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  • By Robert Funderburk

Profiles in Poetry: Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson was not welcome in the world into which he was born, the village of Head Tide in the town of Alna, Maine. December 22, 1869, was a day of disappointment for his parents, because their third son was supposed to be a daughter and a boy's name hadn’t been considered. For six-months the child remained nameless. The summer after his birth when the family was on vacation in Harpswell, Maine, the ladies told Mary no name was a shame and placed random names in a lottery. Edwin was drawn and because the "drawer" was from Arlington, MA, this became his middle name. When EA grew old enough to understand what had happened, one can only imagine the sense of rejection he felt. Such a traumatic event so early in life must have influenced his whole being, including his poetry.

Robinson’s father, Edward, was a lumber merchant and local politician, and therefore had considerable wealth. When EA was eighteen-months old, the family moved to Gardiner where Edward was offered the directorship of a bank. EA’s poem, Richard Cory could have been a not-so-subtle attack on his father.

Richard Cory Whenever Richard Cory went downtown, 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.

As evidenced by this poem, as well as all others, Robinson used everyday language and stayed with the traditional forms. This was during a period when most poets were experimenting with the genre and made his poetry somewhat unique. His entire life, he refused to even consider free verse as a possibility. Once, when asked if he wrote it, he replied, “No, I write badly enough as it is.”

Robinson was one of the most prolific American poets of the early 20th century, but is only remembered now for a few short poems. Amy Lowell, a contemporary of Robinson, stated in the New York Times Book Review, “Edwin Arlington Robinson is poetry. I can think of no other living writer who has so consistently dedicated his life to his work.”

Robinson described his childhood in Gardiner Maine as, “stark and unhappy,” which may have been understated given the circumstances of his “unwelcome” into the world. He first enrolled at Mrs. Morrell’s School and later switched to public schools and finally graduated from Gardiner High School. Although his father never encouraged him to choose writing as a career, he did pay for his Harvard education.

During this period, he published some poems in local newspapers and magazines, and as he later explained in a biographical piece published in Colophon, he had collected a pile of rejection slips “that must have been one of the largest and most comprehensive in literary history.” After this excessive history of rejection, he decided to self-publish with Riverside, a vanity press, which released The Torrent and the Night Before. This could be deemed the beginning of his professional career.

During this time of publishing hardship, Edwin fell in love with Emma Loehen Shepherd, but lost her to his older, handsome and charismatic brother, Herman. Emma admired the hardworking Edwin and encouraged him in his poetry, but considered him too young for marriage and chose Herman instead. Edwin felt she was deceived by Herman’s charm and chose his shallow qualities over Edwin’s depth of character. The marriage left the novice poet in despondency, and he would not go to the wedding, rather stayed home, and wrote a protest poem, Cortege, which was the name of the train that took the newlyweds out of his life to their new home in St. Louis, Missouri. Later, Emma thought the poem Richard Cory was a literary bullet aimed at her husband.

Given Robinson’s early life experiences, it’s little wonder that his poetic themes were: personal failure, artistic endeavor, materialism, and the inevitability of change—usually for the worse. It is therefore no mystery that as an adult, Robinson remained devoted to his writing and led a solitary and somewhat unstable life, lapsing for a time into alcoholism.

Robinson mailed copies of The Torrent and The Night Before to several journals and to other writers who he hoped would like his work and give their readers a good word about it. The responses were mostly encouraging except for that of Harry Thurston Peck who disliked Robinson’s bleak outlook and sense of humor, and said as much in the Bookman. Sadly, for Robinson, Peck had prominent credentials in the literary world. Peck found Robinson’s tone too grim and commented, “the world is not beautiful to Robinson, but a prison-house.” Responding to Peck in the next issue of the Bookman, “I am sorry that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colours. The world is not a prison-house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

As there was so much positive response to his first book, Robinson birthed another book of verse, The Children of the Night in 1897, also published by a vanity press. Reviewers, for the most part, ignored it because of the vanity press imprint.

However, Robinson had two friends who had faith in his talent and persuaded Houghton Mifflin to publish Captain Craig. They were able to bring this to bloom by paying for a substantial portion of the publishing costs. It found no favor with the public nor the critics. Again, another cloud drifted over Robinson’s dream of poet laureate or perhaps merely self-supporting poet.

Our poet-in-waiting began drinking heavily at this point.

Our sadly overwhelmed poet was able to obtain employment as an inspector for the New York City subway system after 3 failed volumes of verse convinced him that he couldn’t keep body and soul together with his writing. But the literary weather turned around. In 1904 Kermit Roosevelt, son of the president, gave his father a copy of The Children of the Night. President Roosevelt so admired the poems, that he persuaded Charles Scribner’s Sons to reprint the book. He also wrote a review of it for the Outlook , “I am not sure I understand Luke Havergal, but I am entirely sure that I like it.” He also found a sinecure for the poet at the New York Customs House—a post Robinson held until 1909. This was the only sinecure that the president ever granted. The 2,000 stipend paid by the post gave Robinson financial security for the first time in his adult life. In 1910, he showed his gratitude with a volume of poems, The Town Down the River dedicated to the former president.

The best known of Robinson’s poems are those now called the Tilbury Town cycle, named after the smalltown that provides the setting for many of his poems and explicitly links him and his poetry with smalltown New England with its social climate customarily designated as the Puritan ethic, stated W. R. Robinson in “Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poetry of the Act.” These poems also proclaim some of Robinson’s most prominent themes: “his curiosity about what lies behind the social mask of the citizens and his dark hints about sexuality, loyalty and man’s terrible will to defeat himself,” as stated by Gerald DeWitt Sanders and his fellow editors of Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America.”

Tilbury Town first comes to life in John Evereldown, a ballad collected in The Torrent and The Night Before. John Evereldown, out late at night, is called back to the house by his wife, who is wondering why he wants to walk the long cold miles into town. He responds, “God knows if I pray to be done with it all/But God’s no friend of John Evereldown./So the clouds may come and the rain may fall,/The shadows may creep and the dead men crawl,/But I follow the women wherever they call,/And that’s why I’m going to Tilbury Town.” Tilbury Town interweaves itself throughout much of Robinson’s work: Captain Craig, Richard Cory, Flammonde and many others.

In 1922, Robinson won his first Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems, the first ever awarded to poetry. His second Pulitzer was given to him in 1924 for The Man Who Died Twice, the story of a street musician whose one musical masterpiece is lost when he passes out after a night of heavy drinking and other unseemly acts.

Robinson won his third Pulitzer in 1927 for his long narrative poem Tristram, one of a series of poems based on Arthurian legends. Tristram became Robinson’s only true, popular success. A best-selling book-length poem in 20th-century literature was as rare as a happy communist. Critical approval was an added joy for Robinson. Lloyd Morris wrote in the Nation, “It may be said, not only that Tristram is the finest of Mr. Robinson’s narrative poems, but that it is among the very few, fine modern narrative poems in English.”

In the early part of 1935, Robinson fell ill with cancer. He remained hospitalized, correcting gallery proofs of his final poem, King Jasper, only hours before a final coma took him from this earth. Robinson had been considered America’s foremost poet for almost 20 years and newspapers and magazines praised his industry, integrity, and devotion to his poetry. Robert Frost wrote in his introduction to King Jasper, “…our age, ran wild in the quest of new ways to be new… Robinson stayed content with the old-fashioned ways to be new. We mourn, but with the qualification that, after all, his life was a revel in the felicities of language.”

Cliff  Klingenhagen Cliff Klingenhagen had me in to dine With him one day; and after soup and meat And all the other things there were to eat, Cliff took two glasses and filled one with wine And one with wormwood. Then without a sign For me to choose at all, he took the draught Of bitterness himself, and lightly quaffed It off, and said the other one was mine. And when I asked him what the deuce he meant By doing that, he only looked at me And smiled, and said it was a way of his. And though I know the fellow, I have spent Long time a-wondering when I shall be As happy as Cliff Klingenhagen is.

Did Robinson aspire to be Cliff Klinghagen? Or was Klingenhagen his dream of ideal mankind? Perhaps he knew a man like Cliff and wrote the poem to honor him. The Biblical qualities of hospitality, ‘tis better to give than to receive, consider others before yourself, and the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace and kindness are readily apparent in the character of Cliff Klingenhagen. This poem reveals the positive outlook and love of life that are lacking in most of Robinson’s work.

Try reading some of Robinson’s poems. I believe that it will give you some insight into the true character of people in general, maybe some you know, and in the end be a positive and educational experience for you.

Recommended readings

1.  Miniver Cheevy (First Pulitzer ever for poetry)

2.  Credo

Robert Funderburk was born by coal oil lamplight in our home near Liberty, Mississippi, graduated from Louisiana State University in 1965, serving as SSgt in USAFR from 1965 - 1971. He now lives with my wife, Barbara, enjoying the peace of their home on fifty acres of wilderness in Olive Branch, Louisiana.

1 Comment

Apr 06

I just feel that Edwin Arlington Robinson illustrates perfectly the difference between verse and poetry. His work is definitely verse.

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