Robinson has a claim to be the most important immediate forerunner of modernist American poetry, although he appears to have influenced few later poets, and much of the later work in his 20 published volumes is probably more respected than it is read. He remained throughout his career committed to formal qualities of verse, but the sometimes bleak, always questioning direction of his poetry marks his work as modern, and he brought some novelist devices into American poetry through his narratives, and a bold, sympathetic characterization which has some similarities to the portraits by Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology (1915). His work was a marked break from the genteel tradition and newspaper verse of the late 1890s and early part of the century, verse which tended towards bland uplift or familiar stereotypes. Robinson's verse reflects to varying degrees a balance between the evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer and the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The questioning, open-ended issues in his verse move away from the sentimental escapist pieties of such genteel poets as Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904) and William Vaughn Moody (1869-1910), or the romantic, political, or rural generalities of Bliss Carman (1861-1929), Edwin Markham (1852-1940), and James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916). He was some years ahead of Robert Frost in linking the stories and characters of his poems to a particular region, although Robinson's adhering to more formal qualities of verse meant that he never demonstrated Frost's interest in adapting regional, colloquial speech to his meters. For a period in the early 1920s Robinson was one of the country's best-selling poets, although that popularity came through a sentimentality in his later work that has contributed to its receiving less critical attention. In general, there has been relatively little recent critical work on this important poet.
Robinson was born in Head Tide, a small village in Maine, although soon afterwards his family moved the short distance to the equally rural Gardiner - the "Tilbury Town" of many of his poems. Robinson attended Harvard as a special student for two years, leaving when his father died in 1892. He published his first book, at his own expense ($52), in 1896, titled The Torrent and the Night Before. Neither this nor the books that followed, The Children of the Night (1897) and Captain Craig (1902), gained him much notice. Around the time of his first book Robinson moved to New York, where he often lived in poverty, and took a succession of jobs including work on the city's subway. But in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a notice praising his work, and found him a sinecure in the New York Custom House for the next five years. From 1911 onwards Robinson began to spend his summers at the MacDowell Writers' Colony in New Hampshire, where he did most of his writing.
During the 1910s and 1920s Robinson published the books that established his reputation, including The Man Against the Sky (1916) and his Collected Poems (1921) - the latter bringing him the first of his three Pulitzer prizes (the others were for The Man Who Died Twice in 1925 and Tristram in 1928). Tristram is the third of an Arthurian trilogy of long poems that Robinson began in 1917 with Merlin and continued with Lancelot (1920). In the second half of his career Robinson published more than a dozen book-length narrative poems in blank verse. In his final months he worked on his last poem, King Jasper, while in hospital suffering from cancer. When published the book carried a preface by Robert Frost.
Robinson is now best known for his shorter poems, especially such character studies as the frequently anthologized "Mr. Flood's Party," "Miniver Cheevy," "Ruben Bright," "Bewick Finzer," and "Richard Cory." The early "Luke Havergal" is representative of Robinson's dense, suggestive symbolic lyrics, while "Eros Turannos" demonstrates his ability to condense into an unsentimental representative portrait - here of a woman trapped in a failed marriage - his frequent themes of inexorable fate reinforced by a desperate psychological need, the final unknowability of others (often accompanied in the poems by the use of an objective narrator to distance the powerful emotions that the poem dramatizes), and the need for a kind of stoic endurance, by both the subjects and the narrator, in the face of such inevitability and exposure:
We'll have no kindly veil between Her visions and those we have seen, -As if we guessed what hers have been, Or what they are or would be.
This need for a stoic attitude towards endurance is the final position of "The Man Against the Sky," which Robinson once said came "as near as anything to representing my poetic vision." The dramatic situation in the poem presents a figure moving ahead of the narrator, towards "the sunset / ... his last desire," upon whose life, character, attitude, and final fate the narrator speculates as a way to try to understand his own coming journey. The man may have been courageous, may have had an easy life where all comforts fell into place, may equally well have been a gloomy, bitter man, or a man whose faith was lost through adversity, or again he may have been a scientist seeing "with his mechanic eyes / A world without a meaning." The second half of the poem, some 140 lines, then examines the human condition in more general terms. Where "this man against the sky" was going "You know not, nor do I." Typically for Robinson the poem deals in questions not answers: "If there be nothing after Now, / And we be nothing anyhow, / And we know that, - why live?" The abstractions, especially in the second half of the poem, reveal the side of Robinson that would drive the long narrative poems of his later career and that are now of less interest than his treatment of such issues in the poems centered upon the lonely inhabitants of his "Tilbury Town."
Robinson does not use the idea of "fate" as any kind of pat resolution to the issues that his poems raise. Where "fate" is invoked by a character in one of his poems - "Miniver Cheevy" for example "coughed, and called it fate" that he was born after his time, his beloved medieval period - the attitude is gently mocked as self-indulgent, a self-indulgence that accompanies Miniver's alcoholism. This gentle ridicule, reinforced by the short lines and heavy rhyme, is accompanied by a genuine sympathy for a man unable to live in what his life has made of his personal present, and this range of perspective is part of what gives such short character poems their continuing power. In this case the perspective extends to some of Robinson's own tendencies, for he too had his bouts of drinking to excess, and, as his Arthurian trilogy indicates, could share Miniver's fascination with Camelot (although in Robinson's case as a way to treat the contemporary world rather than escape from it).
A similar sympathy is extended to "Richard Cory." A habit of viewing some others in terms of a finally meaningless romantic awe forms the basis of the townspeople's fascination with Cory who, only a set of imposed associations to others, isolated and self-isolating, "one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head." In "Mr. Flood's Party" the isolation of age and having outlived his "many friends" is what confronts "Old Eben Flood" in his "hermitage" outside of town. In this poem drinking and an imagination that allows a dialogue with an invented other is what allows Mr. Flood "amid the silver loneliness / Of night" to lift up his voice and sing, and thus to mitigate his isolation for some moments under a moon that becomes "two moons listening." Such a poem demonstrates what Robinson at his best can do with what, in another poet of his generation, would have been a general lament of the poet as outcast, adrift in an uncaring modern world.
Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1937).
Wallace L. Anderson, Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction (Boston, 1967). Ellsworth Barnard, ed., Edwin Arlington Robinson: Centenary Essays (Athens, GA, 1969). Emery Neff, Edwin Arlington Robinson (New York, 1948).
Writing in a preface to Edwin Arlington Robinson's posthumously published last work, the long poem KingJasper, in 1935, Frost praised Robinson's commitment to "the old fashioned way to be new," although privately he had some years earlier called Robinson's later poems "Arthurian twaddle" (quoted in Pritchard 1984: 196-7). The two views mark something of Frost's similarities with and differences from Robinson. Like Robinson, Frost was determined to adhere to the formal qualities of poetry against the more iconoclastic strategies of the imagists and the complex, highly allusive poetry of Pound and Eliot. But far more than was the case with Robinson he wanted to get away from the bookish and literary in his poetry, to root his subject matter and diction in contemporary life, albeit largely the self-restricted range of New England rural life. And this interest in getting away from the literary gave a flexibility to his verse, as he played off speech rhythms against meter, and sound against sense, that Robinson rarely attained. Frost's poetry is "new" in its questioning of central Romantic assumptions, questions often more embedded in the poem than in Robinson's work, and often taking the direction of undermining a statement offered in a pithy tone of certitude earlier in the poem. Frost produced a body of work that won him most of the major literary prizes of his day short of the Nobel Prize, and in the 1950s and 1960s national stature as an icon that would have Congress noting his birthday and have him reading at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, but, following the death of his teacher and journalist father when Frost was 11, he moved with his mother to his father's native New England. After attending Dartmouth College for a semester in fall 1892 and Harvard as a special student in 1897-9 (where Wallace Stevens was a fellow student) Frost, now married with a family, began poultry farming, purchasing with his grandfather's assistance a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, in 1900. Here the family lived for the next nine years and he wrote many of the poems that were to appear in his first published books. The farming enterprise not being the success he had hoped
Robert Frost for, or perhaps not something to which he could commit the necessary time and effort (Frost was never completely the farmer-poet of the public image he later cultivated), he began full-time teaching in the fall of 1906. Initially he taught at Pinkerton Academy, during which time he began to publish poems in local and regional magazines, and in 1911 he taught for a year at the New Hampshire State Normal School at Plymouth, a teachers' college for young women.
Frost sold the Derry farm in 1911 and with the proceeds, and an annuity from his grandfather's will, at the age of 38 sailed with his family to England the following summer, determined to try and make his mark as a poet. Frost's difficulty in getting his poetry published outside of minor periodicals in the United States illustrates the conservative nature of poetry readers and publishers at the time, the same conservatism that had driven Ezra Pound, H.D., and later T. S. Eliot to London. Settling in a cottage in Beaconsfield, just outside London, Frost soon met Pound, Yeats, and other central figures of the bustling London poetry scene, and was able to get his first book, A Boy's Will, published in 1913, and a second, North of Boston, the following year. The former, a volume of lyrics, appeared with a contents page that provided something of a narrative commentary upon the poems' relationships and themes. The first poem, "Into My Own," for example, carries the commentary: "The youth is persuaded that he will be rather more than less himself for having forsworn the world," while the best-known of these poems, "The Tuft of Flowers," is more briefly "about fellowship." North of Boston, which contains blank verse dramatic poems, and was, Frost told a correspondent, "more objective" than the first volume (Pritchard 1984: 74), includes a number of famous titles, including "Mending Wall" (which Frost noted "takes up the theme where 'A Tuft of Flowers' in A Boy's Will laid it down"), "The Death of the Hired Man," "Home Burial," and "The Wood-Pile." Because of his long apprenticeship, Frost's books appeared on the poetry scene with his mature style close to being fully developed.
In March 1913 Pound wrote characteristically to Alice Corbin Henderson of Chicago's Poetry that he had "discovered another Amur'kn. VURRY Amur'k'n, with, I think, the seeds of grace" (Pound, Selected Letters, 14). This was just one of a number of attempts by Pound to get Frost's poetry published more widely. In his reviews of Frost's two books, Pound berated American editors for forcing the country's best poets abroad, but along with this familiar theme he also noted Frost's avoidance of literary tricks in his presentation of New England life, the humor in his verse, and his integrity as an artist. By early 1915, writing to H. L. Mencken, he thought Frost "dull perhaps, but has something in him" (Selected Letters, 51), but by 1918 he was placing Frost along with Edgar Lee Masters and Vachel Lindsay as "out of the Wild Young
American gaze already" (Selected Letters, 135-6). For Pound, Frost was no part of the modernist revolution. In turn, although Frost respected Pound as an artist and was grateful for the generous efforts on behalf of his early work, he was wary that Pound's aggressive rhetoric might alienate American editors and possible future publishers. Many years later, in the 1950s, Frost would play an important role in obtaining Pound's release from confinement in St. Elizabeths Hospital.
In the London of 1913-14 Frost was in fact much more comfortable in the company of such Georgian poets as Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, W. H. Davies, and especially Edward Thomas, with whom he became particularly close and who reviewed North of Boston three times. Though Frost's work was generally much more accomplished than the work of these poets, they shared an interest in a reflective poetry centered upon familiar or at least recognizable sights and happenings, accurate and detailed presentation of the - usually rural - scene, and a direct and colloquial speaking voice.
At the same time that Pound was qualifying his praise of Frost to Mencken in February 1915, Frost and his family were returning to the US from Liverpool. A combination of the war breaking out in August the previous year, suggesting possible danger for his family and reducing the possibility of publishing a third book, the many excellent reviews of North of Boston that had appeared, and Henry Holt in New York agreeing to bring out both A Boy's Will and North of Boston and possibly future volumes suggested that a return home would be propitious.
Frost purchased a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, upon his return, and also began his long association with Amherst College. The next ten years saw a steady increase in his reputation, augmented by a third book, Mountain Interval, in 1916, and a fourth that brought him his first Pulitzer Prize, New Hampshire (1924). By the mid-1920s Frost's reputation was established, although for most critics the work in subsequent volumes - West-Running Brook (1928), A Further Range (1936), A Witness Tree (1942), Steeple Bush (1947) and In the Clearing (1962) - is marked by a gradual hardening of attitude and a more didactic tone than the rich, suggestive possibilities of the earlier work.
In the 1930s Frost came under increasing criticism from liberal and left-leaning literary journals for his opposition to President Roosevelt's New Deal, and his literary and political conservatism generally, but he remained committed to his own principles. This decade also saw a series of personal tragedies for the poet: the death following childbirth of his favorite daughter in 1934, the death of his wife in 1938, and the suicide by gunshot of his son Carol in 1940. By 1950 Frost had become a revered American institution, his occasional teaching and his public appearances taking over from his now intermittent writing of poetry. This comfortable image was disturbed by an influential three-volume biography of the poet by Lawrance Thompson, which appeared between 1966 and 1976, and which portrayed Frost as quarrelsome, sometimes ruthlessly ambitious, manipulative - of his family and of his public image - and at times consumed by self-doubt and guilt. A number of biographies since have taken positions on the fairness or otherwise of Thompson's picture. The tendency to read Frost as mainly the producer of such comfortable pieties as "good fences make good neighbors" was complicated most notably by Randall Jarrell in 1953, and again by Lionel Trilling in 1959, both of whom pointed out the tentative, questioning direction of many of the poems, and the ways that any final statements remained suspended rather than being asserted. This issue too has continued to generate critical debate.
Frost was never comfortable writing public prose, and left behind relatively few statements beyond a rich correspondence about his poetry. In the most important of these statements, "The Figure a Poem Makes" from 1938 and included for many years as an introduction to his Collected Poems, he argues for an organic theory of poetry, and for a qualified, although necessary, role for verse:
it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life - not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood - and indeed from the very mood.
This "confusion" is often very close to the surface of a Frost poem, and is examined in poems which explore the human relationship to nature, and definitions of home, marriage, community, and even sanity, often illustrating a quiet desperation in the attempt to impose order upon a finally alien world capable of sudden and unpredictable actions. For example, in the well-known "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the threat of annihilation in the pull of the "lovely, dark, and deep" woods is set against the superficiality of real-estate contracts ("Whose woods these are I think I know"), and the limitations of human domestication of nature ("My little horse" with his "harness bells"). Against this the woods threaten to expose and dissolve all such attempts to measure nature in merely human terms. "And miles to go before I sleep," is repeated at the poem's end as assertive reiteration of such human measure, as if the experience of glancing outside such measure had raised disturbing questions about its efficacy and status.
In this poem, as in many others, Frost uses the formal qualities of the poem itself, the closure provided by sound and sense and rhyme scheme, to reinforce the role of the poem as a way to order the world in human terms, "a momentary stay." This role for poetry is sometimes made explicit, as in "The Silken Tent" (1942), on one level a poem in praise of its own sonnet form, and even more explicitly in the "verse" of the famous "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" which closes the New Hampshire volume.
The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward C. Lathem (New York, 1969). Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life (New York, 1999).
Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (New York, 1977; rev. 1990). William H. Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered (New York, 1984). Mark Richardson, The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and his Poetics (Urbana, IL, 1997). The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (New York, 1971); originally published as The Letters of Ezra Pound (New York, 1950).
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