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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.”

He 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.

In 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.

Rather 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.

The 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.

Robinson 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
The Clerks (1897)
Aunt Imogen (1902)
Momus (1910)
Eros Turannos (1916)
Mr. Flood's Party (1920)
The Tree in Pamela's Garden (1921)

Other Works
Collected Poems (1937)
Selected Letters (1940)
Uncollected Poems and Prose (1975)

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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.

Secondary Sources