasper 1935
Collected Poems 1937
Tilbury Town: Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson 1953
Selected Early Poems and Letters 1960
Selected Poems 1965
A Tilbury Score 1969
Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Centenary Memoir-Anthology 1971
Uncollected Poems and Prose of Edwin Arlington Robinson 1975
“Miniver Cheevy” and Other Poems 1995
Selected Poems 1997
Van Zorn: A Comedy in Three Acts (play) 1914
The Porcupine: A Drama in Three Acts (play) 1915
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
Edwin Arlington Robinson's Letters to Edith Brower (letters) 1968
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 the serious and diligent, somewhat shy artist. He has, indeed, lived for poetry and nothing else, and the result is to-day a collected volume of six hundred pages. In spite of the assistance of Mr. Roosevelt some years ago, Mr. Robinson has never succeeded in impressing himself on the general American public. His fame has been of slow growth, and with the few. The question arises, how much of a success is it; and how much of it is apt to endure?
And first let us say that as a poet of New York, he does not express the multifariousness of New York, and as a descendent of New England, he expresses little or nothing of its various spirit or scene. His is rather a library culture. Much of his poetry is but the warmings over of English literature, of Malory and Tennyson and the Arthurian legend, and is devoid of reference to the contemporary and the actual. And these retellings are not, be it said, usually very interesting or very important, though they often have in them passages of finish and beauty. One marvels at the unflagging effort spent on Merlin, or on Captain Craig, but with the best will in the world attention flags. Lancelot, his best long poem, is fine writing, exquisite, and in some of its flights, shot full of wonder and romantic longing. But even here some of the faults of the other long poems appear. An oversubtlety, an obscurity in allusion, a minute attention to the psychology of characters which are but dimly adumbrated in the reader's consciousness, and no very stirring narrative to rouse or hold attention, all these are faults and obvious ones, which neither these nor any other poems can afford to stagger under. It is useless to deny it, most of Robinson's longer works are dull, and will not, like Browning, to whom Robinson has often been compared in obscurity and subtlety, repay the reader with pearls of pleasure for his deep diving into their waters.
What then may the reader who takes a seat by the library fire with this poet expect? Is it worth while? I for one think it is, and for the sake of perhaps a dozen short poems, and a point of view. Let us imagine the setting. It is that of a fireside room done in brown tones, quiet and rich with human meanings. Our host a reserved, though quietly genial scholar and poet, intent on contemplation of life and its motives and mysteries. Not that we get the impression that our host has himself lived much of life. That question does not at first arise. Himself he keeps in the background, well subdued into the brown tones of the study. He is the detached observer. And the life he observes is, therefore, also always a little detached and mysterious. Of his hero, Richard Cory, for instance, the impeccable person who committed suicide, the poet knows only what a neighbor might know; and of Flammonde, only of his good deeds and that there was a heart to his mystery never quite solved. Indeed, as we sit and hear our host descant on these former neighbors of his, glossing his comments with the high illumination of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, and teasing us with touches of beauty and elusiveness, the thought suddenly strikes one that the host is after all quite as much a mystery as any he has discovered. And we find ourselves thinking: yes, but what of you? Why have you not lived more than to sit here and contemplate these odd people? And when we arrive there, we are already one with the host, and are in the mood to produce, psychologically at least, one of Mr. Robinson's best poems. For all his best poems are about men who were in some sense mysterious. The point of view, therefore, which the visitor at Mr. Robinson's fire will acquire is that of the romance in human motive. It is perhaps his chief contribution to his time.
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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...
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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....
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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.
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