Robert P. Tristram Coffin Essay - Critical Essays

Coffin, Robert P. Tristram


Coffin, Robert P. Tristram 1892-1955

(Full name Robert Peter Tristram Coffin) American poet, novelist, and essayist.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Coffin was regarded as one of America's foremost regionalists. In poetry, novels, and essays, he wrote about the shaping influence of his birthplace, Maine, on the life and character of its inhabitants, and advocated such values as simplicity and self sufficiency that he believed sprang from its culture. He enjoyed popularity and honor in his lifetime-winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1936. While some critics praised him for revealing poetic mystery in the commonplace, others found his work sentimental, loquacious, and limited. After his death in 1955, his books were all but forgotten.

Biographical Information

Coffin's life, like his poetry, is marked by robust optimism and unflagging energy. Inspired by his father's love of song and story, he began writing when a boy. His work often celebrated his father, the state of Maine, the primitive currents in human nature, and the resourcefulness and resilience, whether heroic or tragic, of the solitary, self-reliant individual confronting Nature, which he depicted as both holy and brutally unrelenting. He entered Bowdoin College in 1911, where he was twice winner of the Hawthorne prize for short story writing. He graduated summa cum laude, and went on to Princeton as a Longfellow scholar. In 1916, he graduated from Princeton and went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar to study poetry. After serving as a second lieutenant in the artillery during the First World War, he returned to Oxford to complete his studies. Back in the United States in 1921, he began teaching at Wells College in New York State until, in 1934, he was invited to teach in Maine at Bowdoin, where he stayed until his death in 1955. During these years, he won many awards for poetry, published voluminously, developed a hand for pen and ink and water color sketches, participated in the founding of poetry societies, and traveled to numerous universities to read his poems and to speak.

Major Works

Coffin's most characteristic works were poems and stories that endowed common events in the lives of ordinary people with epic proportion and mythic dimension. He drew on his own experience, as in his account of his father in Portrait of an American, and in the memoir, Lost Paradise, A Boyhood on a Maine Coast Farm. Among his novels, the first, Red Sky in the Morning, concerning a son's sacrificial struggle to gain his father's recognition, is considered his best. Like all his work, it reflects his belief in the lasting influence of the intergenerational male bond, the primacy of men, and the instrumentality of women. Celebration of a male-focused engagement with Nature is central to his major collections of poetry, too, from Ballads of Square-Toed Americans in 1933, through the Pulitzer prize-winning Strange Holiness in 1935, Poems for a Son with Wings in 1945, and One-Horse Farm: Down-East Georgics in 1949.

Critical Reception

Rejected by some critics as intellectually uninventive, emotionally pat, out of touch with contemporary realities, and devoid of poetic skill, his work nevertheless enjoyed such widespread recognition and regard at the time of his death that the New York Times printed a page one obituary and declared in an editorial tribute, "His verse was sometimes rough-hewn, unplaned or homespun, but . . . there will always be those who . . . will turn to his work for a glimpse of a life that is simpler, unfettered, and . . . more beautiful."

Principal Works

Christchurch (poetry) 1924

Book of Crowns and Cottages (essays) 1925

Dew and Bronze (poetry) 1927

Laud, Storm Center of Stuart England (biography) 1930

Portrait of an American (memoir) 1931

The Yoke of Thunder (poetry) 1932

Ballads of Square-Toed Americans (poetry) 1933

Lost Paradise, A Boyhood on a Maine Coast Farm (memoir) 1934

Red Sky in the Morning (novel) 1935

Strange Holiness (poetry) 1935

John Dawn (novel) 1936

Kennebec, Cradle of Americans (stories) 1937

Saltwater Farm (poetry) 1937

Maine Ballads (poetry) 1938

Collected Poems of Robert P. Tristram Coffin (poetry) 1939

Thomas-Thomas-Ancil-Thomas (novel) 1941

Christmas in Maine (poetry) 1941

The Substance That Is Poetry (essays) 1942

There Will Be Bread and Love (poetry) 1942

Primer for America (essays) 1943

Mainstays of Maine (essays) 1944

Poems for a Son with Wings (poetry) 1945

People Behave like Ballads (poetry) 1946

Yankee Coast (essays) 1947

Collected Poems of Robert P. Tristram Coffin (poetry) 1948

Coast Calendar (poetry) 1949

One-Horse Farm: Down-East Georgics (poetry) 1949

The Third Hunger & The Poem Aloud (essays) 1949

Apples by Ocean (poetry) 1950

Maine Doings (essays) 1950

Life in America: New England (essays) 1951

On the Green Carpet (lectures) 1951

Hellas Revisited (poetry) 1954

Selected Poems (poetry) 1955


William Rose Benét (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: A review of Ballads of Square-Toed Americans, in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. X, No. 10, September 23, 1933, p. 135.

[In the following excerpt, Benét reviews Ballads of Square-Toed Americans and praises the pictorialism and gusto he finds. ]

This week I have three books on my table for particular comment. All of them are American. Of the three, one is by Robert P. Tristram Coffin, who has now won a place for himself among the best American poets of his time. This is his fifth book of poems—and his prose work includes two books of essays and three biographies. His present volume, Ballads of Square-Toed Americans, is endemic and chiefly narrative. The Saturday Review of Literature first presented one of the longer narratives, "The Schooling of Richard Orr," to Mr. Coffin's public. I am glad to remember that this journal gave so much space to that poem, because, as I reread it, the imaginative reliving on the author's part of an Indian raid strikes me again, in its forthright vividness, as a remarkable feat. And there are other poems in this book no less noteworthy for originality of treatment. "The Truce of the Mohawks," though not one of the poems designed to carry out Mr. Coffin's more patriotic notion of his book, is an account of an early clambake that appeals to me greatly by virtue of its deft pictorial quality:


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William Rose Benét (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of Strange Holiness, in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XI, No. 40, April 20, 1935, p. 639.

[In the following excerpt, Benét reviews Coffin's Strange Holiness, praising the poems for the quality of their workmanship and subject matter but regretting that, in them, the poet has not surpassed his previous work.]

Robert P. Tristram Coffin is a fecund poet. His latest book, Strange Holiness, is in contrast to his latest one before that, Ballads of Square-Toed Americans, in that this is subjective as that was objective. I am only afraid that Mr. Coffin may have a fatal facility. He shapes and turns his poems well, and he usually has something not only interesting to write about but also seen and felt. Also, his phrase is often extremely good. Moreover, the devotional element in these poems has nothing mawkish about it. One feels that the poet pleasured himself in writing all of them. And yet one also feels that he might have conserved the energy expended in writing a good many of them and poured it all into one poem that would have greatly surpassed them all. Where a man has proved his powers, as Mr. Coffin has already done, I think it is allowable to expect him to surpass himself. This book does not surpass others by the same writer. Were it a first book it would not make nearly the impression upon the reader that certain other books of his have made. That he is a good workman is beyond question. But he is also, at rare intervals, a good deal more than that. In this particular volume those intervals are rare indeed.

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of Strange Holiness, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 1750, August 15, 1935, p. 516.

[In the following excerpt, a reviewer commends the theme of Strange Holiness.]

For Mr. Coffin whatever lives is holy and in the longest poem in this collection, entitled "First Flight," he records how he felt "something solemn, something like holiness" in the airplane in which he first took his seat. But while he does full justice in this poem to the cosmic reaches of the air, it is typical of him to turn away soon from these and let his vision pass lovingly over the land unrolled beneath the plane with its small towns and woods and fields and houses that "did...

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C. A. Millspaugh (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: A review of Saltwater Farm, in Poetry, Vol. LI, No. V, February, 1938, pp. 267-70.

[In the following excerpt, Millspaugh reviews Saltwater Farm and finds nothing to recommend it]

That rare person, the serious reader of poetry, may legitimately expect of experienced writers at least a minimum of care in craft, a fairly well-developed point of view from which to inspect society and the men who compose it, a character sufficiently mature to be free of such vulgarities as smugness, self-complacency, and sentimentality, and an imagination disciplined by tradition, compelled by the predicaments of contemporary life, projected by good will and wonder...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Marshall Schacht (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: A review of Maine Ballads, in Poetry, Vol. LIII, No. II, November, 1938, pp. 92-96.

[In the following excerpt, Schacht reviews Maine Ballads and deplores the poems, which he sees as smug and narrow.]

In an introduction to his eighth book of poems Mr. Coffin says, in part: "Folk living and folk speaking still go on, in spite of all our modern improvements—the stories are there for the ballads, and the words to them, for anybody who has eyes to see the shape of them and ears to hear the right rhythms and the fall of the words." He ends: "These verses—the more ambitious of them—are not to be judged by the usual poetic standards. Some of them,...

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Colin E. MacKay (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: 'The Novels of Robert P. Tristram Coffin," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 4, December 1965, pp. 151-61.

[In the following essay, MacKay examines the theme of permanence running through each of Coffin's three novels and judges it is most effectively expressed in his first.]

Robert P. Tristram Coffin was a poet who turned frequently to prose; indeed, there was almost no area of prose he did not attempt—biographies, an autobiography,collected lectures, essays, history, criticism, short stories, and novels. This report shall confine itself to the lastmentioned, for (poetry naturally excluded) the novels offered Coffin his greatest challenge.


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F. Celand Witham (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Essays of Robert Peter Tristram Coffin," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 4, December, 1965, pp. 161-69.

[In the following essay, Witham argues that Coffin's skill as an essayist derives from his visionary aptitude as a poet and from his joviality as a person.]

A thrush singing in the woods. . . . It was the first bird I had ever really heard sing. It was the last marvel in a long chain of marvels. The first violets, like pieces of the sky, the first anemones, like drops of snow left over into April. I had had my first trip out past all houses, out of sight of all windows and doors. I was too tired to take in anything...

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William C. Wees (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Puritanism Versus the Old Green Gods: New England in the Poetry of Robert P. Tristram Coffin," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 4, December, 1965, pp. 136-50.

[In the following essay, Wees argues that in its celebration of the male connection to a primal, natural power both destructive and sexual, Coffin 's poetry reveals the poet's revolt against New England Puritanism.]

New England—Maine, in fact—dominates the poetry of Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Like Emily Dickinson, Coffin tried to "see New Englandly." For a poet to so limit his subject matter and point of view, to be so provincial, does not necessarily limit the richness of his work: witness...

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Mark W. Anderson (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Images of Nineteenth Century Maine Farming in the Prose and Poetry of R.P.T. Coffin and C.A. Stephens," in Agricultural History, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 120-29.

[In the following essay, Anderson explores Coffin's writings and those of another Maine author, C.A. Stephens, with regard to their "utility to historians. "]

Long before historians turned to matters of daily life as objects of inquiry, poets and novelists dealt with the essentials of the human condition. Authors often have searched for universal elements in the lives of our ancestors. The better poets and novelists offered their readers images that captured the essence of common people's...

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Further Reading


Cary, Richard. "A Bibliography of Robert P. Tristram Coffin: Part I." Colby Library Quarterly VII, No. 4 (December 1965): 170-91.

Annotated bibliography of books, brochures and pamphlets by Coffin, work included in anthologies, selected biographical and critical articles about him, and several excerpts from Coffin's works on poetry and Maine.

——. "A Bibliography of Robert P. Tristram Coffin: Part II." Colby Library Quarterly VII, No. 6 (June 1966): 270-99.

Lists poems printed in periodicals and newspapers from 1920 to 1945.


Sanborn, Annie Coffin. The Life...

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