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.
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.
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 The bulk of Robinson’s correspondence has recently been transcribed (no mean feat, given his handwriting), and two unpublished remembrances by the poet’s friends have recently surfaced.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? ’Tis 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;
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.
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.
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.
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”:
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
* * *
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.