Saturday, December 22, 2012

America's poet laureate of unhappiness

Edwin Arlington Robinson
It is the birthday of poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869), whose dark and pessimistic poetry won the Pulitzer Prize three times: Collected Poems (1922), The Man Who Died Twice (1925), and Tristram (1928). He has been called America's poet laureate of unhappiness. Robinson may be remembered most for his poems Richard Cory (1897) and Miniver Cheevy (1910).

Robinson was born to parents who wanted a girl and didn't even give him a name for six months, and then had a stranger draw it out of a hat when they were on vacation. His childhood in a tiny town in Maine was stark and unhappy, he said. His oldest brother, Dean, became a doctor, treated himself for neuralgia and became a drug addict. His middle brother, Herman, was good looking and outgoing and seemed destined for success. Herman married Emma, a woman Edwin loved. Edwin was so distraught he refused to go to the wedding. Instead, he stayed home and wrote a poem to protest the marriage. Herman failed in business, became a drunk, split up with Emma and their children, and died alone in poverty.

Later, Edwin proposed to Emma twice, was turned down twice and moved from Maine to New York, where he self-published his first two volumes of poetry, The Torrent; and the Night Before (1896) and The Children of the Night (1897). The second book came to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who arranged for Robinson to work at the New York Customs Office with the understanding that he write poetry and contribute to the betterment of American letters instead of doing customs work. Robinson kept the job during Roosevelt's presidency.

Emma, brother Herman's widow, believed that the poem Richard Cory was really about her late husband. Robinson wrote it during the depression after the Panic of 1893, when the economy was in shambles and there was great disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Scholars suggest that its message is to not judge people by outward appearances.


Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Miniver Cheevy first appeared in The Town Down the River (1910). Scholars suggest that Robinson is poking fun at his own anachronistic tendencies as well as the dreamers with which he surrounded himself. In any case, Miniver Cheevy seems bent on slow self-destruction.


Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

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