How would you describe the theme or themes of Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Miniver Cheevy"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy” explores a number of interrelated themes, including a fixation on the supposed attractions of the past and a disdain for the supposed shortcomings of the present.  Because Miniver wishes that he had lived in earlier, more appealing times, he ironically wastes the only time really available to him: the present. It is not by accident that Cheevy is first identified as a “child of scorn” (1) – that is, as a person full of contempt, apparently for the passing of time in his own life (“he assailed the seasons” [2]). The only part of the past he truly seems to regret is the moment of his own birth (3), a birth which has led (he believes) to his current dissatisfaction.

Instead of living in and for the present, Miniver loves “the days of old” (5) – days, of course, that he could never really have experienced except by reading about them, and days that were probably far more complicated and far less appealing than he seems to imagine. His enthusiasm for the past seems naïve, uniformed, and even somewhat ridiculous:

The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing. (7-8)

Rather than taking an active part in trying to shape the present in accordance with his ideals, Cheevy merely “sigh[s] for what was not” (9) – a phrase that may be especially ironic since it may suggest that the kind of life Cheevy imagines never really existed in the ways it exists merely in his imagination. His views of the past have been shaped more by literature than by hard historical research or practical experience. He is a good example of a person who would rather live in a kind of dream world rather than face real and potentially disappointing truths. He is a Romantic in all the worst senses of that word.

As the poem progresses, Robinson’s satire of Cheevy becomes increasingly sharp, as when he writes that

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.  (17-20)

The Medici were an Italian Renaissance family famous, among other things, for their cynical and often brutal lives.  The naïve Cheevy wouldn’t have stood a chance among the Medicis, and indeed he is capable of sinning only in his imagination, where he spends most of his time.

Robinson’s mockery of Cheevy becomes blatantly humorous when he writes that Cheevy

. . . missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing. (23-24)

It one thing to fantasize about a suit of armor; it’s another thing altogether to actually wear one.

In this poem, then, Robinson satirizes an all-too-common, all-too-human impulse: the impulse to live in a fantasy world rather than confronting fully the real challenges of the only life one can ever lead: the life of the here and now.

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