Edwin Arlington Robinson was one sad bastard, even though he wrote 28 books and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1922, 1925, and 1928. His parents wanted a girl and didn’t name him until he was 6 months old, when “Edwin Arlington” was decided by having friends draw names from a hat. When he was just 6 he announced that he wished he’d never been born. Living in the shadow of his handsome, athletic brothers, E.A. (as he preferred to be called) never married, and spent his life in love with his brother’s wife, whom he proposed to (before their marriage and after his brother’s death) to no avail.
E.A. was the quintessential outsider, a loner, an alcoholic…and a poet through and through—or as he described, “an incorrigible fisher of words.” In a letter to one of his few friends, he wrote: “It must have been the year 1889 when I realized finally — that I was doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me.”
A lot of poems in E.A.’s Collected Poems (wow, Bartleby.com, thanks!) are fairly straightforward narratives depicting other sad bastards, all with a tinge of autobiography. His most famous poem, “Richard Cory” was said to be about his brother, who died of a drug overdose. How contemporary of him. You may also know “Richard Cory” as a song, originally adapted by Simon & Garfunkel.
I vaguely remember reading this poem when I was in elementary school—I think teachers like it because it conforms to what people think of as poetry (rhyme, meter, and an obvious “meaning”). But like most of E.A.’s poems that I read, I feel a deep undercurrent of sadness in his language and a complexity of thought that only someone with an ambivalent relationship to life could communicate.
Loneliness was one of E.A’s biggest subjects. But not ordinary boo-hoo-nobody-likes-me loneliness, rather an existential brick in his gut that told him we’re all isolated inside ourselves. Here are a few of my favorite lines on the subject, from his poem “Mr. Flood’s Party” (they're taken out of context and are from three different parts of the poem):
"Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,"
"He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;"
"amid the silver loneliness
I think that if E.A. had ever met Schopenhauer, they’d have been great friends. Even in his exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of Maya and Karma (in his poems of the same name), E.A. manages to be pessimistic. If you like those poems, I also recommend reading “The Sheaves.”
Ok, now I’m starting to sound like a downer, but really I have a medium-sized spot in my heart for Mr. Robinson, which I didn’t expect (him being one of those old-timey, dead, white guys and all). I admire that he was dedicated to poetry his entire life, though he wasn’t published for realz until he was 35, and he wasn’t well known until even later, when President Teddy Roosevelt was turned on to him by his unfortunately named son, Kermit.
My favorite poem from today’s reading is E.A.’s sonnet “Dear Friends,” about his relationship to his own art, and which resonates with me. On my Poetry Love Scale, I’m giving E.A. Robinson a 6.75…I like precision. Question: Does he remind you a little of Emily Dickinson?
For your resonating pleasure:
Dear Friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.
And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.