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...
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- Critical Essays