Saturday, April 22, 2017

For National Poetry Month: 30 Poets, #22

robinson 1887.jpg

Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

The casual cruelties of family life can mark one- and, sometimes, make one. In E.A. Robinson’s case- he preferred his name that way- his family was both a misery and an inspiration as he rose to become one of America’s preeminent 20th century poets.

His father was a local pol and successful businessman who’d already fathered two sons when Mrs Robinson went into her third confinement. The parents, in the irrational manner parents have about such things, were set on getting a girl.

They got another boy, and their disappointment knew no bounds. Until he was six months old, Robinson had no name. Then, on holiday, his mother put a batch of names in a hat and let her co-vacationers pull some out. The winner was “Edwin,” and the selector was from Arlington, Massachusetts. The boy- whom his family called, “Win”- detested his name for the rest of his life.

His oldest brother was a doctor who compounded medicines and indulged a drug habit. His next brother, Herman, was the charming, handsome rake who stole his younger brother’s girl and married her in 1890. A tall, gawky kid, Robinson suffered by comparison with his brothers. He adored words as a child, mining books as if they were ore, and appearing at a neighbor’s kitchen door to shout his latest find; “Nebuchadnezzar! Melchizedek!” The neighbor, a doctor, took Robinson under his wing and tutored him in the classic forms of verse Robinson made a specialty in his career.

E.A. spent a year and a half at Harvard, where he was a middling but happy student. His family suffered major financial reverses in the financial panic of 1893, and he was called home to Maine for a time, before striking out on his own in New York. There he self-published his first collection of poetry in 1896, intending it as a surprise for his mother, only to learn she had died of diptheria a few days earlier.

His father died, and he was once more called home to become man of the family. His oldest brother died of his laudanum addiction in 1899; his brother Herman suffered business reverses, took to drink, and separated from his wife and children, leaving them destitute. They moved home to Maine, where Emma turned him down two more times. After the second, Robinson moved to New York for good. There he eked out a living working as a temp and on grants from friends. His second collection of poems sold better, and one fateful copy ended up in the hands of Kermit Roosevelt, the President’s son. Son passed it on to father as a must-read; the father, learning Robinson was living in hard times, made his only patronage appointment as president. Robinson received a $2,000 a year job in the New York Customs House, with instructions to devote himself to the improvement of the state of American letters. Roosevelt, for his pains, became, if not the first, then one of the few, American Presidents to have a book of poetry dedicated to him.

The job ended with the Roosevelt administration in 1909, and Robinson, at forty, was back on the streets. His brother, Herman, died that year. Some critics have suggested one of Robinson’s best-known works, “Richard Cory”, was based on his brother’s life:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
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.

By 1911 Robinson was well-enough regarded to win a summer at the newly-founded MacDowell Colony for artists in New Hampshire; a 1913 bequest from a Harvard professor turned the tide for his finances. In 1916 he was interviewed about whether modern verse had to rhyme by a New York Times reporter, Joyce Kilmer, who apparently learned nothing from the experience.


Robinson became a regular summer colonist at MacDowell; while he enjoyed several romantic relationships with women, he never married. Fame came late, but in full measure: he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, 1925 and 1928. He died of cancer in 1935. In his day he was considered more artful than Hardy, more coy than Frost, and a master of the sonnet. He remains widely anthologized, if not as broadly appreciated as he ought to be in this post-poetry age.

Photo: Robinson in 1887; portrait of Robinson in 1916.

#HenryBemisBooks #NationalPoetryMonth #EdwardArlingtonRobinson

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