Robert P. Tristram Coffin Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Coffin, Robert P. Tristram 1892-1955

(Full name Robert Peter Tristram Coffin) American poet, novelist, and essayist.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Coffin was regarded as one of America's foremost regionalists. In poetry, novels, and essays, he wrote about the shaping influence of his birthplace, Maine, on the life and character of its inhabitants, and advocated such values as simplicity and self sufficiency that he believed sprang from its culture. He enjoyed popularity and honor in his lifetime-winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1936. While some critics praised him for revealing poetic mystery in the commonplace, others found his work sentimental, loquacious, and limited. After his death in 1955, his books were all but forgotten.

Biographical Information

Coffin's life, like his poetry, is marked by robust optimism and unflagging energy. Inspired by his father's love of song and story, he began writing when a boy. His work often celebrated his father, the state of Maine, the primitive currents in human nature, and the resourcefulness and resilience, whether heroic or tragic, of the solitary, self-reliant individual confronting Nature, which he depicted as both holy and brutally unrelenting. He entered Bowdoin College in 1911, where he was twice winner of the Hawthorne prize for short story writing. He graduated summa cum laude, and went on to Princeton as a Longfellow scholar. In 1916, he graduated from Princeton and went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar to study poetry. After serving as a second lieutenant in the artillery during the First World War, he returned to Oxford to complete his studies. Back in the United States in 1921, he began teaching at Wells College in New York State until, in 1934, he was invited to teach in Maine at Bowdoin, where he stayed until his death in 1955. During these years, he won many awards for poetry, published voluminously, developed a hand for pen and ink and water color sketches, participated in the founding of poetry societies, and traveled to numerous universities to read his poems and to speak.

Major Works

Coffin's most characteristic works were poems and stories that endowed common events in the lives of ordinary people with epic proportion and mythic dimension. He drew on his own experience, as in his account of his father in Portrait of an American, and in the memoir, Lost Paradise, A Boyhood on a Maine Coast Farm. Among his novels, the first, Red Sky in the Morning, concerning a son's sacrificial struggle to gain his father's recognition, is considered his best. Like all his work, it reflects his belief in the lasting influence of the intergenerational male bond, the primacy of men, and the instrumentality of women. Celebration of a male-focused engagement with Nature is central to his major collections of poetry, too, from Ballads of Square-Toed Americans in 1933, through the Pulitzer prize-winning Strange Holiness in 1935, Poems for a Son with Wings in 1945, and One-Horse Farm: Down-East Georgics in 1949.

Critical Reception

Rejected by some critics as intellectually uninventive, emotionally pat, out of touch with contemporary realities, and devoid of poetic skill, his work nevertheless enjoyed such widespread recognition and regard at the time of his death that the New York Times printed a page one obituary and declared in an editorial tribute, "His verse was sometimes rough-hewn, unplaned or homespun, but . . . there will always be those who . . . will turn to his work for a glimpse of a life that is simpler, unfettered, and . . . more beautiful."