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Edwin Arlington Robinson's Life and Career


Bill Peschel

ROBINSON, Edwin Arlington (22 Dec. 1869-6 Apr. 1935), poet, was born in Head Tide, Maine, the son of Edward Robinson, a timber merchant and civic leader, and Mary Elizabeth Palmer. Shortly after his birth the family moved to nearby Gardiner, where he grew up; the town later provided the model for a series of poems that he wrote throughout his career. The third of three sons, Robinson had been considered a disappointment by his mother, who had wanted a daughter. While his oldest brother, Herman, was destined to manage the family fortune and his middle brother (Dean) to become a doctor, Robinson was free to turn to poetry. He began writing regularly at the age of eleven and in high school attended meetings of the town's poetry society as its youngest member. But while Robinson was willing to be taught the rudiments of the various poetry forms, one of his contemporaries recalled that "he was one of those persons whom you cannot influence ever, he went his own way" (quoted in Smith, p. 85). This strength of purpose would mark his character throughout his life.

Robinson attended Harvard from 1891 to 1893 despite his father's doubts about the value of a higher education. During the early 1890s the family's fortunes began to decline, triggering a series of tragedies that influenced Robinson's life and poetry. In 1892 his father died, and the panic of 1893 and the lingering aftermath slowly bankrupted the family over the next seven years. Robinson's brother Dean became addicted to morphine and returned home in failing health. Robinson was forced to leave Harvard because of the family's financial difficulties and his mother's failing health. She died in 1896 of "black diphtheria," and because no mortician would handle the body, the brothers had to lay out their mother, dig the grave, and bury her. During this time Robinson wrote the poems that were later published in 1896 as The Torrent and the Night Before and in 1897 as The Children of the Night. (The publishing costs of both were borne by friends.)

From the first, Robinson's poetry was noted for mastery of conventional forms, be it the sonnet, the quatrain, or the eight-line stanza. The characters of works like "Richard Cory," "Luke Havergal," "Aaron Stark," and "John Evereldown" are faced with failure and tragedy, but Robinson, as Louise Bogan noted, "with the sympathy of a brother in misfortune, notes their failures and degradations without losing sight of their peculiar courage" ("The Line of Truth and the Line of Feeling," Achievement in American Poetry: 1900-1950 [1951], pp. 19-27). His hometown of Gardiner, renamed Tilbury Town, also appears for the first time in these poems. As Robinson saw it, the town's Puritan ethic, portrayed as repressive and critical, combined with the materialistic aspects of society, conspires to beat down its citizens. He would return to this theme of public failure, counterbalanced by the subject's life-affirming belief in a higher power, throughout his career.

In Gardiner, Robinson's relations with his brother Herman became strained. Robinson had first met Emma Shepherd, the great love of his life, while taking dancing lessons in 1887, and in her he found a companion he could talk to and who encouraged his poetry. Although he loved her, he believed he could either write poetry or raise a family but not do both. He introduced Emma to Herman, who married her in 1890. It was not a happy marriage, strained by financial difficulties and Herman's drinking. Robinson's love for Emma during this difficult time resulted in his leaving Gardiner for New York City in 1897. In 1899 his brother Dean died, possibly of an intentional drug overdose. As executor of their mother's estate, Herman had agreed to support Robinson with a monthly stipend that allowed him to barely get by, but he was left penniless when the family fortune finally vanished in 1901.

For the next quarter-century Robinson chose to live in poverty and write his poetry, relying on scraps of temporary work and charity from friends. In 1902 he published Captain Craig, again with friends paying the bill. Despite some earlier warm reviews for The Torrent, critics had either ignored or disliked The Children of the Night and Captain Craig. As a result, Robinson fell into a depression, neglecting his poetry, drifting from job to job and drinking heavily.

In 1905 he received help from an unexpected source. President Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit had read The Children of the Night in school and encouraged his father to read it as well. Roosevelt liked the book and arranged a job for Robinson at the New York Customs House. The president bullied Scribner's into republishing The Children of the Night and co-wrote with Kermit an article for Outlook magazine, explaining, "It is not always necessary in order to enjoy a poem that one should be able to translate it into terms of mathematical accuracy ... and to a man with the poetic temperament it is inevitable that life should often appear clothed with a certain sad mysticism.... I am not sure I understand 'Luke Havergal,' but I am entirely sure that I like it" (quoted in Hagedorn, p. 218). Literary critics did not appreciate the president's judgment of Robinson's poetry, for the most part they reviewed the new edition of The Children of the Night with phrases like "a very pleasant little book" (Nation) and "the product of a wholesome faith" (New York Times).

Robinson's job at the customs house was deliberately structured to enable him to do as little work as possible and to devote his time to poetry. "The strenuous man," Robinson wrote, referring to Roosevelt, "has given me some of the most powerful loafing that has ever come my way" (quoted in Hagedorn, p. 221). His duties, in biographer Chard Smith's words, "consisted of opening his roll-top desk, reading the paper, closing the desk, leaving the paper in his chair to show he had been there, and going home" (p. 220). The job left him ample time to write poetry, and his salary of $2,000 a year made it possible to support himself and Herman until the latter's death in 1909. But, ironically, Robinson found the poetry he created during this time to be second-rate. "The stuff that I have been writing of late," he wrote to a friend, "has been so bad that I have been ashamed of it and of myself. I shall do better pretty soon. At any rate I am not likely to do any worse" (quoted in Hagedorn, p. 222). The major magazines remained closed to him despite Roosevelt's patronage, and when the president left the White House in 1909, Robinson quit the customs house after being ordered to do his job, keep regular hours, and wear a uniform.

Back in Gardiner living with a friend, Robinson set to work full time, revising old poems and writing new ones. In 1909 he also published The Town down the River, which he dedicated to Roosevelt. The review in the New York Times was generally favorable, its critic describing the title poem as "an elusive imagination ... an apparent simplicity, veiling a subtle and curious wisdom, a wisdom content to question, ponder, doubt, yet conscious of a sublime answer somewhere." In the Boston Transcript, writer and editor William Stanley Braithwaite went further, hailing Robinson in a large headline as "America's Foremost Poet."

In 1911 Robinson began spending his winters at the homes of New York friends and his summers at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The colony, originally a 200-acre farm owned by composer Edward MacDowell, was founded by MacDowell's widow to provide a refuge where composers, artists, and writers could create. Despite an initial prejudice against a gathering of artists, Robinson discovered he could devote his full energies to writing and revising his poetry. He also gave up alcohol. During this time, he tried playwriting; but his play Van Zorn (1914) was unsuccessfully produced, and The Porcupine (1915) never made it to the stage.

In late 1916 Robinson received a measure of financial security through a monthly stipend from an anonymous source. This, he wrote to the bank handling the gift, would let him "go on with a rather exacting piece of literary work without worry or interruption" (Hagedorn, p. 316). A book of poetry, The Man against the Sky (1916), broadened his reputation. While most of the critics at the major magazines were not wholeheartedly behind him, some were, and that he was being noticed at all was better than being ignored. The most glowing review came from Amy Lowell of the New Republic, who wrote that The Man against the Sky was a book of "great power ... dynamic with experience and knowledge of life." Her lengthy essay about Robinson in her book Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917) established him as a poet worth reading.

In 1917 Merlin appeared, the first of three long Arthurian-related poems, followed by Lancelot in 1920 and Tristram in 1927. In 1919, on his fiftieth birthday, Robinson was the cover subject of the New York Times Review of Books, and he was praised by Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters, among others. Through Braithwaite, Robinson was convinced the time was right to publish a collection edition of his poems. In 1921, his Collected Poems was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for The Man Who Died Twice.

Aided by a push from the Literary Guild and critical notices by Mark Van Doren, Tristram (1927) became a bestseller, earning Robinson his third Pulitzer. Critical reception to it was equally favorable. In the Nation, Lloyd Morris called Tristram "the finest of Mr. Robinson's narrative poems" and "among the very few fine modern narrative poems in English." For the first time in his life, Robinson was financially independent, and the success exhilarated him. After years of self-denial, he surprised friends by the attention he paid to his clothes and the generosity he paid to others in need. In what he called a protest against Prohibition, he began drinking again. Otherwise, his habits remained unchanged: summers at the MacDowell Colony and winters in New York City, with his full attention paid to his poetry.

Robinson published regularly for the rest of his life, mostly long verse narratives, including Avon's Harvest (1921); Roman Bartholow (1925); Dionysus in Doubt (1925); Cavender's House (1929); Matthias at the Door (1931); a collection of shorter poems, Nicodemus (1932); Talifer (1933); and Amaranth (1934). These psychological studies did not attempt to capitalize on the popularity of his Arthurian cycle, and sales were a tenth of that of Tristram. Robinson also worked himself to exhaustion on these poems, and according to later critics the deliberation shows. "He lost the power of compression and precision; he lost much of the control of structure," wrote Hoyt C. Franchere, "That he produced anything at all after 1930 testifies to the strength of the man's spirit, when his body had failed him" (Edwin Arlington Robinson [1968], p. 146). Robinson died in a New York City hospital while revising the galleys of his last work, King Jasper (1935).

Robinson was the first major American poet of the twentieth century, unique in that he devoted his life to poetry and willingly paid the price in poverty and obscurity. As for his works, his once-popular Arthurian trilogy has fallen in favor, criticized by William H. Pritchard as having "occasional purple patches, fine lines here and there, but on the whole prolix, fussy, and somehow terribly misguided--the long poems are stone-dead" (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 5 [1981], p. 418). The poems from his earlier period, especially the Tilbury Town cycle, have held critical esteem. In his shorter works, Robinson excelled in limning characters who failed on a materialistic level but somehow succeeded, though at great cost on a moral or spiritual level. In an age of free verse and experimentation, his technical expertise is considered intolerably old-fashioned, but there is no doubt he was a master of many forms.

"Robinson's poems, the best of them and those that will last," Radcliffe Squires wrote, "emerge from an awareness that life is continuously menaced: that innocence and experience alike are threatened by the bland modular construction of society and the soulless press of industrialism" (Poetry Criticism 1 [1991]: 496).

Robinson's papers are in collections at Colby College Library in Waterville, Maine, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress. Robinson's Collected Poems, rev. ed. 1937), remains the standard edition of his work. His Selected Letters was published in 1940. Emery Neff, Edwin Arlington Robinson (1948), is the standard biography, while Chard Powers Smith, Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1965), and Hermann Hagedorn, Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Biography (1938), are a combination of memoir and biography. Ellsworth Barnard, Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Study (1969), is the best critical introduction.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.


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