“Miniver Cheevy” is a short poem of thirty-two lines satirizing an embittered town drunkard who bemoans the difference between a romantic heroic past and a mundane modernity and yet does nothing to improve his squalid lot in life. The satire is a double-edged blade, undercutting both the illusions of the do-nothing dreamer and his complaints about the triteness of his modern environment. The weight of the ridicule, however, is leveled primarily against the speaker.
Reared in Gardiner, Maine, Edwin Arlington Robinson created a mythical “Tilbury Town” out of his New England birthplace and populated the fictional place with eccentrics, such as Miniver Cheevy, who lead wasted, blighted, or impoverished lives. Robinson’s work was an American exemplar of the realism permeating European literature, especially novels and short stories, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Appropriately, “Miniver Cheevy” reads like a revealing and realistic short story in verse, providing readers with a snapshot portrait of a main character whose story is a sad case of inaction and arrested development lost in futile reverie.
The poem opens with Miniver Cheevy so wrapped up in dreams of the past that he loses weight and weeps in self-pity. His frustration stems from idealized visions of medieval glory and classical heroism set in Camelot (King Arthur’s legendary castle), Thebes (the realm of Sophocles’ Oedipus), and Troy (King Priam’s doomed city in the Iliad). Sadly, any romance or artistry that once gave rise to epic poetry and grand tragedy seems to him to have dwindled in the present to the stature of a bum on local welfare (“now on the town”).
So it is that Miniver daydreams about legendary personages, such as the Medici rulers of Renaissance Florence, whose wickedness would incite him to perform his own evil deeds, if only he could escape into the past and be a member of that infamous family. He would gladly trade his commonplace clothing for medieval armor, although he still holds on to some modern corruptions, such as his love of money, which otherwise he scorns in his escapist imagination.
Poor Miniver, “born too late,” wastes his life in intense, useless contemplation that leads to confusion of mind. He blames his futility, not on himself, but on the unlucky timing of his existence, as alcohol fuels his irresponsible dreams.