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About Robinson's Poetry

Radcliffe Squires

Mucb of Robinson's poetry contemplates the problem of how the self might separate itself from a rigid society, yet remain as a tutelary spirit. In the end Robinson's decision would seem to have been that this could best be done by eschewing the dramatic catastrophes--vengeance, martyrdom--and offering instead temperate ironies, cool understatements and a language calculated, like Wordsworth's, to heal. This decision, as one looks back now from the present with its poetry of scrimshaw, its poetry of sociology, requires one to say that Robinson chose not to write for any particular time, for "any particular time" likes to have salt in its wounds. Equally it requires that one say that Robinson wrote for all time, for "all time" wants to be made healthy and to survive.

From Edwin Arlington Robinson: Centenary Essays. Ed. Ellsworth Barnard. Copyright 1969 by the University of Georgia Press.

James Dickey (1965)

No poet ever understood loneliness or separateness better than Robinson or knew the self-consuming furnace that the brain can become in isolation, the suicidal hellishness of it, doomed as it is to feed on itself in answerless frustration, fated to this condition by the accident of human birth, which carries with it the hunger for certainty and the intolerable load of personal recollections. He understood loneliness in all its many forms and deities and was thus less interested in its conventional poetic aspects than he was in the loneliness of the man in the crowd, or alone with his thoughts of the dead, or feeling at some unforeseen time the metaphysical loneliness, the angst, of being "lost among the stars," or becoming aware of the solitude that resides in comfort and in the affection of friend and family--that desperation at the heart of what is called happiness. It is only the poet and those involved who realize the inevitability and the despair of these situations, "Although, to the serene outsider,/There still would seem to be a way."

The acceptance of the fact that there is no way, that there is nothing to do about the sadness of most human beings when they are alone or speaking to others as if to themselves, that there is nothing to offer them but recognition, sympathy, compassion, deepens Robinson's best poems until we sense in them something other than art. A thing inside its is likely to shift from where it was, and our world view to change, though perhaps only slightly, toward a darker, deeper perspective. Robinson has been called a laureate of failure and has even been accused (if that is the word) of making a cult and a virtue of failure, but that assessment is not quite accurate. His subject was "the slow tragedy of haunted men," those whose "eyes are lit with a wrong light," those who believe that some earthly occurrence in the past (and now forever impossible) could have made all the difference, that some person dead or otherwise beyond reach, some life unlived and now unlivable, could have been the answer to everything. But these longings were seen by Robinson to be the delusions necessary to sustain life, for human beings, though they can live without hope, cannot live believing that no hope ever could have existed. For this reason, many of the poems deal with the unlived life, the man kept by his own nature or by circumstance from "what might have been his," but there is always the ironic Robinsonian overtone that what might have been would not have been much better than what is--and, indeed, might well have been worse; the failure would only have had its development and setting altered somewhat, but not its pain or its inevitability.

John Timberman Newcomb:
"Nothing More to Say: Robinson and Past Canons"

The inevitably ambivalent sense of being haunted by the canons of the past was a dominant subject of Robinson's early work, which obsessively tropes the inhibition and futility that these canonical shades engender in the aspiring writer. Robinson's restlessness toward his central canonical predecessors was manifested most productively in a procession of poems from his 1897 volume The Children of the Night that ingeniously thematize commonly understood notions of canonicity: "The Wilderness," "Ballade by the Fire," "The Clerks," "The House on the Hill," "The Pity of the Leaves," "Sonnet," "The Dead Village," "Ballade of Broken Flutes," and so on. While this mostly pessimistic thematization of poetry's value may be a litany of futility, it is far from being an exercise in futility. By exploring and problematizing the oppressive reverberation of past canons, Robinson's poems refract those anxieties into such conceptually ingenious and linguistically rich forms that the effort paradoxically becomes a demonstration of the continued imaginative value of poetry.

Several poems from The Children of the Night critique the model of the canon as a sacred space (academy, pantheon, museum, mausoleum) by associating it with rundown and obsolete physical structures that one might find in an deteriorating New England market town. In "The House on the Hill," for example, a view of an abandoned dwelling provides the setting for a psychological ghost story on the impotence of the canonical edifice the poet has inherited. Despite acknowledging three times that the former inhabitants "are all gone away," this speaker and his peers "still stray/ Around that sunken sill," unable to give up the notion of a canonical house on the hill. Since the tradition is in "ruin and decay," these efforts to communicate with the dead are met with utter indifference ("our poor fancy-play/ For them is wasted skill"), but they continue them nonetheless, their aimless obsessiveness cleverly echoed by the stubborn a-b-a rhymes of the villanelle structure. In an important sense, speaker and fellows have themselves prematurely adopted the role of ghosts, belatedly attempting to inhabit the scene of past vitality, unable fully to comprehend their status in limbo. Robinson also puts the other characteristic feature of the villanelle, the double refrain, to good use, the two repeated phrases embodying the two sides of contemporary poetry's dilemma: the decrepitude of its canonical inheritance is clear to see ("They are all gone away"),but this clarity makes no new directions possible, since "There is nothing more to say." It is hard to imagine a starker or more precise articulation of the impasse that American poets were faced with between 1890 and 1910.

While in general Robinson was no maven of mass culture, the canonical ghost topos also afforded him opportunities to thematize the excruciated relations between the traditionally elite genre of poetry and the forms and practices of contemporary material culture. "The Clerks," for example, ingeniously combines the theme of the reverberant canon with a meditation on the modern anxieties of cultural commodification. Here the poets of the past are figured as "a shop-worn brotherhood" hanging on "with an ancient air" ("I did not think I should find them there/ When I came back again; but there they stood"), who offer the speaker and his fellow poets a painful lesson in the futility of their own aspirations to join this canonical tradition: "And you that ache so much to be sublime,/ And you that feed yourselves with your descent,/ What comes of all your visions and your fears?/ Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time." The poem's description of shabby figures still "standing" in the same spot encourages us to think not only of the clerks in a dusty shop, but of their wares as well, books or other goods standing on neglected shelves, a display of cultural decay waiting helplessly for a consumer-reader who may well never come. This equation of creator (poet) with both seller (clerk) and object for sale evokes the anxiety that individualist cultural forms such as poetry would be submerged as America rushed headlong toward a totally commodified understanding of culture. What these clerks are unsuccessfully peddling, of course, is not only the material forms of poetry, but also an obsolete account of cultural value whose emphasis on sublimity and transcendence is unequipped to compete in the large-scale market economies of modernity. Having little or no hope of "selling," they can only persist in weaving intricate, ephemeral arabesques of their own redundancy, as they go on "Tiering the same dull webs of discontent," "Clipping the same sad alnage of the years."

In "alnage," an old word designating a quantity of material measured by the ell, Robinson again considers the notion of poetry as commodity, but does so in a way that registers at least a glimmering awareness of the need for the genre to develop a productive relationship with commodified modernity. The terms alnage and ell as units of measure derive from the length of the forearm (and are related etymologically to ulna and elbow), ingeniously figuring both the act of writing and the skeletal character of these decrepit clerk-poets. The finicking precision of small-minded clerks bent on getting an accurate measure of their goods pokes fun at the era's poetic traditionalists obsessed with precisely measuring out their lines, whom Robinson satirized more directly in "Sonnet" as "little sonnet-men" "Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanic way,/ Songs without souls, that flicker for a day,/ To vanish in irrevocable night." In this context, a significant element of the clerks' irrelevance is their reliance upon obsolete units of measure, as Robinson's choice of the flagrantly archaic "alnage" suggests. It follows that the mechanics of traditional poetic forms, no matter how shrewdly executed, are equally suspect. Thus the poem invites the conclusion that it is not commodification in itself that has made poetry culturally irrelevant, but instead, that poetry has stood still as the world has changed, and needs to generate new "measures."

Copyright 1999 by John Timberman Newcomb.

Richard Gray

Robinson's first and last love was what he called 'the music of English verse'. As he explained to a friend, he was 'a classicist in poetic composition', who believed that 'the accepted media for masters of the past' should 'continue to be used for the future'. However, he was far from being one of the 'little sonnet-men' as he contemptuously referred to them, mere imitators of English fashions and forms. On the contrary, he was deliberately local: many of his poems are set in Tilbury Town, a fictive place based on his boyhood home of Gardiner, Maine. And he was a genuine original, obsessed with certain personal themes: human isolation, the tormented introversions of the personality, the doubts and frustrations of lonely people inhabiting a world from which God appears to have hidden His face. 'No poet ever understood loneliness or separateness better than Robinson', James Dickey has observed, ‘or knew the self-consuming furnace that the brain can become in isolation'. So his perennial subjects became what he termed ‘the slow tragedy of haunted men' - those whose 'eyes are lit with a wrong light', illusions that at once cripple and save them - and 'The strange and unremembered light/That is in dreams' - the obsessive effort to illuminate and make sense of experience when there is perhaps no sense to be made. 'The world is not a "prison-house"', Robinson declared, 'but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of infants are trying to spell "God" with the wrong blocks'. Robinson saw himself and his poetic characters as particularly notable members of that kindergarten: people whose minds and language, their 'words' can never quite encompass the truth about the universe, the 'Word', but who nevertheless keep on trying.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.

David Perkins

If a formula could be given for a typical poem of Robinson, it would include the following elements: characterization; indirect and allusive narration; contemporary setting and recognition of the impingement of setting on individual lives; psychological realism and interest in exploring the tangles of human feelings and relationships; an onlooker or observer as speaker, making the poems impersonal and objective with respect to Robinson himself; a penchant for the humorous point of view combined with an awareness that life is more essentially tragic; a language that is colloquial, sinewy, and subtle as it conveys twists of implication in continually active thinking; a mindfulness of the difficulty of moral judgment but also a concern for it. Feeling that all this can justly be said, one wonders why Robinson's reputation is not higher. For one thing, readers are doubtless intimidated by the volume of his productivity. It is discouraging to face so fat a book, and, like most poets, he is more enjoyably read in selections than in toto. A less trivial cause is that, amid so much writing, a great deal seems bad, or more exactly put, it practices skills that seem less important at the cost of liabilities that now seem glaring.

From A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode. Copyright 1976 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Alan Shucard, Fred Maramarco, and William Sullivan

The reasons that Edwin Arlington Robinson chose failure for his major theme--or that it chose him--can only be surmised. Presumably they have to do with his sensitivity to the plight of his addict brothers, his bankrupt father, his own alcoholism, and his monetary struggles through nearly the first half-century of his life. Moreover, there seems to have been something in his nature that made him more cerebral than physical in his response to the world. He was spiritual in his insistence upon a mystical being in the universe outside of humanity and greater than it; that much he had in common with Emerson and Whitman, both of whom he admired. But he could be only about half a Transcendentalist, unable to find the exuberance, the joie de vivre, that was given to them by their confidence in humanity's capacity to discover that stupendous entity and merge with it.

Robinson's fascinating characters typically are perplexed, unfulfilled, and disgruntled in various proportions. Sometimes that is because they do not quite know what hollowness plagues them or because they do not know where to search for truth or because they have searched but have been stymied in the quest. Of Robinson's famous title characters, the romantic failure Miniver Cheevy (in The Town Down the River) lives in a past that never really was, curses the fate that landed him in the reality of the present, and drinks as a substitute for controlling his life. Bewick Finzer (also in The Town Down the River) invested so much of himself in money that when the money went, his selfhood went with it. Now, "Familiar as an old mistake, / And futile as regret," he haunts the townspeople, who help him because they recognize enough of themselves in him. Pathetic old Eben Flood (in Avon's Harvest, 1921) has no internal resources and has outlived all of his friends but for the jug, from which he is inseparable. Robinson's sense of humor plays through many of these and other poems (for example, though Cheevy never saw a Medici, "He would have sinned incessantly / Could he have been one"), but there is more sardonic wit than mirth in the laughter. He may have esteemed Emerson, but Robinson is often as condemnatory of the human race as Melville. The wife in "Eros Turannos" (in The Man Against the Sky: A Book of Poems, 1916) cannot leave her Judas of a husband because she is too proud and too afraid of loneliness, and so she lives in a home "where passion lived and died." The narrator of "Karma" (in Dionysus in Doubt: A Book of Poems, 1925) tells of a moral bankrupt who has wrecked a friend in a business venture and atones by giving a sidewalk Santa "from the fullness of his heart . . . / A dime for Jesus who had died for men." Robinson's Cassandra (in The Man Against the Sky) sums up one of the human sins: she inveighs against the exchange of material sin for spiritual values and self-esteem in human affairs:

"Your Dollar, Dove and Eagle make
    A Trinity that even you
Rate higher than you rate yourselves;
    It pays, it flatters and it's new.

The home-grown prophetess is as well received as the classical Cassandra. The crowd laughs; "None heeded, and few heard." The multitudes who pray to the new Trinity do so at their dire peril, Robinson held. Even when such an apparent success as Richard Cory (in The Children of the Night, 1897) seems to have all that modern people wish for, there is such emptiness at the core that, inexplicably to all who envy him and subscribe to his values, Cory chooses a "calm summer night" to go "home and put a bullet through his head." Sometimes the weight of the world bore so heavily upon Robinson that death looked attractive. In "How Annandale Went Out" (in The Town Down the River), the solution, haltingly spoken by a distraught physician, is euthanasia.

[Excerpted from a longer essay. See the book for the full version.]

from Modern American Poetry: 1865-1950. Ed. Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Copyright 1989 by G.K. Hall & Co.

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