Edwin Arlington Robinson is a major American Twentieth Century poet. I get the impression—perhaps, wrong—that he isn’t read very often anymore. Back in his day, Robinson was actually very popular, even being reviewed by Theodore Roosevelt. While talented and having a prolific body of good poems, he is not quite on the same level as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, or Wallace Stevens.
Many of his poems feature a town called Tillbury. They often explore the perspective of person living in a small town and the judgements the townspeople have about various individuals living among them. One point the poems continually make is that people often hide more than we see on the surface.
There is a sense that the characters in these poems suffer from their mistakes, inevitable changes in their lives, or failure to achieve their dreams. For example, the poem “Bewick Fenzer” features a character who descends into poverty after bad investments. Even after this failure, dressed in rags and borrowing from his neighbors just to survive, the character refuses to give up on his irrational dream of being wealthy. While the speaker in the poem “The Growth of “Lorriane” rationalizes with her sufferings and failures by espousing a philosophy to her friend that some people end up on top while others must be made to suffer before killing herself. “Aunt Imogen” features a beloved aunt of the same name whose interactions with her nieces and nephews makes her come to ponder her own longing and repressed dream of having children of her own. While in “Reuben Bright” we have a butcher who burns down his slaughter-house in response to the grief he feels over the death of his wife. He is unable to live his old life without the beloved wife who once occupied a prominent place in it, so he burns it all down, or perhaps he does it out of an epiphany about murder (if he feels this way about his wife’s death, how can he go on killing animals for a living). Robinson sometimes explores this idea of our dreams and hopes from another angle, shifting the focus to the dreams and hopes others have for us. This can be seen in “The Gift of God,” which describes a religious woman’s belief that her newborn son is a gift from God and that he is destined for great things in the world. Her beliefs about his destiny goes beyond the typical hopes any parent has for their child, extending to the point of being unrealistic.
His most famous poem is “Richard Cory.” In the poem, we are led by a working-class narrator to admire all the great qualities of Richard Cory before Cory goes home one summer night and kills himself. Richard Cory represents all the things we are supposed to admire in society: he’s rich, popular (i.e. famous) within the town, gregarious and friendly, an easy-talker who can probably strike up a conversation with anyone, he even glitters when he walks (he literally shines to the narrator).
The narrator of the poem hints that he himself is poor when he tells us that he “went without the meat” and “cursed the bread.” In addition to the theme that people hide worlds beneath the surface and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, another point seems to be that even if a person possesses all the things we commonly believe will make us happy, such as popularity, fame, money, and being admired, it still might not bring happiness. This message is codified in the final line when Richard Cory, despite having all these things that the narrator admires and thinks are important, still decides to kill himself.
Likewise, since our narrator isn’t some neutral faceless entity (he’s a representative of the poor working-class from town and should more properly be referred to as “we” since that’s how the poem refers to them, but for the sake of clarity I will be referring to them as “him”), we begin to wonder why he admires Richard Cory in the first place. It’s the characteristics Richard Cory embodies and perhaps the hope those characteristics bring to someone hungry and living a hard difficult life that the narrator admires. He lives vicariously through the presence of Richard Cory, little suspecting how unhappy Cory must be. In fact the narrator explicitly states in the poem, “we thought he was everything to make us wish to be in his place.”
His admiration of Richard Cory and his qualities stems from the desire to be in his place, the hope that their lives can one day be like his, a vicarious dream of leaving behind the squalor and hardships of the working-class life. One day they too perhaps can be a Richard Cory. Although never spelled out explicitly, we can infer that it is the hope that Richard Cory embodies that prevents the narrator from putting a bullet in his own brain; he has something to look forward to, some happiness that may come in the future, something bigger and greater than himself to admire, it is his ability to live vicariously through Richard Cory that keeps him alive. That’s the true tragedy of the ending. The narrator’s tone isn’t just one of sadness. There is a tinge of shock. Richard Cory didn’t just die, but some of the narrator’s hope died too; the poem just ends with Richard Cory’s death with no commentary that follows. It must be a stunning blow to realize that what one values and hopes for, another person finds completely empty and hallow.
Unsurprisingly, given the themes Robinson likes to explore, suicide features in many of the poems. Some of these poems are Growth of “Lorraine,” Richard Cory, The Mill, and Luke Havergal. In “The Mill,” the miller’s wife drowns herself in response to her husband possibly hanging himself and the business failing (“there are no millers any more”). While in Luke Havergal, the eponymous character is tempted by a demonic voice from the grave convincing him to go to the western gate (a symbol for death).
Robinson is trying to point out that people are often a slave to their dreams and hopes, while reminding us that life doesn’t always work out the way we hoped. They also remind us that there is more to people than we often see on the surface.