Poetry Wednesday: Edwin Arlington Robinson

For those of you who are new around here, I do poetry stuff on Wednesdays.

I don’t write it, but I like it.   And sometimes I try to figure out why . . .


“Where’s the need of singing now?”
Smooth your brow,
Momus, and be reconciled,
For King Kronos is a child—Edwin Arlington Robinson
Child and father,
Or god rather,
And all gods are wild.

“Who reads Byron any more?”
Shut the door,
Momus, for I feel a draught;
Shut it quick, for some one laughed.
“What’s become of
Browning? Some of
Wordsworth lumbers like a raft?

“What are poets to find here?”
Have no fear:
When the stars are shining blue
There will yet be left a few
Themes availing—
And these failing,
Momus, there’ll be you.

—“Momus,”* Edwin Arlington Robinson, The Town Down the River : A Book of Poems (1910)

I love Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poems.

Going by subject matter and tone, I probably shouldn’t.  His general level of optimism is right up there down there with Thomas Hardy’s, and most of you know how I feel about him.

But there’s something compassionate in his poems, a wry spark of self-knowledge that might not be cheerful, but any stretch, but isn’t completely without hope.

When a critic mentioned that Mr. Robinson seemed to see life as a prison, he replied, “The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

That describes many of his characters:

Miniver Cheevy
(Edwin Arlington Robinson)

Miniver Cheery, 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.

OriflammeMiniver 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.

There’s no doubt that his character poems are my favorite, even though most of them aren’t overly cheerful and some are simply heartbreaking.

Reuben Bright
(Edwin Arlington Robinson)

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

In the moments after this poem, I’m glad there is such love in the world that evokes such terrible loss.  And I’m always glad to know Reuben Bright, and Richard Cory, and all the rest, because he’s made them real to me, and worth my sympathy and sadness.

It’s Mr. Robinson’s peculiar talent and skill to break my heart over and over again, and have me thank him for it.  Even if you disagree with him, or think him maudlin, or wish he’d end one, single poem on a high note, you have to admire his wordcraft and his rhythms and his voice.

And heaven knows, he worked for it—he traded marriage and family for poetry and collected enough rejections to fill a library before he finally had his first collection published—through a vanity press.

That stuns me.

Not that he worked so hard, exactly—great poets do—but the man is known from our side of history as the winner of three Pulitzers, and it can be difficult to remember that he started where we all do, and worked and endured and achieved and kept at it until he died.**

Maybe that’s what I’m sensing in his poetry—that spark I love so much?

Because even if Edwin Arlington Robinson doesn’t often appear to think that the human race will ever learn to stack our blocks, he never once said that we should stop trying.

Au Revoir
(Edwin Arlington Robinson)

What libellers of destiny
Are these who are afraid
That something yet without a name
Will seize him in the shade?

Book ExplosionThough fever-demons may compound
Their most malefic brew,
No fever can defeat the man
Who still has work to do;

Though mighty lions walk about,
Inimical to see,
No lion yet was ever fed
On things that are to be.

Wherefore, and of necessity,
Will he meet what may come;
And from a nation will be missed
As others are from home.


*This poem makes more sense when you know that Momus was the Greek god of writers and poets.  He was also, incidentally, the original god of criticism and mockery, which makes him a sort of one-stop literary shop—and since most writers and poets are their own worst critics, apt like whoa.

**In 1935, at the age of 65, of cancer.