It is particularly ironic that so many critics and scholars classified Robinson as an old-fashioned writer because he clung to traditional forms, when in subject matter he was as unconventional as any of his contemporaries. There is not a trace of nineteenth century sentimentalism in Robinson’s poetry. He does not believe that in this world God makes everything right. However, though they are pitiable, human beings are so blind, so intent on rejecting divine direction, that one can hardly blame God for permitting them to suffer. Nevertheless, Robinson believes that beyond the darkness there is light, and once they pass beyond their suffering, human beings can perceive God’s plan.
Many of the poems in The Children of the Night deal with misery, failure, and death. Admittedly, some of Robinson’s characters, such as the materialists in the octave beginning “To me the groaning of world-worshippers,” do not realize that their lives are empty. The miser Aaron Stark, who represents the very worst in human nature, is actually pleased with his reputation for heartlessness; the pity of a tender-hearted soul, who recognizes his friendlessness, merely provides Stark with an excuse for laughter. However, not all of the prosperous are so blind as to be contented with their condition in life. Some, like the glittering Richard Cory, find that wealth and social status are not enough to bring happiness.
A nineteenth century sentimentalist might have had his characters find fulfillment in romantic love. However, Robinson is a twentieth century realist. Often, he knows, what others call love is merely a sexual obsession, like that which drives John Evereldown. In fact, love is so often both obsessive and possessive that it seems to make disaster inevitable. The husband in “The Story of the Ashes and the Flame,” even though his wife has first been unfaithful and then deserted him, loves her so much that he retreats from life in order to dream of her return. Similarly, when the beloved one dies, as in “Luke Havergal,” “Amaryllis,” and “Reuben Bright,” the person left behind is so grief stricken that his own life virtually ends. One might take refuge in friendship, but Robinson shows it, too, as imperfect. In “An Old Story,” the speaker recognizes in himself the human depravity which blights all relationships. Perversely, the more his friend demonstrated his loyalty, thereby earning the praise of others, the more violently the speaker disliked him. Now that the friend is dead, however, he realizes how much he has lost. The sad fact is that none of Robinson’s characters really know one another. Thus in the poem “On the Night of a Friend’s Wedding,” the poet is surrounded by “Good friends” but is well aware that what they praise in him is a “mirage” that may “crumble out of sight” at any moment.
Nevertheless, Robinson’s view of life is not unrelievedly pessimistic. Though the house described in “The House on the Hill” reeks of “ruin and decay” and Tilbury Town is filled with repressed people and broken dreams (like those of “The Clerks”) one does not have to stay there. In “Boston,” Robinson speaks of a town that has both “something new and fierce” and a “charmed antiquity.” Such places are filled with the true aristocrats, who are dedicated to the search for truth and may, like Zola, in discovering it find also “the divine heart of man.” In “Dear Friends,” Robinson makes it clear that he holds his pursuit of art far more glorious than others’ pursuit of wealth.
Robinson does not pin all his hopes for humanity either on reason or on creativity. His sympathy for even the most desperate souls in Tilbury Town, such as John Evereldown, lost in lust, and Reuben Bright, sunk in grief and despair, is intensified by his faith in God. The poet seems to believe that a dark night of the soul may be essential to a human being’s development. In the octave “We thrill too strangely at the master’s touch,” he suggests that by enduring misery, by accepting “the splendid shame of uncreated failure,” one may rise to a new level of life and bask in the light of eternity. This is the point of “The Torrent.” In this poem Robinson describes a natural paradise, which will be destroyed by “hard men” with “screaming saws.” However, the poem does not end there. Moments of “gladness” culminate in true joy; finally the speaker welcomes the destructive saws, because he knows that loss can clear the way for something better, failures can be “steps to the great place where trees and torrents go.” In such passages Robinson makes it clear that, while a realist and a modernist, he is no pessimist but a man strongly influenced by the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is significant that in “L’Envoi,” the final poem in The Children of the Light, Robinson speaks of “transcendent music,” which comes from no human source but directly from the hand of God. Thus the collection ends on a hopeful note, which is the more persuasive because the poet has not ignored either the pervasiveness of human unhappiness or the inevitability of death.
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