Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818
Edwin Arlington Robinson has been called the last American writer in the nineteenth century tradition of rationalism and psychological understanding, a figure more akin in spirit to the novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton than to any other American poet of his time. Dedicated to the craft of verse and unwilling to disperse his energies in other fields, he became that rarity in literature, a professional poet who was both critically admired (especially after the publication of The Man Against the Sky in 1916) and financially successful (after the sales of Tristram in 1927).
As a boy Robinson showed no distinctive talents. Born in Head Tide, Maine, on December 22, 1869, he went to Harvard University for two years without intending to take a degree and then returned to Gardiner, Maine, the Tilbury Town of his early poems, where his father’s declining business was located. An apparent failure in life like his own characters Miniver Cheevy and Mr. Flood, Robinson nevertheless wrote steadily and in 1896 privately published his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before. A year later he published The Children of the Night, containing his “Luke Havergal,” later widely anthologized, and “The Clerks,” two poems marking the appearance of his lucid and intellectually serious brief dramas of personality.
When his third book, Captain Craig, was published in 1902, Robinson was working in New York as a train checker on the subway. During this period Theodore Roosevelt became interested in him and not only offered him a custom house position in 1905 but also wrote a critical commendation of the poet’s work for The Outlook. Four years later, under the Taft administration, Robinson resigned from the post Roosevelt had found for him.
The remaining events of Robinson’s life were undistinguished except by the fulfillment of his talent in frequent publications of his books. Regularly, after 1911, he divided his time between New York in the winter and the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire during the summer, supported in part by a legacy and a trust fund established by his friends. Gradually honors came to him: a fiftieth birthday celebration by The New York Times Book Review in 1911, three Pulitzer Prizes for the 1921 edition of Collected Poems, The Man Who Died Twice, and Tristram, various poetry prizes, honorary degrees from colleges and universities, the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1929, and the posthumous award of the Medal of the International Mark Twain Society following his death in New York City on April 6, 1935.
Robinson was a poet of major ambition who seemed to combine New England moral integrity and dryness of manner with something of Robert Browning’s psychological curiosity and Thomas Hardy’s involvement with fate. The fact that his work should suggest a Puritan sensibility dissolved in the mainstream of English narrative verse, combined with a mastery of formal techniques, has resulted in divided critical opinion. At the same time, his tendency toward prolixity in blank verse and a sort of romantic realism relying on cleverness made him accessible to a public not usually eager for poetry. Such later long works as Matthias at the Door, Talifer, and Amaranth were written with a novelist’s awareness of his readers.
Robinson is most compelling in his short and medium-length poems. “For a Dead Lady,” from The Town Down the River; “Eros Turannos,” a perfect match of wit in form with stark understanding of life, from The Man Against the Sky; “The Wandering Jew,” from The Three Taverns , and “The...
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Sheaves,” one of his finest sonnets, fromDionysus in Doubt, are all among the clearest examples of his literary cultivation and mastery of purpose. In these he demonstrates his ability to make symbolic thought and the play of ideas poetic with little sensuous imagery. Other poems in The Man Who Died Twice and Nicodemus, his last impressive volume, also develop his concern with failure and defeat, especially the plight of the potential artist, to the point of unflinching awareness.
The Arthurian trilogy (comprising Merlin, a study of romantic love; Lancelot, a study of the modern doubter, and Tristram, a detailed story of defeated passion based largely on Sir Thomas Malory) is his most famous group of poems. But it is doubtful if Robinson’s attempt at a major achievement here did more than diffuse his narrative power for the sake of full expression. In his work he was always shifting between the long poem in blank verse and the shorter self-contained stanza forms. Since his attitude toward humankind and destiny was not passionate but skeptical and intellectually firm, it is the laconic expression of his mind in verse form that is most convincing. The long works of his later years, concluding in 1935 with King Jasper, a modern allegory of industrial civilization, did not add much to a reputation already firmly grounded in the philosophical qualities which made his poetry a moral criticism of society and the age.