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Life and Works

 

Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) can best be thought of as an intermediate figure between the mild, genteel and very proper late Romanticism of the Fireside Poets and the revolution implicit in the work of the first Modernist generation. Like the former, Robinson was a master at the varied conventional forms he always wrote in. But contained within those traditional packages was a new kind of American poetry: intellectual and wittily ironic, deeply penetrating in its observation of human psychology, free of the overused poetic diction of the day, and, as a consequence, refreshingly close to the rhythms of everyday speech. And because of all of these qualities, his poetry has some affinities not only with that of Robert Frost, born only six years later than Robinson, but also with the acute psychological portraits of other younger poets such as Pound and Eliot, or the elegant, ironic verse of John Crowe Ransom.

PORTRAIT OF ROBINSON BY LILLA CABOT PERRY, 1916

Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine and raised in the nearby town of Gardiner, which was the model for the "Tilbury Town" where so many of his poetic characters led their sad, banal lives. His father was a shrewd businessman who made the family wealthy through the sale of timber. Edwin was the third of three sons and showed an interest in poetry from an early age; at eleven he was writing poems regularly.


In spite of his father's doubts about the value of a literary education, Robinson attended Harvard for two years, from 1891 to 1893, during which he published poems in The Harvard Advocate. At this very time, though, the family's luck began to turn. In 1892 his father died and soon his lumber business, hurt by the Panic of 1893, began a slow decline that would eventually lead to bankruptcy. His middle brother, Dean, who was a doctor, became addicted to morphine and returned to live at home. His oldest brother, Herman, depressed by his inability to save the family's finances, becane an alcoholic. This pattern of failure haunted Edwin for the rest of his life. Around this time, too, his mother also fell ill, and Robinson was forced to leave his studies and return to Gardiner himself. She died of "black diptheria" in 1896.

During these years, while he was struggling to make himself a professional poet, Robinson had to depend on the financial and emotional support of friends and patrons. He studied the literary classics of many languages, as well as the great 19th-century American writers such as Hawthorne and Emerson and his contemporary Henry James.

 

ROBINSON HOUSE IN GARDINER GROUP PHOTO WITH LAURA E. RICHARDS, 1897

 


As was his slightly older contemporary Maine writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, Robinson was aware of the significant decline in the economy of the state due to the decadence of its shipping and fishing industries, and sensitive to the effects this decline had on the lives of its inhabitants. The poems written during this period were included in The Torrent and the Night Before (1896) and The Children of the Night (1897), both published at friends' expense. These two books celebrate the sad and frustrated lives of lonely and sometimes hopeless individuals. While many of these poems reflect his own isolation and frustration, their delicately crafted forms and the careful refusal to use easy melodramatic effects constitute a moving affirmation that subtly resists the gloomy atmosphere that they express.

He moved to New York in 1897, living meagerly on a stipend from the family finances. This source of money ended, however, in 1901, when the family became impoverished as well. He chose to live on in New York, earning what money he could from odd jobs and struggling on with his poetry.

His luck took a turn for the better in 1905 when President Theodore Roosevelt, impressed by his reading of The Children of the Night, secured a job for Robinson at the New York Custom House and encouraged Scribner's to reprint the book. However, in spite of the president's own public support of Robinson's work, it continued to produce a lukewarm impression on the critics.

His job at the Custom House permitted him the freedom to write, although he was not satisfied with the work he did during these years. It lasted until 1909, when Roosevelt left office. In that year Robinson returned to Gardiner and published The Town Down the River, dedicated Roosevelt, which garnered him several positive reviews.

In 1911 Robinson began to spend his summers at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. This was originally a 200-acre farm owned by the composer Edward MacDowell and turned by his widow into a setting where writers, artists, and composers could work in relative seclusion and tranquillity. Somewhat to his own surprise, Robinson discovered he could devote his full energies there to writing and revising his poetry. He also became interested in drama during this period, writing two unsuccessful plays, Van Zorn (1914) and The Porcupine (1915).

Toward the end of 1916 Robinson started receiving an anonymous monthly stipend, which permitted him a financial security he had never enjoyed before. That same year The Man against the Sky (1916) earned him various awards and a growing number of readers. The strongest support came from Amy Lowell, who published a long, admiring essay on him in her book, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917).

He published Merlin, the first of a trilogy of book-length poems dealing with the Arthurian legends, in 1917. The other two were Lancelot (1920) and Tristram (1927). In 1921 he published Avon's Harvest and Collected Poems, the latter of which won him the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He won a second Pulitzer prize in 1924 for The Man Who Died Twice and a third one for Tristram.

ROBINSON AT 60
Robinson published regularly for the rest of his life, mostly long verse narratives such as Roman Bartholow (1923); Cavender's House (1929); Matthias at the Door (1931); Talifer (1933); and Amaranth (1934). But in spite of this prolific output, both his sales and his popularity declined significantly following the success of Tristram. He worked himself to exhaustion during his final years and died in a New York City hospital while revising the galleys of his last work, King Jasper (1935).


From his quite unpromising beginnings, Robinson achieved an extraordinary level of popularity. He won many awards during his lifetime: as well as three Pulitzer Prizes, an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Yale (1922) and Bowdoin (1925) and a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1929), and - a rare distinction for a poet - his long narrative poem Tristram (1927) became a best-seller. But in the last years of his life, his power and originality seemed to wane as he witnessed how his work was being eclipsed by that of the following generation, the great explosion of Modernism. As James Dickey wrote in 1965: "[...] the course of poetry has to a certain extent turned away from him, making his greatest virtues appear mediocre ones and directing public scrutiny from his introspective, intellectual, and ironic verse toward poetry in which more things seem to be taking place in a smaller area."


Nowadays, when poetry has become marginated from a wider reading public and is too often a battle-ground for competing "schools" and "movements" among a very reduced number of often self-consciously esoteric practitioners, we need to make a special effort to appreciate what Robinson did so well.

But his strengths, especially in his earlier books, are some of the most important strengths of American literary expression:

- a careful attention to the value of ordinary, everyday experience,
- an awareness of the passage of time and the complex emotions contingent on loss,
- a sense of nostalgia that avoids (often through irony) an easy recourse to melodrama,
- a focus on the lives of common people in a small town in order to find their universal significance.

Because of these characteristics, Robinson's best poems still have the power to speak to us, and move us, and tell us those secrets we need to know about who and what we are

 

Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)