Edwin Arlington Robinson Critical Essays

Edwin Arlington Robinson American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although during his lifetime Robinson’s long narrative poems, particularly Tristram, stirred admiration, his short poems set in Tilbury Town became much more popular in subsequent decades. Since these short poems follow established verse patterns (such as the sonnet form), their familiar structures at first seem old-fashioned. These poems, however, are hardly time-locked. Instead, they are thoroughly modern in attitude because their stories stress how difficult it is to detect cause or motive in a basically mysterious world. The poems also emphasize how people cannot escape a sense of personal isolation. In Robinson’s Tilbury Town, people feel lonely because of the limitations of their individual ways of making sense of human experience. As a result, Robinson’s readers are left with shifting truths and unclear explanations about the meaning of life.

Beneath the deceptive, smooth surfaces of the technically precise poetic forms, Robinson’s poems are disturbing, cheerless stories of people living far from their youthful hopes and dreams. The old-fashioned structures of these works, then, are misleading. These familiar verse forms contribute to the poet’s theme that the reassuring appearances which humans tend to trust in life are deceptive. Some deeper meaning lies beneath such ordinary appearances, but unfortunately, this deeper meaning behind people’s unavoidable disillusionment always remains beyond their understanding.

Sometimes Robinson pinpoints specific factors that contribute to human unhappiness. The detrimental impact of industrialism on individual lives, for example, is featured in “The Mill.” “The Clerks” highlights the loss of cultural values in a commerce-driven world, the same world where the narrator of “Karma” has lost his human values. In “Richard Cory,” economic circumstances and class boundaries take a dreadful toll. Gender disparities and social expectations concerning men and women figure in “The Tree in Pamela’s Garden” and “Eros Turannos.” “Miniver Cheevy” and “Flammonde” dramatize the gap between dreamy hopes and uncontrollable circumstances, while “Ben Trovato” raises questions about truth when people try to see the best in others. Time’s erosion of the human spirit is dramatized in “Mr. Flood’s Party,” while the limits of what anyone, even a doctor, can do for another person are assessed in “How Annandale Went Out.”

However, for Robinson, such specific issues always point to some much larger and unknowable explanation for the general sadness haunting humanity. That larger something is hinted at in “The Haunted House,” in which a married couple suddenly sense the scary possibility that they might not really know each other. Robinson’s work suggests that loneliness, a sense of separation from one another, and also from ultimate meanings, is an inescapable human condition. The best humans or art such as Robinson’s can do is sympathetically acknowledge the tragedy of unfilled longing, even though this compassion makes little or no difference in the tragic outcome of human hopes.

“Richard Cory”

First published: 1897 (collected in Collected Poems, 1937)

Type of work: Poem

The impoverished citizens of Tilbury Town admire wealthy Richard Cory and are baffled by his suicide.

“Richard Cory,” which first appeared in The Children of the Night and remains one of Robinson’s most popular poems, recalls the economic depression of 1893. At that time, people could not afford meat and had a diet mainly of bread, often day-old bread selling for less than freshly baked goods. This hard-times experience made the townspeople even more aware of Richard’s difference from them, so much so that they treated him as royalty.

Although the people were surprised that Richard came to town dressed “quietly” and that he was “always human when he talked” (that is, he did not act superior), they nonetheless distanced themselves from him. This distance is suggested by the narrator’s words “crown,” “imperially,” “grace,” “fluttered pulses,” and “glittered.” The townspeople never stopped to consider why Richard dressed and spoke the way he did, why he came to town when everyone else was there, or even why he tried to make contact with them by saying “good morning.”

Richard was wealthy, but (as his name hints) he was not rich at the life-core of himself. Despite his efforts at communal connection, Richard’s wealth isolated him from others. He was alone. If the townspeople wished they were in his place because of his wealth, he in turn wished he were one of them because they were rich in one another’s company. The townspeople failed to appreciate the value of their mutual support of one another, their nurturing communal togetherness. So one hot, breezeless summer night (before the availability of electric fans or air conditioners), Richard lay awake, unable to sleep or to stop painful thoughts. Depressingly lonely, he ended his friendless life. The poem’s reader is supposed to understand what the townspeople did not understand about Richard’s suicide: that there was a price, in a human rather than in a monetary sense, that he paid for being perceived to be “richer than a king.”

“Miniver Cheevy”

First published: 1907 (collected in Collected Poems, 1937)

Type of work: Poem

Miniver Cheevy, an alcoholic who has accomplished nothing in his life, believes that he would have been successful if he had been born centuries...

(The entire section is 2309 words.)