At its publication in 1897, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s The Children of the Night consisted of eighty-seven poems, forty-four of which had appeared in The Torrent and the Night Before, a pamphlet printed at the author’s own expense the previous year. In addition, the new volume contained another forty-three poems. When the author incorporated The Children of the Night into later collections of his poetry he made some alterations, a situation that can be very confusing for readers. For example, some poems were eliminated altogether, and because of deletions the “Octaves” in the collections do not bear the same numbers that they did in the 1897 book. Nevertheless, while scholars find both the originals and revisions of interest, most students will find the later versions of The Children of the Night as useful for study as the original.
Robinson believed that he would be remembered primarily for his thirteen long narrative poems, beginning with Merlin (1917) and including Tristram (1927), which not only won for him a Pulitzer Prize but also was his only commercial success. Ironically, however, it is his short poems, many of them contained in The Children of the Night, on which Robinson’s literary reputation now depends.
The poems in this collection fall into several different categories. Some of them are addressed to people who actually lived. For example, “Zola” pays tribute to the French novelist Émile Zola for his dedication to truth, while “Verlaine” is a defense of the French poet Paul Verlaine, who is believed to have influenced some of Robinson’s works, notably “Luke Havergal.” Other poems are about fictional characters from “Tilbury Town,” which represents Gardiner, Maine, where Robinson spent most of his early years. Although all of them are relatively short, crisp in style, and ironic in tone, the Tilbury Town poems vary in subject matter and in pattern.
“John Evereldown,” for instance, is written as a dialogue. In the first stanza an unnamed person asks John Evereldown where he is going so late at night. In the second Evereldown replies that he is on his way to Tilbury Town but is taking an indirect route through the woods so that no one can see him. Now even more puzzled, the interrogator urges Evereldown to come in and warm himself by the fire rather than continuing on his journey. In the fourth and final stanza Evereldown admits that he is drawn into the cold, dark night because in Tilbury Town he may find a woman to satisfy his obsessive lust.
“Luke Havergal” is one of the most obscure poems in the collection. The single speaker is not identified, except as a voice from the grave or perhaps from Havergal’s own subconscious. This spirit speaks of the “hell” through which Havergal is passing as somehow related to a lost “paradise.” It is evident that death has taken the woman Havergal loved, but since she is referred to in the third person, obviously it is not she who is addressing him. When the spirit urges him to “Go to the western gate,” it is not clear whether Havergal is to transcend his grief and move on, trusting that he will meet his lost love in the next world, or whether he is being urged to pass through the gate of death immediately—to commit suicide.
While some Tilbury Town poems, such as these, are essentially static descriptions of emotional states, others are like short stories, moving toward a dramatic conclusion. The first twelve lines of “Richard Cory ” could well be just another character sketch. Speaking in a single voice, the ordinary people of Tilbury Town describe the wealthy and elegant Cory, whom they admit they envied, noting his unfailing courtesy to those below him. The fourth stanza begins with the townspeople summing up their dull and desperate lives, but in the last two lines Richard Cory once again becomes the focal point of the poem. Robinson now sets the stage (“one calm summer night”) and bluntly describes Cory’s suicide. It is now clear...
(The entire section is 1,767 words.)