Edwin Arlington Robinson

Robinson was born in 1869, making him the oldest of the American poets who successfully made the transition into the twentieth century. Robinson's poetry was, as the poet Louise Bogan later observed in an essay entitled "Tilbury Town and Beyond" (1931), "one of the hinges upon which American poetry was able to turn from the sentimentality of the nineties toward modern veracity and psychological truth." Robinson's poetic output was considerable, and not all of it was of the highest quality, but his best poems are masterpieces of concision and rhetoric. Though he is often ignored in discussions ofmodern American poetry, Robinson was certainly America's most important poet during the period from the 1890s until the mid-1910s.

Robinson grew up in Gardiner, Maine, which became the model for "Tilbury Town," the fictional setting of many of his poems. Though he spent two years at Harvard University in the early 1890s, Robinson never became part ofthe Harvard School ofpoets. Instead, he returned to Gardiner after the death of his father and began to write the poems that would eventually be published in The Torrent and the Night Before (1896) and The Children of the Night (1897). Robinson had a difficult, lonely, and depressing life, which surely contributed to the underlying pessimism of his poetry. A keenly sensitive individual (born "with my skin inside out," as he liked to say), Robinson experienced neither love nor marriage. He suffered from chronic mastoiditis, a painful malady that ultimately left him deaf in one ear. Further, his family was highly dysfunctional: his father died bankrupt, leaving him in desperate financial straits and obliging him to take a series of demeaning jobs; one of his brothers was addicted to morphine and another to alcohol. Robinson's own road to poetic success was a long and hard one, and it was not until his poems were discovered by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 that he began to be recognized as an important poet. The townspeople of Gardiner on whom his poems are based appear to have suffered from many of the same problems as Robinson himself: suicide, alcoholism, tragic loneliness, and a general sense of failure and unfulfilled promise.

While he was an admirer of Wordsworth, Robinson was by no means a nature poet. Commenting on the hackneyed natural imagery of most contemporary verse, he wrote to a friend in 1896 that his first volume contained "very little tinkling water, and . . . not a red-bellied robin in the whole collection." Instead, Robinson was interested in the personal histories of the people he encountered, and in using these portraits to reflect the hypocrisy and spiritual void of his times. In Robinson's most famous poem, "Richard Cory" (1897), we find one of his characteristically ironic portrayals. A paragon ofmaterial success, admired and envied by the townspeople, Cory went home one "one calm summer night" and "put a bullet through his head." The ironies here are verbal as well as dramatic: the language used to describe the town's adulation of its first citizen ("imperially slim" and "admirably schooled in every grace") is undercut by the sudden and unadorned description of Cory's suicide.

Robinson established his career with his next three volumes: Captain Craig (1902), The Town Down the River (1910), and The Man Against the Sky (1916). While he was also skilled at longer narrative poems in blank verse, such as "Isaac and Archibald" (1902), Robinson's fame rests on his shorter, metrically formal lyrics. A poem like "Miniver Cheevy" (1910) uses both its metrical form and allusions to classical, medieval, and renaissance life for highly ironic effect, anticipating the ironic use of stanzaic form by modernists like Pound and Eliot. The poem's first stanza introduces the subject of the portrait in brilliantly understated fashion:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,

Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;

He wept that he was ever born, And he had reasons.

The final line of the stanza, with its anticlimactic five beat rhythm and its deflatingly colloquial turn of phrase, presents an ironic contrast to the exaggeratedly dramatic presentation of Cheevy in the first three lines. After the somewhat enigmatic first line (what exactly is a "child of scorn"?) and the hyperbolic diction of the second ("assailed the seasons") we find the melodramatic cliche of "He wept that he was ever born" (a line that may also reflect the reality of Robinson's own worldview). Robinson also uses sound very effectively here, repeating certain vowels as a means of further diminishing the self-importance of Cheevy. The "ee" sound, repeated through "Cheevy," "lean," "he," "seasons," "he," "he," and "reasons," emphasizes the narrow and somewhat pitiful circumstances of Cheevy's life.

The poem's ending, however, catches the reader by surprise with a final note of grim authenticity:

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,

Scratched his head and kept on thinking, Miniver coughed, and called it fate, And kept on drinking.

Here the final line is used with devastating skill to complete the portrait of Cheevy, who is not only a dreamer but an alcoholic. The rhyme of "thinking" and "drinking" - again playing with the thin vowel sounds of Miniver's name - encapsulates the difference between what Cheevy is and what he would like to be.

"Eros Turannos" (1913) is another quintessential Robinson poem. Its title, meaning "The Tyrant Love," refers to the situation of a woman in an unhappy marriage from which she cannot escape.

She fears him, and will always ask What fated her to choose him; She meets in his engaging mask

All reasons to refuse him; But what she meets and what she fears Are less than are the downward years, Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs Of age, were she to lose him.

"Eros Turannos" is Robinson's most important poem, and one of the greatest American lyrics of the first two decades of the century. Like "Miniver Cheevy," the poem presents a protagonist who is a failure and who lives in isolation from the community as a whole; but here the portrait is sympathetic rather than ironic. While the poem's speaker is still distanced from his subject, the woman is memorialized and universalized (she is never given a name in the poem) rather than ironized or satirized.

In the first stanza we find the basic portrait of the wife, a genteel and sensitive woman now advancing in years, who may have been based on the wife of Robinson's brother. The wife is torn in a tragic dilemma between two fears: that of her husband and that of her old age "were she to lose him." The last two lines of the stanza introduce the image of "foamless weirs of age"; with this metaphor comparing the inevitable entry into a lonely old age to a slow drifting into a weir (a kind of fence placed across a river to catch fish), Robinson widens his scope to include the symbolic aspect ofthe situation. The figurative language, rhymes, and stanzaic structure all work to memorialize the figure of the woman. The initial rhyme of "ask" and "mask" presents the theme of communication denied, and the heavy rhyme of "fears," "years," and "weirs" emphasizes the sadness and isolation of the protagonist.

Each stanza functions somewhat like a chapter in a short novel or a scene in a tragic drama. In the second stanza we learn two further reasons for the woman's acceptance of the situation: her pride (she refuses to discuss her situation with the townspeople) and the fact that love blurs the perception of her husband's weaknesses. The third stanza moves to the perspective of the complacent husband, who is so enveloped by "a sense of ocean and old trees" and by "tradition" (perhaps the New England tradition of a cold and passionless marriage) that he fails to take note of his wife's suffering. In the powerful fourth stanza, Robinson again uses natural images to capture the psychological state of the woman:

The falling leaf inaugurates

The reign of her confusion. The pounding wave reverberates

The dirge of her illusion; And home, where passion lived and died, Becomes a place where she can hide, While all the town and harbor side Vibrate with her seclusion.

While the husband is reassured by the trees and ocean that encircle their private lives, the wife sees the "falling leaves" as indicating the inexorable passage of time and hears the ocean waves only as a "dirge." The elevated language of the stanza - relying heavily on latinate diction - sets off the moving simplicity of the fifth and sixth lines, "And home, where passion lived and died / Becomes a place where she can hide."

In the final two stanzas, the poem moves outside the home to include the townspeople, who act as a kind of Greek chorus to comment on the situation. The "we" of stanza V suggests the pressure of the public world on the private self, as the town tries to understand the woman's predicament:

We tell you, tapping on our brows,

The story as it should be, -As if the story of a house

Were told, or ever could be;

Neither the townspeople nor the poet can tell the "real" story of a house and its inhabitants; they can only tell a fictional version of it, "the story as it should be." The poem ends with a series of similes comparing the state of marriage to various natural images. Only in the final comparison does Robinson express his pessimistic vision of marital love:

Though like waves breaking it may be Or like a changed familiar tree, Or like a stairway to the sea

Where down the blind are driven.

Robinson's language remains old-fashioned in comparison with that ofFrost or Stevens, and the syntax of his lines lacks the natural fluidity of Frost's best writing, yet there is a rare power in these lines. In the first line, a spondee in the second foot interrupts the iambic beat of the meter, imitating a wave breaking on the coast; in the final line, the inverted syntax works to enhance the image of being driven blindly down a stairway to the rough sea.

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  • amanuel mustafa
    What figurative speech is she meets in his engaging mask all reasons to refuse him?
    3 years ago

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