Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
D. H. Tracy

Aspects of Robinson

(Part Two)

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.

Read: Part One

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          Trumbull Stickney also defended Robinson’s style, which others had found prosaic. One reviewer bemoaned “Blank-verse that is little more than inverted prose chopped up into lines.” Given the grief that Robinson now gets for not doing enough chopping, the comedy is bitter. Stickney argued the style’s plainness justified itself in being “adequate to the thought,” and the phrase is apt. Robinson took to this principle of adequacy to the thought very early, and he probably took it from prose, which in American literature had cast off its rhetorical dressing in advance of poetry and was the best means of guided innovation at his disposal. Even in the poems of The Torrent and the Night Before, revisions show emerging confidence in speech-oriented diction and, as Berthoff remarks, “a more concentrated specification of feeling” and “a provocative obliquity of statement.” Here are stanzas from the published version of “The House on the Hill” (right) and a version about two years older (left): 

Malign them as we may,                 Through broken walls and gray

  We cannot do them ill:               The winds blow bleak and shrill:

They are all gone away.                           They are all gone away.

[…]                                                      […]

Are we more fit than they                  Nor is there one to-day

  To meet the Master’s will?—               To speak them good or ill:

There is nothing more to say.                  There is nothing more to say.


What matters it who stray                 Why is it that we stray

  Around the sunken sill?—                 Around that sunken sill?

They are all gone away,                           They are all gone away. 

A subjunctive curse (and why would we want to malign them, anyway?) becomes suggestive physicality; the sermonizing of “Are we more fit than they” becomes a statement one could plausibly hear in a private conversation. The wooden “What matters it who stray” becomes the brow-furrowing “Why is it that we stray,” a rhetorical question turning into a real one. Even the changes in punctuation—the removal of the M-dash after “sill?”, the change of comma to period in the final quoted line—act to make the statements more discrete and less elided, more direct in a local meaning which serves a larger indirection. The left-hand column belongs to the nineteenth century; the right-hand column could be spoken by one of Robert Frost’s characters. Here are lines from the first stanza of “Luke Havergal,” in their 1896 form: 

The wind will moan, the leaves will whisper some—

Whisper of her, and strike you as they fall;

But go, and if you trust her she will call,— 

And here they are as they appeared in the Collected Poems of 1921: 

The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,

Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;

But go, and if you listen she will call. 

The wind is left implied, making room for the deepening comparison of the leaves to words. The syntax and punctuation lose their nervousness but do not countermand the otherworldly quality; they in fact support it. Here is another, later example, from a draft of stanza four of “Eros Turannos.” The published version is on the right. 

The falling leaf inaugurates                  The falling leaf inaugurates

The reign of her confusion:                  The reign of her confusion:

And through it, like a trumpet, reigns  The pounding wave reverberates

 The crash of her illusion.                     The dirge of her illusion; 

Robinson has eliminated a pronoun with a weak referent, and three discordant figures—a trumpet reigning, a crash reigning, an illusion crashing—to instate what are probably the most powerful four lines in the poem. The parallelism accelerates the pace, and marks a transition from the narrative phase of the poem to commentary and denouement. 

One sees in these examples the difference between good and bad Robinson, which is not much and everything—a few well-placed words go wrong and the concentrated specification and provocative obliquity are lost. Although there is very little variance in the quality of technique in the oeuvre—opening the Collected Poems at random, one does not find poor versification—there is remarkably little disagreement on where Robinson did and did not hit the mark; generally, he hits it where the thought is developed and the style is adequate to the thought. The Torrent and the Night Before, while not quite thematically mature, is already distinguished and almost unaccountably renewed at the level of phrasing and diction. It is as if Robinson reached into the dead engine of 19th-century American poetry, and—without manifestoes, precedent, or histrionics—replaced the broken part. Berthoff contrasts Robinson’s case with near-contemporaries who took much longer to develop. Frost in A Boy’s Will (published 1913, though some poems date from much earlier) is not yet Frost—he is still writing “O hushed October morning mild / Thy leaves have ripened to the fall” and “Lovers, forget your love, / And list to the love of these, / She a window flower, / And he a winter breeze.” I stress that Robinson does not displace this idiom with a speech-based one, though he does use occasional colloquialisms; his full-dress reform approach is amusingly encapsulated in his comment to Josephine Peabody on a line of hers: “ ‘Belike’ will make the judicious grieve.” 

Robinson exhibits a handful of less pervasive stylistic devices that in some cases anticipate, in a shadowy way, Modernist developments. He employs his strict meter and close rhyme as if to check prosaic tendencies; where he is faced with a choice between keeping his technique and getting his point across, the point suffers. It is not uncommon to be trundling steadily through a poem, only to come suddenly on a verbal speed bump, perhaps a puzzling pairing or metaphor whose negotiation requires more interpretive strain than the rest of the poem asks for. An example would be “Her pride assuages her almost / As if it were alone the cost” from “Eros Turannos,” where the woman appears to avail herself of a spent resource. In “Exit,” the line “For penance he would not confess” casts penance momentarily as a form of crime or sin. In “Luke Havergal” a voice declares that “hell is more than half of paradise”—recalling Marvell’s “Two paradises ’twere in one / To live in paradise alone,” but meaning, I think, that suicide (whose reward is damnation) is the better way out of Luke’s predicament. In “For a Dead Lady” the poet mentions, along with the woman’s many virtues, “The laugh that love could not forgive.” A scornful laugh might require forgiveness, but that hardly seems in keeping with her other listed traits. In a poet more given to derangements, these hiccups would have some company, but amid Robinson’s general rationality they are conspicuous. Conrad Aiken sees them as a liability in the early work and an asset in the mature: 

what we suspect is that a poet of immense technical dexterity, dexterity of a dry, laconic kind, is altering and directing his theme, even inviting it, to suit his convictions in regard to style . . . . this padding (the word is far too severe) took shape at the outset as the employment, when rhyme-pattern or stanza dictated, of the “vague phrase,” the phrase which gave, to the idea conveyed, an odd and somewhat pleasing abstractness.           

With The Man Against the Sky, he says, this vague phrase becomes “no longer specious, but genuinely suggestive, and accurately indicative of a background left dim not because the author is only dimly aware of it.” Aiken is not wrong about this arc, but the technique of managing vagueness by nature does not admit of fine control. Whatever profit Robinson takes from it would seem to track the general cresting of his powers. Robinson was generally exasperated that anyone found his poems less than clear, but his slight underprivileging of sense, his formal constructionism, betrays a suspicion (soon to become, in the writers who followed him, a conviction) that poetry is made of words. 

            Stylistic commitments also enable Robinson’s narrative compressions and elisions, which can be extreme. The histories of his characters, including the slights, grievances, and misfortunes that occasion the very poems, are often left implicit. His use of implication can topple over from tact into obfuscation and make paraphrase slightly obtrusive, as in “The Woman and the Wife,” or even make it unpaid detective-work, as in “The Whip” or “En Passant.” Robinson’s effectiveness in using narrative elision is sporadic but follows roughly the same career pattern as Aiken sketches for the vague phrase, perhaps maturing a little earlier with those poems in Captain Craig and The Town Down the River that hit on an enticing ratio of information to mystery—I think particularly of “The Growth of ‘Lorraine’,” the “Calverly’s,” suite, and “How Annandale Went Out.” When the suggestion turns a shade too wispy, though, the result is precipitous dissipation. The generation that followed Robinson would learn to turn patchy, insufficient implication to its own purposes and fetishize the gaps; Winters calls the Modernist trope (defect, to him) “reference to a non-existent plot,” or the withholding of anterior situations the reader cannot possibly supply and which the writer might not even possess. He cites Eliot: 

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,

To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk

Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero

With caressing hands, at Limoges

Who walked all night in the next room;


  By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;

By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room

Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp

Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door.

—From “Gerontion” 

In an extreme form this procedure can become “qualitative progression,” or a narrative reverie lacking not only anterior specification but interior organization. Pound exhibits this in “Moeurs Contemporaines,” for instance, as he skips from sketch to sketch, the sketches referring individually to non-existent plots. For Robinson’s part, here is the early poem “Romance”: 

i boys

We were all boys, and three of us were friends;

And we were more than friends, it seemed to me:—

Yes, we were more than brothers then, we three . . . .

Brothers? . . . But we were boys, and there it ends.


ii james wetherell

We never half believed the stuff

They told about James Wetherell;

We always liked him well enough,

And always tried to use him well;

But now some things have come to light,

And James has vanished from our view,—

There isn’t very much to write,

There isn’t very much to do. 

Three among a group of boys have a bond which the speaker cannot describe, and he cannot describe it in a nervous tone; there is little else to infer from the first part. The second part introduces poor James, who arrives on the scene not unlike Mr. Silvero. Some rumors follow or precede him but we do not know of what nature. The boys, or perhaps just the group of three, take to him, and “use him well,” presumably in the neutral sense of “use” as “treat” or “behave toward.” The rumors prove to be true and James disappears in such a way that preempts further commentary or action. Both the anterior and posterior situations of James are withheld, and the relationship of the first part to the second, while not desultory, is not specified either. None of the statements in the story is remarkable for its own sake—the poem does nothing but tell a story it does not quite tell, and depends for what effect it has on the allure of the unstated. Robinson does not generally reach the point of referring to non-existent plots, but he does sometimes seem, as here, to prototype the Modernist development. 

I mention here a few other small ways, outside the purely stylistic, in which Robinson anticipated later writers: his use of tact as a compositional ethic would be seconded by Marianne Moore, and his interest in the history of the Americas feels like the quiet side of William Carlos Williams’s intense imaginative engagements. He was almost contemporaneous with Williams on this point: Robinson’s “John Brown” and “On the Way” (a dialogue between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr) appeared in The Three Taverns in 1920; Williams’s In the American Grain in 1925; Robinson’s “Toussaint L’Ouverture” and “Ponce De Leon” in Nicodemus in 1932. Robinson is also, I believe, the first American poet (at times he seems the last) to treat science in a mature spirit—that is, as just another human activity one need not get intellectually defensive about. He introduces scientific vocabulary, like “chlorophyll” and “pliocene,” without believing he is uttering magic words. In “Octaves” XI there is the figure of the astronomers who “dream of untriangulated stars,” but the emptiness of their search is of a piece with everyone’s. In “Captain Craig” Robinson can say, expressively and without strain, “we had laid some fuel to the spark / Of him, and oxidized it.” Also in this poem he uses the splendid metaphor of the action of a prism for introspection: 

“But if you break the sunlight of yourself,

Project it, and observe the quaint shades of it,

I have a shrewd suspicion you may find

That even as a name lives unrevealed

In ink that waits an agent, so it is

The devil—or this devil—hides himself

To all the diagnoses we have made

Save one.” 


                               *  *  *

When considering Robinson’s abrupt stylistic self-invention, it is tempting to cast about for the one or two authors who must have provided precedent or leverage. The bold, shrugging epigraph of The Torrent and the Night Before is a line from François Coppée, “Qui pourrais-je imiter pour être original?” (“Whom could I imitate to be original?”). The implication is that there is no one there. There is also everyone there: Robinson’s education exposed him to a literary baseline entirely typical for his time and place, the canon tailored to what Coxe calls the “Average Educated Philistine, New England variety.” The elements of that canon, which he cheerfully absorbed, were not so much influences as the constituents of his mind: Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible; secondarily, Longfellow, Tennyson, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickens. He read French naturalism, Meredith, Hardy (the prose, first and principally), and W. M. Praed. He admired George Crabbe deeply but it is difficult to tell if the relationship is one of affinity or influence, a problem generally. Fussell, in his study of Robinson’s literary background, does not mention Whittier, but I speculate that poems such as “Abraham Davenport” and “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” would have struck him as useful. Robinson grew irritated when people compared him to Browning, and although he knew the work well he came to mistrust it—“its easy optimism,” he said, “is a reflection of temperament rather than of experience and observation.” He was engaged with Kipling throughout his life but remained on the fence about him, intrigued by a vernacular and journalistic touch he suspected of superficiality; this indecision made Robinson wary of his critical judgment and was one of the reasons he decided to remain silent about his contemporaries. Robinson’s relationship to Henry James’s work was likewise volatile over a long period—he found James everything from astonishing to unbearably precious—and James’s influence possibly went deeper than he wanted to admit. In their periphrases, their studied hesitations, their obliterating commitments to discernment and discrimination in matters of character, the two artists have a temperamental alignment perhaps no other major contemporaries in poetry and fiction have ever had. 

Robinson’s drawing artistic self-sufficiency from conventionality of background came of the way he framed his relationship to tradition, which he did not conceive of in terms of adequacy and inadequacy to his writing; rather he conceived of writing in terms of adequacy and inadequacy to tradition. He could therefore confidently diagnose problems in the verse of his moment, but could not solve them by means of attaching himself to specific models in the way that Eliot went to Laforgue. This dynamic is part of what makes Robinson so resistant to classification, so external to literary currents. With respect to the presiding mediocrity he rises out of, he is casually invulnerable from the beginning. With respect to what comes after him, his internalized standard is no longer valid, and he is shrugging, not unappreciative, and uncomprehending (“I like some of his things,” he said of Eliot, “but he seems to me to be going the wrong way”). He neither presents a revolutionary figure in the one case nor a usefully reactionary one in the other.

          With respect to ideas Robinson shows a similar relationship to inheritance, now-enabling, now-limiting. After Harvard and before New York, Robinson was anxious to have his mind violated with an idea, particularly one that would supply an idealism to counter accusations of pessimism—one reviewer of his first book commented that “the world is not beautiful to him, but a prison-house.” He was also looking for a critique of materialism, and for a way to make sense of his mother’s suffering and death. It was natural that he should turn to Emerson, whose poetry he already esteemed, and whose influence had become in that time, as Waggoner puts it, “part of the furniture of the mind.” For a time, it was a good match. Fussell sums up their affinities: “Both trod warily the same middle ground between religious orthodoxy and scientific naturalism; both were as constitutionally averse to dogmatic affirmation as to positivistic denial; both fought a growing materialism; and both, with an emphasis on ‘seeing’ that dominates the imagery as the thought, sought to foster a more creative insight in American life as in art.” As early as the composition of “Captain Craig,” though, Robinson was already showing his doubts of Emerson, writing a friend that “the human note has a faint suggestion of falsetto.” He changed the title of his sonnet “Emerson” to “The Sage,” and in the first line, “Foreguarded and unfettered and serene,” revised “unfettered” to “unfevered.” As his career progressed he moderated his statements on Emerson and retreated from Transcendentalism generally. He came to find Whitman a weak thinker and left his early sonnet “Whitman” uncollected. He dropped the two most explicitly Transcendental “Octaves.” Thoreau irritated him. The crack began, I think, with Robinson’s inability to embrace antinomianism, his extraordinary difficulty in seeing himself as extraordinary, as above, outside, or better than the crowd, even for purposes of praising it. In the early poem “The Altar” he has a stirring, vague dream of “upward promise” amid the flood of humanity “all for the flame’s fury bent”: 

Alas! I said,—the world is in the wrong.

But the same quenchless fever of unrest

That thrilled the foremost of that martyred throng

Thrilled me, and I awoke … and was the same

Bewildered insect plunging for the flame

That burns, and must burn somehow for the best. 

Moved to pity by the vision, and grasping for grounds to condemn it, he nevertheless understands himself to be a member of the procession, a fellow moth. He does not have it in him to “trust himself,” to repurpose the mantle of the sage or prophet as the mantle of the poet. In other poems, like “Calvary” and “The Master,” he is as quick or quicker to identify himself with the crowd and commonness. A clever expression of the sentiment is in “Reuben Bright,” a poem about a bereaved butcher: 

I would not have you think that Reuben Bright

Was any more a brute than you or I: 

In this pseudo-chiasmus, “Reuben Bright” is syntactically nested in “you,” and “you” is nested in “I.” The sentence denotes Reuben’s not differing from us, but the syntax suggests something even stronger, his presence inside us, our essential congruence. 

Where Robinson cannot embrace Emerson’s ideas, he makes do with temperament and common sense. But this temperament and common sense lead in his mature work to desolation, as in “The Poor Relation” and “Eros Turannos,” or to a curious ideological blankness, as in “For a Dead Lady.” In either case the question of his theology is forced. When he answers it explicitly he can only do so in weakly Emersonian terms, not having any other: 

But this we know, if we know anything:

That we may laugh and fight and sing

And of our transience here make offering

To an orient Word that will not be erased,

Or, save in incommunicable gleams

Too permanent for dreams,

Be found or known.

                                   (From “The Man Against the Sky” )

Robinson’s answer is not worse than, for instance, Hart Crane’s—in fact it is similar to the “imaged Word” of Crane’s “Voyages” VI, “the unbetrayable reply / Whose accent no farewell can know.” But as Robinson lacks what Louise Bogan calls a “positive emotional orientation,” the deficiency is more obtrusive in his case. It looks like inconsistency, not exuberance. 

From mid-career Robinson did formulate anti-Romantic ideas, working in a spirit of self-chastisement. Also in The Man Against the Sky, surprisingly, is “Hillcrest,” Robinson’s only successful meditation. In it the poet, in a place of natural beauty, cautions himself against trotting out “His index of adagios” and thereby overestimating his own wisdom. The poem could not be any more sober, though it is easy to misread one of its final stanzas: 

Who sees unchastened here the soul

Triumphant has no other sight

Than has a child who sees the whole

World radiant with his own delight. 

Coxe even reads the three Arthurian poems (the first, Merlin, appeared year after The Man Against the Sky) as being similarly driven by this fear of leaving oneself unchastened in reverie. The “romances” are not campy, and are in fact fastidiously stripped of supernatural and mythic elements to the extent of making them bland. As Coxe puts it, “because he wishes to make it credible, we cannot believe in it.” Robinson wrote the poems out of a “Shavian impulse to disinfect human love of illusion and barbarism and to turn it calm, reasonable, safe.” Perhaps, as a sort of test to himself, Robinson wanted to venture into what would have otherwise been a deep escape, and come out with something dry and adult where his alter egos Miniver Cheevy and Eben Flood (“sustained by dreams and soothed by drink,” as he described them) would have been overexcited and overwhelmed. He grew uncomfortable when people invested the poems with grandiosity he had worked to remove: when Tristram was presented as an NBC radio drama with Wagner’s music warbling in the background, Robinson raised an eyebrow: “God help us all,” he wrote, “including Wagner.” 

            Amy Lowell saw Robinson’s idea-predicament as a case of a commonly occurring difficulty among American artists, in whom sooner or later “inherited prejudice and training” confront “the probing, active mind.” At some point tragically late in the artist’s development the mind discovers the relative poverty of its generating circumstances, and “The result is a profound melancholy, tinged with cynicism.” She saw Puritanism, rather than Emerson, as Robinson’s sandbag, but I think she is quite correct in observing that “the impossibility of constructing an ethical system in accordance both with desire and with tradition” wrenches the poet in ways that are unlikely to look, in the context of a career, clean or planned. Eliot and Pound saw early that the tradition was not rich enough, and relocated themselves; Stevens, Moore, Williams, and Frost dug in their heels to adapt and selectively indulge their desires as best they could. Robinson had no particular early awareness of the issue—New England seemed sufficient, even interesting—and as his incompatibility with his inheritance clarified over time, he was the proverbial frog in the pot. 

An interesting question, which is considered in Emery Neff’s biography in greater detail than in Donaldson’s, is whether more cultivation would have benefited him. Long after Harvard, Robinson mentioned to Barrett Wendell (on the English faculty) that he had had only two years there. Wendell replied, “You were damned lucky.” George Santayana gave a distressing postmortem on his literarily inclined students, who came to maturity among America’s first crops of cosmopolitan, internationalist superstars: 

the fate of a whole string of Harvard poets in the 1880’s and 1890’s—Sanborn, Philip Savage, Hugh McCulloch, Trumbull Stickney and Cabot Lodge . . . all these friends of mine, Stickney especially, of whom I was very fond, were visibly killed by the lack of air to breathe. People were very kind and appreciative to them, as they were to me, but the system was deadly and they hadn’t any alternative tradition (as I had) to fall back upon; and, of course, they hadn’t the strength of a great intellectual hero who can stand alone. 

I presume the deadliness of the system lay in its providing the trappings of a literary culture—the gossip, the cliques, the fleeting lionizations—while being reflexively self-deprecating and dependent, so to speak, on imports; Neff characterizes it as “an enfeebled Brahmin tradition overshadowed by European literature.” Rigidity resulted. Robinson never got close enough to this culture to have his provincialism rubbed in his face, and so was never mortified out of an interest in Gardiner. The paths of scholarship and the Grand Tour closed to him, Robinson was thrown back on his own resources to make poetry in Maine. Those resources were not entirely adequate, but it is not clear, given the fate of his peers, there were any that were.


*  *  *

Although Robinson is never a systematic thinker, particularly after his interest in Transcendentalism declines, there is a way in which his treatments of subject, self, and community are quite methodical and sophisticated. The high ranking accorded his short poems is sensible, but it is easy to miss, in considering only them, the maturity of thought with which he is able to approach the world beyond Tilbury Town. There is a class of poem in which Robinson gives voice to a figure whose artistic or moral stature precludes identification with the members of his community, for whose benefit the figure has toiled or suffered. These poems ask what meaning a person can claim for his actions in the absence of peer judgment—when, in effect, there are no peers. One could say these poems confront the problem of how a mortal is to justify a resemblance to Christ, and that they investigate, with a certain fascination, the antinomianism that Robinson himself could not evince. Robinson asks his subjects who they think they are, and then gives them hundreds, even thousands of lines to respond. The responses are cagey and abstract—Robinson once advised John Gould Fletcher not to attempt a long poem on the Civil War, because “the issues which led to and precipitated that conflict had been so confused on both sides that it was next to impossible for a poet to find a logical structure that would contain and do justice to them all.” Robinson could never utter so contingent a word as “abolitionist,” for example; he is wary of restricting his theme to a particular course of action in a particular time. The monologues therefore place their speakers in moments of retrospection rather than of crisis. They do away in the main with props, exposition, and historical color, and assume familiarity with the figure in question, the better to reduce their speaker’s condition to its essence. “Captain Craig” and “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford” are impure examples in this mold; clearer ones are “John Brown,” “Rembrandt to Rembrandt,” and “The Three Taverns.” I will look in some detail at the last two, which I think are the best of their kind. 

            In “The Three Taverns” the prophet Paul has been accused of belief in the resurrection of the dead and given up to the Roman authorities, in whose custody he has languished for two years while insisting on being tried in Rome rather than Jerusalem. An arduous journey to Rome has followed, and the poem begins with Paul addressing his disciples at the Three Taverns outside the capital. Thinking back on his relatively youthful conversion near Damascus, he is reconciled to the depredations of time and men, and indeed remembers his own time as depredator, that Saul of Tarsus who “had men slain / For saying Something was beyond the Law, / And in ourselves.” Paul will chart his spiritual progress in terms of relationship to law; he marvels at his conviction, at that time, of its inherent righteousness, having had no cause to put anyone’s conscience before it. It was in that conviction that he abetted the stoning of St. Stephen: 

There was no place alive that I could see

For such a man. Why should a man be given

To live beyond the Law? So I said then,

As men say now to me. How then do I

Persist in living? Is that what you ask? 

The question is cogently dramatized but, as Robinson knows, it has no satisfactory answer on earth, in this or any other context. Conscience versus law is your will against theirs. Paul’s task is thus to explain away his present status as an accused criminal, and the disciples presumably await some sign of his divine justification. 

Paul dodges the issue for the moment and even seems to take the opposite tack, drawing attention to his ragged appearance and issuing the disheartening warning that, whatever his immediate fate, “The wolves are coming.” He asks them to forgive the sharp tongue and abrupt manner that were his habit (Captain Craig does this too, before the end), as he could not help being “on earth and of it.” This immaturity he compares to the immaturity of the nascent Christendom, where the Gentiles, like the Jews, will at last “Have love and law together.” The disciples’ coming work will be buoying rather than burdensome, and they are to orient themselves by that temper of faith that precedes revelation or conversion, which will see them through the coming strife and schisms: “myriads will be done / To death because a farthing has two sides, / And is at last a farthing.” Paul sees the irony of asking his followers to take the long view while he goes to submit himself to the questionable judgment of Caesar, but such is the cost of maintaining the concept of law, without which his quest is pointless: “For the Law kills the flesh that kills the Law, / And we are then alive.” Possibly he also sees his submission as just given his treatment of Stephen. 

His captors are not brutal, though if they were more gracious he might dread more his arrival in Rome proper. Paul is self-conscious again of his unheroic appearance, but trusts in his writings, which he believes hold power precisely because they were not undertaken for glory’s sake. He denigrates one who cannot see to eternity in his works, and who expects some fame from them, as at best “the general man,” at worst spiritually destitute. His waverings and conversion have given him insight into the nature of faith, which is ancillary to action: he sees himself as a “driven agent,” sending his disciples out as if to sow seeds or light torches. Pondering the faith’s reception in the psyches of so many people ultimately alone in their understandings, he bids his friends to “Fight, and say what you feel; say more than words”—that is, they are not simply to be messengers but beings of conscience. He warns them against the unfeeling and the doctrinaire, and exhorts them to “Beware of stoics, / And give your left hand to grammarians.” Since there is no possibility of showing greater folly than he has, he bids them to cherish the defects of their humanity. Near the end a passage urges the disciples to humility: 

But think you not the world is ashes yet,

And you have all the fire. The world is here

Today, and it may not be gone tomorrow;

For there are millions, and there may be more,

To make in turn a various estimation

Of its old ills and ashes, and the traps

Of its apparent wrath. Many with ears

That hear not yet, shall have ears given to them,

And then they shall hear strangely. Many with eyes

That are incredulous of the Mystery

Shall yet be driven to feel, and then to read

Where language has an end and is a veil,

Not woven of our words. 

Understanding this, he says—and it is an extraordinary admonition for someone presumably interested in preparing his disciples for the struggle of their lives—one may find peace even when surrounded by the unlike-minded, “even in Rome.” Before continuing down the road Paul thanks his friends for the peculiar service they have done him. Until he met them, he says, 

I did not see myself the criminal

You contemplate, for seeing beyond the Law

That which the Law saw not. But this, indeed,

Was good of you, and I shall not forget;

No, I shall not forget you came so far

To meet a man so dangerous. 

He does not pretend to predict the future beyond this (the poem ends, “none may say what he shall find in Rome”), but he is now sobered and prepared for his upcoming encounter with secular authority. His friends’ judgment reminds him that he is not part angel, and that his work is in and among mankind, whose estimations of him are a continual informal manifestation of law. He sees, in his disciples’ eyes, what Caesar will see on beholding him. In abiding their judgment, and carrying on to abide the judgment of Caesar, Paul retains his covenant with law—even though, in the course of his life, his covenant with the law has been fluid. 

The most striking aspect of “The Three Taverns” is its disinterest in Paul’s conversion or the righteousness of his vision; the poem is saturated with Biblical matter but not devotional. I am not even sure it is religious. One can imagine Paul declaring, “The old word was false; the new Word is true; Caesar is a relic; go forth and preach.” This is an accurate if gross summary of Paul’s position, but Robinson’s achievement is to abstract from it a meditation both on the historical pattern by which old truths are replaced with new, and on the carriage of a mature mind amid shifting moral conditions. He does this, as it were, on the ground, without anchoring himself in a divine absolute; rather, he takes as constant the communal interplay of will, recalcitrance, and fractiousness that attends instituting a rule of law. Paul, in his insight, realizes that although these politics are proximately arrayed against him, they are in the scheme of things a force for the spread of his belief, and not to be confused with an affront to his faith. 

Robinson’s understanding of Paul’s situation comes across as profound and controlled from beginning to end, at no point approaching the bathos of misunderstood genius. Robinson maintains a similar immersion in “Rembrandt to Rembrandt,” where the stakes in this respect are higher, there being no narrative distractions from the solitary reflections of the artist. The reflections are literal, the painter addressing a mirror and a developing self-portrait. It is 1645 and the real Rembrandt is on a plateau of prosperity; in the monologue, he regards his situation and public reception as precarious, a “discredited ascendancy” of one who was “once a painter.” Vague difficulties impend regarding his short-term prospects and his ultimate legacy. He has no illusions that he makes his money by feeding the vanities of the Dutch bourgeoisie, and he muses on his dead wife Saskia, who held both him and his customers in ebullient contempt. Robinson’s fixation on dark and light, in other places a facile proxy for pessimism and optimism, takes on in Rembrandt’s language a satisfying analogue to painting, and to his painting specifically: when he says he cannot make his customers believe that “shadows are not nothing,” they not only misunderstand his technique but his struggle. 

He wonders if he is not already used up, and if the exhaustion of his talent is not the latest in a string of tragedies including Saskia’s death. He imagines his peers ridiculing him for continuing on, and displaces his justification from them to God: 

                           if God knows,

And Rembrandt knows, it matters not so much

What Holland knows or cares. 

Giving up as he does on his compatriots, turning his work into a private matter between him and God, Rembrandt in this statement is already a certain distance from Paul. But there is more left to be said, because in rescuing his painting from present fashion—he leaves it to his rival Franz Hals to pander to the public—he nevertheless wishes for it a better reception from the future taste of fellow mortals. As the portrait nears completion and takes on a life of its own, he remains uncertain it is well-equipped for this journey. Unusually for a Robinson poem, the portrait becomes a freighted symbol, being a representation of the mortal part of the artist and a metonym for his immortal part. He tells it it will need all the skill he has given it “If I have made you something as you are,” this evidently recalling the lines from “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford,” 

He knows how much of what men paint themselves

Would blister in the light of what they are; 

The monologue is an effort to project the light of what he is as brightly as possible, so that once the painting passes from his possession he need have no fear of its blistering. Saskia at times lacked the patience for this kind of sally at immortality: 

A woman waiting on a man’s avouch

Of the invisible, may not wait always

Without a word betweenwhiles, or a dash

Of poison in his faith. Yes, even she.

She might have come to see at last with others,

And then to say with others, who say more,

That you are groping on a phantom trail

Determining a dusky way to nowhere; 

He fears this confusion in his artistic vision bleeds into a confusion in his actual vision: “even your eyes are sick, and you see light / Only because you dare not see the dark.” Captain Craig might see the painting as Rembrandt’s optimistic half, the compromised, laboring painter as the pessimistic half, and the monologue as a struggle to intelligently split the difference, to master the arts of dark and light both. Rembrandt considers the various ways, concerned with his reputation of the moment, Saskia would have mistaken the “temporary noise” around the portrait for its worth: 

She might, like many another born for joy

And for sufficient fulness of the hour,

Go famishing by now, and in the eyes

Of pitying friends and dwindling satellites

Be told of no uncertain dereliction

Touching the cold offence of my decline. 

Coming to terms with her absence, he is struck by his solitude. The “terror-laden unreality” of his shadows, of the difficulties that have befallen him, are matched by the equally frightening self-possession of the portrait in ignoring them. But his solitary travails, he admits, are less trying than keeping up with fashion, which the portrait gives him the strength to outlast; he thanks it. 

Even with Amsterdam’s voice effectively blocked, there are others nagging him. He singles out two: there is a sort of “so what?” demon on his shoulder, wondering why he is intent on securing a reputation he will not be there to enjoy: 

                   “If this be all you are—

This unaccountable aspiring insect—

You’ll sleep as easy in oblivion

As any sacred monk or parricide;

And if, as you conceive, you are eternal,

Your soul may laugh, remembering (if a soul

Remembers) your befrenzied aspiration

To smear with certain ochres and some oil

A few more perishable ells of cloth,” 

Another, more benign spirit urges him to scamp and sell out—“You might go faster, if not quite so far”—but recognizes this is not in his nature, and instead presses him to subordinate himself to his talent, since he obviously knows better than to misconstrue approval as success: 

“Are you inaugurating your new service

With fasting for a food you would not eat?

You are the servant, Rembrandt, not the master,—

But you are not assigned with other slaves

That in their freedom are the most in fear.

One of the few that are so fortunate

As to be told their task and to be given

A skill to do it with a tool too keen

For timid safety, bow your elected head

Under the stars tonight, and whip your devils

Each to his nest in hell.” 

Rembrandt is slave and servant to his talent, but also a fortunate, free, and elected one—his proper conduct, this voices avers, is boldness in his craft and humility before his gift. Death, it says, may be a useful spur to action and anyway is not necessarily oblivion—in a way, time is on his side. Rembrandt knows this spirit to be the wiser, and the issue comes to a point of brilliant, almost silly clarity: 

          If you believe him, why complain?

If not, why paint? 

He sees it will be easy to lose one’s bearings when taking such a long view (“in Apollo’s house there are no clocks”), but the price of lasting achievement is obscurity and disorientation now. He closes: 

                      If at the first

Of your long turning, which may still be longer

Than even your faith has measured it, you sigh

For distant welcome that may not be seen,

Or wayside shouting that will not be heard,

You may as well accommodate your greatness

To the convenience of an easy ditch,

And, anchored there with all your widowed gold,

Forget your darkness in the dark, and hear

No longer the cold wash of Holland scorn. 

In the years of penury, rejection, and the whisky bottle, Robinson must have agonized over the gap between his ambitions and public expectation. For years at a time he poured his energies into playwriting. The poems are unruffled, though, and the letters show less hair-pulling despair over poetry than melancholy bewilderment at the loneliness of his calling. It is a slight shock to see the passion in his view from the trenches, a view moreover amenable to his full powers of expression. The ending here is both triumphant, in that Rembrandt sees precisely what is required of him to prevail, and it is harrowing, in that he sees precisely the consequences of his flinching. While “Forget your darkness in the dark” may denote forestalling scorn by sinking back into shortsighted populism, it also echoes “The dark will end the dark, if anything,” the more or less explicit injunction to suicide in “Luke Havergal.” Death, too, would mean no longer having to put up with the vagaries of approval in Amsterdam. Whether Rembrandt sees himself literally perishing or not, death and mediocrity are not qualitatively different. Significantly, the poem does not end with a brightening, upward gesture, but in a ditch, with an eye cast backwards at the community that even in his moment of staunchest resolution is shaping the course of his actions. As an analysis of artistic ambition, and perhaps of other solitary kinds, “Rembrandt to Rembrandt” has a gavel-banging grasp of the requirements, tradeoffs, and outcomes. Not least it shows that the painful process of enduring the contempt of one’s Holland need not be accomplished by reciprocation. If one is truly alone, then pride in one’s gift, pride of any kind, is meaningless. The issue must have been borne in on Robinson early, as he set himself to writing poems about a community that would have chided him for writing them.


*  *  *

Robinson the artist was never sequestered in a studio with quite the same monkishness that “Rembrandt to Rembrandt” suggests, and a particular strength of Donaldson’s biography is a fuller picture of the friendships and associations Robinson maintained. His fellowship with the sacrificial rearguard of humanity was not of the last resort; he also had an odd facility for relations with people who were successful and in their ways quite different from him. He was friends with William Vaughan Moody, who was becoming famous as a politically engaged poet while Robinson was languishing—“I could no more get together a poem on the Philippines,” said Robinson, “than I could write a description of the human brain.” E. C. Stedman, past seventy and ill, climbed the stairs to hand Robinson a hundred dollars, no questions asked. Landlords cheerfully forgave him his arrears. Clara Davidge constructed an entire studio for him at her house on Washington Place. The strangest charity is perhaps that of Roosevelt, who as a staunch meritocrat scrupled over the Custom House appointment (the only sinecure of his presidency), but remained convinced he was serving the greater cause of American letters. It is not obvious what natural affinities exist between Robinson’s poetry and such a man of action. Even Roosevelt, in his review of Children of the Night, does not seem to know precisely, though I suspect he sensed an art that had ceased to traffic in convention and had begun to assume accountability for reality, which even in a relatively sedentary form he was prepared to respond to. The review in any case backfired, for much the same reasons a presidential approval would today. The New York Times snickered that “it will surely be a glory of the future to have been an acknowledged and officially accredited poet of the Theodorian era” (The Dial, though, agreed with the president). 

Josephine Peabody, a fellow poet Robinson got to know while working in Cambridge (a review of her 1898 debut, The Wayfarers, was the only one he ever published), remarked on Robinson’s “helpless imprisonment within his own personality.” Women were often moved in one way or another by this quality in him. He carried on a brisk correspondence with Edith Brower, a writer, activist, and admirer twenty-one years his senior. The Gardiner eminence Laura Richards (she won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography of her mother, Julia Ward Howe), also a generation older, wrote the young poet to induct him into Gardiner society: “Prithee, O Hermit Thrush, come out of thy thicket.” Robinson accepted, signing off, “I am not a Hermit Thrush.” (It could have been a conversation between Robinson and Victorian poetry.) She came to his aid throughout his obscurity, jostling critics and publishers, and, when Robinson was sagging, writing him two letters for his one. After he died, Richards, then in her eighties—the nature of these friendships seems at times to belong to another civilization—organized the construction of a monument to him in Gardiner. Robinson fell for her daughter Rosalind during one idyllic summer in his late twenties, but bumbled his declaration of affection—“I have always known,” as Rosalind remembered it, “that you would never have anything to say to me”—and eventually decided his romantic awkwardness was insurmountable with everyone except perhaps Emma. Mabel Dodge considered the exotic seduction challenge Robinson presented, but decided over a luncheon that they were “too much en rapport to be lovers.” Isadora Duncan, for her part, saw no such obstacle and cornered Robinson at a party of hers. It would take the love of a poet, she said, to make her art blossom. Robinson demurred, responding the muse was his one true love. 

At the MacDowell Colony, in his more famous years, Robinson received a warm bath of low-key adulation he did not mind. Several women got to know him well there, notably the painter Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, and Robinson’s strange relationship with her is perhaps the single most welcome addition of the biography. They were courtly, quiet, and intense. A contemporary memoir observes them: “She didn’t hunt him; he didn’t flee her. He was aware, courteous, probably a little obliged, and granted her his society exactly as a woman might a man who had loved her without return all his life.” Robinson made noise about getting married in his later years; Sparhawk (as he called her) was talented, devoted, and understood him implicitly. If one had a time machine, one would, after talking Robinson out of the late long poems, give him a kick in the pants. The best he could do was to make her the model for Isolt of Brittany, the paragon of selfless love, in Tristram. She was one of several friends at Robinson’s death vigil and, greatly moved by his death, responded to it in a series of well-received memorial paintings. Some years later in a letter she rendered a verbal portrait of Robinson that is interestingly at odds with the picture of unease and diffidence appearing elsewhere: 

His coldness was like nothing I have ever met with in a human being. I have faced four people when he passed back of me, and seen the intense effect his anger had on them when it was not directed at them—[n]or did they understand the why, his state of mind. A moment of sympathy with him drew one out of oneself onto the threshold of a mystic union. A dangerous man, because of his charm, a simple man, a very real man never acting parts. A sensitive man who could feel eyes he did not see and cover his eyes from the look. He could punish and then suffer more than he punished—and he was always clearly in the right in the high realm of his personal values. His was no case of a flighty temperament[.] 

A moral strength emerges here, perhaps a gift of middle age. Sparhawk’s observations corroborate a quality that materializes in the biography alongside Robinson’s goodness, a quality which one might call sensibleness or extraordinary absence of preposterousness. There is nothing in him analogous to Eliot’s saluting beefeaters in the streets, Frost’s winking at his audiences, or Yeats’s interviewing his possessed wife. In his letters Robinson says all the right things about Hitler, Bolshevism, and unchecked capitalism; his persona could have been invented by a centrist political consultancy circa 2007. About the worst that can be said of him, as Sparhawk probably would have told you, is that he idealized women. 

The only person who didn’t like him, it seems, was Robert Frost, who emerges in Donaldson’s book as a minor villain. Frost returned to the United States from England in 1915, anxious to meet Robinson in particular. They seem to have quickly felt the tension of kindred spirits who fall into rivalry in spite of themselves. The correspondence they began petered out, and in the years to come they met only twice. When The New York Times Book Review organized a fiftieth birthday festschrift for Robinson, Frost was the only one of the seventeen poets queried to refuse. When Robinson got into hot water with the sonnet “New England,” widely misread as an attack on its subject, he wrote an exasperated explication to an upset Gardiner newspaper editor. Frost bizarrely took the naïve interpretation of the poem with his class at Amherst, and wrote it was “amusing to see Robinson squirm just like any ordinary person in a tight place trying to keep in with his neighbors.” After Tristram became a runaway success, Frost was enraged: “The whole damn thing became disgusting in his romantic mouth. How utterly romantic the enervated old soak is. The way he thinks of poets in the Browningese of ‘Ben Johnson’! [sic] The way he thinks of cucolding [sic] lovers and cucold [sic] husbands in ‘Tristram’! . . . I haven’t more than half read him since ‘The Town Down the River.’ I simply couldn’t lend a whole ear to all that Arthurian twaddle twiddled over after the Victorians.” Frost was subsequently nominated to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Robinson one of the five academy nominators. Their final meeting was at a dinner hosted for the two of them by an analyst of Robinson’s, Dr. Merrill Moore. Frost opened by reproaching Robinson for the Arthurian poems. Robinson responded by talking about the Frost poems he liked (Moore thought it was like a grownup dealing with a child) and opined the last quatrain of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the best in modern poetry. He even had a woodcut of it hanging on his wall. Frost challenged him to recite it. He did, and the rest of the evening went smoothly. Robinson died two years after that, and at the request of Robinson’s publishers, Frost wrote the introduction to King Jasper, Robinson’s last and posthumously published book. Frost thought it was the best prose he ever wrote, though he had to be prodded considerably to do it, and in fact the publishers had to refuse his first effort for offering nothing in the way of specific remarks (about half of the published version is actually about Robinson). He got quotations from the poems wrong. The pessimist epithet (“prince of heartachers”) is crude, perhaps damagingly so, though judging from Frost’s letters (which are admittedly careful) he appears not to have formulated any picture more complex than this. He subsequently refused a request from the American Academy to compose a eulogy for Robinson.


                              *   *   *

Robinson’s star was probably highest around 1926, with the award of his second Pulitzer, monographs appearing (even in France), and Edmund Wilson ranking him and Eliot as the best American poets. Even then he had no ability to appear in front of an audience, and had been in the habit of declining invitations to read all over the country, including one to read the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard. Some time around the publication of Tristram in 1927, the backlash began. Much of the book’s success was attributable to the Literary Guild, a new book-of-the-month club with alarming marketing powers, and Frost was not the only one alienated by the phenomenon. In 1929 a new Collected Poems came out with overweening publicity, which appeared particularly absurd against the mediocrity of Robinson’s late production. His reputation might as well have been tied, at that point, to the stock market. When asked why he wrote no more short poems, Robinson replied, “I am over sixty.” One wishes that he had turned to translation in some of his late books. He had been diligent at it as a developing poet, and his early “Horace to Leuconoë” and “Variations of Greek Themes” are good—his offhand, Shakespearean belief in the constancy of human nature, in the continuity of Tilbury Town with any other time or place, serves him well. Robinson worked on Virgil as a young man, and desultorily on Dante throughout his career. The workmanlike middle style of his blank verse, its plausibility in representing the idioms of disparate ages, might have lent itself well to a certain official interpretation of the Aeneid or Iliad. 

In the precincts of Modernism the decline was irrelevant because the ascendancy had never really happened. In 1918 T. S. Eliot reviewed Amy Lowell’s Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (anchored by a chapter on Robinson) in the Imagist magazine The Egoist and there declared Robinson “negligible.” Coxe points out that in a literal sense the word is entirely applicable—no one had taken Robinson as a starting point; he was the last of the old and not the first of the new. In its pejorative implication, though, the verdict is perplexing. Eliot liked James and De La Mare, and Robinson would seem to be not so far off their axis as to be summarily dismissible. Eliot admired in James and Hawthorne “indifference to religious dogma at the same time as their exceptional awareness of spiritual reality” and their tendency to “grasp character through the relations of two or more persons to each other.” He might as easily have been speaking of Robinson, and indeed among poets could scarcely have been speaking of anyone else. As Fussell points out, these qualities apply more consistently to Robinson than they do to Eliot. If there is something inimical to Eliot’s poetry in Robinson’s, it is Robinson’s entertaining the possibility of communion—not merely between writer and reader, but among the community around the suffering subject. A world in which this is possible is a world in which fragmentation is not inevitable—a redeemable world, in other words, in which it is not necessary to “Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh” to put out of mind “The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.” Robinson’s faith, for lack of a better word, survives amid the same diffidence and self-suppression Prufrock makes into a subject: 

He feeds with pride his indecision,

And shrinks from what will not occur,

Bequeathing with infirm derision

His ashes to the days that were,

            —From “The Unforgiven”


                           *   *   *

There are two rites of passage when writing about Robinson: the first is to categorize him, and the second is to account for his obscurity. The first is nearly a wild goose chase, the second more meaty but I think based on an increasingly false premise. 

As for categories, they have use insofar as there are clusters of writers who share similar methods or interests. In the absence of such a cluster, categorization may mislead by creating expectations the assignee cannot live up to. One might naively expect Robinson’s odd-man-out status to increase his stature, but as Fussell points out “he often suffers a unique injustice: first he is grouped with much younger poets and then, in comparison to them, he is damned as ‘too traditional.’ ” One could construe this problem as the lack of a suitable label for the drawer containing Hardy, Housman, Kipling, Yeats, and Robinson (I propose “Theodorian”). One could also construe it as an effect of isolating the histories of poetry and of prose fiction, which if merged would give Robinson more company, notably James’s. Robinson is not a late Romantic, unless one places absurd weight on his early work. He is not a transitional figure, by which I mean his resources are sufficient to the creation of first-rate work. As might be expected of any forebear, he anticipates some characteristics of the moderns (like narrative elision and the privileging of language over sense) and not others. It seems to me possible, but by no means trivial, to devise arguments that make a categorical distinction between Robinson and Frost. I am not sure what the purpose of such arguments would be. 

          When thinking about Robinson I tend to classify him incidentally, by his ends rather than his means, and place him with other poets from throughout the modern era occupied to some extent with the same task: establishing the value of an unexceptional human life considered in the absence of potential for its improvement. In this category I would place Robinson with R. S. Thomas, Stevie Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks, Philip Larkin, and W. H. Auden. All of them arrive at some understanding of the community around the individual, and grasp that the question of the individual’s value or meaning is conditioned by that community. It might fairly be said that these writers, with the arguable exceptions of Auden and Brooks, are more interested in people than literature. 

          As for Robinson’s obscurity, after Donaldson’s major biography and four selected editions since 1994 he would seem to be in passable shape. Perhaps a selection of the letters will appear soon. Robinson, like his Rembrandt, understood he was in it for the long haul. Esther Willard Bates, a playwright at MacDowell who served for a time as his secretary, reported as much: 

He told me that he was, perhaps, two hundred years in advance of his time, indicating in brief half-statements, with pauses in between, that his habit of understatement, his absorption in the unconscious and semi conscious feelings and impulses of his characters were the qualities in which he was unlike his contemporaries. 

There is a conventional list of reasons given for why his reception is so impeded, reasons which at one time or another have included his commonness (friends implored him not to use the idiom “sweat blood” in “Isaac and Archibald”), his abstruseness, his formal laxity, his formal constipation, his over-popularity in his time, his lack of public image in his time, his anti-intellectual disinterest in allusion and the rethinking of form, his over-intellectual unsensuousness, his paralyzing hypersensitivity, and his temperate stoicism. In a way, though, there is no mystery to Robinson’s obscurity. If your aim was to bury a major talent in literary history, you would discover him late (Robinson was over forty before a publisher took a financial risk on him), reward him profusely for substandard work, engineer a titanic international revolution in the arts as he was entering middle age, make him shy, and put Robert Frost into competition with him. You would also make him—and this was only fully evident to me after reading Donaldson’s biography—generous and good. Whether anti-Semitism, treason, or garden variety egomania, foibles have become the tinted glass through which it is possible, and now even customary, to regard the Modernists’ brilliance. Unlike his “Uncle Ananias,” Robinson does not wear “The laurel of approved iniquity.” When the foible is missing the interest perversely follows. 

There are other more or less minor and cynical reasons that perhaps aggregate. Robinson does not lend himself to the sort of critical narrative where d incorporates c and b, who reject a. Incidental references to him are rare. Robinson also has a tenuous quality of being “all there,” of being accountable for his poems in every implication. This quality makes casual engagement awkward; one could contrast Robinson in this respect with Hardy, who has a slight bluffness and outlandishness that makes him patronizably likable. One also senses that Robinson’s stubborn egalitarian tendencies work against him in posterity, which in some part responds to his poems in much the same way that the Advocate editors responded to the poet, intuiting immediately that he was, as Laura Richards put it, “not ‘clubable.’ ” Committed to equality to the extent of asserting his own ordinariness, he has negative snob value. A slightly different man could have given the poems tonier settings, made their protagonists more conventionally charismatic—one can imagine Aunt Imogen in Merchant-Ivory circumstances, or John Evereldown and Cliff Klingenhagen as rich roués. Such a Robinson would have shared more of the interest that accrues to Henry James and Robert Browning. 

Such a Robinson would not have been Robinson. Living from the end of the Civil War into the Depression—the most disorienting life span that American history has so far presented—the real Robinson created an improbably oriented and stringent body of work, distinct in its stylistic renewal, sublimated compassion, and incorporation of the communal. In him an extreme of instinctive largesse meets an extreme of rigorously conceived procedure. His utility to writers is potentially tremendous: a poet anxious to justify or minimize pretensions to high art, or anxious to speak in spite of or on behalf of suffering, will find that Robinson has internalized all of these positions, in verse, in more sophisticated terms than we routinely employ in prose. Robinson teaches how to pay attention to other people, how not to put your chips on personality, how to think straight, how not to “ache so much to be sublime,” how not to “feed yourselves with your descent.” There are American poets before Robinson whom I admire and who interest me, but no poets before him, when the pencil hits the paper, are useful. That is almost true—there is some Emerson, some Whittier and Melville, but Robinson’s example is entire. He has become a poet one can imitate to be original. Robinson squeaked into William Pritchard’s 1980 study, Lives of the Modern Poets, and Pritchard is not sanguine there: “it takes some suspension of disbelief,” he says, “to entertain the notion that Robinson will ever again be read with eager excitement by the younger readers whose tastes will determine just how large he is likely to bulk in the future.” Pace this forecast, I see, or think I see, traces of Robinson in recent work by Vijay Seshadri, and more than traces in Christian Wiman. He is positively immanent in Joshua Mehigan. Whatever his following at the moment, he is also a demonstration—I am not sure what this is worth, but it is worth something—that the most committed artist need not be a wrecking ball in the lives of his loved ones and associates, and indeed may be a source of strength and a pleasure to know. But praise has often backfired for Robinson—the best thing I could do for his reputation at the moment would be to present evidence that he sold state secrets or serially infected ten mistresses with syphilis. I have none, and neither does Donaldson. Somebody dig up some dirt on the man.


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