The Children of the Night

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

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The Poems

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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...

(This entire section contains 830 words.)

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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 why the townspeople were speaking of Cory in the past tense. It is also evident that, in the light of this ending, what they said must be reinterpreted. Moreover, the earlier part of the poem, which seemed static, was in fact preparing for the final dramatic action.

The Children of the Night also contains a number of poems in which, instead of voicing his opinions obliquely, the writer addresses his readers directly. In “Ballade by the Fire,” Robinson is sitting by the fire, smoking, while his imagination creates ghostly figures from the past. In the second stanza, he wonders what the future may be. In the third stanza, however, the mood changes. Suddenly recognizing that death could well be close at hand, he urges himself into action. The envoy reflects this new resolution. Since everyone knows that life “is the game that must be played,” people should “live and laugh” rather than be depressed by the “phantoms” with which everyone lives.

Forms and Devices

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In Children of the Night Robinson demonstrates his knowledge of his craft and his poetic skill by utilizing a number of traditional forms. “Three Quatrains,” “Two Quatrains,” and “Richard Cory,” for example, consist of Sicilian quatrains; the tetrameter poem “Two Men” is written in long measure, or long hymnal measure; and for “Boston” Robinson uses two Italian quatrains, shaped into an envelope stanza. The collection also includes an ode, “The Chorus of Old Men in Aegeus,” and though “John Evereldown” does not have the most common ballad format, its question-answer pattern and its incremental repetition recall such well-known ballads as “Lord Randal” and “The Three Ravens.”

Robinson is also adept in the most exacting French forms. “Ballade by the Fire” and “Ballade of Broken Flutes” meet the strict requirements of the ballade, including the refrain at the end of each stanza, the envoy, the limitation on the number of rhymes, and the rhyme pattern itself. Another difficult French form that Robinson handles superbly is the villanelle, as seen in “Villanelle of Change” and “The House on the Hill.”

The poetic patterns that appear most frequently in The Children of the Night, however, are the Petrarchan sonnet and the blank verse octave. The poet uses the sonnet for a wide variety of poems. It is highly effective in the philosophical “Credo,” in which the statement of despair in the octave is answered in the sestet by the proclamation that, despite the darkness all around him, the speaker can “feel the coming glory of the Light.” Just as impressive are the Petrarchan sonnets that describe the people of Tilbury Town, often (as in “Cliff Klingenhagen”) narrating a story to do so. In the octave of that poem, the speaker sets up a mystery. After their dinner together one evening, Cliff, the host, downs a glass of wormwood, while offering his guest the usual wine. In the sestet, Cliff smilingly refuses to explain, and all the speaker can say is that Cliff seems to be amazingly happy. It is left to the reader to guess the significance of Cliff’s action and of the speaker’s comment. Still another poem that illustrates Robinson’s skill with the Petrarchan sonnet is “Fleming Helphenstine.” Here, though it begins with a suggestion of distrust, the octave proceeds to establish Fleming as an open sort of man, who talks as easily as if he has known the narrator for a long time and, in fact, is an intimate of his. In the sestet, there is a dramatic reversal. The two men look closely at each other, and something happens that makes both of them “cringe and wince.” Then the stranger apologizes and exits, both from the scene and from the narrator’s life. Again in this poem, Robinson has used the Petrarchan sonnet with its two-part structure for high dramatic effect.

The octaves in the collection are not Robinson’s most memorable poems, though they do provide some insight into his thinking at the time they were written. In the octave that starts “We thrill too strangely at the master’s touch,” for instance, the poet accuses human beings of backing off from the unhappy events which are part of life, forgetting that God has his own plans for human beings. The octave beginning “Tumultuously void of a clean scheme” is not quite as abstract as the previous one and, indeed, is built on an interesting image—humanity as a great “crazy” legion, controlled only by instinct and “Ignorance” and led “by drunk trumpeters.” However, again, it is not quite effective. For some reason, Robinson’s octaves lack the force of his other poems, even of those which, like the sonnets “Dear Friends” and “Credo,” have the same sort of abstract subject matter. It may be that when he used traditional forms such as the sonnet, in which the octave establishing the topic or the situation is followed by a sestet with some kind of reversal or at least a resolution, Robinson was prevented from rambling toward an inconclusive conclusion, as he so often does in these octaves. At any rate, the poet evidently sensed that the blank verse octave was not effective. After The Children of the Night, Robinson wrote no more poems in that form.

It is unfortunate that so fine a craftsman as Robinson began publishing his work just when the fashions in poetry were changing. Through no fault of his own, Robinson was largely eclipsed by writers who were considered more modern, such as the Imagists. However, Robinson never abandoned traditional forms. While everyone else seemed to be writing free verse, he worked on perfecting blank verse in his long narrative poems. Ironically, those later works, which Robinson believed were his highest achievement, are now read far less often than his short poems, especially those that tell of Tilbury Town and its residents. At least, in one way, the changing styles have worked to his benefit, for now that the free verse flurry is over and some writers have turned once again to traditional forms, Robinson’s skill can be fully appreciated.


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Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965.