Jerome Shea July 28, 2009 Weekend Wonk
Another wonk about a poet. But unlike William Topaz McGonagall or Julia Ann Moore, I am talking about a very good poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, who seems to have dropped off the radar, and that’s a pity. The man won the Pulitzer Prize three times. His long poem, Tristram (part of his trilogy on the Arthurian cycle), was a best seller in 1927. But by mid-century all that kept his reputation bumping along were two or three poems—“Richard Cory,” “Mr. Flood’s Party,” “Miniver Cheevy,” perhaps—that were staples in most anthologies, and yet his Collected Poems is a doorstop of a book, running to almost 1500 pages. Perhaps most of his poems do deserve obscurity, but his portraits of the denizens of Tilbury Town, such as those mentioned above and a handful more, are miniature masterpieces.
Edwin Arlington Robinson—the poor man was called Edward half the time, and even Robertson once—was born at Head Tide, Maine, in 1869, though he is always associated with Gardiner, Maine, where the family moved in 1870. He parceled his life out between Gardiner (the fictitious Tilbury Town), the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and New York City. He never married, and died in New York City in 1935. In his 2007 biography, Scott Donaldson calls Robinson “our first truly modern poet.” The Victorian poets (Tennyson, Arnold) and their American counterparts (Longfellow, Bryant) were in decline toward the century’s close, as was their Victorian world-view. A new sensibility was being born, one that did not eschew rhyme and meter but that also saw the world with a wary, if not jaundiced, eye. A.E. Housman (“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now / Is hung with bloom along the bow”) and E. A. Robinson are cut from the same bolt of cloth, speak in almost identical new voices.
Like Dickens and H.H. Munro, Robinson had a genius for names: Miniver Cheevy, Eben Flood, Aaron Stark, Fleming Helphenstine. Consider “The man Flammonde, from God knows where….” The name suggests both “flamboyant” and “worldly,” but is he a savior or a charlatan? We’ll never know and always doubt (“What small satanic sort of kink / Was in his brain…?”). I find it the most unsettling of his many unsettling poems.
He had a genius, too, for the aphoristic line. In fact, I got to thinking about Robinson a couple of weeks ago when I quoted a line to a forlorn friend: “Familiar as an old mistake, / And futile as regret.” No, that’s not Miniver Cheevy, it’s Bewick Finzer, in whom shines “The cleanliness of indigence / The brilliance of despair.” And the music! Consider the skirling rhythm of “John Evereldown” (“Where are you going to-night, to-night, / Where are you going, John Evereldown?”) who “follow[s] the women wherever they call…God knows I pray to be done with it all, / But God is no friend to John Evereldown.” He is almost comic in his lust. (Elsewhere, Robinson refers to him as “that skirt-crazed reprobate.”) And then we have Luke Havergal, who suffers the torments of lost love in a poem vibrant with the horror of a Poe or a Lovecraft. Hear how Robinson makes these lines prance like a horse in dressage, quick-stepping at the end: “Out of a grave I come to tell you this / Out of a grave I COME to QUENCH the KISS / That FLAMES….”). Wow. This is not just a great poet but a superb craftsman. His monogram—EAR—is a perfect and true pun.
Surely everyone knows “Richard Cory.” He is the model of a perfect gentleman, a man who bears his good fortune with civility and grace. So the last stanza hits us like a brickbat:
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.
Sixteen simple lines. A lesser poet would need twice that.
Death and loss, irony and pathos. It’s all there in these hapless creatures. If you don’t know Richard Cory, I’ll bet you know old Eben Flood, who throws himself a party as he totters home in the moonlight. It is a wonderful comic performance, this picture of a drunken old coot who treats his jug as a mother would treat her baby (“He set the jug down slowly at his feet / With trembling care, knowing that most things break”). That line should have forewarned us that this poem is going to break our hearts, that Eben Flood is brother to Sir Bedivere, bereft of his king and of all the life that he ever knew:
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered, and the song was 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.
Get thee to the nearest library and check out some Robinson. You’ll thank me.
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