Edwin Arlington Robinson

Thesis:  The themes of death and times gone by recur in Robinson's poetry.

I. Introduction
              A. Biographical Facts
                  1. Life Span
                       - Born December 22, 1869
                       - Dead April 6, 1935
                  2. Education/Influences
                       - Harvard
                       - Schumann
                  3. Achievements/Awards
                       - Three Pulitzers
                       - Levinson Award
                       - Honorary Degrees
              B. United States and World Events
                  1. Plane, Model T, Telephone Invented
                  2. World War 1
              C. Literary Age
                  1. Naturalism
                  2. Realism
              D. Contemporaries 
                  1. Realists
                       - Mark Twain
                  2. Naturalists
                       - Henry Adams
                       - Jack London
                       - Edgar Lee Masters

II. Body
              A. Poems by Robinson
                  1. "An Old Story"
                  2. "Exit"
              B. Opinions of literary scholars
                  1. Richard Coxe
                  2. Allen Tate
                  3. W.R. Robinson
              C. Personal Analysis of an E.A. Robinson poem
                  1.  "Miniver Cheevy"

III. Conclusion
              A. Summary of main points
              B. Connection between real life and Robinson's poetry
                  1. Death is all around
                  2. Must ignore pangs for "the old days"

           In the Wizard of Oz, the Coroner of Munchkin Land declared, "She's not only merely dead, she's really most sincerely dead"(Wizard of Oz. The)!  While Edwin Arlington Robinson never wrote about the Wicked Witch of the East or the mythical Land of Oz, death and things gone by are often features of his writing.  And although he may be dead, Robinson certainly did not sit around languishing about his imminent doom.
           Born December 22, 1869 (Untermeyer, Louis, ed, 112), Edwin, or "Win" as his schoolmates called him (Franchere, Hoyt C, 15), lived until April 6, 1935 (Untermeyer, Louis, ed, 115).  Soon after his birth, his parents Edward and Mary Elizabeth Palmer Robinson moved the family, which also included Robinson's two brothers Herman and Dean, to Gardiner ("Richard Cory," 115).  The small town of Gardiner, where Robinson grew up, is widely accepted as a model for Tilbury Town (115), the town where many of Robinson's poems "take place."  For two years, Edwin attended Harvard, where he published his first poems in the school newspaper, "The Harvard Advocate"(116).  After two years, Edwin was forced to return home due to money problems (116).  During his formative years as a poet, Robinson spent time with Alinson Tucker Schumann, who encouraged and guided Robinson (Franchere, Hoyt C., 18).  Schumann is considered a possibility for the model of John Evereldown, a character created by Robinson, because both Schumann and Evereldown chased after women and lived a free lifestyle(18).  John Evereldown's lust for women is evidenced in the poem entitled "John Evereldown"(Tilbury Town, 99).

But the women are calling John Evereldown.
Ever and ever they call for me/

I follow the women wherever they call, --
That's why I'm going to Tilbury Town.

          Death first struck the Robinson family in 1892, taking Edward Robinson (Franchere, Hoyt C, 11).  Four years later in 1896, Death took the form of black diphtheria and Mary Elizabeth died (11).
          That same year, Robinson published The Torrent and the Night Before by himself for 52 dollars after being rejected by publishers (Franchere, Hoyt C, 37).  The collection of poems was sent out to critics and friends for review (37).  The following year, 1867, Robinson's friend Will Butler from Harvard underwrote the printing of Children of the Night, a new collection of poems that included such poems as "Richard Cory" and "Octaves"( 37-38).  Although Children of the Night did not help Robinson's career much at first, Theodore Roosevelt read it in 1904, liked it and offered a post at the New York Customs House to Robinson, who eventually accepted it (11, 46).  This was in the hopes that Robinson would be free of legal worries and could focus on his writing, although he did not write much while he held the job (46).  In 1917, 1920 and 1927, Robinson published "Merlin", "Launcelot" and "Tristram", respectively (Untermeyer, Louis, ed., 113-114).  These three long poems about the time of King Arthur and Camelot (113-114) are a couple of Robinson's more famous poems, and Robinson won his third Pulitzer for "Tristram" in 1928 (Diagram Group, 140).  The first Pulitzer was awarded to Robinson for Collected Poems in 1922 and the second in 1925 for the poem "The Man Who Died Twice" (Diagram Group, 140).  Among his other awards are the Levinson Prize from the National Institute and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and several honorary degrees ("Richard Cory," 116).  For seven years, starting in 1929 and continuing until his death in 1935, Robinson published a poem or literary piece annually (Untermeyer, Louis, ed., 115).  Although, and perhaps because of the quality decrease of Robinson's poems (Untermeyer, Louis, ed., 115) due to the forced march of words, these poems have fallen into obscurity.
Throughout Robinson's 66-year life span, the world changed dramatically.  In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone (Diagram Group, 141).  The first heavier-than-air flight was successfully completed by the Wright Brothers in 1903, and Henry Ford began manufacturing Model T cars in 1908 (141).  When Robinson was 45, the First World War began and lasted until 1918 (141).
           Robinson alone did not witness these changes.  Other poets that wrote during Robinson's time include Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Jack London and Edgar Lee Masters.  These writers, like Robinson, were from the realist and naturalist eras.  Although they embellished somewhat, as most writers eventually do, the realists like Mark Twain kept things like they were and nothing more or less.  The naturalists such as Henry Adams and Jack London believed in natural laws and did not encourage paranormal explanations.  These counterparts of E. A. Robinson most likely influenced his writing because of the popularity of the style.
          During Robinson's writing periods, he created many poems.  Among them, some of the most widely recognizable are "Isaac and Archibald," "Miniver Cheevy," "Richard Cory," "The Man Against the Sky," and "Tristram."  The theme of death and things gone by arises in poems such as "An Old Story," and "Exit."  At the end of "An Old Story," the last two lines are:

I never knew the worth of him
Until he died
(Untermeyer, Louis, ed., 118).

        "Exit" is about the remorse a speaker feels for the death of a person who they treated badly while that person was still alive.  The last line is:

May we now venture to be kind
(Untermeyer, Louis, ed., 118).

         These lines remind the reader of death while teaching morals, saying that people should not take others for granted because they often do not know what they have until it is gone.
Both positive and negative criticism has been written about Robinson's poetry.  Mixing the two together, Louis Coxe wrote "(Robinson's poetry is) Not as good as Shakespeare's, or Sophocles, but in the very front rank of American Writers"(Coxe, Louis, 525).  "Dry and mechanical writing" is a defect of Robinson's which Coxe points out happens occasionally (523).  Aside from that, Louis Coxe writes that Robinson is a "poet of true vision and unimpeachable honesty"( 523).  Another critic of Robinson is Allen Tate, who claims that "Mr. Robinson's genius is primarily lyrical"("Richard Cory," 121).  Other criticism includes that of W.R. Robinson, who wrote about Tilbury Town, saying it was a "place of spiritual crassness and blindness"(121).
        In the poem "Miniver Cheevy," Edwin Arlington Robinson writes about a man who yearns for the days of old.

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking
("Miniver Cheevy," 1-2).

        In the first stanza, Miniver Cheevy is introduced as a "child of scorn," which is perhaps how Miniver views his time period, as one of distaste due to his want for the old days.  It could also mean Miniver was born into a family that was ungrateful for his birth, and as a result treated him with disdain.  This ties into the third line of the stanza:

He wept that he was ever born.
The last line of the first stanza:
And he had his reasons.

        Foreshadows that Miniver Cheevy's reasons for weeping would be explained in the following stanza.

Miniver loved the days of old

        Introduces the topic of the poem.  The rest of the stanza and the following four stanzas mentions specific things that Miniver missed out on, from Thebes to Camelot, and Priam, Last King of Troy to the Medici.  That Miniver "mourned Romance…/And Art…" leads the reader to believe that the time period was one of realistic views and poor art production, taking out the possibility that the setting is the Renaissance, which took place from the 16th to 17th or 18th centuries.  When Miniver eyes "a khaki suit with loathing," and misses "the mediaeval grace/Of iron clothing," it establishes the setting further, placing it beyond the medieval era, which ended around the 15th and 16th centuries.  With this information, it can be assumed that Miniver Cheevy lived in the 18th, or perhaps even 19th century.  The last two lines of stanza seven place the setting even more exactly:

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it.

         Because Miniver needed gold and in the 19th century money was more commonplace than gold, Miniver Cheevy most likely lived in the 18th century, which is the only setting used in the poem.  Robinson used repetition in stanza seven:

Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

        Repetition is a literary technique that, in this case, emphasizes how much Miniver thinks.  Repetition is not the only literary technique that Robinson uses.  A rhyme scheme of "a/b/a/b" is used to keep rhythm.   The next two lines in stanza seven are:

Miniver Cheevy, born too late
Scratched his head and kept on thinking.

        These lines not only further emphasize how much Miniver thinks, but also establishes that Miniver thinks almost solely about the past and the fact that he was born in a time he does not want to live in.  The poem ends with Miniver blaming fate for his predicament and drowning his sorrows in alcohol.  The main purpose of the poem is to convey the message of acceptance to the reader or listener.  It says that although a person may not like it, where they are is where they are and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  If the person does not accept this, they will become like Miniver, a dreamer that has to get drunk to forget his problems.
        The poetic works of Edwin Arlington Robinson were set in the are of realism and naturalism.  The honest interpretation of death and times gone by are themes that can be viewed in any age and still be relative.  Death is all around, always has been and always will be.  People will yearn for days gone by, simpler times or those simply more eventful.  Thus, Robinson will be a timeless figure in that respect.  Death, as a personified in the Wicked Witch of the West, will eventually "Get you and your little dog, too"(Wizard of Oz, The), but people must make the best of their situation and live on, for a while at least.

                                                                           WORKS CITED

Coxe, Louis.  "Edwin Arlington Robinson."  American Writers, Vol III.  New York:  Charles  Scribner's Sons, 1974. 503-526.

Diagram Group.  "Robinson, Edwin Arlington."  Literary Lifelines, Vol. 8.  Danbury,  Connecticut:  Grolier Educational.                       1998.  140-141.

Franchere, Hoyt C.  Edwin Arlington Robinson.  New York:  Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1968.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington.  "Miniver Cheevy." American Poems.  Online.  2002.  Gunner  Bengtsson.  31 October 2002.                   http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/robinson/miniver.shtml.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington.  "Richard Cory."  Poetry For Students, Vol. 4.  Detroit, MI:  Gale,  1999.

Tilbury Town:  Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson.  New York:  Macmillan  Company, 1967.

Untermeyer, Louis, ed.  Modern American Poetry.  New York, US:  Harcourt, Brace and World,  Inc., 1962.

Wizard of Oz. The. Special Edition DVD, Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2000.