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On "The Clerks"

Ellsworth Barnard

This harmony and proportion are found most often, in Robinson's view, in lives that are otherwise undistinguished. The admonition in The Clerks reveals a permanent attitude, although in later life he would probably not have stated it so directly:

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.

from Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study. Copyright © 1952 by the MacMillan Company.

Irving Howe

The finest of Robinson's sonnets of character is "The Clerks." Describing a return to Tilbury Town, the poet meets old friends, figures of "a shopworn brotherhood," who now work as clerks in stores. The opening octet quietly evokes this scene, and then in the closing sestet Robinson widens the range of his observation with a powerful statement about the weariness of slow defeat:

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,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage of the years.

Without pretending to close analysis, I would like to glance at a few of the perceptual and verbal refinements in these six lines. The opening "ache ... to be sublime" has its workaday irony that prepares for the remarkable line which follows: to "feed" with "your descent" is a characteristic Robinsonian turn, which in addition to the idea of consuming oneself through age suggests more obliquely that indulgence in vanity which claims distinction for one's decline. Poets and kings who are "clerks of Time" are helplessly aligned with the Tilbury clerks, yet Robinson sees that even in the democracy of our common decay we cling to our trifle of status. For in the "dull webs of discontent" which form the fragile substance of our lives, we still insist on "tiering" ourselves. Coming in the penultimate line, the word "tiering" has enormous ironic thrust: how long can a tier survive as a web? And then in the concluding line Robinson ventures one of his few deviations from standard English, in the use of "alnage," a rare term meaning a measure of cloth, that is both appropriate to the atmosphere of waste built up at the end and overwhelming as it turns us back to the "shop-worn" clerks who are Robinson's original donnée.

From The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture. Copyright © 1973 by Irving Howe. Horizon Press, 1973.

Louis Coxe

It seems to me that the clerks must surely be old friends of Robinson's from Gardiner days (Note, by the way, how Robinson, like Eliot, so often makes himself seem old and disenchanted) who have never fulfilled the promise of their youth--or better, have fulfilled it entirely by growing old. He could see, even in his twenties, some of his friends slipping into the pattern of small-town commerce. We can take the term "clerk" as a generic one for any man involved in commercial enterprise below what the contemporary jargon styles "the executive level," though I am by no means sure Robinson rules out such exalted types. Be that as it may, these clerks are men, both good and human--as good and as human "as they ever were." If Robinson had ended his poem with the octave, we might have doubts as to his sympathy; irony leaks out from the description of the men with their "shopworn brotherhood," a phrase which evokes Kiwanis and Rotary, while the final phrase of the octave "as they ever were" cuts two ways: how good were they, ever?

The sestet answers: as good as you and I, then, now or later! The speaker of the poem clearly involves himself in the human disaster of living: "poets and kings," you and I, all of us high, low and in between, are "clerks of Time." That very capacity to understand without sentimentality, to maintain a moral view without rigidity, to face reality without showing off about it: these attitudes and capacities demand the ironic tone, and irony can be both misunderstood and misapplied when it deals with common life and affairs. Many of Robinson's poems were thus misunderstood for a very long time.

[See also John Newcomb’s comments in "About Robinson’s Poetry"]

From Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry. Copyright © 1969 by Western Publishing Co.

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