Edwin Arlington Robinson: Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite Poet

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Today is the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington (E.A.) Robinson (1869-1935).

I first became aware of Robinson 20 years ago when I stayed for two months in his old cottage on a writing fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. Originally from Maine, Robinson toiled in obscurity for years until Kermit Roosevelt became a fan of his second self-published book of poems Children of the Night and brought it to the attention of his father, President Theodore Roosevelt. Robinson was to become Roosevelt’s favorite contemporary poet. TR became his patron. Knowing he was in a precarious financial position, Roosevelt gave Robinson a job with the U.S. Customs Department. I find this sinecure interesting and symbolic — Hawthorne and Melville had also worked for Customs. To me the gesture is heartbreaking and pretty typical of the American mindset. Heaven forfend the man would be paid for actually writing poetry, even the best poetry in the nation! That’s apparently not as valuable as some shit job in the bureaucracy. Thanks for the insulting crumbs, daddy!  At any rate, Robinson went on to great success, winning three Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920s, and obtaining a measure of financial success from book sales. And then, following his death in 1935, he plummeted back to the obscurity where his reputation has resided ever since. (His best known poem today is “Richard Cory” often anthologized, and the inspiration for the Simon and Garfunkle song). Robinson’s present obscurity is the main reason for the post today. Just as I like to champion once famous performers, I like to do the same with writers. There is an injustice in people of real accomplishment being forgotten.

I have spent time with five of his books: The Torrent; and The Night Before (1896), The Children of the Night (1897); Captain Craig, and Other Poems (1902), Tristram (1927); and Cavender’s House (1929). This is about 1/6th of his output. Based on what I’ve read, he feels very much a transitional figure, midway between Whitman on the one side, and Pound and Eliot and Sandburg on the other. He is a modernist for certain, and very much of his time. His formal innovations are quieter than those of the poets I just named. While his early work is rhymed and composed in regular meter, he soon followed Whitman into free verse. (I love that, just as Whitman had written a poetic eulogy upon Lincoln’s death, Robinson did the same for Whitman, clearly a hero of his). But Robinson is far less passionate, less exultant than Whitman. Or rather, there is passion — but it is controlled. He is travelling on the same path of his contemporaries, trying to devise a voice for the 20th century. The one he arrived at has been described as “prosy” — an excellent word, distinguishable from “prosaic”, which has a pejorative ring in this context. By prosy one means, the writing strives for a Spartan simplicity and narrative clarity. Most of the best remembered writers of that day were trying achieve the same thing.

Yet, Robinson’s subject matter seems to draw more from the likes of Tennyson than Whitman. While there is something American about his aesthetic, his mission is not to describe the American spirit or overtly American themes. He is often drawn to Medieval subject matter, especially the Arthurian legend. He has been compared to Hardy, which I can totally see, and to Henry James, which is especially apt. Much like James, his characters often engage in lengthy, introspective (almost Academic, in the Greek sense) conversations about the nature of their feelings, trying to sort out every nuance and gradation of the beatings of their hearts down to the sub-atomic level. When I was younger I had no patience for this sort of thing — I preferred lightning in a bottle. But now I appreciate it. There is a kind of majesty to it: it reveals a fine brain in addition to a fine heart. Still one sees how that manner of quiet restraint, coupled with a subject matter that was modish when he wrote it but is less so today, might result in Robinson’s falling by the wayside.

I can’t help associating Robinson’s imagination with the Episcopalian church I grew up attending in my hometown. It was built around the same time as Robinson was writing. Like most Episcopalian and Catholic churches of the day, it was built on a Gothic model, castle-like, all stone, and finished wood and stained glass and silver chalices. America was expanding in these years, building an empire. Having spent three centuries turning away from Europe and her values, she was now daring to drink the waters of Lethe. That she put it to her lips with an American dipper diminishes the peril of such an experiment not a jot.

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