Well, it isn't a perfect poem, but it is certainly a remarkable one.
I often run into people who either aren't familiar with the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson or who are passingly familiar with it but either don't know the whole piece or the author. Fewer still know that Robinson moved from Maine to 28 MacDougal Street in New York City's Greenwich Village — holding such jobs as time checker for construction of the IRT subway and as a clerk in New York City custom's house (he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who liked his poetry) — where he spent the last twenty-five years of his life, largely solitary, until his death on 6 April 1935.
A Maine poet whose numerous volumes of verse explore the repressive life of small-town American, Edwin Arlington Robinson drew inspiration for his portraits and tales from the tortured lives of his family and acquaintances. Transforming autobiography into myth, he set these stories in the fictitious Tilbury Town, the poet's emblem of the American dream gone awry, a place where creative genius is destroyed by neglect and misunderstanding.
Reared in Gardiner, ME, and educated at Harvard, Robinson's philosophical perspective came to combine the idealism of the waning Romantic Age with the dark pessimism of the dawning century. While he believed ardently in the divine spark within all man and nature, he inevitably found that spark clouded with what he called "the black and awful chaos of the night." Given the bleak history of Robinson's own life--poetic neglect, unrequited passion, and family problems with alcohol-- his view is not surprising; what is more amazing is the stoicism with which he persevered, ultimately winning national recognition for his long Arthurian poem, TRISTRAM, in 1928.
Robinson claimed to have experienced his poetic vocation as an epiphany when, at age seventeen, he became "violently excited over the structure of English blank verse." An admirer of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, he set about to cloak his own poetic persona in a series of masks, creating a gallery of characters, who were at once thinly veiled incarnations of his relatives and townsfolk and subtle manifestations of his own psyche."I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service
Robinson was born the third son of a family whose hearts were so set on having a daughter this time that they had made no provisions for the name of an unwanted son. For more than six months the boy remained unnamed, until strangers at a summer resort, feeling that he ought to be granted an identity beyond that of simply "the baby," put slips of paper with male first names written on them into a hat and chose someone to draw one out. The man who drew out the slip with "Edwin" written on it happened to live in Arlington, Massachusetts, which seemed to provide the easiest choice for a second name; and so by an "accident of fate," we have a poet named Edwin Arlington Robinson. Robinson hated the name and thought of himself as a child of scorn--and he had reasons.American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present by Hyatt H. Waggoner
Robinson's most famous poem is likely "Richard Corey":
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.
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.
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.
Edwin Arlington Robinson
A few notes. Robinson's brother Hennan drank himself to death. It may not have been as quick as a bullet, but it was just as certain.
Here we have a man's life-story distilled into sixteen lines. A dramatist would have been under the necessity of justifying the suicide by some train of events in which Richard Cory's character would have inevitably betrayed him. A novelist would have dissected the psychological effects of these events upon Richard Cory. The poet, with a more profound grasp of life than either, shows us only what life itself would show us; we know Richard Cory only through the effect of his personality upon those who were familiar with him, and we take both the character and the motive for granted as equally inevitable. Therein lies the ironic touch, which is intensified by the simplicity of the poetic form in which this tragedy is given expression.The Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson: An Essay in Appreciation, by Lloyd Morris, 1923
While "Richard Corey" is likely his most famous poem, "Miniver Cheevy" runs a close second:
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.
Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.
Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.
Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.
Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.
Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1907
Some Notes. The khaki suit refers to the brown military uniform, common until after World War I. The Medicis ruled renaissance Florence, and combined a love of knowledge, art, and scholarship with naked brutality when it came to remaining in power. Priam was king of Troy and killed during the Trojan war. Thebes was a Greek city in Egypt, on the Nile. Camelot, of course, was the mythical home of King Arthur's court. The line "He mourned Romance, now on the town," is tied to the meaning of "on the town" as being unable to support onesself and thus dependent upon the town's charity. The poem has some relation to Robinson's life, given that he felt unwanted as a child. (See the biography above.)
Oh, one more thing. The title line is from "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service. It referred to Tilbury Town, but it summed up many things about Robinson and, indeed, about the world in general.
Sources and Further Reading
- Children of the Night by Edwin Arlington Robinson (contains "Richard Corey")
- The Man against the Sky by Edwin Arlington Robinson
- The Three Taverns by Edwin Arlington Robinson
- "Edwin Arlington Robinson", The Academy of American Poets
- "On Richard Corey," Modern American Poets
- "On Miniver Cheevy," Modern American Poets
- "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service