Edwin Arlington Robinson 1869–-1935
American poet and dramatist.
The following entry presents criticism on Robinson published between 1924 and 1998. Se also Richard Cory Criticicm.
A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Robinson is best remembered as the author of “Miniver Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” “Mr. Flood's Party,” and other much-anthologized poems that dramatize the isolation and loneliness of small-town individuals. Adhering to strict metrical forms, Robinson worked outside the formal experimentalism of many of his contemporaries, yet his ironic viewpoint, austere style, and often bleak subject matter signaled an end to the baroque sentimentality of nineteenth-century American poetry. A prolific author who was devoted to poetry as a vocation from an early age, Robinson gained recognition late in his career with the publication of his Collected Poems in 1921 and his adaptations of Arthurian legends into blank verse.
The third son of a lumber merchant and investor, Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine, and grew up in the nearby town of Gardiner, his model for the fictitious “Tilbury Town” that figures prominently in his early verse. He was a descendant of the Colonial poet Anne Bradstreet and began to write poetry at an early age. Robinson attended Harvard University for two years, but a decline in his family's circumstances forced him to return home. Because of his elder brothers' failed financial investments, alcoholism, and drug addiction, Robinson's family was left nearly penniless, yet Robinson rejected a business career in favor of writing poetry. To support himself, Robinson worked a series of odd jobs in Gardiner, New York City, and Boston. Because he was unable to aid his family financially and was often dependent on friends for money, Robinson developed a sense of personal failure and guilt that haunted him for the remainder of his life. Many critics attribute his preoccupation with portraying nonconformists, derelicts, and suicides, and his rejection of conventional models of material success, to his own experiences with poverty and hometown scorn. He published his first book of poetry, The Torrent and the Night Before, at his own expense in 1896. Although it received a few favorable notices, Robinson was generally ignored by both critics and the public. He gained a measure of financial relief when his second volume, The Children of the Night (1897), was reissued in 1905 and attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was impressed with Robinson's work and gave it lavish praise, and in June 1905 he helped arrange employment for Robinson in the New York City customs office so that he could write without financial worry. But Robinson wrote little poetry in his nearly four years on the job, spending much time on aborted attempts to write fiction and social dramas. From 1911 on, he spent summers with a group of artists and writers at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Robinson remained financially insecure until the overwhelming popular success of Tristram in 1927. He died in New York City in 1935.
Critics generally divide Robinson's career into two distinct phases: his early work, notable for incisive character sketches presented within traditional forms, and his later work, comprising extended dramatic dialogues and blank verse interpretations of Arthurian legends. Robinson is best known for the tightly structured narrative poems of his early and mid-career, particularly those set in “Tilbury Town,” a fictional locale based on Robinson's hometown of Gardiner, Maine. In such collections as The Torrent and the Night Before, The Children of the Night, and Captain Craig (1902), Robinson maintained the discipline of such conventional forms as sonnet, quatrain, and villanelle, while treating themes of alienation and failure in the lives of ordinary individuals. Demonstrating Robinson's ironic viewpoint, simple diction, and rejection of conventional standards of success, “Richard Cory” portrays a seemingly fortunate gentleman who earned the respect of the townspeople yet “… one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head.” Another work suggesting that appearances and social position can be deceiving is the dense title poem of “Captain Craig”. Robinson presents a dramatic narrative of approximately two thousand lines about a derelict whose bombastic yet erudite observations of humanity serve as a source of fascination for the unnamed narrator. Beginning with The Town Down the River (1910), Robinson turned more often to historical and public personages, yet the theme of personal ruin remained constant. “The Island,” for example, is a dramatic monologue spoken by French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte in which he recalls events leading to his defeat at Waterloo and his exile on the British island Saint Helena. A later companion volume, The Three Taverns (1920), draws notably on biblical figures and allusions, and features historical figures including the abolitionist John Brown and the early American statesmen Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The culmination of Robinson's early career, The Man against the Sky (1916) is generally considered his most successful single volume of verse. Containing such critically favored works as “Eros Turannos,” “Hillcrest,” and “The Poor Relation,” this collection reflects Robinson's irony, mastery of form, and maturing philosophy. In 1922 Robinson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems. In addition to reprinting early works, the volume contained a few new poems considered essential to the Robinson canon. “Mr. Flood's Party” is an often-anthologized depiction of a solitary drinker who has outlived his companions, and “Rembrandt to Rembrandt” depicts the self-doubt of the aging painter as he addresses a youthful self-portrait.
In the second half of his career, Robinson produced a trilogy of Arthurian legends in blank verse: Merlin (1917), a critical and commercial failure, Lancelot (1920), and Tristram (1927). Despite brief passages of substantial lyric beauty, the poems are generally faulted for their length and monotonous tone. Tristram, however, became a bestseller, a rare distinction for a book of poetry, and earned Robinson another Pulitzer Prize in 1928. In the 1920s Robinson produced several book-length dramatic dialogues that further delineate his themes of guilt and dereliction. Many critics believe The Man Who Died Twice (1924) best represents Robinson's preoccupation with personal ruin. Fernando Nash, the poem's central character, is a talented musician and composer who succumbs to alcohol and debauchery for many years before redeeming himself by playing drums in a Salvation Army band. Robinson's final poems explore the subjects found in his earlier verse. Nicodemus (1932) is a collection of medium-length poems that center on biblical themes, the inhabitants of Tilbury Town, and the New England landscape. Talifer (1933), another book-length work, deviates from Robinson's previous domestic tragedies in its rather light-hearted tale of two married couples who decide to exchange partners. Robinson ended his career with Amaranth (1934) and the posthumously published King Jasper (1935), two allegorical works that combine themes associated with vocation, wisdom, and the ability to change.
Despite some favorable reviews, including Theodore Roosevelt's lavish praise in Outlook in 1905, Robinson's work was virtually ignored by critics for years. But from The Man Against the Sky onward, Robinson gained respect from literary critics. He won three Pulitzer Prizes, for Collected Poems in 1922, The Man Who Died Twice in 1925, and Tristram in 1928. During the final years of his career Robinson was generally considered to be among the foremost American poets of the era. To Modernist critics, including T. S. Eliot and R. P. Blackmur, however, Robinson's importance to twentieth-century poetry was negligible, primarily because of his dismissal of free verse and other forms of technical experimentation. Critics of the mid-twentieth century considered Robinson to be a transitional figure in the development of American poetry. By the late twentieth century numerous aspects of Robinson's poetry appealed to literary scholars, including his focus on ordinary characters, his often ironic point of view, his use of simple, understated language, his concept of redemption, his alienation from a society oriented primarily toward financial success, and his responses to contemporary intellectual and religious trends.