The Man Against the Sky

by Edwin Arlington Robinson
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

First published: 1916

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Type of work: Poetry

Critical Evaluation:

One of the most difficult of American poets to pigeonhole is Edwin Arlington Robinson. If critics try to file him away under the label of the prolix and wordy poets, he refutes them with the sparkling simplicity of such character sketches as "Bewick Finzer" and "Richard Cory"; if they decide he is coldly intellectual, they need only read TRISTRAM to discover a warm and passionate love story; if they try to stuff him into that compartment occupied by poets who take themselves too seriously, such witty masterpieces as "Miniver Cheevy" and "Mr. Flood's Party" will laugh at them forever. Yet in spite of these many talents, Robinson has somewhat grudgingly been given the status of a major American poet, and critics who specialize in "modern" poetry tend to omit him from their discussions or to brush him off with a word or two. Possibly the very fact that he cannot be pigeonholed and does not belong to any school or movement accounts for this strange neglect. And strange neglect it is, for Robinson is one of the most interesting and readable poets of our time.

In THE MAN AGAINST THE SKY, the early volume that first brought him the critical acclaim that now seems to be waning, Robinson is at his best; and nearly all the types of poetry he was to write are skillfully represented here. Only his talent for handling long narratives, as found in his Arthurian trilogy and his novels in verse, such as CAVENDER'S HOUSE, is lacking, and perhaps even this aspect of this work is foreshadowed in miniature by "Llewellyn and the Tree," the triangle story of a man, his shrewish wife, and Fate.

The light touch that created Miniver Cheevy and Mr. Flood introduces us in this volume to "Old King Cole":

No crown annoyed his honest head,No fiddlers three were called or needed;For two disastrous heirs insteadMade music more than ever three did.

The story of the old man cursed with two wild and worthless sons is essentially a tragic one, but Robinson lets the old fellow take such a merry and philosophical attitude toward his troubles that the reader is amused rather than saddened. This effect is a variation on a well-known skill of Robinson's: in his character sketches he celebrates people who would ordinarily be judged as failures and charmingly turns defeat into a contented, if not glorious, triumph. Robinson is likely to be remembered best for these short poems which are alive with strange and interesting characters. In THE MAN AGAINST THE SKY we first meet Flammonde, that "Prince of Castaways" who comes to Tilbury Town "from God knows where." Flammonde finally is able to make the townspeople see the good points in a woman of bad reputation, to help them raise money for the education of a gifted boy, and to patch up a quarrel between two citizens of the town. But Flammonde himself remains a mystery, an apparent failure in life. In "The Gift of God" we are introduced to the fond and foolish mother who in her dreams ennobles a son who is just an average young man; but her triumph comes in the very nobility of that dream. "The Poor Relation" is less subtle than many of Robinson's sketches, but it is an effective portrait of an old woman who is "unsought, unthought-of, and unheard." And, of course, there is Bewick Finzer, the man of wealth whose brain crumbles when he loses all his money; a sad reminder to the more fortunate, he comes begging for loans:

Familiar as an old mistake,And futile as regret.

Still another fine short poem is "John Gorham," but this one differs from Robinson's other sketches in its ballad-like form. Two young people, Gorham and Jane Wayland, speak to each other in alternating stanzas; they break off their romance in most surprising fashion.

The piece de resistance of the volume is the long dramatic monologue, "Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford." Using the few known facts of Shakespeare's life and the many hints found in the plays and sonnets, the poet gives us as fine a characterization of Shakespeare as can be found anywhere. Robinson's setting is a simple one: Ben Jonson meets an alderman from Stratford and treats him to a few drinks in a London tavern. While drinking, Ben talks about "this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare." The poem is centered around the bard's very human wish to retire to the finest house in Stratford and live out his life as a country squire. In developing this theme, Robinson credits Ben with some astute observations on Shakespeare's skill as a playwright, on his troubles with women, on the contrast between his simple ambitions and his tremendous success as a writer, and on his feelings toward "a phantom world he sounded and found wanting." Part of the pleasure in reading this poem comes from recognizing the sources from which Robinson has drawn his material; for instance, Shakespeare's troubled love life derives from the recorded facts of his strange marriage to Anne Hathaway and from the "dark lady" of the sonnets; for Shakespeare's outlook on life Robinson draws chiefly on the graveyard scene in HAMLET, an interesting source because Robinson has definitely "weighted" his poem so that it becomes a sort of literary triple-play—Shakespeare to Jonson to Robinson—and he makes Robinson the key man. Here is a passage in which Jonson, when he meets Shakespeare "down Lambeth way," quotes the bard as philosophizing in a gloomy mood. This could undoubtedly be Shakespeare speaking, but might it not also be pure Robinson?

"Your fly will serve as well as anybody,And what's his hour? He flies, and flies,and flies,And in his fly's mind has a brave ap-pearance;And then your spider gets him in hernet,And eats him up and hangs him up todry.That's Nature, the kind mother of usall.And then your slattern housemaidswings her broom,And where's your spider? And that'sNature, also.It's Nature, and it's Nothing. It's allNothing. . . ."

This type of philosophy has its counterpart in the title piece of Robinson's volume. The poet has been called a "muddy thinker," but a careful reading of "The Man Against the Sky" reveals not muddiness but the honest outlook of a man who, like so many others, is unsure of the meaning of birth, life, and death. Robinson is not the first to suggest that man, in his search for the answer to the riddle, will find that the problem is a personal one, that "mostly alone he goes." Robinson places his Man on a hill against the red glare of the sunset and then speculates on the forces that brought him there and the fate that lies ahead of him:

Whatever dark road he may have taken,This man who stood on highAnd faced alone the sky,Whatever drove or lured or guidedhim,—A vision answering a faith unshaken,An easy trust assumed of easy trials,A sick negation born of weak denials,A crazed abhorrence of an old condi-tion,A blind attendance on a brief ambi-tion,—Whatever stayed him or derided him,His way was even as ours;And we, with all our wounds and allour powers,Must each await alone at his ownheightAnother darkness or another light. . . .

Aside from its philosophical import, this poem also illustrates well the style that is so definitely Robinson's: without straining, he combines a colloquial rhythm that is smooth and offhand with a scholarly choice of words that does not fear the polysyllable. In "The Man Against the Sky" such words as "atrabilious" and "hierophants" are slipped in as if they were inevitable.

THE MAN AGAINST THE SKY is not a perfect volume by any means. There are flat poems (after all, the level of "Eros Turannos" and "Bewick Finzer" is a difficult one to sustain) and even in some of the best ones there are lines that string together a series of what might be called "bland" words, the kind that get a poem started or keep it moving but contribute almost nothing of connotative value. Robinson's diction is usually so effective that these lapses seem especially egregious. Sometimes, too, Robinson sacrifices the exact word in order to make a rhyme; for example, in the third stanza of "Old King Cole" the poet has chosen "affair" to rhyme with "pair"; the choice tends to blur the meaning. These objections are minor ones, however, when set against the overall effectiveness of the volume. It seems certain that Robinson, aided by a universality that lifts him above any school, movement, period, or region (the New England flavor blends in like a tart but unobtrusive spice) will survive his current critical neglect and emerge as one of the finest of American poets.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, Wallace L. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
  • Coxe, Louis. Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
  • Franchere, Hoyt C. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Twayne, 1968.
  • Joyner, Nancy Carol. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
  • Murphy, Francis, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
  • Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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