Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

    Contributing Editor:
    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.

    Original Audience

    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 seems genderless.

    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 Party."

    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.