Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2129
SOURCE: “The Note of Futility: New England and New York,” in From Whitman to Sandburg in American Poetry: A Critical Survey, The Macmillan Company, 1924, pp. 184-92.
[In the following excerpt, Weirick assesses Robinson's place in the pantheon of great American poets, concluding that Robinson and his contemporary, Robert Frost, are craftsmen rather than geniuses. Additionally, the critic examines “Richard Cory,” and argues that the mysterious distance between Cory and his neighbors mirror Robinson's own perceived distance from the rest of humanity.]
To step from [Robert] Frost to [Edwin Arlington] Robinson is to go from rural New England to the cultivated environment of a cosmopolitan recluse in the city of New York. Yet though its material changes, Robinson's world, like Frost's, is quiet and sometimes tired, disregarding wearily very much of the tumult of the times. Instead of Frost's simple world, Robinson offers us a world of art, of subtlety, of libraries and books, of curious cultivated persons of immaculate clothes and interesting psychology. He is a poet of infinite polish, infinite care, and impeccable reserve. In him we have less nature and more art. I am not sure that we have more poetry.
The steady level of his poetry may be matched by the steadiness of his career. Since 1890 he has lived in New York, a bachelor, carefully eschewing wealth and easy occupations, always the serious and diligent, somewhat shy artist. He has, indeed, lived for poetry and nothing else, and the result is to-day a collected volume of six hundred pages. In spite of the assistance of Mr. Roosevelt some years ago, Mr. Robinson has never succeeded in impressing himself on the general American public. His fame has been of slow growth, and with the few. The question arises, how much of a success is it; and how much of it is apt to endure?
And first let us say that as a poet of New York, he does not express the multifariousness of New York, and as a descendent of New England, he expresses little or nothing of its various spirit or scene. His is rather a library culture. Much of his poetry is but the warmings over of English literature, of Malory and Tennyson and the Arthurian legend, and is devoid of reference to the contemporary and the actual. And these retellings are not, be it said, usually very interesting or very important, though they often have in them passages of finish and beauty. One marvels at the unflagging effort spent on Merlin, or on Captain Craig, but with the best will in the world attention flags. Lancelot, his best long poem, is fine writing, exquisite, and in some of its flights, shot full of wonder and romantic longing. But even here some of the faults of the other long poems appear. An oversubtlety, an obscurity in allusion, a minute attention to the psychology of characters which are but dimly adumbrated in the reader's consciousness, and no very stirring narrative to rouse or hold attention, all these are faults and obvious ones, which neither these nor any other poems can afford to stagger under. It is useless to deny it, most of Robinson's longer works are dull, and will not, like Browning, to whom Robinson has often been compared in obscurity and subtlety, repay the reader with pearls of pleasure for his deep diving into their waters.
What then may the reader who takes a seat by the library fire with this poet expect? Is it worth while? I for one think it is, and for the sake of perhaps a dozen short poems, and a point of view. Let us imagine the setting. It is that of a fireside room done in brown tones, quiet and rich with human meanings. Our host a reserved, though quietly genial scholar and poet, intent on contemplation of life and its motives and mysteries. Not that we get the impression that our host has himself lived much of life. That question does not at first arise. Himself he keeps in the background, well subdued into the brown tones of the study. He is the detached observer. And the life he observes is, therefore, also always a little detached and mysterious. Of his hero, Richard Cory, for instance, the impeccable person who committed suicide, the poet knows only what a neighbor might know; and of Flammonde, only of his good deeds and that there was a heart to his mystery never quite solved. Indeed, as we sit and hear our host descant on these former neighbors of his, glossing his comments with the high illumination of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, and teasing us with touches of beauty and elusiveness, the thought suddenly strikes one that the host is after all quite as much a mystery as any he has discovered. And we find ourselves thinking: yes, but what of you? Why have you not lived more than to sit here and contemplate these odd people? And when we arrive there, we are already one with the host, and are in the mood to produce, psychologically at least, one of Mr. Robinson's best poems. For all his best poems are about men who were in some sense mysterious. The point of view, therefore, which the visitor at Mr. Robinson's fire will acquire is that of the romance in human motive. It is perhaps his chief contribution to his time.
These romances, or mysteries of character, which his best verses celebrate may be briefly indicated. Flammonde, for instance, is the modern Christ, a man who never himself succeeded, but who at the right points touched other lives vitally into success. What devil at his heart gnawed him out of the destinies that were his right we are left to conjecture. “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” shows Jonson ruminating, and striving to unravel the heart of Shakespeare's mystery. In “The Master,” Lincoln appears, “Laconic—and Olympian,” and in “Calverly's,” the snows of oblivion gradually eliminate all that was once so loving and lovely in the lives of the old charmed circle which the poet knew, a circle, like most, of evanescent Bohemians, haunting, delightful, and now no more to earth than the dead moons of Ilion. Such a list could be impressively extended, and it is, I think, important in its ability to let us into the poet's psychology. His are the passions of reminiscence, of observation, repression, and leisure, in short the passions of the studious observer, and not of the full-blooded liver of life. And so the secondary and derivative character of his poetry becomes clear, and it is easy to see why his successes are of so limited a nature. He has taken his stand as an observer and questioner, rather than as a partaker, and so he turns naturally to those careers and characters that are, like his own, romantic, aloof, and somewhat homeless.
But these mysteries of character, aurad as they are with the dim halo of futility, are not always sad. Sometimes they compass a humorous futility, sometimes the emphasis is intellectual, a puzzle, and sometimes as in “Calverly's,” the futility is that of a friendly and pathetic romanticism. “Miniver Cheevy” is, for instance, a fine satire on the æsthetic-sham hero who longed for a distant romance in Thebes and Camelot, but who made drink instead of poetry his New York anodyne. “Uncle Ananias” glorifies charmingly a romantic liar; and “Old King Cole” adds unction to reserve in giving us a portrait of the old Dutch hedonist whose continental repose not even his wicked sons could shake. Then in a more romantic vein, “Flammonde” gives us the royal vagabond who is a prince of peace, who has the gift to live in the world, nor care for its follies, be human, and yet glimpse for others at least some of life's ultimate horizons. He escapes from life without disaster, even though he is a kind of benevolent Wandering Jew, mysterious, and hiding his secret under a mask. We have a teasing hint that such benefactors do not usually escape crucifixion.
“Rarely at once will nature give The power to be Flammonde and live,”
though why their benefactions should meet with such a return, I for one do not know. In a cooler romantic vein is that polished tragedy “Richard Cory,” the man about town, rich, “clean-favored,” “imperially slim,” a man apparently without a flaw or grief, who yet one calm summer night, much to the world's surprise, and the reader's horror,
“Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
Why? That is for us to wonder. Perhaps the empty glitter of perfection filled him, or some secret horror seized on his mind and oppressed him, or it may be that he needed a flaw or sin to live by—we are left in doubt. To me, however, the greatest of Robinson's poems is “Calverly's,” a poem fine and friendly with the wines of romance, and the pathos of old friendships gone, and the mystery and doubt that awaits the dreamers of this world. It seems to me richer, and more freighted with passion than any of the others.
We go no more to Calverly's, For there the lights are few and low; And who are there to see by them, Or what they see, we do not know. Poor strangers of another tongue May now creep in from anywhere, And we, forgotten, be no more Than twilight on a ruin there.
We two, the remnant. All the rest Are cold and quiet. You nor I, Nor fiddle now, nor flagon-lid, May ring them back from where they lie. No fame delays oblivion For them, but something yet survives: A record written fair, could we But read the book of scattered lives.
There'll be a page for Leffingwell, And one for Lingard, the moon-calf; And who knows what for Clavering, Who died because he couldn't laugh? Who knows or cares? No sign is here, No face, no voice, no memory: No Lingard with his eerie joy, No Clavering, no Calverly.
We cannot have them here with us To say where their light lives are gone, Or if they be of other stuff Than are the moons of Ilion. So, be their place of one estate With ashes, echoes, and old wars,— Or ever we be of the night, Or we be lost among the stars.
Yet those who read Robinson long, will feel in him, I think, as in Frost, a certain narrowness and stinginess. In him there is certainly not God's plenty, not perhaps even New York's plenty. As a critic of life we must feel his inadequacy, and as a poet his ineffectual sterility. Passion certainly is not his, but in its place resignation, reserve, smooth irony, and at best a dim romantic wonder at the idleness of fate. He has perhaps avoided danger, and has lived frugally on his income—but his is the fate of all those who prefer safety to adventure and a chance of ruin; he will not greatly endow his descendants at his decease. Nevertheless, though he lacks opulence, he has set standards of workmanship that achieve distinction, and has given us in a dozen of his poems, worth that will not quickly cease.
In the line of years Frost and Robinson more closely resemble the albuminous Victorians than they do our poets of a national or naturalistic bent. Whitman's mystical ecstasy, his confidence in the universe has never caught them; nor do they thrill with Moody's passion for social justice, or experience with him the soul-transforming mystery of Good Friday Night. To the higher reaches of spiritual joy, to the wider meanings of national destiny, Frost and Robinson seem quite indifferent, or at least skeptical. The excitements of life they have waved aside to consult its calms. And so we see them carrying on the great traditions of English poetry, but with the left hand: in New England, Frost, submerged in the personal world of man and nature, vacuously idle, a mere swinger of birches; and in New York, Robinson, submerged in the fastidious, in the subtleties of books and men, a frugal, though friendly futilitarian, burning in his study a candle that is almost done.
Though much of the criticism of the latest poets is in book reviews and magazine articles, and must be sought in The Reader's Guide to periodicals, the following works will prove indispensable to the reader of modern verse:
Poetry Magazine, 1912-1923.
Jessie B. Rittenhouse's Little Book of Modern Verse and Second Book of Modern Verse; The Younger American Poets.
Monroe and Henderson, The New Poetry, 1917, 1923.
Louis Untermeyer, The New Era in American Poetry; American Poetry Since 1900, Holt, 1923.
Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry.
Harry Hansen, Midwest Portraits, Harcourt, Brace, 1923.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1278
SOURCE: “Poems Pickled in Anthological Brine,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 20, No. 7, October, 1958, pp. 1, 4.
[In the following essay, Garvin advocates a fresh and careful rereading of “Richard Cory,” as well as of other poems whose impact has been blunted by fame.]
Famous poems have a ready-made audience with ready-made appreciations. If through a chance ignorance a reader comes innocently and freshly upon a famous poem, its reputation may subsequently bestill his first vibrant impressions, particularly if he teaches poetry, with the result that his first emotions toward the poem will readily be recalled but no longer be felt. Sometimes the immediate success of a fine poem—[Edwin Arlington Robinson's] “Richard Cory,” for example—keeps it from being read properly. Readers eventually exhaust the aesthetic possibilities of merely good poems; but a poem that is greatly good or even finely good is inexhaustible; and a failure in sensitiveness towards such a poem lies with the reader.
A peccant humour of the professor is a failure in sensitiveness towards anthological poems. Famous poems force their reputations and accepted meanings upon the unsure and the unwary teacher. And even if an experienced professor makes a careful study of the poem and actually experiences it deeply, his subsequent aesthetic perceptions into the whole poem, after teaching it a dozen times, may become as opaque as a native's glance at the lovely hills surrounding his town. We might mischievously inquire of a professor and of a critic which famous poems he still can read freshly and which he likes and interprets in accordance with the fashion, mainly because he himself has never studied or appreciated them closely.
It is not hard to find most of the reasons why we normally read anthological poems too smoothly. Often the famous lines in a poem roll so readily over our tongues and in our minds that we never analyze them quite. A mischievous inquirer can gather an enervating list of familiar quotations from Shakespeare that contain words with Elizabethan meanings that some of us have never learned and that have leaves of meanings or just a plain meaning we have never really attended to. The surface meanings of many famous poems are often sufficiently interesting to keep even analytical critics from feeling their usual need to penetrate to closer meanings. Ideally, the professor and the critic should be able to listen with a third ear.
A professor should be grateful when students drop disturbing elements into the rhythm of his worn interpretations of famous poems. The sovereign remedy for the peccant humour is the hardest: to possess the poem thoroughly. Without stopping to argue the points here, I shall maintain that achieving a full aesthetic experience with an excellent poem requires a mind rich in its knowledge of the cultural situation (involving historical, biographical, critical, psychological, sociological and philosophical elements surrounding the poem)—all directed towards the poem itself, though such knowledge can of course endanger the experience; and that it takes an even richer mind to understand one's experience and to evaluate the poem critically. But there are too many great poems to be mastered, even by a heroic teacher of poetry; and the professor must generally rely on more common remedies, which can provide an adequate if incomplete mastery and can help him sustain his sensitiveness towards a poem.
Merely by looking at nature, for example, one can sometimes see into a well-known image smoothed out through time and repetition. I had often read with vague pleasure Wordsworth's “The winds that will be howling at all hours, / And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers.” It was only recently that some winds moving loudly across a wooded hill in the Buffalo Valley and gradually becoming quiet and still made me think that Wordsworth had in mind the cheeks of Aeolus's winds blowing and then slowly folding themselves to sleep like the petals of flowers. My own intimations of reality and poetry often need some help, however. It was a student who made me feel that in “London, 1802” a moon-image would be more appropriate than the star-image. A critic made me realize that T. S. Eliot in “Excite the membrane, when the sense cooled / … multiply variety / In a wilderness of mirrors,” is probably referring to sexual restimulation helped by mirrors. For years I had believed I fully understood these favorite lines. And it never occurred to me until I began a close analysis of Robert Frost's “Come In” that the poem has many meanings, including a brief apologia for his inability to write “dark,” tragic poetry. The ways out of ignorance and insensitiveness are many.
Especially common is to find an anthological poem so satisfying on one level that readers many long overlook other possible levels of poetic intention and meaning. Let me summarize briefly a recent experience with a famous poem.
In demonstrating to a class that differing interpretations necessitate different oral readings, I led myself, partly by chance, into a full study of “Richard Cory” leading to a new interpretation, appreciation, and evaluation of the poem. Before making this study I had frankly become bored by the poem because its aesthetic possibilities seemed exhausted. I now believe that Robinson had many reasons to complain, enigmatically, that this famous poem, already “pickled in anthological brine,” was not properly understood. Some famous poems, like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” have excited critical sensibilities despite the anthologies; the anthologies have somehow lulled the sensibilities of the readers of “Richard Cory.”
The interpretation I commonly found among critics and colleagues is that Richard Cory committed suicide because of his “spiritual vacancy” and his lack of purpose and that the “people on the pavement” are surprised by the self-violence of so imperial a man and are somewhat awed by the mystery of life. The evaluations of the poem move to extremes: it is either “a landmark” and “secure among American classics” or “a superficially neat portrait of the elegant man of mystery … (that) builds up to a cheap surprise ending.” My study of the cultural situation surrounding the poem has led me to conclude not that the usual interpretations are clearly wrong but that even when right they do not go deeply enough to illuminate what Robinson has subtly put into the text.
Richard Cory does not have an elegant, temperamental flaw but rather a moral flaw—the sin of indifference to others—of which “we people on the pavement” are bitterly aware. When Cory shoots himself, these people are not deeply surprised, and they do not feel any sadness but rather a retributive satisfaction. Robinson, a humane moralist, has more compassion for Richard Cory than they have. There is evidence within the poem and confirming evidence outside it to justify the belief that Robinson is judging the people for their rancorous satisfaction as well as Richard Cory for his moral flaw of indifference.
Such a re-interpretation suggests that “Richard Cory” has a greater depth of poetic indirection, of insight, and of meaning than is generally felt by readers. Though Robinson's imagery is adequate only, “Richard Cory”—like all his best poems—has other kinds of beauty and complexity.
Anthological poems like “Richard Cory” dramatize the professor's peccant humour of feeling what he is supposed to feel about a poem instead of what he really feels. He needs to make use of the many remedies to combat the slowly stultifying effects of familiarity, repetition, and the winds of interpretation. On guard, he can each semester study carefully two or three poems among the divers famous poems in an anthology in order to keep his peccant humor from becoming a formed disease.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
SOURCE: “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” in Explicator, Vol. 19, No. 2, November, 1960, item 9.
[In the following essay, Burkhart analyzes the role of word choice in “Richard Cory,” pointing out that Robinson creates a series of contrasts between Cory and the townspeople as well as between Cory's inward and outward selves.]
The paradox on which [Edwin Arlington Robinson's] “Richard Cory” is constructed is one familiar enough that the poem itself may seem to lack poetic “surprise,” despite the neatness of the anecdote and the effectively colloquial, almost vulgar, terseness with which Robinson concludes it. The surprise of the poem seems closer to O. Henry than to poetry. One can treat it as no more than an exemplum, and it lends itself to several clichés—appearances are deceiving, the grass is always greener, etc.—so easily that it may seem merely to point a prosaic and tritely ironic moral and to lack all richness of implication.
Without quite dismissing the obtrusive didacticism of the poem, however, one can find in Robinson's methods an organic scheme which enhances the interest of it and enlarges its intention considerably. The entire poem is built upon the use of contrasts which support the fundamental contrast between the splendid appearance of Richard Cory's life and the harsh reality of whatever disease of the soul led him to end it.
Cory is made a king, an isolated and remote figure in contrast to the people of the town: he is “imperially slim,” “crown” is connotative in “from sole to crown,” he “glittered when he walked,” he is even “richer than a king.” So superhumanly grand does he seem that the spokesman of the townspeople finds it necessary to point out that “he was always human.” The townspeople, themselves “on the pavement,” with its suggestion of poverty and debasement relative to Cory, lead too-human lives of monotonous work (“So on we worked”) and ordinary deprivation (“went without the meat, and cursed the bread”).
The townspeople are passive, and Cory is active—the irony of his activity being that it culminates in the deed of suicide. Cory moves in a variety of ways throughout the poem: he goes downtown, he talks, he glitters, he walks, he goes home, he shoots himself. The townspeople, however, are relatively stationary; arrested by Cory's appearance, they stand on the pavement to look at him, they wait, they go without. What action they do engage in is so monotonous as to contrast with the variety and apparent independence of Cory's actions: “So on we worked.” The effect of his movement on them is to grant them, in a pathetic echo of his own glittering progress a momentary and miniature activity: Cory “fluttered” their “pulses.” Their admiration and envy of Cory is static, a familiar illusion which brightens their drab lives.
Probably the most operative word in the poem is “glittered.” Not only does a prince among men glitter with crown and riches, but also the glitter is that of the light of knowledge which Cory apparently possesses. Cory seems to be “schooled in every grace,” while the unschooled townspeople in their dark ignorance “waited for the light.” Yet it is Cory whose soul is black with despair, since finally he ends his activities in suicide. The phrase “calm summer night” unites the light-dark imagery, since “summer” alone would suggest “light” and “night,” “dark.” Basically the glittering Cory's schooling is useless; it ends in the darkness of death.
What effect does Cory's death have on the townspeople? An answer is perhaps implicit in the tone of the last two lines. Here the technique of contrast is most open: it is on a “calm” summer night that Cory commits his final and violent deed. Although Cory has seemed to have the isolation of royalty, his deed shows that he was much more humanly beset than the townspeople in their ordinary human predicament. The brutal phrase “put a bullet through his head” seems to indicate that the effect of Cory's death is to give the townspeople a grim measure of knowledge at last. Their idol destroyed, and the illusion he created among them of life as possibly brilliant and rich, a more reasoned and less animal pessimism is possible. The light they waited for turns out to be the lesson of Cory's fate. Such a lesson is not a happy one. On this level, the exemplum becomes deeply ambiguous: that knowledge may be an illusory good is the rich core of “Richard Cory.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3294
SOURCE: “‘Comprehensive Criticism’: A Humanistic Discipline,” in Bucknell Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, May, 1962, pp. 313-21, 324-25.
[In the following excerpt, Garvin elaborates on his earlier ideas about “Richard Cory” in the course of discussing a new method of criticism. Garvin stresses the importance of Robinson's choice of and attitude toward the poem's narrator.]
In critical analyses of artists of the highest rank like Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe—and even of their major individual works—all the critical methods and all relevant objective, subjective, and cultural elements can, in principle, be fruitfully used. A practical critic, especially one doing comprehensive criticism, should be austere and discriminating in what he tries to make relevant, and he should remember how short-winded readers of criticism can be. In my attempt to animate some of these generalizations on relevance and comprehensive criticism, I shall therefore analyze Edwin Arlington Robinson's “Richard Cory” rather than a major work. My purpose is not to write a model comprehensive criticism—I am suspicious of models—but to indicate, in a self-conscious way, what is involved in doing a comprehensive criticism of even a single poem. Here I shall be more concerned with the method of inquiry than with my own resulting interpretation.
Recently I have become interested in why we respond to famous poems with ready-made appreciations and why, if on our own we manage to achieve rich impressions, we gradually lose the vibrancy of the impressions, with the result that our first emotions towards a famous poem will in later readings be recalled but no longer be felt. Does the fault lie in the failure of sensitiveness in the reader or in the exhausted aesthetic possibilities in the poem? My experiences with “Richard Cory” raise these as well as other questions and suggest a few answers.
I had never had a deep aesthetic experience with “Richard Cory” because it seemed, though arresting enough, to have but little depth and artistry. After teaching the poem a number of times I finally became thoroughly bored by it. One day, to demonstrate to a class that slight changes in interpretation require the oral reader to change his tone and emphasis, I changed arbitrarily my notions of the “people on the pavement” and thereby got my first clue that “Richard Cory” is more complex and meaningful than I had originally thought. Working with the text alone, and with only a casual knowledge of Robinson's poetry, I finally arrived at an interpretation that went considerably beyond the usual remarks about Robinson's ironic treatment of appearance and reality and of the mystery of life, and about Richard Cory's lack of purpose in life. I went to my colleagues and then to published criticisms of the poem. I soon concluded that Robinson had many reasons to complain, enigmatically, that this famous poem, very quickly “pickled in anthological brine,” was not properly understood. If “Richard Cory” is really as good as it is famous, then it deserves a more careful study than it has received.
To be sure, “Richard Cory” has its detractors. Critics with a subtly developed need for complexity in concrete imagery probably find this poem pleasant enough, but casually dismiss it. Even a few critics who place Robinson among the very best American poets find it meretricious. Ben Ray Redman, for example, thinks that the last lines of the poem do nothing to develop Cory's character and display “a kind of easy trickery that Robinson has consistently and triumphantly avoided.” And Yvor Winters insists that only sentimentally romantic readers can be impressed by the “superficially neat portrait of the elegant man of mystery; the poem builds up to a cheap surprise ending.”
The critics who place “Richard Cory” near the summit of Robinson's explorations into appearance and reality have not been clear about the reasons for their pronouncements and have not penetrated much beneath one level of meaning. Emery Neff, not at all disturbed by the surprise ending, gives no specific reasons for considering it “secure among American classics.” Edwin S. Fussell suggests that the poem is one of the “landmarks” in American literature and lets the matter rest. Ellsworth Barnard believes that there is in Cory a “spiritual vacancy” leading to suicide but “no hint of hidden guilt … egotism … or failure in duty to one's fellow men. … Why this spiritual vacancy exists is a mystery.” Estelle Kaplan, for whom the suicide is apparently no mystery at all, gives no evidence whatsoever why “disgust and self-pity” brought Cory to destruction.1 Remarks are not criticism.
I finally decided to explore my own interpretation (which by now had grown stubborn) and the critical remarks above by making a comprehensive study of the poem. I looked carefully into the biographical and critical studies of Robinson, into his letters and the reminiscences and letters of his friends, into his philosophy and his literary background, into the literary situation at the turn of the century, and above all into the rest of Robinson's poetry, particularly his poems about suicide and about indifference to others. (In this research I fortunately had one or two purposes independent of my interest in “Richard Cory.”) Frankly, a relatively small proportion of my inquiry into the cultural and subjective elements added significantly to my prior interpretation and evaluation of “Richard Cory” itself. But the inquiry confirmed and deepened some of my notions and hunches, changed others slightly, and made me aware of certain important matters that I now find imbedded within the poem but of which I would otherwise have remained ignorant, probably. Once I had picked up a scent, I found it hard to remain objective towards the evidence, but I at least kept returning to the poem itself in order to test my evolving notions of the poem. I insisted that the text bear witness to any outside material I felt might be relevant.
In brief, I now am convinced that “Richard Cory” is among the many finely good poems that have inexhaustible aesthetic possibilities. I have discovered a depth of poetic indirection, of insight, and of meaning in the character and in the poem. In the concluding lines Robinson is not playing a trick but rather is bringing out the dramatic colors that, adumbrated throughout, are altogether necessary to complete the portrait of Richard Cory. Though Robinson's verbal imagination is adequate only, all his best poems (among which “Richard Cory” unobtrusively belongs) have an abundance of other kinds of complexity and beauty. I am proposing that “Richard Cory” illuminates much more than the surprising differences between appearance and reality, that Cory does not have a temperamental but rather a moral flaw because of which “we people on the pavement,” aware of the flaw, judge him bitterly, that when Cory kills himself the townspeople feel neither a long surprise nor a sadness but rather a retributive satisfaction, and finally that the townspeople are also being judged by Robinson.
It is important to note that “Richard Cory” is the only Robinson poem in which the sullen poor, the people on the pavement, are clearly the ones who narrate a whole poem. Generally, when some kind of evil consumes a character, Robinson has another character (as in “Bokardo”) or the whole town (as in “Aaron Stark”) tell the tale. There are several reasons, as we shall see, why Robinson chose the sullen poor to tell about Richard Cory. Let us return to the text.
The people on the pavement cursed their lean sustenance (“the bread”) and went altogether without “the meat”—and looked at Richard Cory whenever he went downtown. (Bread and meat have here primarily an economic and social meaning rather than a Biblical allusiveness.) They naturally wished they were in his place, but all along they had quiet questions about this gentleman from sole to crown, richer than a king. Why didn't he just possess naturally the external graces instead of being “admirably schooled” in them? He was always quietly arrayed, but does a true gentleman glitter when he walks? He was always human “when he talked,” but why did he somehow seem less human before and after? And why did he not occasionally show a magnanimous awareness of their lot, since he had so much and they so little? His lack of genuine sympathy is pointedly implied by omission. So on the people worked and “waited for the light”—for at least some suggestion of answers to these and related questions. When Cory put a bullet through his head, they began to understand these cumulative hints of an inner despair and to suspect a hidden flaw in him; and then they felt a satisfaction in his suicide, a satisfaction that Robinson implies is understandable but hardly admirable.
Robinson himself deeply understands the hidden flaw that the people can suspect only. For Robinson, Cory's real flaw was probably his indifference to the sufferings of others; as Ellsworth Barnard points out, an indifference to others is a cardinal sin in Robinson's moral world.2 Though Robinson, a subtile and humane moralist, deliberately leaves part of the mystery of Cory undisturbed, it is probable that Robinson saw that it was not so much the emptiness of a rich man's life that brought Cory to some earthly despair and to catastrophe but rather the sin of an indifference that can spread within and destroy. It is not incorrect to say that Richard Cory had no purpose in life, suffered from “spiritual vacancy,” and took a gentlemanly way out; but Robinson put into the poem some deeper reasons for the suicide.
One sometimes finds it hard to resist trying to make a subjective conviction relevant to an art object. Let me try out an observation. It is of course conceivable that a man can be led to suicide by mere emptiness and by an inability to love others or to experience any of the passions, even hate. But these weaknesses merely point to the notorious condition of numberless people who do not commit suicide or any other violence. Always do the Laodiceans wonder what possible anguish can bring anyone to self-violence. Emptiness and insensitiveness are, after all, relatively negative frailties except for those who at one time were able to feel passionately. But the imperial indifference of Richard Cory to the suffering of his townsmen, while he had the financial means to lessen their sufferings, is a positive, corrosive flaw that gradually brought him to an impassioned discontent. Whether or not Richard Cory put a bullet through his head primarily because of this corrosive indifference is impossible to prove; but the evidence within the poem itself makes it probable that at least the people and the poet feel that a deep moral flaw helped bring about Cory's doom. Let me turn to some evidence outside the poem to confirm and complement such a re-interpretation of the poem.
In many other poems Robinson reveals various shades of the indifference he saw in Richard Cory. Robinson kept his eye steadily on the little unremembered acts of indifference in his characters as well as on their remembered callous acts. For example, he touches subtly on kinds of indifference in “Alma Mater,” “Clavering,” “But for the Grace of God,” in parts of Captain Craig. And he moves grandiosely against the evil in “Zola”:
Never until we conquer the uncouth Connivings of our shamed indifference (We call it Christian faith) are we to scan The racked and shrieking hideousness of Truth To find, in hate's polluted self-defence Throbbing, the pulse, the divine heart of man.(3)
Not so perceptively aware as Robinson was of Richard Cory's kind of indifference, the people on the pavement understood Cory better after his suicide, but they have not as yet forgiven him. Robinson understands Richard Cory more compassionately and has forgiven him as much as a moralist, even a cosmic moralist, can.
Robinson's tactic in letting the embittered people tell about Cory makes another maneuver possible for the poet—a maneuver that probably pleased an ironic moralist like Robinson.
Throughout Robinson's life and long career—he did not change any of his basic views—compassion and ironic understatement were two of the few ways he had of transcending his brooding, painful insights into frailties and evils. And his compassion unfailingly includes suicides. Robinson felt that even though a man confronting the sky can find more admirable and profound ways than self-destruction, a suicide at least reaches for some kind of self-determination and, at worst deserves some pity. In his art even more than in his personal life, Robinson went beyond pity and achieved a compassion and a sympathy for those who come to self-violence. He writes of the suspected suicide of one of his acquaintances:
He must have suffered hell during his latter days. … He was one of the most fascinating and (I may as well be honest) in some of the ways one of the most unhuman. He may have been inhuman also, but he was never that to me. So peace to him, wherever and whatever he is now. There was much in him that was good, and the rest is not … our affair. … A suicide signifies discouragement or despair—either of which is, or should be too far beyond the scope of our poor piddling human censure to require of our ignorance anything less than silence.4
In his poetry, Robinson is never bitter toward suicides, even when a character is morally worse than Richard Cory; for example, in “The Whip,” “The Mill,” “The Growth of Lorraine,” “Bon Voyage,” Roman Bartholow, Matthias at the Door, Amaranth, and King Jasper.5 And Robinson maneuvers throughout his poetry to avoid saying in his own personal voice bitter and despairingly pessimistic things. Critics much too readily identify Robinson with the narrators in his poems. When confronted by evil, he chooses his narrators carefully, and when seeming to speak in his own voice he always hits upon a mood and a moment in which he can treat evil with understanding rather than with heat, as in “Theophilus,” “Another Dark Lady,” and “An Old Story.”6 His insight into evil and indifference and his compassion for human kind in its travails give him a vantage point from which he can, as in “Richard Cory,” accept without rancor what he cannot manage to forgive quite.
And Robinson judges not only those who inflict harm but also those who endure it with rancor. Many of his poems deal with men and women who either succumb to rancor, or who overcome it even when outwardly they are defeated by the harm inflicted upon them (for example, Captain Craig, Lancelot, Lincoln, Roman Bartholow, John Brown, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Fernando Nash). By choosing the people on the pavement to tell the story of Richard Cory, Robinson maneuvers adroitly to suggest his own moral judgment upon these people even while they are bitterly judging Cory.
At this point we should recall that Robinson had a conservative view of social progress and of the goodness of man. He judged the millionaire and the coalheaver as individuals and was never sympathetic towards the lower classes as such. Indeed he made a few explicit and heavy-handed attacks on the mass mind, as in “The Master,” “Demos,” “Demos and Dionysus,” “On the Way,” and “The Revealer.”7 Robinson is especially critical of the mass mind when it is obtuse towards values and ideals and insensitive toward the unusual individual. This external evidence, it seems to me, makes it even more reasonable to believe that Robinson, though sharing and deepening the insight of the Tilbury poor into Richard Cory's flaw, did not share their rancorous satisfaction in his suicide and judged quietly their lack of forgiveness and compassion.
Such a reinterpretation of “Richard Cory” gives the poem a complexity and a subtlety that I find intrinsic to the poem itself. Many readers today have unfortunately stopped looking for the special kinds of poetic subtlety and ambiguity found characteristically in Robinson's poetry. …
In a comprehensive criticism it is especially necessary for the critic—since everything around the work can in principle be made relevant—to become clearly aware of what is not relevant to the work, or at least of what he himself cannot make relevant. The historical information I gathered is not, for example, fruitfully relevant to “Richard Cory” (1896); indeed, chronology and changes in texts are in general far less important in a criticism of Robinson than of Eliot, Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer. In criticizing “Richard Cory,” to be sure, I could not make use of the knowledge I happen to have of the literary situation around 1895 or of the English, European, classical, Biblical, and American influences upon Robinson. If, however, I were to criticize Robinson's The Man Against the Sky (1916) or Tristram (1927), a knowledge of the cultural situation in the first three decades of the century could be made relevant. When Panofsky, Berenson, and Boas evaluate Medieval and Renaissance paintings, their knowledge of icons obviously helps them to understand what is in the paintings and to transform their impressions and opinions into critical judgments. A resourceful critic, in his interpretation and evaluation, can make use of the textual revisions by Emily Dickinson, Henry James, James Joyce, and of the various dates of composition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Prelude.
I was unable to make much use of the biographical and autobiographical material about Robinson I now have, other than what I have included above; “Richard Cory” is not an autobiographical poem. Indeed, in a literary sense I find autobiographical elements of highly limited critical relevance to Robinson's poems; the intentional fallacy is rarely a danger in criticisms of Robinson. Yeats, on the other hand, is a good example of a poet who deliberately supplied autobiographical information intended to help us elucidate his poems; and in the use of this information the critic of Yeats (as of Henry James and Proust) is confronted by special vantage points and special temptations and dangers.
In my analysis I was able to make use of Robinson's views—as revealed in letters and reminiscences as well as in his other poems—of democracy, the rich, and the mass mind because these views seem to be behind Robinson's subtle criticism of the people on the pavement. For a short time I thought that Thomas Masaryk's and Emile Durkheim's theories of suicide might be made relevant; but I finally decided that these theories are not directly related to “Richard Cory.” I do not see how a knowledge of the sociological elements in the background of Robinson's work can possibly do more than supply a critic of his poems with minor hints and confirmations here and there; whereas in a comprehensive criticism of Dreiser, Sandburg, Galsworthy, Tennyson, Dickens, a critic could readily make some of the sociological and other cultural elements relevant to their works.
For the reference to the critics mentioned above see, respectively, Ben Ray Redman, Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1926), p. 37; Yvor Winters, Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1946), p. 52; Emery Neff, Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1948), p. 259; Edwin S. Fussell, Edwin Arlington Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1954), p. 183; Ellsworth Barnard, Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1952), p. 128; Estelle Kaplan, Philosophy in the Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1950), p. 36.
See Barnard, p. 127.
Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1930), p. 85. All page references for individual poems will refer to this edition.
Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1940), pp. 126-127. See also pp. 97, 123; and Hermann Hagedorn, Edwin Arlington Robinson, a Biography (New York, 1938), p. 55; Denham Sutcliffe (ed.), Untriangulated Stars (Cambridge, Mass., 1947), pp. 108-137.
See pages 338, 460, 91, 351, 733 for the first five examples.
See pages 39, 41, 76 respectively.
See pages 317, 471-472, 904, 474, 359 respectively. There is external evidence in Robinson's letters and in the reminiscences of friends that the poems reflect with some accuracy many of Robinson's views. See, for example, Selected Letters, pp. 121, 123, 84.
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SOURCE: “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” in Explicator, Vol. 23, No. 7, March, 1965, item 52.
[In the essay below, Morris argues that Robinson's choice of British-sounding words in “Richard Cory” evokes the class divide between Richard Cory and the townspeople who narrate the poem.]
Holding a different view on Edward Arlington Robinson's “Richard Cory” from that which marks Mr. Burkhart's comment (explicator, Nov., 1960, xix, 9), I am inspired to try again. Cory is made a king, it is true, but, judging from “pavement,” “sole to crown,” “clean favored,” “imperially slim,” “schooled,” and “in fine,” he is made an English king. For “pavement” we Americans would say “sidewalk”; for “from sole to crown” we would say “from head to foot.” Physically, this “gentleman”—a word used with special overtones in England—was “clean-favored”; Americans might say “trim” or “shapely.” And his education? He was “schooled in every grace”; to the English it would probably mean “trained in the arts of leisure.” “In fine”—we would say “in short”—he seemed to be everything and to have everything. Yet, “He put a bullet through his head.” Why?
Amy Lowell gives us part of the answer in describing the English character of Gardiner, Maine, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917, p. 11). “I know of no place in America,” says Miss Lowell, “so English in atmosphere as Gardiner, Maine. Standing on the broad, blue Kennebec, the little town nestles proudly beside that strange anomaly in an American city—the Manor House.” And yet, a part of all this, Richard Cory, possibly resembling one of the descendants of that arch-Tory of the American Revolution, Dr. Silvester Gardiner of Gardiner, put a bullet through his head. In one sense, he belonged to the past of the aristocratic English gentleman living in a modern democratic society just as irrevocably as Miniver Cheevy belonged to the past of the medieval knight. In another sense, while the suicide and character of Frank Avery, “who blew his brains out with a shotgun,” might have inspired the portrait of Richard Cory, Robinson's love of Hardy's “Life's Little Ironies” might explain why he used so many anglicisms in portraying the man “who put a bullet through his head.”
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SOURCE: “The Two Corys: A Sample of Inductive Teaching,” in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3, March, 1969, pp. 414-15.
[In the following essay, Clifton reports on her use of Robinson's poem “Richard Cory” together with the Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel song of the same title, to help high school students get at issues of authorial intent.]
When I teach poetry I try to lead the students to discover that a poem is not a message, it is an organism, that the words and rhythms and patterns of which it is made are an integral part of its being, and that it is made by plan rather than by accident. Because I love poetry, the poems I use as samples for the students to explore in finding what a poem is are often chosen primarily because they are poems I like, though they do exemplify concepts I want the students to grasp. Thus, as part of one poetry unit for a heterogeneously grouped eleventh-grade English class, I chose “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson to present as an example of the use of carefully chosen detail.
I began by reading the poem aloud, and the students' first comment was, “There's a song called “Richard Cory” by Simon and Garfunkel. “It's real good.” So I asked if anyone could bring a recording of it and delayed discussion of the poem until we had both versions available. The next day we played the song twice, so everyone could catch the words. As I listened, I was struck by the differences between the two versions. Accordingly, I began the discussion by asking whether the Richard Cory of the record was the same as the Richard Cory of the poem. The students reacted immediately to the question, pointing out many of the details Simon and Garfunkel had added to Robinson's poem. For instance, they noticed that in the song Cory is a “banker's only child,” he has “political connections,” he's constantly photographed for the news media, and he has “orgies on his yacht.” This led them back to the poem, where they found that there are no details on the source of Cory's income, and only vague ones about his background. They saw that in the poem Cory is presented as a kingly character in such references as “a gentleman from sole to crown,” “imperially slim,” and “richer than a king.” At this point they realized that in the song, the narrator, a worker like the narrator in the poem, works in Cory's factory. This, they pointed out, makes the Cory of the song at least partly responsible for the narrator's poverty, an irony not present in Robinson's poem.
Now they were ready for the question: “Which Cory do you like better, and why?” They decided that the Richard Cory of the poem was presented as a much nicer person than the one in the song. The Cory of the song was a playboy, a member of the “jet set,” who gained his pleasure at the expense of others and who seemed insincere even in the charity he gave. The friends he had seemed to be hangers-on who liked him only for his money, his charity, his orgies, and his fame. The students saw further that by leaving these details out of the poem and by including phrases like “he was always human when he talked,” Robinson made his Richard Cory a sympathetic character who attempts to meet his fellow townspeople on their own level. They also felt that Cory's loneliness in the poem results from the attitude of the townspeople who kept him at a distance by feeling that “He fluttered pulses when he said ‘Good morning’ / And he glittered when he walked.” At this point one student asked, “Why did Richard Cory kill himself?” Instead of answering, I threw the question back to the group. They realized almost immediately that Robinson's Cory must have killed himself for different reasons from those of Simon's Cory. Finally they decided that, though both Corys were lonely, Robinson's Cory was lonely because of his false friends and his false values.
In answer to my next question, they decided that the suicide in the poem was more tragic than the one in the song because they felt that the pain leading the former to suicide was a result of outside forces rather than of his own weakness and vices. Finally, they brought up the contrast between the narrator in the poem and the one in the song. They pointed out the importance of the refrain in the song which, repeated after each verse, even after the last in which Cory dies, makes the hearer far more aware of the narrator than he is when he reads the poem. They also said that the narrator is much more envious in the song, and much more foolish, because, even after Cory kills himself, the narrator sings, “I wish that I could be, / oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory.”
To sum up what they had learned, I asked them what created all the differences between the two versions, even though the plots were identical. At that point, they were able to see that the details the author selects create the impression he chooses—the point at which I had been aiming from the beginning when I chose to introduce that particular poem. I ended the lesson without asking which version was better—a deliberate move. I believe in respecting what's “theirs” as well as what's “mine,” and, since I enjoyed the song, I could conclude by saying honestly that neither was better, that they were simply different.
You may ask why I took such a roundabout way to reach such a simple conclusion. Why wait a day, get a record player, and take an hour to reach a conclusion I could have told my students in five minutes? First, the lesson was far more impressive taught this way. I'm sure they will remember much longer the conclusions they reached. Second, this method allowed the students to make a material contribution to what happened in the classroom that day. Here, I must admit, coincidence played a large part. But even in the other two classes where I duplicated the lesson, bringing the song in myself, the other benefits of the contrast still occurred. Third, using the contrast brought out the ideas about the poem and about how poetry works much more clearly than teaching Robinson's poem alone would have done. Last, and most important, this method demonstrated to the students the fact that they could understand poetry and its structure on their own, without being told what to think or what to see. This experience was one more step toward their being able to leave the classroom to become readers on their own.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257
SOURCE: “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” in Explicator, Vol. 28, No. 9, May, 1970, item 73.
[In the following essay, Turner argues against Charles R. Morris' thesis that Robinson's word choices in “Richard Cory” are intended to associate Cory with British royalty.]
In his discussion of Edward Arlington Robinson's “Richard Cory,” Charles R. Morris (explicator, March, 1965, xxiii, 7) seems to go to extreme lengths to justify the poet's use of “anglicisms” in describing Cory. Although the terms noted—“pavement,” “sole to crown,” “clean favored,” “imperially slim,” “schooled,” and “in fine”—may indeed have British overtones, I would suggest that several of the expressions, as well as Cory's name itself, have a more rewarding technical purpose.
Americans might, in fact, normally refer to themselves as people “on the sidewalk” rather than “on the pavement”; nevertheless, “on the pavement” in American slang usually means that one is down and out, figuratively—sometimes literally—scraping the asphalt. Surely this description fits those people who “went without the meat, and cursed the bread.”
As for “sole to crown” and “in fine” rather than “head to toe” and “in short,” rather than establishing Cory's English background the puns seem to justify themselves. From sole (soul) to crown (head), from heart to mind, “in fine” (in his finery, “arrayed” like Solomon in all his glory) Cory seemed the equal of a king. But those people on the pavement could not see beneath the surface of the man: Richard Cory—another pun, the core of Richard—was sick enough that he had to escape by putting “a bullet through his head.”
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SOURCE: “A Re-examination of ‘Richard Cory,’” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 11, September, 1972, pp. 579-82.
[In the following essay, Sweet proposes that “Richard Cory” be read as a parable in which envious townspeople simultaneously reject and idealize the wealthy Cory, heightening his isolation and propelling him toward suicide.]
“Richard Cory,” one of Edwin Arlington Robinson's most anthologized poems, is also one of the least examined. Those critics who have considered the poem cast it in a familiar mold: that Richard Cory's “soul is black with despair,”1 that the people possess “the light,”2 and that finally the people ironically fail to see their wishing to be like Cory is ultimately ludicrous because of their own intrinsic spiritual values.
The main problem with the popular interpretation is that it fails suitably to account for the tale being filtered through the mind of a narrator, a single one of the “people on the pavement.” The resulting view tends to thrust Richard Cory into the spotlight and de-emphasize the character of the narrator. Perhaps we would do well to remember D. H. Lawrence's admonition, “Trust the tale, not the teller,” and begin to view Richard Cory through the eyes of an unreliable, unaware narrator. Moreover, such a focal point has the distinct advantage of helping to explain why Richard Cory really committed suicide.
As “Richard Cory” is only sixteen lines, we scarce need be reminded at the beginning that because of its compactness each word becomes infinitely important. While stanza one introduces the narrator, more importantly it emphasizes his limited view of Richard Cory. Line one introduces us to Cory while line two establishes that the narrator has only an external view of Cory. From this viewpoint, then, the narrator proceeds to make an assortment of limited value judgements. Richard Cory resembles a king (“crown,” “imperially slim,” and “richer than a king”); obviously the speaker's imagery (as well as movement in “sole to crown”) reveal his concerns with Cory's status and wealth (further emphasized by “glittered”). Charles Morris notes the speaker's use of anglicisms (“pavement,” “sole to crown,” “schooled,” and “in fine”) pictures Cory as “an English king;”3 thus, the narrator can be seen expressing prejudices in terms of nationalistic pride.
Stanza two, however, appears to contrast and even contradict the previously established viewpoint. Lines five and six offer a different wording from any other lines as the “And he was always …” contrast with “(And) he was. …” of lines three, nine, and eleven where the emphasis is on Cory's regal nature; not only the repetition of a similar structure in successive lines but also the addition of the word “always” suggest that while external appearances seem eternal verities, they are only temporary illusions. Whereas Richard Cory seems at times like a king the narrator admits he is always “quietly arrayed” and “human.” Thus, the speaker appears to contradict himself, or, more exactly, state the truth about Richard Cory: Cory is not a king; he is human. The narrator then confesses to his own hyperbole, his own exaggerated viewpoint of the man. In the next lines the narrator even acknowledges (“But still”) the collective fault of the people; the lines might be paraphrased as follows: even though we knew deep inside us Cory was human, something else inside compelled us to blow up his proportions (“he fluttered pulses” and “he glittered”). The narrator admits essentially to this view in lines eleven and twelve:
In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place.
Why the people feel such a need has already been suggested by the representative narrator's types of envy. Charles Burkhart remarks that their view of Cory is “a familiar illusion which brightens their drab lives.”4 Yet even these reasons conceal the deepest motivations. In fact, to understand the final effects of Cory on the people we need to see precisely what other information the narrator reveals and place it in its proper perspective.
In light of the narrator's attitude line one establishes that it is Richard Cory who comes down town; in other words, Richard Cory makes an attempt to communicate with the people. His activity contrasts with their passivity or stasis (“on we worked and waited”). Consonant with his general communicative attempts in line eight the very “human” Richard Cory tries to talk with the people. As nowhere in the poem is it suggested that the people try to come to Richard Cory, nowhere is it either intimated that they approach him, much less respond to him. Quite simply the people have erected a barrier around themselves and their only reaction to Cory is stasis and silence. The phrase “when he talked” even suggests that Cory makes more than a token effort. The importance of communication is revealed through a familiar Robinson image—light. In line thirteen the speaker claims the people “waited for the light” but in line eight the narrator has admitted that Richard Cory “glittered.” We need not be reminded by Charles T. Davis that light in the early Robinson represents “the perception of spiritual truth” and in the later Robinson, “the understanding or truth in human relationships”5 to see that Richard Cory becomes a Promethean figure bringing the word of the necessity of human communication for survival. Cory, not the people, then, is the man of spiritual values (such a context is suggested by the obvious religious overtones of “meat,” “bread,” and “light”). The first three stanzas are not, as Wallace Anderson believes, “seemingly weighted in favor of Cory;”6 they are weighted in favor of Cory.
Richard Cory's suicide can thus be seen in a different light. Instead of suicide because of “inner emptiness”7 or “an absolute commitment to despair,”8 or because he was “sick,”9 we are presented with a case of regicide; the townspeople with some degree of consciousness have extinguished the light. The irony of the ending, then, is not that the people were endowed with greater values than Cory or that simply they failed to understand his message, or even that the light they sought glowed in their midst all the time. The irony is that through their own mental prejudices and unfounded exaggerations the people, like eagles, claw at Prometheus so that the chains of inhumanity imprison him forever; it matters not that it is Cory who pulls the trigger since the people have pointed a weapon at his temple.
Furthermore, it is probative to examine the speaker's voice to establish the results of enforced alienation. The tone of the last two lines is pure matter-of-factness; nowhere does the narrator betray any emotion over Cory's death, and we might go so far as to say there is a certain satisfaction in the narrator's voice. Whereas the narrator had once looked up at Richard Cory's “crown,” he now looks down at simply “his head.” Appropriately the poem closes in darkness.
It obviously becomes necessary, then, to see Richard Cory certainly in more heroic proportions but also as more of a catalyst than focal point. “Richard Cory” is not a painting of a gentleman, but a portrait of the portraiteer. The poem serves as an indictment of those who study at a distance, of those who fail to get a feel of their subject, and of those who let petty personal emotions deprive themselves of human companionship. While Robinson's temporal assessment may be exaggerated, his remark to Esther Willard Bates while walking up West Peterborough that he was “perhaps, two hundred years in advance of his time … in … his absorption in the unconscious and semiconscious feelings and impulses of his characters”10 points to our need not to judge by appearances either when we examine his poetry.
Charles Burkhart, “Richard Cory,” Explicator Cyclopedia, ed. Charles Walcutt and J. Edwin Whitesell (Chicago, 1966), I, 257.
Wallace L. Anderson, Edwin Arlington Robinson (Boston, 1967), 109.
“Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” Explicator, XXIII (March 1965), item 52.
“Image Patterns in the Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson,” College English, XXII (March 1961), 381.
J. C. Levenson, “Robinson's Modernity,” Virginia Quarterly Review, XLIV (Autumn 1968), 603.
Steven Turner, “Robinson's ‘Richard Cory,’” Explicator, XXVIII (May 1970), item 73.
Esther Willard Bates, Edwin Arlington Robinson and His Manuscripts (Waterville, Maine, 1944), 3.
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SOURCE: “Richard Cory's Suicide: A Psychoanalyst's View,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 150-59.
[In the following essay, Kavka responds to Charles A. Sweet's essay on “Richard Cory” with a diagnosis: “Richard Cory” (see above) is the portrait of a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.]
What prompts me, as a psychoanalyst, to interpret [Edwin Arlington] Robinson's famous poem, “Richard Cory,” is the intriguing thesis of Charles A. Sweet, Jr. that the poem is a depiction of an oedipal conflict with the suicide a realization of regicidal wishes.1 While psychologically plausible, Sweet's theory is not sufficiently capacious to account for Cory's disastrous deed or his highly unusual personality.
According to Sweet, Cory comes down town as a “Promethean figure bringing the word of the necessity of human communication for survival.” The townspeople are passive and have erected a silent barrier around themselves; they fail to “approach him, much less respond to him.” Cory's suicide is not the result of “inner emptiness,” or “an absolute commitment to despair” or because he was “sick.” Rather, “through their own mental prejudices and unfounded exaggerations the people, like eagles, claw at Prometheus so that the chains of inhumanity imprison him forever; it matters not that it is Cory who pulls the trigger since the people have pointed a weapon at his temple.”
Sweet views the poem as “not a painting of a gentleman, but a portrait of the portraiteer.” The tale is filtered through the mind of the narrator who betrays no emotion over Cory's death; nay, even more, “there is a certain satisfaction in the narrator's voice.” Where once the narrator looked up at Cory's “crown” he now looks down at simply “his head.” We are, says Sweet, presented “with a case of regicide; the townspeople with some degree of consciousness have extinguished the light.” Sweet concludes, “the poem serves as an indictment of those who study at a distance, of those who fail to get a feel of their subject and of those who let petty personal emotions deprive themselves of human companionship.”
Because the poem deals with such manifestly clinical behavior, it begs for psychological assessment; Sweet's thesis is appealing and viable. Indeed, careful study of the poem's structure confirms Sweet's proposition that the perspective is from the viewpoint of the observer, a townsman, rather than from the view of the observed, Cory. However, if demise was expected of Cory, why are the townsmen stunned, or more accurately, why is the reader surprised? Furthermore, Cory himself is hardly Promethean since his conclusion is destruction rather than regeneration and rescue. To my mind, we must look to the pre-oedipal, or pre-genital, aspects of character development, and in particular, to the vicissitudes of narcissism in the development of the personality for the meaning of Cory's failure.
Melanie Klein's emphasis on the pre-genital roots of destructive envy which she ascribes to the influence of the death instinct approaches somewhat more closely a kind of theoretical sophistication required to explain Richard Cory and his puzzling suicide.2 Kohut even more exquisitely explains individuals like Cory and the sudden fragmentations to which they are heir in his metapsychological theories of the failure of self-cohesion.3
Before further theoretical elaborations, however, let us look at Cory from another view.
In the first stanza,
Whenever Richard Cory went down town, We people on the pavement looked at him: He was a gentleman from sole to crown, Clean favored, and imperially slim.
Robinson describes the loftiness of Cory's character, his act of condescension—coming down to the ordinary people with the metaphoric implication that the gravity-bound are looking up at the exalted figure. Robinson even uses the adjective, imperial, to impress us with the grandiose image of the subject.
In the second stanza,
And he was always quietly arrayed, And he was always human when he talked; But still he fluttered pulses when he said, “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
Robinson gives us a highly charged contrapuntal theme—the intense contrast between Cory's regal self-image and Cory as the restrained communicator who patronizingly bestows favors upon his lowly brethren, the townspeople. I do not sense the open sort of communication toward the people suggested by Sweet but rather a reluctant gracefulness. It may be Robinson's successful registration of this quality in Cory which convinced Sweet that the townspeople were hostile to Cory. One gets the impression of exquisite impulse control in Cory but with an admixture of anxiety as if there were something synthetic or fragile about the psychic regulation in this fictional individual. The observer is assured, almost apologetically, that the object of scrutiny is human, like himself. Yet, the quality of Cory's communication, while formally correct, arouses anxiety in the recipient—fluttered pulses—whose attention remains fixed as if in a trance on the narcissistic posture of the object—he glittered. This fascination, to my mind, resembles the experience of watching narcissistic creatures, like cats.
In the third stanza,
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king— And admirably schooled in every grace: In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place.
Robinson is accurately describing a grandiose individual, isolated by his fantastic greatness from his neighbors; in the past as a child probably raised as somebody special by his family and who unconsciously regarded himself as superior and different. Still, he fascinates—the observer's idealization peaks to the point of conscious emulation with an undertone of envy.
Finally, in the last stanza,
So on we worked, and waited for the light, And went without the meat, and cursed the bread; And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head.
the observer, uncomfortably resigned to his simpler life with its limitations and deprivations of which he complains, remains hopeful of some ultimate realization of an idealized life. And while all is temporarily and externally undisturbed, there is a sharp and stunning end to the idealized figure by an act of self destruction.
At the beginning of the poem, Cory's formality and regal mannerisms are somewhat out of place with the milieu and in this contrast one begins to sense an ultimate clash. Sweet interprets the consequences of the encounter as due to relentless group hostility to a human communicant who is unappreciated by his fellows. Cory's suicide, a response to group pressure, becomes regicide in his forced oedipal interpretation. Sweet does not explain the meaning of the unique form of the demise—suicide.
SUICIDE, NOT REGICIDE
I see the awesome, God-like figure of Cory, apparently unrelated to family, peers, or the work-a-day world, as Cory's self-projection onto the observers rather than simply their own idealization of Cory. In describing the act of descent, Robinson subtly implies the beginnings of a major drop in self-esteem—this, to me, makes the suicide itself more meaningful as a deeply private and more complex act than as simply the consequence of a regicidal struggle. The end is not hoped for, as suggested by Sweet, since the reaction of the group is neither triumphant or depressed but rather stunned and dumbfounded—more of a sense of emptiness and lack of meaningfulness—hardly consistent with what Sweet would like to see as communication in the best sense.
That Cory was not suffering the usual ‘slings and arrows’ of common men, tersely described by Robinson as “the bread,” “the light,” and the “curse,” suggests that not only did Cory die in a way that is strange to ordinary mortals, but that he had lived extraordinarily. He lacked a natural closeness to others from whom he felt different and probably superior.
The loner described by Robinson is a narcissist. The poem is then a compressed portrait of an insecure man with compensatory grand notions about himself, regal delusions if you will, and neither his life or death are to be judged by ordinary standards. At best, he maintained a highly vulnerable degree of mental balance, sufficient to prevent fragmentation until the last day.
Robinson even alludes to etiological factors in this brief character sketch. The intense royal schooling is not simply a benefit of material wealth, but a form of mental grandeur which we know can be secured even by a poor child who is emotionally spoilt, so to speak; one who therefore fails to significantly outgrow the natural megalomania of infancy and whose ultimate maturational adaptation to reality is thus prevented.
The important irony alluded to by Robinson is therefore a psychological one; the ordinary mortal caught up in the process of his own envy may not appreciate the narcissist's envy of those ordinary souls who are able to work and wait and curse while they tolerate the deprivations of reality, i.e. going without the meat, which the narcissist cannot tolerate.
What Robinson has succeeded in teaching is that it is not the patricidal struggle of the grown Oedipus that is paramount but rather the failure of the young Oedipus to emerge from his restrictive infantile grandiosity which ties him to the mother in a life and death struggle and which prevents the assumption of a respected self in a social world of peers. Those, like the townspeople who are, despite their complaints, fortunate enough to have emerged from the stifling womb, could very well demonstrate hostility to the one who holds himself special. In that case we do not have the later patricidal conflict of Oedipus toward the king but something more nearly resembling King Laius' infanticidal actions toward the newborn Oedipus.
SUICIDE AS REMOVING THE FLAW
By means of the complex process of poetic compression, the consummate artist, E. A. Robinson, unintentionally achieved a portrait of a not uncommon characterological mental disorder—one that is mysteriously suspended in that ‘borderline’ area between neurosis and psychosis and which has been described by the psychoanalyst, Kohut,4 as a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Such individuals are difficult to change even in long and sensitively conducted psychotherapies because of strong fixation in early development resulting in severe pathology of the self-esteem systems. These character fixations are actuated by unempathic caretakers in early life who fail to provide that optimal blend of indulgence and frustration as would permit the vulnerable infantile grandiosity to yield in favor of increasing maturation and mastery of reality.
In later life, when the environment fails to yield expected emotional supplies, such persons are victims of personality fragmentation and intense rages, sometimes leading to self-destruction. They differ from neurotic depressives in that the suicidal acts are not the consequence of a massive identification with a hated frustrating object but rather because of the need to remove a flaw in their own self-esteem. In this sense, they resemble the truly psychotic individual who had withdrawn his emotional investment in the outside world entirely, yet they differ in that such withdrawals are temporary and can be restored more easily by an empathic response from the environment. Their suicides have a deeply private meaning as the reflection of a purely intrapsychic struggle rather than a social meaning involving a highly advanced psychological conflict with recognized others as is true in the average neurotic depression.
The critic Franchere points to Cory's private, inner problem: “What private sense of failure, what personal recognition of his own inadequacy, or what secret unfulfilled longing drove Cory to suicide Robinson does not say; … the reader is left with a sharp sense of emptiness, of a life wasted, of failure—and of Cory's hidden agony.”5
While the artist may vividly describe, he is not obliged to explain. The psychologist will recognize Cory's puzzling conduct as the consequence of regression which proceeds backward to those fixation points in emotional development where there is little differentiation between self and non-self and which implies a blurring between impulse, thought, and action. Such regressions dispose to infantile modes of conduct classified as narcissistic rages, loosely speaking a form of temper tantrum, which often leads to homicidal or suicidal acts.
Cory's apparently meaningless act can be illuminated by Kohut's findings in narcissistic personalities during close psychological examination. In such individuals, suicide was not motivated by specific conflicts but by a break-up of the bodily self which had become an unbearable burden and had to be removed. Kohut found such individuals to be exhibitionistic and shame-prone and driven by their ambitions yet not possessing strong ideals. Kohut comments: “After suffering defeats in the pursuit of their ambitions and exhibitionistic aims, such individuals experience at first searing shame and then often, comparing themselves with a successful rival, intense envy. This state of shame and envy may ultimately be followed by self-destructive impulses. These, too, are to be understood not as attacks of the superego on the ego but as attempts of the suffering ego to do away with the self in order to wipe out the offending, disappointing reality of failure. In other words, the self-destructive impulses are to be understood here not as analogous to the suicidal impulses of the depressed patient but as the expression of narcissistic rage.”6 Kohut concludes, when there is narcissistic vulnerability otherness is an offense, and the enemy is a flaw in a narcissistically perceived reality.7
Cory seems to have wanted some kind of emotional approval from the townsmen, a sort of benevolent reflection of his grandeur made necessary by a lack of inner self confidence which characterizes the arrogant. The failure to secure such important sustenance threw him into an acute crisis of personal despair. Doyle grasped this breakdown in social relations: “because he has given Richard Cory's mere act and nothing more, the author has avoided the really difficult questions; an understanding of the character's action and its relation to society; and the casting of some light on society's failure to grasp the situation.”8
Some narcissists can sustain themselves and avoid suicide by acting as the idealized representation of chronic unfulfilled longings in the common man and thus attain charismatic or even messianic status.9 Just as the mass lives through the leader, he, in turn, is vitally supported by their idealization. When, however, there are severe rigidities in the narcissistic structure, the capacities for leadership are limited or absent. Since Cory was neither able to join the townsmen or lead them, his life became useless.
While Sweet's theme of regicide does imply a social group process, eliminating the oedipal competitor is rather advanced in terms of psychosexual development. The atmosphere of the poem, however, implies a more subtle struggle than one of competitiveness between Cory and the group.
I suggest that the power of Robinson's poem lies in its implications of the personal and social limitations of the narcissistic personality. What is important about Cory, if he were a real person, is the absence of true relationships with other humans. He was unable to socialize with others as separate and independent beings. A suicidal crisis brought about because of a relative weakness of the ego vis-a-vis the overly strong system of ideals—an attack of the superego on the ego, a condition we know as depression, would have betrayed itself in premonitory signs or symptoms and would have drawn forth a kind of sympathy from the onlooker on the basis of an identification with a kindred soul. The shock effect, therefore, is in itself a diagnostic clue to the exquisitely narcissistic nature of the suicide.
The flaw removed by suicide is alluded to, most subtly, in the opening two words of the last line of the poem: “Went home (italics mine) and put a bullet through his head.” In his psychological study, Morrill perceptively noted Robinson's association of houses with suicidal despair: “The ‘houses’ in Robinson … ruined in various ways: the ‘house’ (self) of Richard Cory was a suicide; … In a mythological pattern … the house of power in the world contains the seeds of self destruction.”10
For the psychoanalyst, the home as flaw would point to empathic deficits in the parental matrix, especially the mother-child unit. The poem itself is tersely suggestive; for further enlightenment about flaws in the mother-child relationship we have to turn to the poet himself.
ROBINSON'S CREATIVE ALTERNATE
C. P. Smith's biography amply illustrates the frailty of Robinson's mother and how unresolved narcissistic conflicts destroyed his two brothers in their prime.11 The frequent allusions in the literature to Robinson's pessimism suggest that while he was to a significant extent in touch with narcissistic deficits within himself, the solution of his brother was not to be his own. He was determined to maintain his self-cohesion and was able to avoid the fragmentations experienced by those close to him. Still, he retained his empathy for those who suffered and because of life saving ties of an idealizing nature he was able to synthesize that creative adaptation which, in a sense, was his own therapy.
As Coxe put it: “the issue is one of illusion overcoming the sense of reality. At times illusion is shown as something a character wills and achieves; a state which the person deliberately chooses as preferable to actuality or as providing the only alternative to suicide.”12
The poem, “Richard Cory,” was an example of Robinson's early insight into what fate may have had in store for him but for his capacity to transform his own feelings of specialness into the creative arena where he became enormously useful to others.
Charles A. Sweet, Jr., “A Re-Examination of ‘Richard Cory,’” Colby Library Quarterly, IX (September 1972), pp. 579-582.
See Otto Kernberg, “Factors in the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personalities,” J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 18 (1970), pp. 51-85.
Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York, 1971), pp. 156-157.
Heinz Kohut, “The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (New York, 1968), pp. 86-113.
Hoyt C. Franchere, Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1968), pp. 85-86.
Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York, 1971), p. 181, n. 10.
Heinz Kohut, “Thoughts on Narcissism and Narcissistic Rage,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (New York, 1972), p. 386.
John R. Doyle, “The Shorter Poems of E. A. Robinson,” Richard Cary, ed., Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Waterville, Maine, 1969), pp. 105-116.
Heinz Kohut, “Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology: Reflections on the Self-Analysis of Freud,” John Gedo and George Pollock, eds., Freud: The Fusion of Science and Humanism (Psychological Issues Monograph, in press).
Paul Hampton Morrill, Psychological Aspects of the Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Ph.D. Dissertation, Northwestern University, June 1956). p. 99.
Chard Powers Smith, Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1965), pp. 69-70, 130, and 148.
Louis Coxe, Edwin Arlington Robinson (Minneapolis, 1962), p. 21.
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SOURCE: “Richard Cory: Artist without an Art,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 160-61.
[In the following essay, Kart adds to Jerome Kavka's psychoanalytic reading of “Richard Cory,” (see above), asserting that Cory is an artist who does not find an outlet.]
(The following is a response to Jerome Kavka's “The Suicide of Richard Cory,” a somewhat longer version of his “Richard Cory's Suicide: A Psychoanalyst's View.”)
Accepting Jerome Kavka's view that the suicide of Richard Cory had a narcissistic basis, and reading the poem [“Richard Cory”] as [Edwin Arlington] Robinson's account of the effect on society of such an extreme act of narcissism, leads one to make a further corroborative point. If this reading of the poem is placed alongside the pattern of Robinson's career (which Kavka has described as an attempt by the poet to master his own somewhat narcissistic nature), then Richard Cory can be seen as an artist without an art, or an artist whose practice lacked certain qualities that might have sustained him.
That Richard Cory was something of an artist, that at least he had an aesthetically sensitive nature, is clear from the first three stanzas of the poem, which suggest that Cory's trips down town were events in which the people were spectators and Cory was the performer or the object on exhibit. Cory's role, it would seem, was simply to be Richard Cory—to allow the people to react to him in their various ways—and apart from the question of whether Cory was aware that he had any such role, it is not far-fetched to imagine him taking a kind of artistic care to insure that all aspects of his external self were harmoniously elegant before he ventured forth. (That Cory's elegance was cultivated is implied by the phrase “admirably schooled in every grace.”) Another phrase—“and he glittered when he walked”—makes explicit the first flaw in Cory's artistic practice. Since he has dazzled the audience, Cory here seems to be the artist triumphant, but the cost to him is great because, by the narrator's account, Cory at that moment resembles not a man but a jewel-like object. (One wonders whether Robinson was suggesting some foreknowledge by the narrator that Cory, too, felt himself to be more a thing than a person.) In any case, Cory's art is flawed because he himself is its sole product, thereby ruling out any aesthetic or emotional distance between himself and his narcissism.
The second flaw in Cory's art is that he allows no room for the audience to transmit value back to him. Although there is envy in the narrator's description of Cory in the first three stanzas, there is also admiration and some record of how Cory's self-art could give pleasure to those who apprehended it. Yet there is no indication that Cory was aware of the reactions (whether envious or pleasurable) that the people had to him. Contrast this with Robinson's sense of his audience, particularly the letter to Harry DeForest Smith in which the poet defends his work against the charge of self-indulgent morbidity by imagining some “despairing devil” who might be made “a little stronger” by reading his verses.1
Returning to narcissism, we can see why Cory, despite his aesthetic temperament, was an artist without an art. Cory is able to lavish aesthetic effort only on his literal self, and he cannot appreciate the effect that elegantly surfaced self has on other human beings—assuming he is aware, in any real sense, that there are other human beings. So, in “Richard Cory,” Robinson might be telling us (and himself) that an artist who does not produce works that are separate from himself—no matter how much of his self he puts in them—and who is unable to imagine and feel the effect his art has on others, will find that he has been denied art's healing power and has been left open to such losses of self-esteem as the one that led Richard Cory to self-destruction.
Denham Suteliffe, ed., Untriangulated Stars: Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson to Harry DeForest Smith (1890-1905) (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1947), p. 273.
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SOURCE: “Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Department of English, Theatre, and Languages, Major American Authors, Homepage (website,) edited by Mark Canada, December 20, 2000 http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/canam/robinson.htm>.
[In the following essay, Byrd discusses how Robinson juxtaposes traditional structure and radical content in “Richard Cory.”]
Edwin Arlington Robinson's poetry has been considered by some literary critics to be the stylistic benchmark for English/American poetry. Robinson's poetry was stylistically simple and neat, and it fits the common preconception that everyone seems to think of when they hear the word “poetry.” It rhymes, with basic rhyme schemes, has simple feet and meter, and has a consciously lyrical, musical construction. It is divided into segments, usually of quatrains or some other poetic convention. In terms of form, Robinson owes much more to his English poetical predecessors such [as] Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Milton than to those who were his American poetic contemporaries, writers such as Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, who were introducing new styles rooted in free verse.
However, whatever older influences Robinson's poetry show[ed] in its form, it shunned in its content. Robinson's writing was forever shaped by the conflicts and problems of his life and the lives of those around him. Robinson absorbed most of these characters during his formative years growing up in Gardiner. His work is filled with these people, most of them residing in fictional New England areas more than passingly similar to his own hometown, who are studies in personal failure, frustrated desires, and simple bad luck. The best examples of these “burned out” characters are the subjects of Robinson's two most often reprinted poems “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.” This very real-life, non-romantic take at writing, especially in the realm of poetry, was an anomaly in the time of Thoreaus, Whitmans, and Emersons. These writers wrote “personal” pieces that were more idealistic and theoretical than truly personal. Whereas Thoreau and Emerson wrote about their lives to edify others, as examples for others, Robinson's writings were true exercises in personal expression. His writings were trying to express things and truths that he, Edwin Arlington Robinson, had seen, ideas that he believed in, as opposed to simply being a vehicle for thinly disguised life lessons. Although Whitman set the gold standard for personal poetry, the examples in Robinson's writing were often times situations from his real life simply set to verse, not the dressed-up, highly glossed “experiences” of Whitman or the romantic daydreams common to other poets of his time. These situations, such as the references to Robinson's real-life alcoholism in “Miniver Cheevy” and “Mr. Flood's Party,” were the real grit and grime of life, not the polished celebration of life that was common in others' works.
It is the juxtaposition of this old, highly rigid, formulated, classical style with this very modern, personal subject matter that continues to intrigue readers of Robinson's works to this day. This next poem, considered by some to be Robinson's finest work, is a perfect example of this conflict of form and content, and how it melds to form Robinson's singular poetic style.
Whenever Richard Cory went down town, We people on the pavement looked at him: He was a gentleman from head to crown, Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed, And he was always human when he talked; But he still fluttered pulses when he walked. “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king— and admirably schooled in every grace: In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light, And went without the meat, and cursed the bread; And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head.
The poem' structure is, as I have hinted before, simple and classic. The rhyme scheme is set up in a basic abab cdcd efef ghgh pattern, with the lines divided up into four stanzas, quatrains to be exact. The feet and meter of the lines are also classic. The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter, one of the oldest meters used in English verse. …
This stress pattern … structures the poem in a very consistent, easy to read, lyrical manner. On the other hand, the content of the poem is as harsh and radical as the form is classical and neat. The poem is basically an extended description of a man, a very rich, successful man, named Richard Cory. The narrator of the poem spends a full three quarters, the first three stanzas, of the poem doing nothing but genuinely praising this man. He paints this Richard Cory as the envy of all those around him, the object of everyone's attention as “we people on the pavement looked at him.” He refers to Cory as a “gentleman from sole to crown,” and even uses language that sounds suited to describe royalty when he calls Cory “Clean favored, and imperially slim.”
The second and third stanzas go on in much the same way. In the second stanza, the narrator describes Cory's social standing. In the narrator's eyes, Cory continues to be the perfect, polite gentleman, as he was “always human when he talked.” Cory was certainly not the picture of a snobbish or rude man. Cory was also a very popular fellow, as he “fluttered pulses” with a simple “Good-morning.” Add that he “glittered when he walked,” and Cory is an impressive social figure indeed.
In the third stanza, the narrator's picture of Richard Cory's perfect life is completed, as the narrator goes on to tell us about Cory's financial success and his refined nature. Cory is described as “richer than a king” and “schooled in every grace.” To finish this wonderful picture of this wonderful man the narrator simply says, “we thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place.”
However, the poem takes a sudden, dark twist in the last stanza. Robinson does this by first revealing a little more about the narrator. In the first two lines of the fourth stanza, the narrator says: “So on we worked, and waited for the light / And went without meat and cursed the bread. …” This is obviously a reference to the narrator's own poor financial and social state. For the narrator, work is a place of darkness and hardship where you simply “wait for the light.” For the narrator, there is no meat to eat at dinner-time, and after so many meals without it, you begin to curse the cheap bread that you do have to eat. This is a sharp and stark contrast to the fairy-tale like glory that is the life of Richard Cory, and reminds the reader of the poem that for every Cory in the world, there is someone less fortunate looking upon that same Cory in awe.
Also, this revelation puts everything that the narrator has said about Cory into a new light. As a poor, destitute man/woman, the narrator had every excuse to be envious or jealous of Cory's luck in life—not just envious, but downright hateful, and spiteful of Cory. However, not one bad word about Cory passes from the narrator's lips. This speaks volumes about Cory's character, and makes the reader think that maybe this Richard Cory is as great a guy as he seems. If even the poor and unfortunate, the very people that have every excuse to curse him and his success, say all of these wonderful things about him, then he must be truly great. It's that very idea that makes the last part of the poem such a shock.
In the last two lines of the last stanza, with a minimum of detail and no explanation Robinson simply tells how Cory “… one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
With that, the poem ends, but the questions remain. Robinson never even gives us a clue as to why this successful, good-natured, popular, and rich man would do a horrible thing such as this. The questions are all left for us, and the narrator, to ponder, while the irony from the narrator's line about how he/she/they “wish that we were in his place” begin[s] to drip off of the page and form a puddle on the floor.
Diyanni, Robert. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions. New York: Random House Inc., 1987. 544-548.
Wolf, H. R. “E. A. Robinson and the Integration of the Self.” Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Jerome Mazzaro. New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1970. 40-59.
Hollander, John. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. Volume Two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1993. 586-599. 912-913.
Baym, Nina, et al. “Literature Between the Wars 1914-1945.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Shorter Fourth Edition. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995. 1709-1720.
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