Bruce Weirick (essay date 1924)
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.
(The entire section is 2129 words.)