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The truth is that Robinson’s poetry was outdated even when it was written, that much of it is now unreadable, and that some of it continues to be very good.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 séances 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 …