E.A. Robinson

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

E.A. Robinson
Air Date: June 24, 2010

Aaron: Fleda, on the January program you read and discussed the work of Emily Dickenson. That reminded me of a class I had early in my graduate career on Dickenson, Robert Frost, and Edward Arlington Robinson. Over the next several decades I would continue to run across Dickenson and Frost in survey texts, but Robinson, who I like a lot, was seldom anthologized. So……blah, blah, blah.

Fleda: Well, probably people don’t teach the old guys (usually guys) as much these days, I’m sure of it. You take Robinson–the kind of poems he writes don’t seem to represent the spirit of the times, quite so much. Let me explain that a bit. Robinson’s poems are narrative—they tell stories. We see stories told on TV and in movies. Those sources are so much more seductive—they’re in living color and you can absorb them lying half awake on your sofa. And then, too Robinson uses strong end-rhyme and a regular meter. Many modern poets have found that if they want to wake us up, if they want to get us to see the world with new eyes, they need to avoid the expected—not to rhyme where we’d expect it, not to use a meter that lulls us along because we know what’s coming next.

And don’t you think we tend to see reality as more ambiguous, and less certain? That seems to be reflected in most modern poetry. Still, there are modern poets writing some very good, rhymed poems with a regular meter, like Robinson’s.

And his work has always been respected. Listen to this one. It’s called “Richard Cory.” It’s about a rich and glamorous young man envied by everyone whose life wasn’t what his admirers thought it was. Probably the character of Richard Cory is modeled after Robinson’s handsome and popular brother, who died of alcoholism.

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
The 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.

I’ll say a little about Robinson, since some people may not have heard of him. He was born in 1969 in Maine. He has described his own childhood as stark and unhappy; he once wrote in a letter to the poet Amy Lowell that at the age of six he remembered wondering why he had been born. He was a shy and quiet child, utterly fascinated by the sound of words. His neighbors said that he used to appear in their doorway, and cry “Nebuchadnezzar” or “Melchizedek.”

After high school, Robinson studied at Harvard for a couple of years as a special student. His first poems, in fact, were published in the Harvard Advocate.

Robinson never married and led a notoriously solitary life. He settled in New York and for a long period sank into dire poverty and became an alcoholic. He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.

But in 1904, his fortune started to turn. Theodore Roosevelt was president. Roosevelt’s son gave him a copy of Robinson’s book, The Children of the Night. Roosevelt liked the poems so much that he persuaded a publisher to reprint the book, wrote a review of it himself, and found a job for Robinson at the U. S. Customs Office. This was the only sinecure that reform-minded Roosevelt ever granted. Robinson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1922, 1925 and 1928.

Some of his best known poems take place in a fictitious town he calls Tilbury Town, probably modeled after his own small town in Maine. His poems create a town full of interesting and troubled characters. Here’s one of my favorite. It takes place late one night, just outside of Tilbury.

Mr. Flood’s Party

Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

“Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.” He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: “Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.”

Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:

“Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!”
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
“Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.

“Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.”
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang—

“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
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.

Isn’t that a gorgeous and sad poem? See how much we learn about old Eben Flood, packed into these seven 8-line stanzas?

Let me read again these three lines:

Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child Down tenderly, fearing it may awake, He set the jug down slowly at his feet. With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
How better can words surround a feeling, so delicately and so exactly? I am in awe of those lines.

So this is just a taste of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s work. I admire him and I know other poets who are his fans. But then, I know a bunch of old poets. The truth is, though, good poetry never fades away. It may fade for a while—then it gets re-discovered. Maybe we’re on the verge of a Robinson revival.