(1869-1935) Edwin Arlington Robinson is best known for his formal rhyming poems, surprise endings, and characterizations of the human condition not typi cal of any particular literary movement. With 23 publications ranging in genre from collections to book-length narrative poems (see narrative poetry), and in style from villanelles and sonnets to blank verse (see prosody and free verse), Robinson is perhaps one of the most overlooked and undervalued poets of 20th-century American literature. Influenced by the 19th-century likes of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Wordsworth, and Rudyard Kipling, Robinson's work reflects a transition from the themes and styles of the romantics to those of the modernists (see modernism).
Robinson was born in Head-of-the-Tide, Maine. He lived most of his life in Maine and New York. He studied at Harvard University from 1891 to 1893, although he was a poor student. His first collection of poems, The Torrent and the Night Before, was published on his own in 1896. other publications, including The Children of the Night (1897) and Captain Craig (1902), soon followed, the former catching the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed Robinson to a position in the office of the collector of customs, New York, in 1905. In 1919 the Outlook magazine published a celebration issue for Robinson's 50th birthday. It was not until 1921, however, with the publication of his Collected Poems and his first Pulitzer Prize, that Robinson finally broke through as a major poet. He won two more Pulitzers, in 1924 for The Man Who Died Twice and in 1927 for Tristram. His last book, King Jasper, was published in 1935, just before his death from cancer.
Robinson's poetry often deals with conflict, such as the opposition between light and dark, particularly within individual characters. With this theme Robinson "took the middle romantic style and put it to uses it had not known. He made it American and he made it Realistic; and incidentally, he made it in an important sense, urban," as Louis Coxe has noted (27-28). Especially at the beginning of the 20th century, Robinson's work portrays a fresh reality that would continue throughout his career.
In his early shorter poems, Robinson explores conflict, through specific forms, such as the villanelle and the sonnet. In the villanelle "The House on the Hill" (1894), he emphasizes that the past is gone and cannot be changed: "The House is shut and still, / There is
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nothing more to say." In other words, the ghosts of the past may linger, but we should not dwell on the darkness of the past. In the sonnets "Cliff Klingenhagen" (1897), "Thomas Hood" (1897), and "Reuben Bright" (1897), the focus turns to the struggle between light and dark within individual characters. Klingenhagen is a man who will swallow the darkness, represented by wormwood, to save the light, or wine, for his dinner companion. Hood hides his sorrow from the community, yet the community still senses "a weird unrest." And Bright, the friendly butcher, cannot calmly survive the death of his wife, and the darkness appears when he "tore down the slaughterhouse."
In Robinson's poetry, "The twilight warning of experience, / The singular idea of loneliness" ("Isaac and Archibald" ) are often the darkness against which humans must fight. Such is the case for many of the characters in Robinson's medium-length poems, such as "Isaac and Archibald" (1902), "Aunt Imogen" (1902), and "Rembrandt to Rembrandt" (1921). Generally the characters are older and feel alone in life, yet each one comes to realize that he or she is loved and cherished by friends and family—perhaps not as he or she had imagined, but loved nonetheless. Each person must "Forget [her or his] darkness in the dark" and come to the light of living life in the present.
This theme is best expressed in Robinson's long, narrative poems. The movement from darkness to light appears throughout the Arthurian trilogy of Merlin (1917), Lancelot (1920), and Tristram (1927). Ending with the line, "And there was darkness over Camelot," Merlin represents the movement into darkness that comes with age. Lancelot ends with an alteration and addition to Merlin's lesson: "Where the Light falls, death falls; / And in darkness comes the Light." Once one accepts the darkness and embraces it, he or she can move on toward the light, and the light is a glorious place. The final chapter, Tristram, illustrates the glory of the light with Isolt. In the medieval story of the ill-fated love between the knight, Sir Tristram, and the lady, Isolt the Fair, Tristram is sent to bring Isolt to marry his uncle, but on the journey they swallow a potion that binds them forever in eternal love. Many hurdles face the lovers, so they never can be together, and each eventually dies in despair over this lost love.
Robinson emphasizes the love of this story by depicting Tristram, who, though alone, contemplates "the white sunlight flashing on the sea." This final image of light in the Arthurian trilogy is the one that Robinson returns to again and again in his long, narrative poems, especially his final two publications, Amaranth (1934) and King Jasper (1935). The lesson is clear for the reader and the characters, such as Fargo, who finds "The world around him flamed amazingly / With light that comforted and startled him," and the lady Zoe, who "Fled upward through the darkness," out of Jasper's kingdom to live on in the light.
In these poems the movement to light is Robinson's lesson for all. It is a model "for people to come to terms with life on their own account, to find some degree of peace and satisfaction within themselves" (Barnard 233-234). Such a lesson and the amazing expression of it are what make Robinson a great American poet.
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