Bruce Weirick (essay date 1924)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.


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Harry R. Garvin (essay date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1278 words.)

Charles Burkhart (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Harry R. Garvin (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3294 words.)

Charles R. Morris (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.”

Linda J. Clifton (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Steven Turner (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Charles A. Sweet, Jr. (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jerome Kavka (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3082 words.)

Lawrence Kart (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Stephen Byrd (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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>.

[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 entire section is 1512 words.)