Friday, January 22, 2016

Edwin Arlington Robinson and the doom we cannot fly from - the dark will end the dark, if anything

Edwin Arlington Robinson is a good example of why I wanted to turn to American writers for a while.  I last read him 25 years ago and came away with one tag, that his best poems are mostly narrative poems.  I have at hand a little book titled Tilbury Town: Selected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1953) that collects only these poems, little stories or character sketches set in a little town in Maine.  He wrote them over his entire career, from his first book in 1896 to the 1930s.  “Minniver Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” etc.

A better reader might have remembered something about the poems themselves.

I have revisited Robinson with his second book (an expansion of his first), The Children of the Night (1897).  I do not believe that the title refers to the finest passage in Dracula, which was published in the same year.  I don’t see how it could. I wish it did.

Robinson is a classicist and formalist (so I have some new tags for him).  He is also, in this book, at least, a poet of unrelenting grimness and pessimism:

The frost that skips the willow-leaf will again be back to blight it,
And the doom we cannot fly from is the doom we do not see.  (from “The Wilderness”)

His little narratives are full of suicide and quiet despair.

But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half a paradise.  (from “Luke Havergal”)

In that poem, the ghost or dream of a woman is urging the title character to despair and suicide.  Is he guilty of something?  Did he abandon her, or murder her?  No clue.  I really just wanted that one line, “[t]he dark will end the dark,” which perfectly describes the book.

Most of the narrative poems in The Children of the Night are sonnets.  Robinson does not need much room to conjure up a person.  This one, Robinson’s idea of happiness, is worthy in Housman's spirit:

Cliff Klingenhagen

Cliff Klingenhagen had me in to dine
With him one day ; and after soup and meat,
And all the other things there were to eat,
Cliff took two glasses and filled one with wine
And one with wormwood. Then, without a sign
For me to choose at all, he took the draught
Of bitterness himself, and lightly quaffed
It off, and said the other one was mine.

And when I asked him what the deuce he meant
By doing that, he only looked at me
And grinned, and said it was a way of his.
And though I know the fellow, I have spent
Long time a-wondering when I shall be
As happy as Cliff Klingenhagen is.

The narrative poems even connect at one point, when John Evereldown, who is tormented by cheap booze and cheap women:

So the clouds may come and the rain may fall,
The shadows may creep and the dead men crawl,-
But I follow the women wherever they call,
    And that’s why I’m going to Tilbury Town.”  (from “John Evereldown”)

Anyway, thirty pages later in “The Tavern” this “skirt-crazed reprobate” seems to have murdered the tavern keeper, who is now a ghost “[w]ith his dead eyes turned on me all aglaze,” says the poet.

I wish I knew why I didn’t remember any of these poems.  They are the memorable kind of poem.


  1. I've even read Robinson's Arthurian poems, which shows I'm an admirer!
    I think one problem is that Robinson often couldn't or wouldn't bother to hide the filling where he had to cobble up something: "And all the other things there were to eat" is so obviously there to fill out the sonnet it's almost admirable in its disdain for form. He's got something in common with Edgar Lee Masters in his portrayal of a society, if not in his technique. Tilbury Town and Spoon River are very like each other, but Robinson doesn't make the connexions between his characters the way Masters does and it's character and fate that does for Robinson's people, not society.
    At his best he fits into the turn-of-the-century School of Night that Hardy and Frost led with his own gentle despair. He is trapped deeper in the nineteenth century and its poetry conventions than they are - he might despise poetic form, but he can't escape it - but he does have his own distinctive qualities.
    I don't think John Evereldown killed Ham Amory: "The Tavern has a story, but no man
    Can tell us what it is". In Spoon River John Evereldown might well have mudered him or been unjustly convicted of the murder and it's possible Evereldown suppressed his memory of his crime, but the best candidate for the "stranger [who] galloped up from Tilbury Town" and terrified Evereldown and presumably murdered Amory is Robinson himself.

  2. Such strangely dark little verses! And a poet I've never heard of so thank you for introducing him!


  3. Ooh, these are really good! Will definitely have to check him out.

  4. Roger, I admire and prefer your interpretation of "The Tavern." I am also impressed that you read the Arthurian poems. How many people can say that.

    I need to revisit Spoon River, which I have never read as a whole.

    Yet Robinson was once a popular poet. "Richard Cory" among other Robinson poems was famous and much-memorized, back when poets could be famous and poems were memorized. It was not that long ago.

  5. Rereading Captain Craig :

    I might go back a little to the days
    When I had hounds and credit, and grave friends
    To borrow my books and set wet glasses on them.

    you can see why Robinson - and his characters - was misanthropic!

    1. ...or Robinson - and his characters - were misanthropic.

  6. I love those lines. "Captain Craig" is a thorny devil, but those lines stood out.