| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Edwin Arlington Robinson
America’s first important poet of the twentieth
century, Edwin Arlington Robinson is also the most prolific. Unlike his more
prominent contemporaries—Frost, Stevens, Eliot, and Williams—Robinson devoted
his energies exclusively to the writing of poetry. For that reason his life is
markedly unremarkable, but he published an astonishing twenty volumes of poems
which were eventually combined into Collected Poems, a volume of nearly 1500
pages. It is a Robinsonian irony that today he is known for only a handful of
poems of the sort he once complained were “pickled in anthological brine.”
grew up in Gardiner, Maine, the “Tilbury Town” of his poetry, spent two years
at Harvard, and went home to Maine where he published privately his first
volume, The Torrent and The Night Before, in 1896. From 1911 onward he
established a routine of spending the winters in New York City and the summers
in New Hampshire at the McDowell Colony, where he did most of his writing. The
first of his three Pulitzer Prizes was won for Collected Poems in 1921. He died
in New York in 1935, literally hours after he had completed reading the galley
proofs of King Jasper.
his preface to King Jasper, Robert Frost said aptly that Robinson was “content
with the old-fashioned way to be new.” He was a strict traditionalist in his
use of verse forms, experimenting in his early years with elaborate French
forms, showing great proficiency with the sonnet, and turning to blank verse
for his book-length narratives. In both subject matter and attitude, however,
Robinson was an innovator. Frequently compared to Robert Browning and Henry
James, he has been called variously realistic, romantic, naturalistic, and
existential. His attitudes range from satire to understatement, from pessimism
to compassion. Most pervasive is his sensitivity to the struggle in the human
condition between the mundane and the mystical.
than being simply a recorder of the failed life, as he has often been
perceived, Robinson is actually a poet fascinated by how the unsuccessful cope.
This celebration of the human spirit in spite of the disappointments of life is
connected to an element of his poetry that has generally gone unnoticed: its
autobiographical qualities. In 1965 Chard Powers Smith took as a thesis for his
biography of Robinson, Where the Light Falls, that the preponderance of
triangular love situations in the poetry is a direct result of E. A.’s having
lost his fiancée, Emma Shepherd, to his brother Herman.
selections in this anthology give only a partial indication of Robinson’s range
and variety. “The Clerks” represents one of his brief Tilbury Town portraits of
ordinary individuals, but it also includes a reference to the life of a poet
and thus combines two of his most prevalent themes. “Aunt Imogen” illustrates a
medium-length character sketch of a woman who was basically in the same
situation as Robinson in his relationship with his three nieces. The famous "Mr.
Hood's Party" (which Robinson claimed was his favorite poem) transforms a boyhood prank in Gardiner. The
infrequently anthologized “Momus” illustrates not only Robinson’s playfulness
but also his consciousness of the uncertain lot of a poet. “Eros Turannos” and
“The Tree in Pamela’s Garden” deal in contrasting ways with relationships
between women and men.
wrote poetry that is contrivedly unspectacular, a characteristic that has cost
him readers in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the
precision and skill with which he wrote and the human quality of his themes
promise his work an enduring place in the American canon.
Nancy Carol Joyner|
Western Carolina University
In the Heath Anthology
Mr. Flood's Party
The Tree in Pamela's Garden
Uncollected Poems and Prose
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American Resource Center
Biography and literature review.
Gardiner (Maine) Public Library
A brief biography and a linked page about Robinson's childhood home.
Modern American Poetry
Biography, secondary materials, and links.