Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)
Nancy Carol Joyner
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Robert Stevick has said that "Robinson's poetry deserves the attention
it does not contrive to attract" (Barnard, Centenary Essays,
66). To introduce Robinson's subtlety, read the poems out loud and more
than once. Robinson once told a reader who confessed to being confused
about his poetry that he should read the poems one word at a time. Robinson
was very sensitive to the sound of words and complained of not liking his
name because it sounded like a tin can being kicked down the stairs. He
also said that poetry must be music. This musical quality is best perceived
by reading his poetry aloud.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Robinson is a "people poet," writing almost exclusively about
individuals or individual relationships rather than on more common themes
of the nineteenth century. He exhibits a curious mixture of irony and compassion
toward his subjects--most of whom are failures--that allows him to be called
a romantic existentialist. He is a true precursor to the modernist movement
in poetry, publishing his first volume in 1896, a decade notable from the
point of view of poetry in America only because of one other publication:
the first, posthumous, volume of poems by Emily
Dickinson. As the introduction emphasizes, many of Robinson's poems
are more autobiographical than their seeming objectivity indicates immediately.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Although Robinson's subject matter and philosophical stance differ markedly
from that of his predecessors', his form is unremittingly traditional.
He considered movies, prohibition, and free verse "a triumvirate from
hell," and said that if free verse were as easy to write as it was
difficult to read, he was not surprised there was so much of it. In his
early work Robinson experimented with difficult French forms, like the
villanelle and rondeau, but his longer work is written almost exclusively
in blank verse. Robinson is one of America's greatest practitioners of
the sonnet and the dramatic monologue.
For the first twenty years of Robinson's writing career, he had difficulty
in getting published and attracting an audience. He published his first
two volumes privately and the publication of the third was secretly guaranteed
by friends. He did receive positive reviews from the beginning, however,
and with the publication of The Man Against the Sky in 1916 his
reputation was secure. For the rest of his life he was widely regarded
as "America's foremost poet," as William Stanley Braithwaite
put it. Both academics and the general public held him in high esteem,
as attested by the fact of his winning three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry
for volumes published in 1921, 1924, and 1927, when his Tristram
became a national best-seller.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Critics have pointed out that Robinson is a descendant of Anne
Bradstreet, and in their deceptively plain style and solitary careers
they make an interesting comparison. Sometimes Robinson and Edgar
Lee Masters have been confused, with people mistakenly assuming that
Masters had an influence on Robinson, when the reverse must be true.
The most obvious and fruitful writer for comparison/contrast is Robert
Frost, only five years younger than Robinson but nearly twenty years
behind him in publication. They share a New England background, contemporaneity,
and allegiance to formal writing, but they were decidedly different in
life-style, in personality, and finally in their poetry, with Robinson's
being the more honest. (Biographers of both poets report that Frost was
extremely jealous of Robinson but the reverse was not true.)
A comparison in the presentation of women in "Aunt Imogen"
and Frost's "A Servant to Servant" or "Home Burial"
is instructive in showing differing attitudes the poets hold toward women.
Unlike many of Frost's poems, Robinson's sympathetic portrayal of his characters
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Discussions of point of view, tone, and especially individual diction
choices are useful in class. How does the word "alnage" work
in "The Clerks," for instance, or what meanings can be placed
on "feminine paradox" in "Aunt Imogen"? Robinson is
spare in his allusions, but such reticence gives greater force to them
when they appear. Discuss the ironic context of "Momus," Apollo
in "The Tree in Pamela's Garden," and Roland in "Mr. Flood's
2. Possible paper topics are contrasts between Robinson's poems from
a woman's point of view and similar poems by contemporaneous authors, such
as Robert Frost and T. S.
Eliot; comparisons of characters in Robinson's poems, such as Pamela
and Aunt Imogen; and imagery in "Mr. Flood's Party" and "Eros
Turnannos." Numerous close readings have been published on the last
two poems mentioned. Reviews of criticism along with an original interpretation
of either would be an accessible research topic.
Coxe, Louise O. Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry.
New York: Pegasus, 1969.
Joyner, Nancy Carol. "Edwin Arlington Robinson." Dictionary
of Literary Biography, Vol. 54, 366-88.
Squires, Radcliffe. "Tilbury Town Today." In Edwin Arlington
Robinson: Centenary Essays, edited by Ellsworth Barnard, 175-84. Athens:
University of Georgia Press, 1969.