In his famous poem “Richard Cory,” Edwin Arlington Robinson uses careful phrasing in highly effective ways.
For example, rather than calling Cory “a gentleman from head to toe,” Robinson instead calls him “a gentleman from sole to crown” (3). If Robinson had written “head to toe,” the phrasing of the poem would have seemed hackneyed and literally pedestrian. There would have been nothing special about it; Robinson would have been guilty of using a cliché. Such a flaw would have been especially blameworthy in a poem about a man who seems so unusual and uncommon. Cory is considered a kind of aristocrat in the town in which he lives; he seems to live a loftier, happier, more exalted life than those of most of the other townspeople. He is regarded almost as a kind of royal figure, and so the word “crown” seems especially fitting (and also foreshadows the word “glittered” in line 8). Likewise, the word “toe” would have seemed not only clichéd but also somewhat crude. A “toe” is not, after all, an especially distinguished part of the human body, whereas “sole” at least refers to Cory’s (probably expensive and attractive) shoes. To walk around with one’s toes exposed implies extreme informality, and Cory is anything but informal.
In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, Robinson uses the phrase “imperially slim” (4) rather than “very thin.” The word “very” is, well, “very” common and undistinguished. It is perhaps the most over-used intensifying word in the English language. To have used the word “very” would have implied a lack of imagination on Robinson’s part, whereas “imperially” is not only highly unusual and attention-grabbing but is also perfectly appropriate to the other imagery in this poem that associates Cory with a kind of small-town aristocracy. Such imagery includes not only the reference to a “crown” already discussed but also the subsequent use of “king” (9).
Finally, “slim” is a better word than “thin” because “thin” might have suggested that Cory (like other people in the town) was undernourished. It might have suggested that he was unattractively skinny, when in fact he is anything but unattractive. The word “slim,” on the other hand, suggests a man who is young, healthy, physically fit, and (most important) in control of his life. For all these reasons, the word “slim” helps make Cory’s death by suicide at the end of the poem seem all the more shocking and ironic, not only to the townspeople but also to Robinson’s readers. Cory, apparently, was not very much in control of his life after all. He may have been physically fit, but apparently he was troubled by mental demons of which the townspeople were completely unaware, for
. . . Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head. (15-16)