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A Great Twentieth-Century Poet

How many readers of poetry today recognize the names of Edmund Clarence Stedman, William Vaughn Moody, Louise Imogen Guiney, Celia Thaxter, or Trumbull Stickney? There is no reason why they should, but they ought to have heard of Edwin Arlington Robinson. When he died in New York City on April 5, 1935, the New York Times editorial lamented the loss of “one of the finest poets of our time…one who ranked with the great poets of the past.” Since then he’s been nearly forgotten, although a few of his short poems like “Richard Cory” and “Luke Havergal” have continued to be included in anthologies and his many book-length narrative poems, including his best-seller Tristram, which sold 57,475 copies in 1927 and for which he received his third Pulitzer Prize, can still be found collecting dust in town libraries and used bookstores across this country.

The truth is that Robinson’s poetry was outdated even when it was written, that much of it is now unreadable, and that some of it continues to be very good. If his reputation is ever to revive, and it should, the credit ought to go to Scott Donaldson and his biography. It not only tells the absorbing story of a most unusual man, but it also brings to life a period in our literature when Pound, Stevens, Williams, and Eliot were barely known, while a generation of poets and critics who seemed destined for lasting fame were not yet ancient memory.

How and why someone becomes a poet and starts scribbling verses in secret is always a puzzle. Having a house full of failures and eccentrics may be an inducement. As Robinson’s father drew close to his death, he held sĂŠances and spoke with the dead, while invisible hands rapped on a table and books flew off the shelves. Years before, he had been a schoolteacher in rural Maine, but gave that up to open a country store and subsequently acquire a fortune speculating in lumber. It was said of him that he could sit and whittle much of the day and still make money.

Robinson’s mother came from old Puritan stock. Among her ancestors were a governor of Massachusetts and one of our earliest and finest poets, Ann Bradstreet. Edwin, who was born on December 22, 1869, in Head Tide, Maine, was the third of her three sons. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to nearby Gardiner, a town of about 4,500 inhabitants, where he spent his youth. His mother wanted a daughter and was so upset to have a son again that she failed to give him a name for months. At last, one summer day, sitting after lunch on a screened porch with women friends watching the men play croquet, one visitor had the idea that all present should write a name on a piece of paper and his mother then should draw what was to be the child’s name from a bonnet. The slip she picked out read “Edwin,” and since the suggestion came from a woman from Arlington, Massachusetts, they thought Arlington ought to be his middle name.

Gardiner on the Kennebec River was a prosperous little town. Scott Donaldson describes its creed as “a devout materialism, a strict Victorian morality, and a Puritan work ethic.” Robinson’s father became a trustee of one local bank and director of another. The middle brother, Herman, was in line to manage the family fortune and the oldest brother, Dean, was to become a doctor. That left the youngest son to do what he pleased. Robinson, however, felt neglected. Years later writing to Amy Lowell he said that when he was a small child he used to rock himself in a chair many sizes too large for him and wonder why he was born.

At seven he was reading Shakespeare, understanding little, but taking pleasure in the music of verse. When he was eleven, he started sneaking up to the hayloft in the barn to write poetry. A few years later he began attending meetings of the town’s poetry society as its youngest member, writing sonnets and learning the craft. One day in school, a teacher caught him daydreaming in class and struck him under his right ear with the edge of her hand. She got his attention. The injury led to an almost total loss of hearing in that ear and recurrent earaches for the rest of his life.

During the 1890s, after a series of economic setbacks and their father’s death, the Robinson family fortune declined. His brother Herman, who worked in a bank, had convinced the old man to use the conservatively invested family funds to purchase real estate in St. Louis and Kansas. When that get-rich scheme failed miserably, Herman took to drink. Robinson’s other brother, Dean, a brilliant young doctor, became a morphine addict, gave up his profession, and returned to live at home like a ghost. While all this was going on, Robinson was writing poetry and attending Harvard as a special student. People who knew him there described him as extraordinarily shy, but genial once you got to know him. “He seemed like a person who had character behind his silence,” one of them said.

With his college pals he visited brothels in Boston, learned how to drink and smoke and most importantly how to make lasting friends. After twenty years of living like a snail, he told a friend in a letter, his life was infinitely larger. In 1893, two years after he arrived, he was forced to leave Harvard because of the family’s financial difficulties and his mother’s failing health. She died in 1896 of the deadly contagious “black diphtheria,” and since no mortician would handle the body, the coffin was left on the porch. The brothers themselves laid out their mother, dug her grave, and buried her.

During these unhappy years, Robinson wrote the poems that were published in The Torrent and the Night Before (1896) and The Children of the Night (1897). These were modest, pamphlet-like volumes whose costs were borne by friends since no established publisher would touch them. According to his biographer, Robinson had one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of rejection slips in literary history. Today it is hard to understand why nobody would publish a poem such as this one:

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

They are all gone away,

The house is shut and still,

There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray

The winds blow bleak and shrill:

They are all gone away.

Nor is there one today

To speak them good or ill:

There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray

Around the sunken sill?

They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play

For them is wasted skill:

There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay

In the House on the Hill:

They are all gone away,

There is nothing more to say.

This is a perennial New England theme. Robert Frost, who was five years younger than Robinson, was to write his share of heartbreaking poems about abandoned houses. In “The House on the Hill,” the language is so simple, the movement of the poem so effortless, one just barely notices that the poem is a villanelle.

Although magazine editors could not help but admire Robinson’s mastery of conventional forms, they rejected his poems because they conflicted with their ideas of poetry. His poems lacked the florid rhetoric and sentimentality the editors of the day fancied, employing, in its place, what Wordsworth called in the famous preface to Lyrical Ballads “the real language of men” and “incidents and situations from common life.” In an age in which everyone who read verse was convinced that a late August sunset on a New Hampshire lake watched by two lovers holding hands was the proper subject for immortal poetry, to write a sonnet about a small-town butcher grieving for his wife, as Robinson did, took extraordinary courage and literary talent:

REUBEN BRIGHT

Because he was a butcher and thereby

Did earn an honest living (and did right),

I would not have you think that Reuben Bright

Was any more a brute than you or I;

For when they told him that his wife must die,

He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,

And cried like a great baby half that night,

And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid

The singers and the sexton and the rest,

He packed a lot of things that she had made

Most mournfully away in an old chest

Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs

In with them, and tore down the slaughter house.

There was poetry to be discovered, Robinson believed, in all kinds of humanity, even lawyers and jockeys. His model, he said, was the English poet George Crabbe (1754–1832), who did away with idealized visions of pastoral life by describing with accuracy and sympathy the lives of the rural poor. “You won’t find much in the way of natural description,” Robinson warned a friend before the book’s publication. “There is very little tinkling water, and…not a red-bellied robin in the whole collection.” The reviews, and there were a fair number of them, agreed, one of them going so far as to claim that the world for Robinson is not a beautiful place but a prison house. The worry that his poetry may be too pessimistic for our upbeat national character was to be a frequent subject of his reviewers. “Where was it written that this world was hell?” one of them wrote in The Boston Globe.

Grim realism and psychological truth were acceptable in fiction for Robinson’s contemporaries, but certainly not in poetry. He wrote in meter and rhyme, but in no other respect did he resemble the upholders of the so-called Genteel Tradition who wanted their poems to look and taste like French pastries. Robinson was a revolutionary in his attitude toward the pieties of his age, Donaldson rightly insists. Against the bedrock of moral certitude, he offered a view of an America full of failures, loners, and unhappy people. Not until Frost and Masters would we have a poet so familiar with the miseries of small-town life. “My poetry is rat-poison to editors,” Robinson said. He had to wait eleven years, from 1894 to 1905, for his second poem to be sold to a magazine.

Robinson left Gardiner for good in 1898. His relations with his brother Herman, which were always difficult, became even more strained after Herman married a girl who was the one great love of Robinson’s otherwise celibate life. In Emma Shepherd, he thought, he had found a companion he could talk freely to and who would encourage his poetry. Although he felt deeply for her, he could not bring himself to say that he loved her. He was embarrassed by his appearance. “I have a look that might lead one to think that I had just been eating the lining out of my own coffin,” he said.

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