Reconstructing Robinson

 

Biographer taps, augments Colby's renowned collection

By Scott Donaldson
 

Probably every high school student in America knows Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory.” How many know other poems by the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner?

Robinson’s standing as America’s greatest living poet was highest at his death in 1935 but teetered soon after. Compared with the flashy difficulty of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, who gave critics and teachers plenty of grist for the mills of exegesis, Robinson’s straightforward syntax looked old fashioned and prosaic. After his rhyming metrical poems inspecting down-and-out characters many found depressing, his blank verse poems based on Arthurian legends seemed anachronistic and overlong.

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Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life Scott Donaldson Columbia University Press (2007)

Scott Donaldson’s new biography of Robinson should appeal to general readers as well as reinvigorate critical interest in the poet’s work, which hasn’t yet been consecrated in a critical common ground despite a sprinkling of selections of his poetry and articles in the late 1960s leading up to the centenary of the poet’s birth. Robinson’s language and subject matter, Donaldson writes, initiated a revolution in American poetry. He puts Robinson with Whitman and Dickinson in the front rank of American poets.

Robinson’s newest biographer has filled in blanks in Robinson’s life. Donaldson’s case for Robinson, who was born in Head Tide, Maine, and lived his first 29 years in Gardiner, is constructed in great part from a trove of 4,000 Robinson letters, which Donaldson was instrumental in adding to Colby’s already sizable Robinson holdings in Special Collections. Special Collections librarian Patricia Burdick earns Donaldson’s praise for her “exemplary and well-organized archive,” and the late Colby English professor Richard Cary, a Robinson scholar and a predecessor of Burdick’s in Special Collections, is cited or quoted several times in the book.

Robinson’s life must have presented a considerable challenge to Donaldson compared with his previous biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Physically awkward, socially shy, “compulsively private,” and a “consummate introvert” cowed by his father and initially outshone by both his older brothers, Robinson seems only a little less circumscribed and repressed than Emily Dickinson down in Amherst a few years earlier. Robinson said he was “simply incomplete, and made up . . . of what must have been left over after the manufacture of some sixteen or seventeen fellows.”

For three years, Robinson cared for his ailing father and then his laudanum-addicted brother Dean at the family home in Gardiner, yet felt guilty being a dependent son. Imbued with the “Gardiner” notion of “a proper job” and “useful employment,” he knew what townsfolk would think of his unremunerative calling to poetry, but he turned down a job as literary editor of the Kansas City Star because, Donaldson writes, he had “an ideal of creating poetry that would do some good in the world.” Robinson “explicitly made the link between a life of poetry and a life of service.”

Robinson’s lifelong dedication to his solitary calling produced a couple of dozen great poems. But he suffered long spates of hard times along the way. His eyesight was poor, and he had a bad ear (one of his grade school teachers in a spasm of discipline whacked the side of his head), and he was troubled by constipation all his days. An insomniac, Robinson in later life read detective stories to get himself to sleep. He battled alcoholism (and cursed Prohibition). For a time he subsisted on free lunches in bars. Even when his reputation grew and money came in, he lived frugally in a small, barely furnished room in New York City. He never accumulated books. He didn’t want to own anything, he said, that didn’t go into a suitcase.

Robinson never gave a public reading of his work, never gave talks to college audiences or women’s groups. He had no talent for literary politics and was constitutionally averse to playing up to his growing audience. Except for a single excursion to Pennsylvania and one three-month trip to England in 1923, Robinson’s orbit was bounded by Gardiner, Boston, New York City, and the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. A consummate urbanite, he said he had looked at Mount Monadnock for 23 years “and never once disturbed it.” Donaldson writes, “He overflowed with brotherly love, he said, provided there weren’t ‘too many brothers around.’”

That contained life earned him—mistakenly, says Donaldson—a reputation as a recluse. As a special student at Harvard for two years in his 20s, Robinson met, “with one or two exceptions, the friends of my life”—likeminded spirits, Donaldson calls them, with “similarly unmaterialistic goals for themselves,” who “understood, and encouraged, his desire to make a poet of himself.” The friends at Harvard made his time there, Robinson said, worth more than a century in Gardiner. For the man who “valued only two things: poetry and companionship,” the friends of his youth took the place of family.

Loyal, caring, and nurturing in return, he gave friendship as good as he got, even bankrolling a couple of souls who were strapped for funds after Robinson became comfortably off. Despite his early rejections and lack of funds, Robinson’s letters to his friends invariably undercut his plaints with gentle self-deprecation or hyperbolic or understated images that take the sting out of his frustration. He said he realized as early as age 5 that he “was never going to be able to elbow my way to the Trough of Life.” Always the long view of himself overrides Robert Frost’s assessment of Robinson as a poet of defeat, sadness, grief, sorrow, desolation.

Donaldson’s new evidence of Robinson’s day-to-day life and state of mind contributes helpful background for several poems. Perhaps more important, Donaldson’s story of the man who wanted his poetry to help people is a manual on how to live generously: Robinson’s spirited friendships, humor, endurance, and perseverance at his craft back up his biographer’s belief that Robinson was a great poet and a great man.

Richard Cory “fluttered pulses when he said, / ‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.” After this admirable biography, anyone remembering that “Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head” should be curious about other great Robinson poems.

 
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