Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
D. H. Tracy

Aspects of Robinson

(Part One)

Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life, by Scott Donaldson. Columbia University Press, 2007. 553 pp., $34.95. 

Edwin Arlington Robinson: Poems, selected and edited by Scott Donaldson. Everyman’s Library, 2007. 254 pp., $12.50.

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                           leave his verse

To tell the story of the life he led.

Let the man go: let the dead flesh be dead,

And let the worms be its biographers.

            —From “Verlaine” 


          E. A. Robinson would not have liked to be written about. Already in this early sonnet he embraces a self-obliterating approach to literature, an approach he will seldom state this baldly but will never really alter. The gulf between the outward psychological intensity of the work and the inward silence of the writer (in accounts of the poet, every third word is “reticent”) has left a stubborn enigma. Robert Mezey, in the introduction to his 1999 selection of Robinson’s poems, despaired of explaining it: “No one yet has been able to give a wholly accurate account of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s life, or convey a persuasively vivid sense of the sort of man he was; it may not be possible.” It has at some length proved possible, with a few factors working in Scott Donaldson’s favor. The bulk of Robinson’s correspondence has recently been transcribed (no mean feat, given his handwriting), and two unpublished remembrances by the poet’s friends have recently surfaced. There is also the considerable inspiration of Robinson’s almost jarring wholesomeness as a man, which so far emerges more clearly the more material comes to light. Donaldson has achieved a more complete reconstruction of the poet’s personal circumstances than has yet been possible, and in tactfully overlaying this reconstruction with criticism of the poems he arrives at a case study of a major artist that is fascinating far in excess of the facts. For a man with no life, Robinson, Robinson the phenomenon, proves to be quite complicated. 

Robinson was born in 1869 in Head Tide, Maine, the third of three boys, his name having been picked out of a hat at a lawn party. He hated “Edwin” for completing the egregious triple rhyme of his full name, and for resembling “Edward,” with which it was confused all the time, even in his second Pulitzer citation and hometown obituary. A list of poets born within five years of him would include W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Walter De La Mare, William Vaughan Moody, Edgar Lee Masters, Stephen Crane, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. A. E. Housman and Thomas Hardy were older, but had similar career arcs: Housman’s first book of poems came out in 1896, the same year as Robinson’s (Housman’s was also self-published), and Hardy’s appeared in 1898. Emily Dickinson died when Robinson was in high school; her 1890 Poems made a brief splash and then subsided. In the two years after that Melville and Whitman died without followings. It is difficult to imagine how the poetry of the day could have been worse, any less accountable to anything outside of its conventions. Here is Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century and self-styled “Squire of Poesy”: 

What is a sonnet? ’T is the tear that fell

 From a great poet’s hidden ecstasy;

 A two-edged sword, a star, a song—ah me!

Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell. 

The nation of Robinson’s youth was in a practical, moneymaking mood and inclined to ignore this kind of frivolity. Before Robinson turned one the family moved to Gardiner, an industrious and industrializing town of six thousand on the Kennebec River. The town was perhaps extraordinarily class-conscious, with a presiding “Big House” where the Gardiner family lived. Robinson’s mother Mary Palmer descended from an old New England family that counted Anne Bradstreet as an ancestor, but she had married the Scotch-Irish Edward Robinson, who began as a shipbuilder and then prospered in a variety of occupations and investments, notably timber speculation. The family enjoyed limited upward mobility throughout the boys’ upbringings but never quite made it to the aristocracy (Edward became known as “The Duke of Puddledock”). Robinson would throughout his life castigate himself for failure to hew to his models of middle class solidity, and he would never show a sense of entitlement. In spite of the nominally rising fortunes of Gardiner, he did not absorb a narrative of optimism and material progress from his environment, in which he would have observed the cultural obsolescence of Puritanism and the decline of certain industries and methods, like ice harvesting on the river (which he worked at briefly) and water power. 

            Robinson’s hard-headed father had a soft spot for poetry, at least as a diversion, and the boy delighted him by memorizing passages out of William Cullen Bryant’s ample Library of Poetry and Song. At six Robinson was reciting “The Raven.” The local high school was rigorous, and he emerged with a little Latin, less Greek, and a serviceable background in the classics. He fell in with a local literary club, and did his apprenticeship in versification there, indebted particularly to a Dr. Alanson Schumann, Gardiner’s poète manqué. Robinson would later estimate the size of the poetry audience in the United States based on the fact that six people out of the six thousand in Gardiner appreciated it (the same fraction, he noted, obtained for drunks). Extrapolating from this figure he arrived at a nationwide total of a hundred thousand people; today the figure would be three times that, probably not far off the mark.

            When Robinson was eleven a teacher cuffed him on the side of the head for daydreaming. She damaged his inner ear, and the injury led to near-total hearing loss in that ear and recurrent pain all his life (perhaps this is the second most favorable disability for poets, Geoffrey Hill being deaf in one ear). The injury had its benefits, in that after graduation Robinson had to travel to Boston for a series of treatments, and his father, not otherwise thinking much of college, released funds enough to let him attend Harvard as a “special” from 1891 to 1893. A middling student, he did witness the institution in a moment of flower, attending classes with Charles Eliot Norton, Josiah Royce, and William James. He published in the Advocate but did not infiltrate the literary set there, having only enough social clout to blend with the other specials; the time intensified a sense of belonging with misfits. 

            Edward Robinson died in 1892 and the family’s fortunes disintegrated rapidly. The elder brother Dean, whom Edwin held in great esteem, was a doctor, and had become addicted to laudanum while medicating himself for neuralgia. He moved back home and hollowed out progressively over the next decade. The middle brother Herman, perhaps the only human being Robinson did not think well of, was gregarious and aggressive and for a time succeeded as a bank representative investing in western real estate. He married a local beauty named Emma Shepherd, whom all three brothers were in love with. Emma thought highly of Edwin, but he was too young to be in realistic competition for her; nevertheless the experience of watching her bamboozled by Herman’s charm, of watching her choose shallowness over depth, rattled him deeply. Herman was ruined in the 1893 panic and descended into drink, increasingly unable to care or provide for his three daughters. Mary Robinson died abruptly and horribly of diphtheria in 1896. Emma was also infected but recovered. 

            All three brothers and Herman’s family were then living in the same house, Edwin reading, writing, and caring for the property, but languishing somewhat and feeling the pressure to choose a career. Late in that year Herman’s drinking became bad enough that Edwin found himself acting as a surrogate husband and father, and he must have been able to sustain at times the pleasant illusion of being married to Emma. The implications were not lost on Herman, who confronted his brother and demanded he leave.

            Robinson moved to New York, which remained his base for the rest of his life, excepting spells in Boston writing advertising copy and working as an office clerk at Harvard. He published The Children of the Night, an updated version of The Torrent and the Night Before, in 1897. It was received well but not widely. There followed a difficult period of neglect, impoverishment, and near-alcoholism. Dean died in 1899, a probable suicide. Robinson’s extraordinary capacity for making fast friends—as if in compensation for his awkward guardedness—served him well during this time, as he was often kept afloat by the grace of their generosity. In 1902, on his sixth try, with friends serving as guarantors, Robinson succeeded in placing Captain Craig. Periodicals however remained uninterested in his work. He subsequently worked as a time-checker in the New York subway diggings. In what is possibly the weirdest episode in American letters, Theodore Roosevelt came across Robinson’s poems (a Gardiner acquaintance of Robinson’s was his son’s English teacher) and wrote Robinson in admiration. Setting aside the treaty negotiations for the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt took it upon himself to write a review of Children of the Night, and got Robinson a job filling a chair at the New York Custom House. The job lasted until the change of administration. 

            Robinson’s luck was turning. In 1911 he began spending his summers at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he was comfortable and worked prolifically (though not, in later life, very well). In 1916 he had his first unequivocal critical success with The Man Against the Sky, probably his single best book. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his Collected Poems (1921), The Man Who Died Twice (1924), and Tristram (1927), the latter a bestseller that left him financially secure for the first time. From 1929 until his death he produced mostly long or book-length poems at the rate of one per year. Robinson died of cancer in 1935.



          Summarized in this way, Robinson’s life does not sound eventful. There is no fighting for the partisans, no experimenting with opium, no clambering up the duchess’s trellis. Robinson once visited his friend Edith Brower in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and in his fifties he took a six-week trip to England. Apart from these occasions, he never left the Northeast. His intellectual life was similarly circumscribed: his reading was not adventurous, and he did not maintain the passionate connection to social and political developments that enabled, to take one instance, the odd updrafts of Yeats. But the ostensibly simple character of Robinson’s existence makes it possible to see certain principles reify in his life with an almost judicious alternation: privilege and deprivation, small town and big city, bohemian and bourgeois, solitude and camaraderie, learning and common sense. It is as though Robinson were a subject in an experiment to test the effects of various conditions on a given artistic constitution. 

            This constitution can moreover be cleanly delineated. Marianne Moore characterizes it as “persistently tentative credulity,” which requires only elaboration. Robinson has an ethical premise, which is a sense of scrupulousness, even caution, about what statements can be made with what force on what evidence; as Walter Berthoff puts it, “he will not say what he cannot take technical possession of.” Robinson has a project, which is the understanding of other people as far as his premise allows; one could call it a practical demonstration of the premise. He has an emotional temperament, which appears in his sympathy (the word will prove problematic) for the meek and misunderstood, and in his antipathy for the practice of valuing people in terms of their utility. Finally, he has a style, which is plain but uncasual, averse to usages one would find in poetry and only in poetry. 

Robinson’s intellectual honesty, when brought to bear on people, is tantamount to a belief in our unknowability to each other. This belief is not simply a philosophical restatement or recognition of the egocentric predicament, but entrains anguish at individuation itself, at the loneliness and recreance it makes possible and the aid and comfort it renders our miseries. The poems respond to the implacable fact of unknowability with circumspection, cynicism, humor, even frustrated and willful hallucination: 

There be two men of all mankind

  That I should like to know about;

But search and question where I will,

  I cannot ever find them out.

            —From “Two Men”


What was it that we never caught?

What was he, and what was he not?


How much it was of him we met

We cannot ever know; nor yet

Shall all he gave us quite atone

For what was his, and his alone;

            —From “Flammonde”


We’ll have no kindly veil between

Her visions and those we have seen,—

As if we guessed what hers have been,

  Or what they are or would be.

            —From “Eros Turannos”


May we who are alive be slow

To tell what we shall never know.

            —From “Exit”


He must have had a father and a mother—

In fact I’ve heard him say so—and a dog,

As a boy should, I venture; and the dog,

Most likely, was the only man who knew him.

            —From “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford” 

Taken as a subject this outlook could reasonably be seen as dead-ending in despair and pessimism, a criticism Robinson was sensitive to. The collapse of religion in Robinson’s time had left a hole poets were expected to fill (inasmuch as they were expected to do anything) and failure to propose consolation, failure to supply a divine backup plan, was not yet considered a virtue. Robinson was sometimes bewildered by this requirement to the point of imbalance, prone at times to baseless assertions of an optimism he had more artful ways of integrating. But the criticism, I think, misses in the first place the redemptive nature even of art that ends in uncertainty and a sense of limitation. James Dickey remarks that Robinson’s wariness “allows an unparalleled fullness to his presentations, as well as endowing them with some of the mysteriousness, futility, and proneness to multiple interpretation that incidents and lives possess in the actual world.” Robinson’s poems may not ultimately come to understand their subjects, they may not arrive at judgments or diagnoses, but it is not for lack of trying. He patiently allows his subjects their demonstrations, and then attempts, knowing he will at some level fail, the finest inference possible of their internal states from their external ones. 

This procedure has in turn strong implications for the texture of the writing. The focus on the actors is such that a minimum of verbiage is available to establish setting—the poems are almost devoid of what Mary Kinzie has called “trivial situating.” Characters reap the benefit of this emphasis in being quickly universalized, where more attention to sensuous context would have cluttered their essential interest. The diction, also, feels a push in the direction of the abstract. Our language for describing emotions is comparatively rich: 

A vision answering a faith unshaken,

An easy trust assumed of easy trials,

A sick negation born of weak denials,

A crazed abhorrence of an old condition,

A blind attendance on a brief ambition,—

            —From “The Man Against the Sky” 

Our language for the affective cues for these faiths, trusts, negations, abhorrences, and attendances is comparatively poor. Robinson has such frequent recourse to describing underdetermined looks, tones, and gestures that these become motifs: 

We tell you, tapping on our brows,

            —From “Eros Turannos”


  something in his way of telling it—

The language, or the tone, or something else—

Gripped like insidious fingers on her throat,

            —From “Aunt Imogen”


The old man shook his head regretfully

And laid his knuckles three times on his forehead.

            —From “Isaac and Archibald”


                        there we gazed

In a strained way that made us cringe and wince:

            —From “Fleming Helphenstine”


Those old, unyielding eyes may flash,

And flinch—and look the other way.

            —From “The Wandering Jew”


“And how we caught from one another’s eyes

The flash of what a tongue could never tell!”

            —From “Captain Craig”


We saw that fire at work within his eyes

And had no glimpse of what was burning there.

            —From “Avon’s Harvest” 

The limning of character in terms of these kinds of observations might be expected to yield an art of portraiture, more or less keen as the observations were more or less keen. Robinson’s transforming insight is that attributes of character only acquire meaning in a community, whose common denominators of conduct provide a basis for a response, such as pity, scorn, bewilderment, or envy. Rather than characterizing a person, Robinson characterizes a relationship between a person and a group. The resulting characterization does not constitute a portrait or sketch, if by these terms one means an attempt to locate the essential qualities of an individual considered in isolation; individuals in Robinson cannot meaningfully be said to possess essential qualities. Nor does the interaction between individual and group constitute a drama, as all parties have usually already reached equilibrium in the moment of the poem. As William Pritchard points out, “Robinson is the least ‘dramatic’ of modern poets, if drama means a development in consciousness, a sense that the poem is entertaining choices even as it proceeds to its outcome.” The poems are almost a mode unto themselves, dispersed and concentrated in their gestures, verbalizing social forces sometimes tenuous or obscure and registering their action on an individual. 

In the early sonnet “Aaron Stark,” for example, a local miser has grown shriveled and irretrievably selfish, but not yet absolutely withdrawn: 

Glad for the murmur of his hard renown,

Year after year he shambled through the town,

A loveless exile moving with a staff;

And oftentimes there crept into his ears

A sound of alien pity, touched with tears,—

And then (and only then) did Aaron laugh. 

No recluse, Stark finds his murmured reputation satisfying, as if it were wealth the town generated or interest on an investment. He cannot abandon this investment, and so remains physically in the town despite his status as social exile. The only remaining avenue by which he may be disturbed is, oddly, pity. Far from being jealous, the community weeps on his behalf, and his half-comprehending response to this—which absolutely marks the crippling of his spirit—is compensating, derisive laughter. The poem could easily have petered out in a catalogue of facile villain physiognomy—the “miser’s nose,” the “eyes like little dollars,” the “thin, pinched mouth”—but achieves some psychological complication, and the rearing-up of strong emotions, through the introduction of communal conscience and in articulating the action of that conscience. 

            Robinson understood early in his development that this communal conscience deserved elaboration, and in some poems (“Captain Craig,” “John Evereldown,” “The Tree in Pamela’s Garden,” “Old King Cole,” “Mr. Flood’s Party”) this third presence goes by the name of Tilbury Town, which is roughly congruent to Gardiner (it is not New York, at any rate), but assumes no qualities beyond those necessary to illuminate individuals. It has no geography, no history, no internal structure. It is not Yoknapatawpha County, which Faulkner is able to draw a map of. It is closer to Masters’s Spoon River, but sentient, a source of limited authority with which to gossip—not necessarily in the narrow sense of disapproving—about its wayward elements. Roy Harvey Pearce calls it “the underworld of Walden and Paumanok,” a place where individualism has become an exhausted, absurd idea. Robinson’s abstraction of Tilbury Town—his lifting it off the map, as it were—allows him to draw on the spirit of it even when his material has an inspiration in relatively anonymous urban circumstances where a coherent group conscience is implausible. Of his move to New York, Robinson wrote to William Vaughan Moody, “I must have the biggest conglomeration of humanity and inhumanity that America affords.” Gardiner was evidently too small for him. In practice, though, few of the poems are unambiguously urban—“The Poor Relation,” “The Wandering Jew”—and Robinson must also have the murmuring town in the back of his mind to maintain the concept of normalcy against which he may present his misfits. New York was evidently too large. Robinson’s resources in this respect are curiously and nakedly composite. He does not sentimentalize or disparage town or city, and it is difficult to assign him squarely to either type of sensibility. New York was wonderful for concentrating his friends, not for providing alternatives to middle-class respectability, which he could take or leave. Nor was New York his introduction to the panoply of human wreckage, which he was obsessed with even before he left Gardiner, and even before his household fell apart: in the mid-nineties he was working on some dismal prose sketches called Scattered Lives. 

In poems where Tilbury is not mentioned explicitly, it is sometimes evoked implicitly or virtually in the first-person plural. This is the case in “Richard Cory,” “Leffingwell,” “Flammonde,” and “Bewick Finzer.” The most striking use of this choral “we” is in “Eros Turannos,” where one is led in the first four stanzas through a minor miracle of compressed narrative to all appearances omniscient. A woman negotiates with herself the reacceptance of a man who has betrayed her in some way—he is blithe and perhaps vain of her love for him, and one is almost nauseated to see that her fear of a lonely future will acquit him while she continues in a passionless existence of swallowed pride and cherished illusions lost. In stanza five, though, this narrative is revealed to be a concoction of sorts, “The story as it should be,” made up by gossipers who have presumably eavesdropped on the couple’s quarreling and pieced together various rumors. This chorus recognizes that the private cores of the woman and of the couple are unknowable, but it cannot bear the thought that no rendition of events will emerge, and wishes to place its version side by side with hers, the legend with the reality: “We’ll have no kindly veil between / Her visions and those we have seen.” Robinson would have kept up the veil, but the chorus is not that strong—if it seems intrusive and mischievous, it regards its actions as ultimately harmless, pabulum to soften the disappointment of never having been in the presence of the love god. The poem ends with the chorus gesturing to a sphere beyond itself, reaching for the closest metaphors it can find: 

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they

  That with a god have striven,

Not hearing much of what we say,

  Take what the god has given;

Though like waves breaking it may be,

Or like a changed familiar tree,

Or like a stairway to the sea

  Where down the blind are driven. 

The stanza pattern (ababcccb) is similar to that of “The Poor Relation” and “The Unforgiven,” appearing also in The Man Against the Sky and almost as good. The c rhyme, always masculine, potentially banal (imagine this stanza without the last line), creates a plateau which drops into the resolution of the final b rhyme—which is always feminine, and which would sound rushed and dense if not so distanced from its two predecessors (imagine this stanza without the sixth line). The breaking up of the common measure established in the first half of the stanza is always accompanied by a syntactic break. Except in the final stanza, the second half always forms an independent clause, which stands in opposition to or in elaboration of the first half. The triple rhyme fulfills itself in the final stanza, for the first time, in a list: the man and particularly the woman accept what love has given—succor, strife, indecision, fear, doubt—in spite of these gifts’ resemblance to somewhat cold and superficially consoling features of the protagonists’ environment (waves and falling leaves were, in stanza four, the agents of her illusion and confusion). Breaking waves herald more of themselves; the tree changing colors again repeats itself; the stairway to the sea is a kind of folie, going nowhere. But these are the terms of dealing with the tyrant. 

All good poems make their matter worthy of their form, and vice versa. “Eros Turannos” occupies a certain pinnacle in introducing more human interest than seems possible into a form with extraordinarily demanding symmetries. I can imagine a poem more lyrically pure, but only at the expense of removing some complication. I can imagine a poem more novelistic, but only at the expense of its lyric integrity. To achieve this compression, “Eros Turannos” avails itself to some extent of our expectations regarding marriages and love affairs, but does not deal, in the end, in commonplaces. On the contrary, the poem is under no illusion that “love conquers all,” or that eros stands in opposition to thanatos. Love, it says, can be the covenant of our destruction: terrible. (Emma Robinson saw the poem, as she did “The Unforgiven,” as an explicit record of her ill-fated marriage to Herman—her gloss reads, “Despotic love. E.L.R. [Emma] and H.E.R. [Herman]: their downfall.”) Nominally conventional in form, jarringly modern in content, the poem sits strangely against the skyline of its time. The poets who succeeded Robinson did not tend to work, or did not tend to work successfully, in this kind of contained narrative or argument. Frost is at his smarmiest and most platitudinous in this regime (though Robinson would have disagreed); Stevens would be the exception, in “Sunday Morning.” When Harriet Monroe received the typescript of “Eros Turannos,” she wrote “Jewel” on it, but that was the extent of its luck. The poem appeared in the March 1914 issue of Poetry alongside nine poems by Carl Sandburg. “Chicago” won that year’s Levinson Prize.

Robinson’s use of the choral presence is innovative and, in its particular form, remains strikingly rare. It came to him early but not always easily: the drafts of “Eros Turannos” show that the fifth stanza, where the “we” is introduced, went through the most revisions. The Robinsonian “we” is not simply a means of lending generality to discourse or speculation, or a casual way of implicating the reader. It is not the French on. It has an understanding of its point of view, as a point of view, and is capable of distinguishing itself from omniscience. It does not exist to characterize itself, as in certain dramatic monologues, but to characterize another. It would seem intuitive to a playwright, I think, but in poetry in English there is little of it or anything like it—perhaps in Stevie Smith, or James Weldon Johnson’s “Brothers—American Drama.” Robinson’s insight into the possibilities of choral pronouncement arises from a serious consideration of what our collective being is and how individual lives acquire and lose meaning in it, and these directions of thought run contrary or perpendicular to those that the major talents of the twentieth century typically took. One could say that Robinson’s art is thereby enriched and made exceptional, but it seems equally that the balance is impoverished, that it has missed not a poetic idiosyncrasy but a fundamental human valence.



 Perhaps the most evident commonality in Robinson’s poems is the preponderance of unheroic heroes: derelicts, sponges, has-beens, posers, and stargazers. One accepts at some level that Robinson has an uncomplicated affection for the underdog, a feeling that he can personally compensate for the depredations of fortune and, whatever else he may or may not stand for, not succumb to the Tilbury practice of judging people by their productivity. Robinson had a somewhat ineffectual and bumbling Gardiner friend named Seth Ellis Pope, who was fired from a local teaching job because he could not maintain order among the students—Robinson’s friend Laura Richards described him as “a gentle, inarticulate soul” who referred to Robinson as “the Man.” He inspired Killigrew the poetaster in “Captain Craig.” Robinson remained loyal to him throughout Pope’s life, and for several years they were roommates in Brooklyn. When a visitor made the mistake of implying Pope was unexceptional, Robinson became enraged—one of only two losses of temper, as far as I can tell, in his entire life (Prohibition brought on the other). In Robinson’s poetry, though, the redemption of Pope-like figures must negotiate a difficult transaction of compassionate feelings, which Robinson sees, like attributes of character, as essentially social phenomena not to be taken at face value—indeed, not having a face value. Stating with precision what Robinson is up to with his uncomplicated affection turns out to be complicated—one finds, in his work, a strange and rigorous treatment of feeling, one implication of which is that the path of virtue cannot be defined in terms of a homily, not even “love thy neighbor” or “the meek shall inherit.” 

In “Aaron Stark” the miser senses condescension in the town’s pity and matches it with scornful laughter: if the object of the pity is to draw Stark into the family of man, it fails utterly. In “Eros Turannos” the woman places the exigencies of love before those of pride: this is, in terms of some conventional hierarchy of virtues, the correct thing to do, but she reaps unhappiness. We are perhaps accustomed to regarding love and compassion as having favorable consequences, as reliably pointing the way out of danger, but Robinson consistently upends the truisms; as Donald Justice remarks, “the pieties are not quite in place.” Pity may be misplaced and feckless, as in “Vain Gratuities” and “The Tree in Pamela’s Garden,” both poems about women heedless of the expectations of Tilbury Town and incidentally in opposition to them. Pity may be an impediment to good judgment, as at the end of Lancelot, where the hero is left “Not knowing what last havoc pity and love / Had still to wreak on wisdom.” Pity may be an evasion of a messier responsibility: 

Now and then, as if to scorn the common touch of common sorrow,

There were some who gave a few the distant pity of a smile;

            —From “The Valley of the Shadow” 

Pity may turn the recipient in upon himself. In the weird psychodrama “Avon’s Harvest,” a boy attaches himself to Avon in their school days and kills him at every turn with kindness, cursing Avon with early awareness of his smallness. Avon calls his shadow an “evil genius” who ever incurs 

         the nameless obligation

That I have not the Christian revenue

In me to pay. A man who has no gold,

Or an equivalent, shall pay no gold

Until by chance or labor or contrivance

He makes it his to pay; and he that has

No kindlier commodity than hate,

Glossed with a pity that belies itself

In its negation and lacks alchemy

To fuse itself to—love, would you have me say?

I don’t believe it. No, there is no such word.

If I say tolerance, there’s no more to say. 

The self-hatred is clear and brutal: the evil genius exposes a gross defect in Avon, namely, his incapacity for charity, which he can scarcely define. The potential for damage in showing one’s feelings appears up and down the poetry: 

                       in her voice he felt

a pitying triumph that was worse than hate.

            —From “Cavender’s House”


                      Still none of them

Could have a thought that she was living down—

Almost as if regret were criminal,

So proud it was and yet so profitless—

The penance of a dream, and that was good.

            —From “Aunt Imogen”


Alexandra: Poor Genevieve!

Genevieve:                And don’t say that again!

            —From “Genevieve and Alexandra” 

            Robinson’s poetry comes to a particularly fine point when his characters possess some of the same knowledge he does, and demonstrate an awareness of the consequences of emoting or of eliciting emotion. Robinson would perhaps define tact as comportment with such awareness. In “The Poor Relation,” a woman is growing old alone in an apartment, roaming among her memories and half-enduring, half-enjoying her infrequent visitors. She understands they have been driven to her by a sense of obligation, and declines to push the moment beyond the socially acceptable span, which is insufficient to her: 

Her lip shakes when they go away,

And yet she would not have them stay;

She knows as well as anyone

That Pity, having played, soon tires. 

The quivering lip is the only outward sign of her distress. She does not show revulsion at being the object of pity, actually or potentially—she might accept that position, for all we know, if it meant more company. More than she can bear, however, is the thought of imposing, or imposing further, on their resources of pity, which she knows she exhausts quickly. It is significant that the poem does not take place in Tilbury Town, where her fate would perhaps have been less grim, perhaps not—but would in any case have had a social reality. In the city she can hardly be said to exist. She chuckles to herself: 

Poor laugh, more slender than her song

It seems; and there are none to hear it

With even the stopped ears of the strong

For breaking heart or broken spirit. 

In Robinson’s scheme, this absence of witnesses, even unsympathetic ones, is death-in-life, an erasure of the possibility of occurrence. The ending of the poem uses the sharp end of the stick: 

Bereft enough to shame a sage

And given little to long sighing,

With no illusion to assuage

The lonely changelessness of dying,—

Unsought, unthought-of, and unheard,

She sings and watches like a bird,

Safe in a comfortable cage

From which there will be no more flying. 

“Comfortable” is the most awful word here, and not just because the meter makes it uncomfortable: without the distractions of hardship available, there is no way left for the woman to strive. Louis Coxe draws attention to this conclusion for offering “no vastations, epiphanies, cosmic speculations, psychodramatics,” but simply registering the character of the woman’s last days with an almost ungallant clarity. Robinson’s lip is quivering, but he too refrains from drawing on our resources of pity, having immersed us to the utmost of his ability in circumstances that warrant it. That restraint is not the same as saying we are not supposed to feel anything. Dickey remarks on this ability of Robinson’s to be both extended and withheld, inferring a mind “both powerful and hesitant, as though suspended between strong magnets . . . . from this balance, this desperately poised uncertainty, emanates a compassion both very personal and cosmic—a compassion that one might well see as a substitute for the compassion that God failed to supply.” This sublimated compassion, immanent in “The Poor Relation,” represents the highest service that Robinson can render his subjects. 

            In a broad sense “The Poor Relation” is about the considerable strengths one needs to summon in the course of an ordinary life. In “Tact” and “Late Summer” Robinson introduces pairs of characters measuring their effects on one another and similarly trying to preserve themselves, the web of human relations becoming doubly tangled. “Tact” presents a man and a woman: the man is visiting the woman, who skillfully converses around some truth, possibly regarding his unsuitableness for her. He cannot avoid praising her inwardly for sparing him “the familiar guile, / So easily achieved.” He chooses not to take the painful hint, and affects obliviousness to spend the evening with her. They part amicably, at least on the surface. In the third and last stanza the woman, alone, permits herself some satisfaction that she has succeeded in her ultimate ruse, which has nothing to do with letting him down easily, but with hiding from him something about the fragility of her circumstances: 

She smiled a little, knowing well

  That he would not remark

The ruins of a day that fell

  Around her in the dark:

He saw no ruins anywhere,

  Nor fancied there were scars

On anyone who lingered there,

  Alone below the stars. 

The two are entwined without touching; inwardness dwells so far from the surface that success in their interaction is defined in terms of artful, overlapping withholdings and circumlocutions, plans within plans, that preserve the elements of themselves that cannot in any event be “solved.” What we now call intimacy would result in her breakdown and his confusion. Neither conversant has demonstrated a flaw—neither is inarticulate or insensible, and each knows his or her own heart. It is precisely through the close attention of the man that his deception—the least awkward outcome of the encounter—is made possible. 

“Tact” is somewhat schematic and marred by generic night sky imagery, but one sees in it no misapprehension that purity or strength of feeling will surmount the barriers between people; the counterintuitive interactions of such feeling are likely to dictate the terms of engagement. Herman Robinson died of tuberculosis in 1909, broken and estranged from his family (Emma’s sister, upset at his treatment of Emma, had even framed him for the theft of some valuables). Shortly before he died, though, he extracted a promise from Emma never to marry Edwin. The autumn after the funeral, Robinson came to stay with Emma and his nieces, and probably proposed to Emma. If he did, she refused him. “Late Summer” was published in 1920, more than ten years later (at which point Robinson had been in love with Emma for thirty years), but can plausibly be read as a conversation between them during that visit. The poem is in alcaics, and not simply the syllabic interpretation of them such as Auden uses in “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (one can hear the choriambic feet clearly in phrases like “honor ineffably” and “driving his argosies”). A man and a woman are walking on the beach, the woman unaccountably happy, making light of a difficult past and spending kindness on the dead which the man feels would be better spent on him. Happiness is at hand if she will only concede the actuality of him. Seeing the worst coming, he forces the moment to its crisis, saying of the dead man, 

“I climb for you the peak of his infamy

That you may choose your fall if you cling to it.

  No more for me unless you say more.

All you have left of a dream defends you:


“The truth may be as evil an augury

As it was needful now for the two of us.

  We cannot have the dead between us.

Tell me to go, and I go.” 

The truth—meaning the woman’s ultimate intentions—is both evil, in the sense that the man stands to have his hopes dashed and his relationship with the woman ended or changed forever, and needful, meaning he can no longer suppress his desire for certainty. She thinks, and says, 

“What you believe is right for the two of us

Makes it as right that you are not one of us.

  If this be needful truth you tell me,

Spare me, and let me have lies hereafter.” 

She resents, perhaps, the prospect of being talked out of fidelity to the past: she would not be able to trust someone who would not respect this fidelity, nor would she be able to trust herself. She prefers her illusion of the dead man’s worth, where at least her integrity remains intact. Told to go, he goes. She stays there alone, until dark comes on and after, the poem ending in the dubious comfort of “The whole cold ocean’s healing indifference,” a moment of unguardedness and flat declaration having changed the two irrevocably. 

Robinson wrote a long poem, “The March of the Cameron Men,” on a similar theme. In it a doctor pays suit to a woman whose husband is dying. He rows her out on a lake and says, 

There was no happiness in him alive,

And none for you in your enduring him

With lies and kindness. It was a wrong knot

You made, you two. 

In her copy of the Collected Poems where this passage appears, Emma left an unknotted coil of blue silk. 

In “Late Summer” the woman arguably chooses self-delusion over truth in sugarcoating the dead man’s liabilities. In addition to the poems where good intentions have bad outcomes, there is in Robinson a smaller, less clear-cut class of poems like this one, where some degree of cravenness, while not exactly producing good outcomes, yields the protagonist a kind of strength. This is the case in “The Gift of God,” where a mother overestimates the talents of a son she has impractical ambitions for, but is at least intensified and confirmed in her maternal love. In “Flammonde” an inimitable sponge and charlatan proves to have a knack for diplomacy in the community, and his objective ethical effect is strangely divorced from his interior. In “Veteran Sirens” the poet is gazing at some ageing barflies, perhaps prostitutes, and marveling at their endurance; the tone is more ironic than usual but not quite the mock-seriousness of “Miniver Cheevy” or “Old King Cole.” The sirens “fence with reason” in the very fact of their carrying on, refusing the graceful exit and the consolation prizes of age. Robinson characterizes them peculiarly, treating the attributes they have sacrificed, lost, or damaged as third parties not to be confused with the women themselves: 

The burning hope, the worn expectancy,

The martyred humor, and the maimed allure,

Cry out for time to end his levity,

And age to soften his investiture;


But they, though others fade and are still fair,

Defy their fairness and are unsubdued; 

The women’s hope, expectancy, humor, and allure are all mentioned with definite articles, not possessive pronouns, and then are personified as crying out. They are also in syntactical antithesis to “they,” the women, who defy their fairness (yet another third party) and remain free. The effect of this dissociation is that the hope, expectancy, humor, and allure are all pitiable, but the women are not. They are almost the torturers. The effect is explicit in the closing: 

Poor flesh, to fight the calendar so long;

Poor vanity, so quaint and yet so brave;

Poor folly, so deceived and yet so strong,

So far from Ninon and so near the grave. 

(Ninon was a 17th century French courtesan.) The women go unmentioned in the litany of compassion, which is naked but oblique—the poet pities the flesh, vanity, and folly which seem to have been press-ganged into service. Rhetorically, this obliqueness allows Robinson to introduce “brave” and “strong” without sounding sentimental, and “quaint” and “deceived” (and “vanity” and “folly,” for that matter) without sounding judgmental. The result is a poem of praise that nevertheless exposes the insalubrious (but effective) mechanics of the sirens’ longevity. 

            Robinson’s deepest analysis of this kind of perverse strength is in “The Wandering Jew,” a poem about a striking, vituperative figure seemingly stepped out of the Old Testament. The poem is set in New York and the encounter is strictly face-to-face, with no communal conscience present to inflect the characterization. In a careful procession of twelve eight-line stanzas, Robinson arrives at an understanding of the man which is unsparing but not aggressive, perhaps a sublimated judgment analogous to the sublimated compassion of “The Poor Relation.” Unusually, only half the lines rhyme, yielding an unhurried, more deliberative tone than is typical in the short poems. The poet meets the modern-day Ahaseurus and is impressed by how lonely and out-of-place he seems, even by the standards of the city. He hopes he is not letting his compassion show, but discovers he has failed to mask a greater offense: 

Pity, I learned, was not the least

Of time’s offending benefits

That had now for so long impugned

The conservation of his wits:

Rather it was that I should yield,

Alone, the fealty that presents

The tribute of a tempered ear

To an untempered eloquence. 

Ahaseurus has grown inured to pity, to its condescension and distancing, and has composed himself as a social being to operate at a remove from the people to whom he delivers his fiery prophecies—“his ringing wealth / Of manifold anathemas”—which are pitched for the apathetic. What disarms him is that someone should take him seriously. As the poet listens, the template of the man’s morality becomes clearer: the future is a “crumbling realm awaiting us,” ruined by our present perfidy, and the past, while nominally immutable, is like a mirage in which one may see whatever casts the present in the worst possible terms. The revolutionary and the reactionary converge—the present is always inadequate, and the past is always better. Ahaseurus has in this sense grown addicted to difference and become a sort of moral shark which must keep moving to survive. Seeing this, the poet says, 

              my fancy viewed

New lions ramping in his path.

The old were dead and had no fangs,

Wherefore he loved them—seeing not

They were the same that in their time

Had eaten everything they caught. 

Robinson then comes on the knot at the center of the man: if the world is unredeemable in perpetuity, there is no point in trying to save it, and no ultimate purpose for him in it. He is wasting his breath. With respect to this conundrum 

        there was a reticence,

And I believe his only one,

That hushed as if he beheld

A Presence that would not be gone.

In such a silence he confessed

How much there was to be denied;

And he would look at me and live,

As others might have looked and died. 

“Live” and “died” are of course not literal here; Ahaseurus possesses, to his misery, the same understanding that the poet has just come to, but his peculiar strength is to be able to soldier on in his mode where another person would have “died,” crumbled, given up to the currents of history and contingency. The source of this strength is a core of pride which triumphs even when “Humility seemed imminent,” and which “relegates him out of time / To chaos.” He cannot participate in the stabilizing orders, however flawed, of the present, or make incremental corrections to them. The poet can only leave him to his fate, closing, as he opened, with a description of the eyes—noticing now that they are not merely “unyielding,” but that they also “flinch—and look the other way.” 

            Yvor Winters comments that the poem “should not be construed, I think, as an attempt to evaluate Jewish character, if such an entity may be said to exist; it is rather an attempt to examine a spiritual vice which may occur in any group at a fairly high intellectual and spiritual level.” The vice is a species of pride; “the result is spiritual sickness,” a willed inability, in the name of humaneness, to be human. Close in theme to Louise Bogan’s “Cassandra,” the poem is about the danger of setting oneself up as a prophet. Although published in 1920, “The Wandering Jew” can be read as the companion piece to the earlier “Captain Craig” (1902), which is about the complementary danger of never listening to prophets in the first place, of remaining spiritually complacent. The poems probably share the same model in Alfred H. Louis, a member of the bohemian circle Robinson fell in with when he first moved to New York. The circle included the flamboyant William Henry Thorne, who for his part probably inspired “Flammonde” (Thorne and Louis together were the models for the New England codgers in “Isaac and Archibald”). Louis was a small, ancient, and Catholic English Jew—also a Cambridge-educated lawyer, sometime mental patient, and intimate (he said) of Ruskin, Meredith, and Trollope. He was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Benjamin Disraeli. Unkempt and smelling like a goat, he played the piano expertly and recited reams of poetry. He could talk about anything, and did at length. While working at Harvard, Robinson’s eye caught the name “Louis Craig Cornish” on an application: Alfred Louis became Captain Craig, and was transplanted to Tilbury Town. 

            “Captain Craig” was cheekier in its time than it perhaps appears now, being an extended study of, and kind of paean to, an ostensible failure. It is a two thousand line blank verse poem that begins with a line that does not scan (“I doubt if ten men in all Tilbury Town”). In 1900 Robinson was calling it a “twentieth century comedy.” Its length relegates it (with most of Robinson’s long poems) indefinitely to the attic of American poetry, but it is marvelous—a philosophical portrait that does not exhaust itself in philosophy or portraiture, in which lives of quiet desperation are given articulation and spiritual coherence. There is a humor in Robinson, a wit that is neither facetious nor gloomy, which he generally cannot find room for in his short poems, but which in “Captain Craig” bubbles reliably to the surface. Robinson also finds in the poem’s hero a way of diverting an interest in people into an exposition of ideas, which, purely considered, he is always somewhat awkward with. The thinking in the poem is furthermore closer in nature to practical wisdom, to a phenomenology of human weakness, than it is to a statement of ultimate beliefs, and is as such less brittle. Owing largely to this quality “Captain Craig” is a far more successful statement of position than the later “The Man Against the Sky” or the earlier “Octaves.” It is tempting to read “Captain Craig” as an interview with Emerson—Craig is even referred to as “The Sage” at one point, and Hyatt Waggoner sees him as “an aged Emerson whom [Robinson] puts to tests more severe, as he supposes, than any that Emerson had faced, in order to watch the results.” Commentators generally assert something similar without citing points of contact, which I find difficult to make. At a crude level, where Emerson exhorts you to “Trust yourself,” the Captain is opposed in his fiber to an inner reclusion from other people. It is difficult to imagine him saying “Envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide.” While the poem has Emersonian ingredients (Robinson was rereading him in 1899-1900), Edwin Fussell points out that its presiding spirit might rather be Ibsen, whom Robinson at the time thought had the best grasp of the brittleness of the old order and of the temper of the new one. The Captain makes a novel and sharp critique of Tilbury Town, and his creed feels arrived at rather than asserted; his wisdom feels demonstrable and annealed by its passage through the consciousness of the narrator. On the assumption that no one will actually read the poem again, I will consider it at some length. 

The poem is an account by a callow young poet of a relationship, over several months, with Captain Craig, a dying, derelict old eccentric. Craig is a sort of prophet and in the course of the poem delivers three epistles and a final testament. His disciples consist of the narrator and half a dozen friends, who take it upon themselves to care for him. There is a hierarchy of consciences: the town’s, the group’s, the narrator’s, and Craig’s. Craig, the product of a lifetime of self-invention, sticks out in Tilbury “like a jest in Holy Writ.” When we meet him he is captain only of the leaky bark of himself, living by the marginal kindness of strangers, and there is something in the constitution of the town that cannot assimilate him. His programmatic uselessness, like Bartleby’s, is unsettling,. When provoked in conversation, he is casually blasphemous, weirdly allusive, given to “lettered nonchalance”: 

“You are the resurrection and the life,”

He said, “and I the hymn the Brahmin sings;

O Fuscus! and we’ll go no more a-roving.” 

Notwithstanding the town’s treatment of him he is content in his role as “outcast usher of the soul.” On one occasion he begins to pontificate to the narrator about human efforts to grasp the divine, which the narrator retorts is so much “nineteenth-century Nirvana talk.” The captain rises to this, issuing a sermon full of parables and types, including a starveling child and a hapless soldier who “had a brass band at his funeral, / As you should have at mine.” He touches almost immediately on the importance of social interaction to human meaning. The child sets out in despair to drown himself, and is perched on a rock above a stream: 

“There came along a man who looked at him

With such an unexpected friendliness,

And talked with him in such a common way,

That life grew marvelously different:

What he had lately known for sullen trunks

And branches, and a world of tedious leaves,

Was all transmuted; a faint forest wind

That once had made the loneliest of all

Sad sounds on earth, made now the rarest music;

And water that had called him once to death

Now seemed a flowing glory.” 

The man proves to have been the soldier, and Craig will have further recourse to the child, somewhat winkingly, as a mascot of enlightenment. One gathers an inkling of the role the Captain wants to play in the lives of his disciples. 

Craig has a picture of the perfectibility of the race, but at the moment—he seems to critique Puritanism or its legacy—he finds something fear-nourished and faint-hearted in the worship he sees about him, something burdensome that will not be cast off until “you learn to laugh with God.” Craig is at his most Whitmanian at this point, but the narrator is uncompelled, even bewildered that the Captain can seem both pitiable and smug at the same time. The narrator decides pitiable is closer to the truth than smug, and is shaken in retrospect to see how close he came to losing the Captain’s company to pride.

At the tavern that evening his friends mock him: 

They loaded me with titles of odd form

And unexemplified significance,

Like “Bellows-mender to Prince Æolus,”

“Pipe-filler to the Hoboscholiast,”

“Bread-fruit for the Non-Doing,” 

He is irritated, less by them than by their immaturity: 


Drowsed with a fond abstraction, like an ass,

Lay blinking at me while he grinned and made

Remarks. The learned Plunket made remarks. 

He has trouble falling asleep that night, until he admits to himself an affinity with Craig.

Through the end of winter Craig continues “the peroration of his life,” and the narrator is increasingly convinced of his profundity. When he tells Craig he will be leaving and will be away for several months, Craig shows some anxiety, presumably because he has much to tell, has finally found a sympathetic ear, and fears he does not have long to tell it. Leaving town, the narrator feels the Captain’s absence in a lessening of the intensity of his being, “As if the strings of me had all at once / Gone down a tone or two.” In the days to come he thinks of Craig often, and relates that Craig wrote a series of letters during their separation (the epistles), which he warns us will seem dreary, but for his circle were articles of cheer, though he admits to some condescension on their part to make them so. 

In the first epistle it is May, and Craig is rhapsodic, at first affirming a Romantic faith in the child as the standard of spiritual health: “ ’tis the child, / O friend, that with his laugh redeems the man.” Craig is almost preternaturally articulate, and in these passages one in struck by how well Robinson distinguishes and modulates the various voices in the poem, how peculiarly he contained and orchestrated his multitudes. Craig waxes Wordsworthian; today, he says, I feel 

“Primevally alive, and have the sun

Shine into me; for on a day like this,

When chaff-parts of a man’s adversities

Are blown by quick spring breezes out of him—

When even a flicker of wind that wakes no more

Than a tuft of grass, or a few young yellow leaves,

Comes like the falling of a prophet’s breath

On altar-flames rekindled of crushed embers,—

Then do I feel, now do I feel, within me

No dreariness, no grief, no discontent,

No twinge of human envy. 

Many poets, even good ones, would have been content with this; for Robinson, it is only one lemma in an emerging argument. Craig has not always been this happy, he admits, and confesses that he has at other times made himself miserable in the name of wringing compassion out of himself: 

                          “I have cursed

The sunlight and the breezes and the leaves

To think of men on stretchers or on beds,

Or on foul floors, things without shape or names,

Made human with paralysis and rags;

Or some poor devil on a battle-field,

Left undiscovered and without the strength

To drag a maggot from his clotted mouth;

Or women working where a man would fall—

Flat-breasted miracles of cheerfulness

Made neuter by the work that no man counts

Until it waits undone; children thrown out

To feed their veins and souls on offal … Yes,

I have had half a mind to blow my brains out

Sometimes; and I have gone from door to door,

Ragged myself, trying to do something— 

He leaves the narrator with the important question of whether this sort of sympathetic misery is a waste, and whether one ought to, for the sufferers’ sake, just enjoy the day. The question, as he sees it, boils down to this: “What does the child say?” 

To answer, Craig introduces two figures, a woman and a man, to embody the two extremes of outlook and comment on each other. The woman is affluent and breezily happy, “spendthrift of a thousand joys,” and a sort of accidental Samaritan. She has everything you could ask for in life “Except an inward eye for the dim fact / Of what this dark world is.” The man on the other hand has such an inward eye, is in fact a terminal grouch, and mocks her and her generosity: 

“ ‘What is a gift without the soul to guide it?

“Poor dears, and they have cancers?—Oh!” she says;

And away she works at that new altar-cloth

For the Reverend Hieronymus Mackintosh—

Third person, Jerry. “Jerry,” she says, “can say

Such lovely things, and make life seem so sweet!”

Jerry can drink, also.—And there she goes,

Like a whirlwind through an orchard in the springtime—

The world and the whole planetary circus

Were a flourish of apple-blossoms. Look at her!’ ” 

For her part, she confides in the Captain: 

                      “ ‘Give him a rose,

And he will tell you it is very sweet,

But only for a day. Most wonderful!

Show him a child, or anything that laughs,

And he begins at once to crunch his wormwood

And then runs on with his “realities.”

What does he know about realities,

Who sees the truth of things almost as well

As Nero saw the Northern Lights? Good gracious!

Can’t you do something with him? Call him something—

Call him a type, and that will make him cry […]

Or one of those impenetrable men,

Who seem to carry branded on their foreheads,

“We are abstruse, but not quite so abstruse

As possibly the good Lord may have wished;” ’ ” 

In one case the child is “In ominous defect,” in the other in excess. Craig rephrases the question: “Is it better to be blinded by the lights, / Or by the shadows?” 

One could reasonably answer the lights, since the woman at least does some objective good in the world. Craig here begins to chart his middle way, which involves acknowledging the “demon of the sunlight,” the dark side of optimism, apprehension of which is a high order of self-knowledge (here, the notion of the child allegorically disappears). Beholding this demon, we may then find 

     “sympathy, which aureoles itself

To superfluity from you and me,

May stand against the soul for five or six

Persistent and indubitable streaks

Of irritating brilliance, out of which

A man may read, if he have knowledge in him,

Proportionate attest of ignorance,

Hypocrisy, good-heartedness, conceit,

Indifference,—by which a man may learn

That even courage may not make him glad

For laughter when that laughter is itself

The tribute of recriminating groans.” 

This indictment of sympathy is not surprising given its treatment in the short poems, but the point is forcefully sermonized. The indictment arises not from despair but from a willed and vigilant attempt to avoid it. 

            The narrator responds to the first epistle, he thinks perhaps too lightly. The second epistle dates from July and is “facetious and austere.” The Captain seems to be in a worse mood, almost goofily nihilistic, comparing himself to “a frog on a Passover-cake in a streamless desert.” As if to deprecate himself, or to telegraph his awareness of the portrait of him forming in the narrator’s mind, he introduces his own “friendless, fat, fantastic nondescript,” “A vagabond, a drunkard, and a sponge,” “a poet and a skeptic and a critic” and an accomplished pianist, improbably named Count Pretzel von Würzburger the Obscene. Pretzel sounds like a Craig clone but was inspired by Joseph Lewis French, perhaps the most erratic of Robinson’s friends—he alternated between such gestures as writing hatchet jobs of Robinson and campaigning to get him the Nobel Prize, and even showed up at his deathbed to cadge twenty-five dollars. Pretzel is given to improvisation (not just in his music), because, he says, something in him prohibits complete fidelity—his life is a series of “Confessed vagaries.” He nevertheless has, Craig thinks, “That phosphorescence of sincerity” of the true artist. One night Pretzel reads to Craig the only sonnet he has ever composed, a Robinsonian self-parody about a daft and hapless gentleman named Carmichael who has three green china frogs on his wall and claims they are Aristophanes’s: 

“ ‘God! how he laughed whenever he said that;

And how we caught from one another’s eyes

The flash of what a tongue could never tell!

We always laughed at him, no matter what

The joke was worth. But when a man’s brain dies,

We are not always glad … Poor Carmichael!’ ” 

Pretzel maintains that there is more to him than meets the eye and cautions Craig not to mistake him for a mere beggar. The “device” of Pretzel sort of collapses as Craig imagines him memorialized in the narrator’s poetry, and conflates himself with what is presumably his invention: 

                  “And if you like him,

Then some time in the future, past a doubt,

You’ll have him in a book, make metres of him,—

To the great delight of Mr. Killigrew,

And the grief of all your kinsmen. Christian shame

And self-confuted Orientalism

For the more sagacious of them; vulture-tracks

Of my Promethean bile for the rest of them;

And that will be the joke.” 

He makes fun here of his own and Emerson’s brands of prophecy, and Robinson preempts the reception of “Captain Craig.” Craig closes the second epistle with a nearly favorable report on Killigrew. 

Some time elapses before epistle three arrives. The narrator hears in the meantime from Killigrew, who includes some of his terrible verses and assures him “The Sage” (Craig) is doing well enough. The third epistle then arrives, with a pall of “mortuary joy” on it belying Killigrew’s report. Craig has made friends with three birds, which he likens to the Fates. His sanity is not in question however, and he issues a sort of apologia for the tone of all of “Captain Craig”: 

             “—Do not think,

Because in my contented isolation

It suits me at this time to be jocose,

That I am nailing reason to the cross,

Or that I set the bauble and the bells

Above the crucible; for I do nought,

Say nought, but with an ancient levity

That is the forbear of all earnestness. 

Craig relates a dream of lying in a forest, clutching some tools and contemplating suicide while not daring to fall asleep. A figure approaches, presumably God, examining his tools and asking what he is doing there. “I was a carpenter,” says Craig, “But there was nothing in the world to do.” The figure admonishes him to resharpen his tools “And then go learn your trade in Nazareth.” Craig marvels at the curiosity of the dream, and reverts facetiously to a critique of Killigrew’s doggerel (critique perhaps being a form of Craig’s carpentry), which is about a talking nightingale met on the way to London Town: 

   “ ‘I go to marry a fair maid’

      (Lightly swung the feather)—

    ‘Pardie, a true and loyal maid’

      (Oh, the swinging feather!)—

    ‘For us the wedding gold is weighed,

    For us the feast will soon be laid;

    We’ll make a gallant show,’ he said,—

      ‘She and I together.’ ” 

Here is the Captain’s take (would that Robinson had written more poetry criticism):       

Barring the Town, the Fair Maid, and the Feather,

The dialogue and those parentheses,

You cherish it undoubtedly. ‘Pardie!’

You call it, with a few conservative

Allowances, an excellent small thing

For patient inexperience to do:

Derivative, you say,—still rather pretty.

But what is wrong with Mr. Killigrew?

Is he in love, or has he read Rossetti?—

Forgive me! I am old and garrulous …

When are you coming back to Tilbury Town? 

The narrator returns home to find the Captain bedridden. Craig’s humor is still good but he cannot provoke the narrator to laughter. Craig notices his grimace, and scolds him for not having yet learned his lesson about sympathy: 

Your sympathetic scowl obtrudes itself,

And is indeed surprising. After death,

Were you to take it with you to your coffin

An unimaginative man might think

That you had lost your life in worrying

To find out what it was that worried you.

The ways of unimaginative men

Are singularly fierce … 

He promises on the morrow to read his testament. He and the narrator hold hands for a moment, the Captain looking scared and his fluent manner belied. 

It is now October. The next day Craig reads his testament to the disciples, having nothing left but words to dispense: 

“I, Captain Craig, abhorred iconoclast,

Sage-errant, favored of the Mysteries,

And self-reputed humorist at large,

Do now, confessed of my world-worshiping,

Time-questioning, sun-fearing, and heart-yielding,

Approve and unreservedly devise

To you and your assigns for evermore,

God’s universe and yours. If I had won

What first I sought, I might have made you beam

By giving less; but now I make you laugh

By giving more than what had made you beam,

And it is well.” 

He sees himself as going to take his final place in a tradition of sages, and sensing his last chance to impart his insights he again decries the “devil in the sun” and exhorts his disciples to aim upward without making “crashing an ideal.” He quotes a lugubrious passage of poetry, possibly the narrator’s, about the sea. Craig criticizes the “fleshless note / Of half-world yearning in it” and advises that one should give oneself neither to “flesh contempt” nor to “flesh reverence.” He realizes he is becoming preachy but begs their indulgence for a final sermon, in which he remarks on the fine line between selfishness and love, and indulges in an ostentatious demurral (one of several) to compare himself to Socrates. A facile negativity, he warns, has an allure of seriousness, and seems to hold the promise of preempting despair, but will in the end sequester them and damage them profoundly: 

                —Ah! friends, friends,

There are these things we do not like to know:

They trouble us, they make us hesitate,

They touch us, and we try to put them off.

We banish one another and then say

That we are left alone: the midnight leaf

That rattles where it hangs above the snow—

Gaunt, fluttering, forlorn—scarcely may seem

So cold in all its palsied loneliness

As we, we frozen brothers, who have yet

Profoundly and severely to find out

That there is more of unpermitted love

In most men’s reticence than most men think.

Craig feels he has won through in the end, not as a monk or “moral pedant,” “But as a man, a scarred man among men.” He rejoices in this knowledge and its securities, and upholds his particular brand of jocular inquiry as a reliable method of exposing those poses that would otherwise pass as self-deception: 

                You cannot hide yourselves

In any multitude or solitude,

Or mask yourselves in any studied guise

Of hardness or of old humility,

But soon by some discriminating man—

Some humorist at large, like Socrates—

You get yourselves found out. 

Craig imagines his funeral procession and being eulogized as “an humorist” against the background of the brass band and, he anticipates, its “cornets and trombones.” The best that can be said of him, he thinks, is that he “Maintained his humor: nothing more or less.” 

Craig finishes but is not quite done. The next day he relates a bizarre dream of meeting Hamlet rooting around on the banks of the Lethe, and then riding with him on the back of a crocodile. The narrator nearly laughs at him, as he would have at Carmichael, for making much of little, but realizes in some final way that Craig is far from deluded: “For the Captain had no frogs: he had the sun.” In the awkward silence Killigrew is drawn into discussing the dream, and relates his own comparatively impoverished one of being sung to by “a sad man.” The Captain approves sarcastically and falls asleep. The disciples move to go, but he wakes and calls them back, realizing death is upon him. He begins to speak as if to the air, but nevertheless sees on their faces an expression of—he cannot tell which—fear or grief. Behind the one, he says, is an unimproved optimism that cannot look death in the eye; behind the other an unimproved pessimism that cannot justify its having listened to the Captain while he lived. Craig presents his death as the test of the maturity he has been preparing them for: 

“But I would have that your last look at me

Be not like this; for I would scan to-day

Strong thoughts on all your faces—no regret,

No still commiseration—oh, not that!—

No doubt, no fear. A man may be as brave

As Ajax in the fury of his arms,

And in the midmost warfare of his thoughts

Be frail as Paris …” 

He asks their forgiveness for his abrasiveness. At last he is able to refer to himself as Socrates, and asks for the cup. His eyes clear. He smiles as if he hears something, and he utters his last word: “Trombones.” 

            The death is in a small way redemptive, the teachings a small success: the friends meet at the tavern again in fair spirits, and know enough to refrain from platitudes. Plunket begins to pluck some quiet music on Morgan’s fiddle, but Morgan seizes it and plays “roaring chords and acrobatic runs,” surpassing himself. The narrator closes with his memory of the funeral the following day, which is dreary and cold, but warmed virtually by “the large humor of the thing.” People pass on the road and stop. The Tilbury Band, presumably including trombones, plays Handel’s Dead March in Saul, as it had at Dean’s funeral (and the piece would be played at Robinson’s as well). The Captain is, in the end, a somebody. 

            “Captain Craig” makes a human being available to the reader with a focus and exposure practically unknown in American poetry, but throughout its considerable length Robinson maintains the same balance that in the shorter poems allows his subjects to keep their dignity even as they elicit our feeling or judgment. Robinson’s achievement works uphill against a contemporary prejudice, namely, that a worldly failure is ipso facto an implausible source of wisdom. This prejudice has disappeared and even inverted itself, but this only reduces the pressure on Craig’s teachings to justify him. Those teachings—notably on optimism, pessimism, and the nature of mature compassion—nevertheless subsume at a stroke an issue which remains even now extremely vexing to the art, and they neither dilute nor are diluted by Robinson’s humane imperatives. If talk of Robinson’s redemption of his subjects seems hokey or seems to overstate the case for the power of his poetry, consider Alfred Louis’s response when Robinson, with understandable hesitation, gave him the manuscript (then called “The Pauper”): Louis returned it, Robinson said, “with hands trembling and eyes full of tears, saying that perhaps now he knew why he was still in the world, and that it was his best justification for being.” Moody wrote Robinson to tell him that “Roosevelt is said to stop cabinet discussions to ask [John] Hay, ‘Do you know Robinson?’ and upon receiving a negative reply, to spend the rest of the session reading ‘Captain Craig’ aloud.” Trumbull Stickney wrote a review of Captain Craig which unfortunately did not appear until more than a year after the book’s publication, too late to undo the general damage. In it, he wrote (of Robinson), “The honesty and simplicity of his mind, the pathos and kindness of his heart, and above all the humor with which his imagination is lighted up continually have made me begin life over again and feel once more that poetry is part of it, perhaps the truth of it” (emphasis in original). Stickney was dead within a year of a brain tumor; they probably never met. Robinson garners in these responses praise which is extraordinary not in degree but in quality—it is not praise of the typical, literary kind where the work in question is approved of for its resemblance to others that have been approved of. Robinson has changed his reader. The poem has worked.


Continued Next Month: Part Two


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