Edwin Arlington Robinson is one of those American poets who were once famous and honored and now lie in obscurity. His flame was kept burning, if dimly by the inclusion of his most famous poem included in virtually every high school American literature anthology until poetry was deemed too obscure and inaccessible for modern students and excommunicated from the curriculum.
Robinson was born nameless, literally, in Tide, Maine on December 22, 1869. With two older brothers, his parents wanted a girl so badly they left the child un-named until the following summer. His folks were vacationing the next summer at a resort where outraged fellow visitors pressured them into finally giving him a name. Several were put into a hat and a chap from Arlington, Massachusetts drew out the name Edward.
Little wonder the boy grew up feeling unloved and unwanted and hated his name. As an adult he always simply used the initials E.A.
The family moved to Gardiner, Maine while he was very young.
Robinson always felt over shadowed by his older brothers. Despite being an excellent student and a handsome teenager he was overlooked by his parents. His eldest brother became a physician but became addicted to self-proscribed laudanum for neuralgia and his promising life and career soon lay in ruins.
Young Win, as he was called by his parents, fell deeply in love with a slightly older young woman, Emma Löehen Shepherd. She seemed to return the affection the attention. She admired his juvenile dabbling in poetry and encouraged his writing. But his older brother, Herman, who was handsome and charismatic, swooped in and wooed the girl away. When they married, the heartbroken young man could not bear to attend the ceremony and stayed home to write a bitter poem.
In 1891 at age 21 Robinson’s father finally agreed to support his dream and allowed him to enroll at Harvard University. As an over-aged “special student” he had no real expectations to graduate, but hoped to keep up enough classes at a passable grade to stay in school and associate with the literary crowd and find publication for his poems in one of several prestigious student literary magazines.
Within months his dream came true when The Harvard Advocate published his verse Ballade of a Ship. The editors conferred a rare honor for a freshman by inviting Robinson to dine with them, inferring that he would be welcome in their inner circle. But his tongue tied silence and social awkwardness doomed his hopes.
Yet Robinson did make friends at Harvard including many with whom he maintained a relationship for the rest of his life. He enjoyed the reading and he continued to write. He would look back on his time there as the happiest of his life.
But the happiness was not to last. Robinson’s father died after his first year and by the end of his second his family had fallen on hard times and he had to come home to Gardiner. His eldest brother committed suicide and Herman in St. Louis with Emma and their children had suffered a business failure and had begun to drink himself to death. Young E.W. had to go to work to support his mother.
He worked what jobs he could find and tried his hand at farming, for which he was imminently unsuitable. He also completed enough poetry to self-publish his first collection, The Torrent; and The Night Before. He desperately hoped that the book would finally prove his merit and worth to his mother. But just days before the books were delivered, she died.
Herman and Emma with their brood had to move back to Gardiner to live with her family. But they accused Herman of stealing bonds and he had to leave his wife and family. He died of complications of his alcoholism shortly after in Boston. Emma resumed a close relationship with Edward, who also helped support her family. But not close enough. For whatever reason, she twice more refused his marriage proposals.
Broken hearted once again, he left for New York City in 1897 where he lived in bohemian squalor as he tried to establish himself as a poet and writer. He made literary friends and acquaintances, but was then drinking heavily himself and sinking ever deeper into the gloom that seemed to have settled over his disappointing life.
But he persevered as a writer and that year managed to get a regular publisher to issue an edition of a second book, The Children of the Night, a dark and brooding collection if there ever was one.
Included in the volume was the single poem for which Robinson has been most remembered, Richard Cory, the sad tale of a man with seemingly everything suddenly taking his own like. Emma immediately recognized the inspiration of her husband in the poem. It has since become one of the most widely anthologized American poems and was set to music by Simon and Garfunkle.
Unfortunately, the new book was ignored by the critics and seemed fated for obscurity and failure. Until a young Harvard student, Kermit Roosevelt, stumbled upon it and was so impressed that he recommended it to his father, who happened to be President of the United States at the time. Theodore Roosevelt was equally impressed and wrote a glowing review of the book in the magazine Outlook. With that kind of heavy weight approval, the book began to fly off the shelves.
The President’s support for Robinson went even further. Remembering how Franklin Pierce has subsidized the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne with an appointment as a customs official and how bureaucratic sinecures kept the bread on Walt Whitman’s table, Roosevelt gave Arlington a plum patronage job at the at the New York Customs House which provided a splendid desk and no serious duties. It was understood that the poet would use his time in composing more verse. Robinson himself later wrote, “The strenuous man has given me some of the most powerful loafing that has ever come my way.”
He kept the post through the remainder of Roosevelt’s term, by which time he was an established and successful poet able to support himself through his popular writing. Even the once reluctant critics swung behind his work.
And he was prolific, completing twenty more volumes of verse and two career collections in addition to two plays and occasional criticism. Along the way he picked up three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry in 1922, ’25, and ’28, a feat matched only by Robert Frost.
From 1915 on he was comfortable enough to summer annually at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. During his summers at the famous artist colony he is said to have attracted the devoted attention of female residents. Although he delighted in the attention and responded graciously, he remained steadfastly celibate, continuing his unrequited love for Emma.
Robinson continued to correspond with Emma for the rest of his life and, as far as he was able, to help support her. Her return letters were affectionate, but careful not to stir old passions. She kept detailed note on Robinson’s poetry, including keys as two what local personalities and events in Gardiner may have inspired him.
Robinson died alone of cancer in a New York City hospital on April 6, 1935 at the age of 65. Emma passed away at home in Maine five years later.
Here is the poem for which he is best remembered:
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.
—Richard Arlington Robinson