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The truth is that Robinson’s poetry was outdated even when it was written, that much of it is now unreadable, and that some of it continues to be very good.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

He excused his cowardice by telling himself that it is impossible to write poetry and raise a family at the same time. Emma’s marriage to Herman was hell. He lost his job and squandered what was left of the family’s money. As if that were not enough unhappiness for one household, Dean, the middle brother, did away with himself by intentionally taking an overdose of morphine. As an executor of their mother’s estate, Herman had agreed to support Robinson with a modest monthly stipend, only to leave him penniless when he drank himself to death shortly after.

Robinson was twenty-nine. For two lengthy periods, from 1902 to 1905, and again from 1910 to 1914, he would live in great poverty, relying on an occasional job and the charity of friends to survive. He moved to New York, a city he described as “the biggest conglomeration of humanity and inhumanity that America affords,” and where he would live, except for short absences, for the rest of his life. The most enjoyable pages in Donaldson’s biography deal with these early years when Robinson lived in fleabag hotels and rooming houses full of interesting characters and roamed the streets like a derelict in search of someone who’d buy him a meal or preferably a drink. Once, eating alone in some greasy spoon, he looked so destitute that a waiter offered to lend him two dollars. One Christmas Eve he met Isadora Duncan at a party in the Village. They both got tipsy and she informed him that only through the love of a poet could she achieve fulfillment in her art. Alas, he told her, his virtue intact, the muse was now his only true love.

After unsuccessfully making the rounds for two years among publishers in New York and Boston, Robinson published Captain Craig in 1902, with friends again paying for the publication. He began writing a blank verse narrative called “The Pauper” in March 1898. It was based on a character he knew in New York, Alfred H. Louis, a down-and-out British expatriate who told amusing stories, dispensed wisdom, and sponged on strangers. “Captain Craig,” as it is now called, ended up by being a poem of almost two thousand lines. He knew that it would offend readers and critics since it celebrated a homeless tramp who didn’t complain about his fate, but who seemed to relish his poverty. Robinson was one of our most compassionate poets. He saw human suffering the way few others did. Still, like Frost, he had no use for social reformers or all-out pessimists, suspecting that most lives, including his own, were beyond repair:

CAPTAIN CRAIG

I doubt if ten men in all Tilbury Town

Had ever shaken hands with Captain Craig,

Or called him by his name, or looked at him

So curiously, or so concernedly,

As they had looked at ashes; but a few—

Say five or six of us—had found somehow

The spark in him, and we had fanned it there,

Choked under, like a jest in Holy Writ,

By Tilbury prudence. He had lived his life

And in his way had shared, with all mankind,

Inveterate leave to fashion of himself,

By some resplendent metamorphosis,

Whatever he was not. And after time,

When it had come sufficiently to pass

That he was going patch-clad through the streets,

Weak, dizzy, chilled, and half starved, he had laid

Some nerveless fingers on a prudent sleeve,

And told the sleeve, in furtive confidence,

Just how it was: “My name is Captain Craig,”

He said, “and I must eat.” The sleeve moved on,

And after it moved others—one or two;

For Captain Craig, before the day was done,

Got back to the scant refuge of his bed

And shivered into it without a curse—

Without a murmur even. He was cold,

And old, and hungry; but the worst of it

Was a forlorn familiar consciousness

That he had failed again. There was a time

When he had fancied, if worst came to worst,

And he could do no more, that he might ask

Of whom he would. But once had been enough,

And soon there would be nothing more to ask.

He was himself, and he had lost the speed

He started with, and he was left behind.

There was no mystery, no tragedy;

And if they found him lying on his back

Stone dead there some sharp morning, as they might,

Well, once upon a time there was a man—

Es war einmal ein König, if it pleased him.

And he was right: there were no men to blame:

There was just a false note in the Tilbury tune—

A note that able-bodied men might sound

Hosannas on while Captain Craig lay quiet.

They might have made him sing by feeding him

Till he should march again, but probably

Such yielding would have jeopardized the rhythm;

They found it more melodious to shout

Right on, with unmolested adoration,

To keep the tune as it had always been,

To trust in God, and let the Captain starve.

Tilbury Town is the name Robinson gave to Gardiner in his poetry. His is not a pretty picture of the place. Hypocrisy, selfishness, and indifference to the plight of the less fortunate, if not quite the rule, are commonplace. “Nothing is more depressing than the inability of most human minds to imagine anything outside their own experience,” he said. His ironic view of his God-fearing and virtuous fellow citizens is the most shocking and enduring aspect of his poetry. For Robinson, many of us live desperate lives whose full truth we do not dare acknowledge. We are like his Richard Cory, the fine, well-to-do gentleman much admired by his townspeople, who one calm summer night went home and put a bullet through his head. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that reviewers either ignored or disliked Captain Craig. Robinson fell into a depression, drifting from job to job and drinking heavily. However, help came from an unexpected source. President Theodore Roosevelt’s son had read The Children of the Night in school and urged his father to read it as well. Roosevelt liked the book, met the poet, and arranged for him to get a job at the New York Customs House.

The President also pressed Scribner’s into republishing The Children of the Night and co-wrote with his son an article for Outlook magazine, remarking that it was “curious” that Robinson’s work had been so little noticed for there was “an undoubted touch of genius” in his poetry. He was not sure, he said, that he understood “Luke Havergal,” but was entirely sure that he liked it. Literary critics were not impressed by the President’s high esteem for the poet. The reviews of the new edition of The Children of the Night were for the most part tepid.

In any case, Robinson still had the job. His duties at the Customs House were deliberately arranged to be minimal so that he could devote all his time to writing poetry. Robinson would sleep late, arrive at the office around noon, eat an apple, open his roll-top desk, read the newspaper, shuffle a few papers, close the desk, and go home. His annual salary of $2,000 was enough to support himself and even send some money to his family back in Maine. Despite the President’s backing, the major magazines remained closed to him. After Roosevelt left the White House, Robinson quit his job after having been ordered to wear a uniform, keep regular hours, and actually perform his duties. When his next book of poems, The Town Down the River, was published in 1910, he dedicated it to Roosevelt.

Robinson’s career is divided by critics into two phases: his remarkable early poetry, consisting mostly of short, tightly structured poems rich in detail and full of memorable character sketches, and his later work with its long-winded, incomprehensible, and mostly astonishingly boring narrative poems and dramatic monologues re-telling Arthurian legends. While his Collected Poems, initially published by Macmillan in 1935, has 1,488 pages of closely packed poems, the new selection by Donaldson of short and medium-length poems has abundant space between them and adds up to little more than two hundred pages of poetry. This is roughly all of Robinson’s work still worth reading. In addition to the poems I have already quoted, there are at least two dozen more that stand out, including “Calverly’s,” “Pasa Thalassa Thalassa,” “Miniver Cheevy,” “Flammonde,” and “Eros Turannos.” Among them I would add this little lyric of great beauty from The Three Taverns (1920):

THE DARK HILLS

Dark hills at evening in the west,

Where sunset hovers like a sound

Of golden horns that sang to rest

Old bones of warriors under ground,

Far now from all the bannered ways

Where flash the legions of the sun,

You fade—as if the last of days

Were fading, and all wars were done.

This is one of the very few short poems he wrote, and it appears to be an accident. Robinson never learned that a few words and images can be enough. The older he grew, the more he tended to overwrite. What baffles me about him is not only that he showed no interest in the work of Modernists, or that he had so little intellectual curiosity, but that he ignored much of the life around him. Did he ride the subway? Did he ever go to the movies or hear a jazz band play? One of the weakest poems in Donaldson’s selection, “The White Lights,” is about Broadway. Robinson may have lived in New York for over thirty years, but no one would know that from his poetry. His subject remained the small-town America of his youth. A fine late poem called “Mr. Flood’s Party” returns again to the theme of solitude, one man’s lonely evening after all the people he has known have died and the only friend he has is his jug. It concludes,

There was not much that was ahead of him,

And there was nothing in the town below—

Where strangers would have shut the many doors

That many friends had opened long ago.

No poet ever understood loneliness or separateness better than Robinson or knew the self-consuming furnace that the brain can become in isolation,” James Dickey wrote about him.* Luckily, Robinson’s own life became less lonely as he grew older. In 1911, he started spending his summers at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Notwithstanding his claim that he had never been able to understand why people must talk, he grew to enjoy the company of the writers and artists he found there. In 1916, an unknown benefactor began providing him with a monthly stipend that gave him a measure of financial security, while his new book, The Man Against the Sky (1916), was a success. Everyone was writing about Robinson. In The New York Times Book Review, the anonymous reviewer stated that in attitude Robinson was like Dostoevsky, except that in his case the darkness was lightened by the growing penetrating power of his vision and greater mastery of compression. Amy Lowell’s review in The New Republic was equally complimentary. The poems, she said, revealed the “great pitying tenderness” of their “magnificently noble” creator. Finally, the modest bachelor without a home or family who felt a natural kinship with the bereft was finding readers who understood and appreciated what he did as a poet.

Robinson’s remaining years were untroubled. He wrote a lot and published regularly. In 1921, his Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and he received a second one in 1924 for The Man Who Died Twice. The critical reception of both books was favorable. He could do no wrong. At the age of fifty-five, having more money than he required, he helped needy friends. Otherwise, his life remained unchanged till the very end when illness prevented him from returning to MacDowell. He died in a New York City hospital while revising the galleys of his last book. Scott Donaldson, who earlier wrote biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and Archibald MacLeish, calls Robinson in his introduction “a great American poet and an exceptionally fine human being.” I’m not entirely sure I concur with such a high estimate of a poet who wrote so many bad poems, but I wholeheartedly agree about his character.

He was the first of our poets,” Donaldson writes, “to write about ordinary people and events.” No poet before him noticed some poor woman stuck in a loveless marriage or the ancient clerks in a dry goods store measuring out their days like bolts of cloth. A reviewer in 1926 called Robinson “a biographer of souls…bound to humanity by the dual bond of sympathy and humor.” This is true. His poems leave us troubled, suspended uncomfortably between terror and pity. They show how little we understand another’s fate, how little we know ourselves. “Poetry is a language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said,” Robinson once said, sounding like a follower of Mallarmé. This is as good a definition of lyric poetry as one can have. I wish he had kept it in mind more often when he sat down to write, and resisted the compulsion to go on with the poem long after it did for the reader everything it could possibly do. I wish he had written more poems like this:

THE SHEAVES

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,

Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;

And as by some vast magic undivined

The world was turning slowly into gold.

Like nothing that was ever bought or sold

It waited there, the body and the mind;

And with a mighty meaning of a kind

That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,

Fair days went on till on another day

A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,

Shining and still, but not for long to stay—

As if a thousand girls with golden hair

Might rise from where they slept and go away.

  1. *

    About Robinson’s Poetry,” Modern American Poetry, www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/robinson/about.htm.

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