At the time of his death in 1935, Edwin Arlington Robinson was regarded as the leading American poet-the equal of Frost and Stevens. In this biography, Scott Donaldson tells the intriguing story of this poet's life, based in large part on a previously unavailable trove of more than 3,000 personal letters, and recounts his profoundly important role in the development of modern American literature.
Born in 1869, the youngest son of a well-to-do family in Gardiner, Maine, Robinson had two brothers: Dean, a doctor who became a drug addict, and Herman, an alcoholic who squandered the family fortune. Robinson never married, but he fell in love as many as three times, most lastingly with the woman who would become his brother Herman's wife. Despite his shyness, Robinson made many close friends, and he repeatedly went out of his way to give them his support and encouragement.
Still, it was always poetry that drove him. He regarded writing poems as nothing less than his calling-what he had been put on earth to do. Struggling through long years of poverty and neglect, he achieved a voice and a subject matter all his own. He was the first to write about ordinary people and events-an honest butcher consumed by grief, a miser with "eyes like little dollars in the dark," ancient clerks in a dry goods store measuring out their days like bolts of cloth. In simple yet powerful rhetoric, he explored the interior worlds of the people around him.
Robinson was a major poet and a pivotal figure in the course of modern American literature, yet over the years his reputation has declined. With his biography, Donaldson returns this remarkable talent to the pantheon of great American poets and sheds new light on his enduring legacy.
Front MatterFront Matter (pp. i-iv)
Table of ContentsTable of Contents (pp. v-viii)
IntroductionIntroduction (pp. 1-13)
This book derives from the conviction that Edwin Arlington Robinson was a great American poet and an exceptionally fine human being. The story of his life deserves telling and has not been told.
Robinson was born December 22, 1869, at Head Tide, Maine, and died in New York City on April 5, 1935. He grew up during the latter days of the Victorians—Tennyson, Browning, Arnold—in England and the Fireside Poets—Longfellow, Lowell, Bryant—in the United States. But the energy was waning, and by the turn of the century most poetry had degenerated into prettified evocations of the...
1 A Hell of a Name for a Poet1 A Hell of a Name for a Poet (pp. 14-23)
Edwin Arlington Robinson detested the name that he was given, “and,” like Miniver Cheevy, “he had reasons.”
The very sound of the name hurt his ears. It seemed overly long and pretentious, off ending his natural modesty. In later years, he repeatedly complained to friends about this name he had been saddled with. “Ed-win Ar-ling-ton Robin-son!” he would say, hammering out each syllable with profound disgust. Pronounced that way, it sounded “like a tin bathtub bumping down an uncarpeted flight of stairs.” In particular, his poet’s ear objected to the “n’s” at the end of each word. “Ar-ling-ton” jarred on...
2 A Manor Town in Maine2 A Manor Town in Maine (pp. 24-35)
In correspondence, Robinson at sixty reflected on the origins of creativity. Where did the artist get his talent, his drive? Characteristically, he was of two minds on the question. He felt certain that heredity supplied “the original juice” without which artistic achievement was impossible. Yet he was equally sure that environment “might strangle or even destroy” genius. “So in one sense,” he summed up, “I see heredity as everything, and in another sense I see environment as almost everything.”
At the time of these observations, Robinson was at the height of his reputation, regarded by critics and the public alike...
3 Never So Young Again3 Never So Young Again (pp. 36-58)
Mary Robinson dressed up her lastborn Win, aged four, in Little Lord Fauntleroy costume for a trip downtown and secured him in a high chair while she shopped. Other women, attracted by his long brown curls and enormous brown eyes, invited him to talk. “You’re a big boy, aren’t you?” they asked. Silence. “What’s your name?” Silence. “Cat got your tongue?” Silence. “I know why this little boy doesn’t talk. He doesn’t have a tongue.” The fussed-over child, keeping silence, stuck out his tongue for reply.
So began Robinson’s lifelong struggle with social helplessness. With one or two others, he...
4 Fall of the House of Robinson4 Fall of the House of Robinson (pp. 59-72)
Like most Greek tragedies, the Robinsons’ began at home. During the terrible decade from 1888 to 1898—as Win Robinson grew from an inexperienced youth to a mature man of nearly thirty—his family collapsed around him in a series of terrible misfortunes. The story reads like a nightmare, Irving Howe commented, in “an atmosphere painfully similar to that of a late [Eugene] O’Neill play.”
Edward Robinson degenerated into a pale shadow of his once vigorous self—his body failing first, then his mind—as his youngest son kept watch.
Win’s beloved brother Dean became incurably addicted to drugs, and...
5 A “Special” at Harvard5 A “Special” at Harvard (pp. 73-88)
Would he make a fool of himself at Harvard? Could he handle the intellectual demands? Would the whole experiment—at first he envisioned only one year away—be a waste of time and money? So Robinson queried himself in letters to Harry Smith, before arriving at a justification that had nothing to do with academic success. Books and conventional learning aside, he reasoned, the experience “among new forms and faces would do [him] a world of good.”
Robinson saw Harvard as an ideal location for escape from the limitations of his hometown. He could extricate himself, at least briefly, from...
6 Farewell to Carefree Days6 Farewell to Carefree Days (pp. 89-98)
In an April 1892 letter, Win Robinson imagined what the future might hold for him. “Sometimes I have visions of a comfortable home with a wife, pipe, books, cat, and all that sort of thing and again I see myself in a garret without anything to keep the furnace of my stomach from growing cold.” He felt compelled to accomplish something, if only to please his mother. “Father never lived (I may as well say that) to see me anything but a parasite, and I have enough manhood in me to feel rather mean over it.” At the time of...
7 Shaping a Life7 Shaping a Life (pp. 99-120)
Win Robinson came home to Gardiner in the summer of 1893 and stayed there another five years. During that half decade, he made the most important decisions of his life about the interrelated issues of career and of love and marriage. There was no one in Gardiner to confide in, much, so that the story emerges in Robinson’s correspondence. In letters to Smith and Gledhill, close companions of his youth now living elsewhere, and to Latham and Ford, friends from the Harvard years, he wrote openly of his hopes and ambitions as a writer. The topic of love he addressed...
8 Loves Lost8 Loves Lost (pp. 121-139)
Ten days after his mother died, Robinson received 312 copies of the “inconspicuous blue-covered little pamphlet” he had named, “rather arbitrarily” in recognition of its first and last poems, The Torrent and the Night Before. On first glance, Win didn’t think much of them. Th e books “looked so small and so devilish blue,” he felt like kicking them all the way to Augusta. At the same time, though, he clung to the “same old ridiculous notion that they [might] amount to something some day.” The entire edition cost him $52. Nowadays, a single copy in mint condition would fetch...
9 Breaking Away9 Breaking Away (pp. 140-154)
In the months following his mother’s death, Robinson was groping for a way of looking at life. He found it in the gospel of idealism, not as it might have been preached from the pulpit but as embedded in the thinking of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson and even, for a time, though he could not in the end accept “a system . . . too dependent on unsubstantial inferences,” in the Christian Science of Mary Baker Eddy. He had long talks with an older fellow in Gardiner named Jones, probably Samuel W. Jones, a painter who lived a...
10 Poetry as a Calling10 Poetry as a Calling (pp. 155-172)
Working at Harvard, Robinson figured he could make a living and keep his trousers creased at the same time. It was not a post he was “hungering for,” but it was better than sweeping out Butler’s store. Besides, the respectable academic “atmosphere must inevitably count for something.” He rented a room at 1716 Cambridge Avenue, the same place he had lived during 1892–93, and went each day to University 5, a spacious well-lit room tucked between President Eliot’s office and the chamber where the faculty held its meetings. “The office of a big college is a new thing to...
11 City of Artists11 City of Artists (pp. 173-192)
In New York, Robinson found what Gardiner and even Boston had failed to provide: a substantial coterie of fellow artists trying to make their way in a materialistic universe. Here were people who understood what EAR wanted to do, people willing to offer him companionship and support without begrudging him a talent superior to their own. Chief among these was the beneficent Craven Langstroth Betts—to Robinson, simply “Betts.”
Betts was forever joyful, forever optimistic, and like Robinson in thrall to poetry. Betts published four books of poems, much of it about remote or imaginary worlds and written in an...
12 The Saga of Captain Craig12 The Saga of Captain Craig (pp. 193-214)
Captain Craig began germinating as early as 1894, when Robinson jotted down, “in a lighter vein,” a prose sketch “of a philosophic tramp . . . looking for rest.” In the same year, he discovered an approach for his long poem in Anatole France’s Crime de Sylvester Bonnard, a book written as the “journal intime” of an old savant given to eccentric digressions. The role was already taking shape in EAR’s mind when he came to New York in 1897 and beheld in the flesh the one man in the world best suited for the part: the tattered and oracular...
13 Down and Out13 Down and Out (pp. 215-234)
Upon first settling in New York, Robinson discovered one of the benefits of living unencumbered by possessions. “There was a man and he had nought, and robbers came to rob him,” he wrote Josephine Peabody from his room on Irving Place. “They came one day last week about noon and went pretty much through the house, but they found nothing in the man’s room but two or three books and some papers which were of no particular value except to the owner; and they were kind enough to leave those things as they found them.” The most valuable asset he...
14 Theater Days14 Theater Days (pp. 235-250)
Back in New York to take up his government job, Robinson bought himself a derby hat as a token of his rise to bourgeois respectability. “When I paid for the damned thing, I said to myself, Is this the end?” he wrote Betts in mock alarm. He put the derby on his head anyway and reported for duty in June, a month earlier than Roosevelt originally proposed, at the Custom House in lower Manhattan, headquarters of the United States Customs Service, Port of New York.
On his first day at work, he was ushered into an office containing only a...
15 The End of Something15 The End of Something (pp. 251-258)
During the entire four-year period when Robinson was supported by the Customs Service and consumed by theatrical ambitions, his brother Herman remained estranged from his wife and family. Throughout this time, Herman was living either on Capitol Island or at nearby Southport on the mainland. Always handy around boats, he survived by fishing and doing odd jobs. But this was only temporary, he told Emma in a series of twenty-one letters written between June 1906 and September 1908.
The dominating theme of these letters was that Herman remained in love with Emma and hoped to win her back. Herman understood...
16 Down and Out, Yet Again16 Down and Out, Yet Again (pp. 259-276)
In New York one day, the ordinarily uncommunicative Robinson unburdened himself to Ridgely Torrence:
“Do you know,” he said out of the blue, “that one of the most terrible things is to walk alone and feel that you are receiving deadly wounds?”
Startled, Torrence asked him what he meant.
The wounds came, EAR said, as he went along the street and caught a glimpse of recognition in the eyes of passersby, only to realize that he would never see them again.
Like Whitman’s patient noiseless spider, and nearly as quietly, Robinson was forever casting out filaments, hoping to catch a...
17 Life in the Woods, Death in Boston17 Life in the Woods, Death in Boston (pp. 277-291)
Borrowing a few dollars to pay for his travel expenses, Robinson arrived in Peterborough, New Hampshire, site of the fledgling MacDowell Colony, in the middle of July 1911. He came propelled by the continued urging of Hagedorn but arrived with substantial misgivings and in his pocket a fake telegram declaring a family emergency. If he decided to leave, the telegram would give him an excuse.
As it turned out, Robinson liked the MacDowell from the start. Two weeks after arrival he thanked Hagedorn for steering him there. From his corner room in the men’s dormitory called the “Mannex,” he looked...
18 Reversal of Fortune18 Reversal of Fortune (pp. 292-302)
When he got back to New York in the late fall of 1911, Robinson met Hagedorn at the Players Club and surprised him by refusing a drink. He owed it to Mrs. MacDowell, he said, to do the best work that was in him. “And I can’t work and drink at the same time.” This resolve did not last. Liquor cast a glow and put him at ease with himself and the world. Drinking made it possible to lift for a few hours the burden of failure. Going without drink, he told Torrence, made him feel like “scratching down the...
19 A Poet Once Again19 A Poet Once Again (pp. 303-312)
Robinson lived a migratory life, without a permanent home, but his movements hewed to a regular schedule as he shuttled between the two poles of New York in the winter and the MacDowell Colony in the summer. He usually spent at least six months in the city. In April or May he started north, stopping to visit the Isaacses in Pelham, New York, and the Hagedorns in Fairfield, Connecticut, before staying in Boston for a few weeks. By mid-June he would be in Peterborough for the four summer months, during which he wrote almost all of his poetry. The fall...
20 A Breakthrough Book20 A Breakthrough Book (pp. 313-326)
Once Robinson abandoned playwriting, it was as if a dam had given way. After “chasing false gods” for so long, the poems poured out of him. In August 1913 he wrote Ledoux that he had enough material “in hand—or rather in head” to keep him busy for the next three years. During that period, he produced some of his greatest work: poems rather longer than his earlier character studies but deeper in their psychological resonances. In addition, his stock had risen in the literary marketplace, and new outlets for his verse miraculously opened up. “Eros Turannos” appeared in Poetry...
21 Reaching Fifty21 Reaching Fifty (pp. 327-355)
Three years after he bade farewell to playwriting, and after both of his published plays had “fallen utterly flat,” Robinson continued to “nourish a more or less idiotic faith in their coming to life some day.” His faith was rewarded, briefly, when Van Zorn was resuscitated for one cold week in February 1917. The play was performed not on Broadway but in the auditorium of the Central YMCA in Brooklyn, as the initial presentation of the Brooklyn Community Theatre Company. Despite its title, this was no ordinary community theatre. The director-producer for Van Zorn was Henry Stillman, who was to...
22 Seasons of Success22 Seasons of Success (pp. 356-379)
Distrustful of government and most of its practitioners, Robinson customarily stayed on the political sidelines. He did not join groups, resisted signing petitions, and deplored the use of poetry as propaganda. Only once, with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, did he abandon these practices. Prohibition outraged him, and he lashed out against it with uncharacteristic fury.
Robinson’s anger derived only in part from his own experience with the bottle. He had been more or less contentedly sober for some time before Congress enacted its legislation forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages....
23 A Sojourn in England23 A Sojourn in England (pp. 380-388)
Feeling the pull of his ancestry and of the English literary tradition, Robinson had talked of going to England since he was fresh out of Harvard. But it was not until June 1922 that he began seriously contemplating the possibility of casting loose from his moorings for a journey across the water. Edward Bliss Reed, of the Yale Review, was living in Oxford and felt sure EAR would feel at home there. His Collected Poems was coming out in an English imprint. He was invited to serve as a delegate to the international PEN banquet in London. A few British...
24 MacDowell’s First Citizen24 MacDowell’s First Citizen (pp. 389-413)
The MacDowell Colony was founded to provide artists with a place to work in peace and in companionship with their peers. Those in residence were supposed to represent an aristocracy of talent—all had a record of accomplishment, or they would not have been admitted—and they were fellow aristocrats, bound together by a joint commitment to their work. Yet in this assembly of artistic equals, some were more equal than others.
Dozens of artists came to work for a few weeks, for a month, or for the entire summer at MacDowell. Several of these were in residence for two...
25 Recognition and Its Consequences25 Recognition and Its Consequences (pp. 414-436)
In 1925 as in 1922, Robinson enjoyed a springtime of recognition. Word of his second Pulitzer Prize, for The Man Who Died Twice, reached him as he was eating breakfast May 2. On the strength of it, he had another cup of coffee. In June he traveled to Maine to accept a Litt. D. from Bowdoin College and to visit friends and family in Gardiner. Bowdoin appealed to him as the college closest to his roots. His brother Dean studied there, and Harry Smith and Seth Pope. Still, he was reluctant to abandon the Veltin Studio for the ceremony. “After...
26 Generosities26 Generosities (pp. 437-448)
The money that descended upon him following Tristram did not significantly change Robinson or his style of life. “Time may have changed its mind in regard to me, giving me this little illusion of importance as a preparation for oblivion,” he wrote John Freeman in August 1927. If he’d achieved such success when he was twenty-five or thirty, “no doubt it would have given me a jingle.” Nearing sixty, however, he knew better than to consider himself a great man merely because he was financially self-supporting.
Robinson had learned to get along on so little for so long that the...
27 Death of a Poet27 Death of a Poet (pp. 449-467)
As Robinson grew older, he required both a certain degree of social intercourse and “a powerful lot of letting alone.” He overflowed with brotherly love, he said, provided there weren’t “too many brothers around.” As a consequence of this dichotomy, his “chief mission” in life appeared to be that “of a very long animal who barks and snarls when he means to make all sorts of good-natured and affectionate noises.” The dilemma worsened with the success of Tristram and Robinson’s consequent celebrity. A fellow had to build walls around himself, EAR observed, “especially if his name happens to be in...
28 Beyond the Sunset28 Beyond the Sunset (pp. 468-482)
Funeral services for Robinson were held at five-thirty p.m., Monday, April 8, at St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church, 207 East Sixteenth Street. About 300 people attended the ceremony. Dr. Karl Railand, rector of the church, read from the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans and from Revelations. The organist played the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, a group of Bach chorales, the largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the Dead March from Handel’s Saul. “Remember—if the end comes, and if there is any service—to have them play the Dead March in Saul,” Laura Richards had...
AcknowledgmentsAcknowledgments (pp. 483-486)
NotesNotes (pp. 487-516)
BibliographyBibliography (pp. 517-536)
IndexIndex (pp. 537-554)