“Richard Cory” Edwin Arlington Robinson

The following entry represents criticism of Robinson's poem “Richard Cory.”

Though it was the latter part of Robinson's long career as a poet that brought him prestige, including three Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920s, it is for several early, short poems that he is best known. “Richard Cory,” which first appeared in Robinson's self-published 1897 volume, The Children of the Night, is perhaps the most famous of these. “Richard Cory” is a complex tale in sixteen compact lines that discusses themes of self-deception and spiritual emptiness. It shows Robinson's characteristic combination of traditional poetic form and lean, modern diction. The poem's themes and form lend themselves well to classroom discussion, and it has been frequently studied and anthologized.

Plot and Major Characters

“Richard Cory” is a story told at a remove by a narrator who “went without meat and cursed the bread.” The narrator speaks for the rest of the poor in the town when he claims that “we people on the pavement looked at him” and “we thought that he was everything.” In the first three stanzas the narrator praises Richard Cory, painting him as a “gentlemen from sole to crown” who “glittered when he walked.” The rich, popular, and refined Cory is envied by those around him for seemingly having all that life has to offer. The fourth stanza, however, takes a tragic turn and ends with Cory's suicide: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head.” There are no clues given in the poem as to why Cory commits suicide. An 1897 letter of Robinson's quoted in Wallace L. Anderson's Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction suggests that “Richard Cory” was based on, or at least instigated by, the suicide of an acquaintance of Robinson’s. Harry R. Garvin cautions against attaching too much importance to this origin, remarking, “I find autobiographical elements of highly limited critical relevance to Robinson's poems.” Still, a reader of “Richard Cory” might note that in his correspondence Robinson more than once displayed a sympathetic attitude toward suicides.

Major Themes

”Richard Cory” is the portrait of a man who appears to have everything. The poem ends when this glorious figure commits an apparently incomprehensible act of suicide. Ellsworth Barnard wrote that “the first fourteen lines are a painstaking preparation for the last two, with their stunning overturn of popular belief.” Critics generally have read the poem as the tale of a rich man with a hollow center, or as a comment on the gulf between appearance and reality. Dissenting critical voices have pinned the blame for Richard Cory's death on a variety of factors, including rejection by other townspeople, mental illness, and frustrated artistic impulses.

Critical Reception

While some critics have attacked “Richard Cory” as didactic and overly neat in its ironies, others have been impressed by its diction and construction—Ellsworth Barnard describes the poem as “carefully put together.” Charles Burkhart contends that “Richard Cory” is a paradox. The critic is unable to dismiss the poem's “obtrusive didacticism,” but at the same time finds in Robinson's methods “an organic scheme which enhances the interest of [the poem] and enlarges [the poem's] intention considerably.” This is rather guarded praise and suggests that “Richard Cory” is admired more as an example of fine skill than as a work of literary inspiration, but they reflect a critical consensus on Robinson's craftsmanship. Concerning the ending of “Richard Cory,” critical reaction is more sharply divided. Yvor Winters called the shock of the suicide “a very cheap surprise ending.” Wallace L. Anderson defends Robinson’s use of the surprise ending as a legitimate literary device, and claims that the poem “has a rich complexity that becomes increasingly rewarding with successive readings.” In any case, “Richard Cory” engages readers' imaginations—the poem has survived a series of dismissals and reappraisals of its author's place in American literature, and it remains the most-read effort of the writer Robert Frost called “the prince of heartachers.”