The son of Mary Elizabeth Palmer and Edward Robinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson was born on December 22, 1869, in Head Tide, Maine. Although he grew up in the small-town environment of Gardiner, Maine, fortunate childhood friends led to the cultivation of his taste for poetry and the classics. Robinson fell in love with Emma Shepherd in 1887 but encouraged her to marry his brother in 1890 in part because he felt that his devotion to writing would be unfair to her.
While Robinson attended Harvard University between 1891 and 1893, his father’s death in 1892 and a worldwide economic depression in 1893 took a heavy toll on his family’s timber business. Financial hardship forced Robinson to return home, where both his morphine-addicted brother and his mortally ill mother needed care. In 1896, the year his mother died, Robinson self-published The Torrent and the Night Before, which he revised the following year and self-published as The Children of the Night. Fleeing his lingering feelings for Emma and evidence of her unhappy marriage, Robinson moved in 1897 to New York City, where he steadily sank into poverty.
After President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorable review of The Children of the Night, Scribner’s re-released the book in 1905. This volume introduced readers to Tilbury Town, Robinson’s fictional small community of lonely dreamers and enigmatic eccentrics battered by life. The book included poems that later would be frequently anthologized: “Luke Havergal,” “Reuben Bright,” “Cliff Klingenhagen,” and especially “Richard Cory.” Such popularity was slow to arrive, however, because critics generally ignored or dismissed The Children of the Night and also his next book, Captain Craig (1902). Robinson languished in poverty until Roosevelt assigned him to a customs house, where, until 1909, his unofficial job was to write poetry.
The Town Down the River (1910), Robinson’s next book, was dedicated to Roosevelt and earned some positive critical attention. His reputation also received a boost from The Man Against the Sky (1916), which was particularly praised by the influential poet Amy Lowell. After four more books, Robinson’s Collected Poems (1921) was published and won a Pulitzer Prize. His The Man Who Died Twice (1924) won another Pulitzer, and Tristram (1927) took a third Pulitzer, after which Robinson was financially comfortable until the end of his life. He died of stomach cancer on April 6, 1935, in New York City.
Edwin Arlington Robinson does not conclude his poems with explanations for the situations depicted in them. The reader must carefully look for clues in the wording of the poetry in order to piece together each story’s puzzle. Still, there are many missing pieces, and this poet-managed insufficiency of detail always prevents the reader from putting together the whole story. So many missing pieces likewise tend to prevent the reader from making easy moral judgments about Richard Cory, Miniver Cheevy, Flammonde, Eben Flood, or even Demos.
By the standards of the biographer’s world, the life of Edwin Arlington Robinson provides little that is exciting. Born on December 22, 1869, in Head Tide, Maine, the third son of Edward and Mary Palmer Robinson, he led a life characterized by a very low profile, even after he was acknowledged by a number of critics and scholars in the 1920’s as America’s most distinguished poet. He shunned the public attention that was his for the asking, preferring instead to write in relative seclusion and to associate with only a very few close friends. Occasionally, he consented to an interview, but he never gave lectures or public readings of his poetry, or engaged in any activity in which he would have been the center of attention.
Ten months after his birth, the Robinson family moved to Gardiner, Maine, where his father, who had made his fortune in the timber business, became a civic figure and was elected to the state legislature. Although his father saw little need for his sons to...
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