Edwin Arlington Robinson: Contribution as American Poet

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      Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), the oldest of this latter group, was born in the same year with Moody. The Tilbury of many of his poems is really the town of his upbringing—Gardiner, Maine. It is an unusual but not a unique village in America—a colonial old-world village. The atmosphere of Puritanism had not been blown away from it, and it still felt the subtle influence of a preëminent family. When “the squire” passed,

 We people on the pavement looked at him;
 He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
 Clean-favored, and imperially slim.

 

As a matter of literary history the most striking fact about Mr. Robinson is that the poetry-reading public has been redeveloped since he began to write. Although his first volume, “The Children of the Night,” appeared in 1897, and his second, “Captain Craig,” in 1902, it was possible for him to be omitted from “The Younger American Poets” of 1904. With “The Town down the River” in 1910 his recognition began to come, and with the republication of “Captain Craig” the public became aware of a volume which they could have been reading for full thirteen years.
Edwin Arlington Robinson

      It is easy to think of Tilbury as an English town; it is utterly different from Lindsay’s Springfield or Masters’s Spoon River. It is not without significance that the clearest single picture presents a little boy of twelve as the companion of “Isaac and Archibald,” two old men on the ominous verge of superannuation. It was life in Gardiner that gives so real a sense of the town on the Avon in “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford.” In 1891 Mr. Robinson entered Harvard, withdrawing at the end of two years and entering business in New York City. Here he remained till 1910, the last five years as an appointee of President Roosevelt in the New York Customhouse, and since the latter date he has lived again in Gardiner, bearing some resemblance in his mellowed maturity, perhaps, to Larry Scammon in his play “The Porcupine.”

      As a matter of literary history the most striking fact about Mr. Robinson is that the poetry-reading public has been redeveloped since he began to write. Although his first volume, “The Children of the Night,” appeared in 1897, and his second, “Captain Craig,” in 1902, it was possible for him to be omitted from “The Younger American Poets” of 1904. With “The Town down the River” in 1910 his recognition began to come, and with the republication of “Captain Craig” the public became aware of a volume which they could have been reading for full thirteen years.

      Miss Lowell displays a mild contempt for the title poem of this book, and Mr. Phelps—in his “Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century”—echoes her verdict. Yet for many readers there is a splendor in it and a richness that brings them back to it again and again. It is doubtless long, discursive, and condensible. In fact it is already condensed in such a bit as “Flammonde.” It is an elaboration of the title lyric for “The Children of the Night”; but only a wanton perversion of criticism will discount a philosophical poem for not submitting to lyric standards. It is a poem of childhood, sunlight, laughter, and hope declaimed by an indomitable old vagabond of eternity who is invincible in death and is fittingly borne to the grave while the trombones of the Tilbury band blare the Dead March in “Saul.” Captain Craig is a character who would not be his complete self without his verbosity. His type, in fact, is never succinct. They are extravagant of time, of gesture, of vocal and rhetorical emphasis, of words themselves. Out of the abundance of their hearts their mouths speak all sorts of irresponsible, whimsical, exalted, and splendid extravagance. They give voice to the dumb, and they amuse and stimulate the good listeners, but they bore the cleverly communicative, who dislike any consecutive talk but their own. Thus, for example, the captain writes on one May day:

 I have yearned
 In many another season for these days,
 And having them with God’s own pageantry
 To make me glad for them—yes, I have cursed
 The sunlight and the breezes and the leaves
 To think of men on stretchers and on beds,

      Captain Craig, in a word, is self-expression in very being and condemns in joyous scorn the man who believes that life is best fulfilled through discipline and renunciation. Instead he offers something positive:

 Take on yourself
 But your sincerity, and you take on
 Good promise for all climbing; fly for truth,
 And hell shall have no storm to crush your flight,
 No laughter to vex down your loyalty.

      This is the note throughout all Robinson’s poems and plays. His disbelief in negativism leads him often to be impatient and caustic and leads the cloudy minded to timid deprecation of his cynicism, not knowing the difference between this and irony; but Mr. Robinson is never cynical toward the things that are more excellent. He is only convinced that people’s Puritan convictions as to what is more excellent result in a perverted estimate; he is only attempting to substitute light for shadow, laughter for gloom;

      As a craftsman Mr. Robinson has won distinction by his simple, direct realism. He employs for the most part the old iambic measures, a sentence structure which is often conversational, and a diction which is severe in its restraint. There are few “purple patches” in his poetry, but there are many clear flashes of incisive phrasing. His work is like a May day in his own seacoast town—not balmy, but bracing, with lots of sparkle on the blue, and the taste of the east wind through it all.

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