Saturday, January 23, 2016

the flicker, not the flame - E. A. Robinson's favorite poets

Edwin Arlington Robinson made a useful move in The Children of the Night (1897), which I remind myself is his first (and also second) book – he included a series of poems paying tribute to his influences.  Perhaps “tribute” is not the right word.  They are mostly sonnets, scattered through the book, just like the Tilbury Town poems.  They are character sketches, except the drunk is not an inhabitant of a little Maine town but is Paul Verlaine, dead in 1896:

Why do you dig like long-clawed scavengers
To touch the covered corpse of him that fled
The uplands for the fens, and rioted
Like a sick satyr with doom’s worshippers?  (from “Verlaine”)

It’s an attack on gossip about artists, really – “let the worms be its biographers.”

The other poems about writers: “Zola,” “Walt Whitman”, “For Some Poems by Matthew Arnold,” “For a Book by Thomas Hardy,” “Thomas Hood,” and most importantly “George Crabbe.”

Hardy is a kindred pessimistic spirit, although I would not guess that from the poem, which is almost cheery:

Then, through a magic twilight from below,
I heard its grand sad song as in a dream:
Life’s wild infinity of mirth and woe
It sang me…

But of course it cheers the pessimist to meet someone who feels the same way.  Earlier he says that Hardy helps him escape pursuit by “hordes of eyeless phantoms,” whatever that means.  I wish I knew which book Robinson meant, but the answer is likely any of them, all of them.  That line about “mirth and woe” is a fine tribute.

George Crabbe is Robinson’s great precursor , at least of the Tilbury Town poems.  Crabbe’s books The Borough (1810) and Tales (1812), among others, describe small town life in England.  Crabbe’s stories are not universally grim, but the best ones like “Peter Grimes” sure are.  He usually needs three to four hundred lines to tell a story, a contrast with Robinson’s sonnets.  He is highly readable.

The most depressing thing about Robinson’s “George Crabbe” is his sense, likely true, that Crabbe is unread:

Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows,
Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will, -

My volumes of Crabbe are on the most prominent shelf in the house, between William Cowper and Rubén Darío, but set that aside:

Whether or not we read him, we can feel
From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.

I have been revisiting Crabbe to remind myself of what he is like, and I think Robinson is overegging the pudding a little there, but I suppose he is also thinking about himself, unknown and self-published.

The poems about poets are not as vivid as the Tilbury poems but they sure are useful.  Editions of Robinson’s selected poems neglect these poems, including just a few of them, or none.  They are not the best reason to read Robinson, but are a good reason to read The Children of the Night as such.

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