Sunday, February 7, 2016

E. A. Robinson's abhorred iconoclast, Captain Craig - guest appearance by Count Pretzel von Würzburger, the Obscene

                                                Time throws away
Dead thousands of them, but the God that knows
No death denies not one:  the books all count,
The songs all count…  (p. 5)

Some lines from “Captain Craig” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, a poem that can only be found in one of those books that has been thrown away, Captain Craig: A Book of Poems (1902).  The poem is a discursive, philosophical narrative of 85 pages in the original, which means it is doomed.  No one putting together a Selected Poems of E. A. Robinson or an anthology of American poetry can afford to keep it.

Other poems from Captain Craig go in the anthologies: “Erasmus” (“There were some of them did shake at what was told / And they shook best who knew that he was right”) and the sweet (and just short enough at 15 pages) “Isaac and Archibald,” about two old friends worried each other’s mind is going.  But not “Captain Craig.”

It is an interesting poem just for its subject, the title character.  He is an early example of a great American type, the Bohemian who ends up on the bum.  A hobo or folk singer or poet.  Joe Gould or Neal Cassady or maybe, earlier, Henry David Thoreau.

“I, Captain Craig, abhorred iconoclast,
Sage-errant, favored of the Cosmic Joke,
And self-reputed humorist at large…  (56)

He is beginning his testament, like François Villon, one of his ancestors.  “Sage-errant” is a good pun.  These types are highly unreliable sages.  One of the smart touches in “Captain Craig” is that the narrator and his friends are attracted to but also suspicious of old Captain Craig’s wisdom.

There is a story, but not much of one.  The poet and semi-Bohemian friends have befriended Tilbury, Maine’s eccentric Captain; the poet leaves town but corresponds with Craig; the poet returns for Craig’s death.  Along the way there are a lot of ironic stabs at wisdom and stories of people even nuttier than Craig, the best of whom is

“Count Pretzel von Würzburger, the Obscene
(The beggar may have had another name,
But no man to my knowledge ever knew it)”  (35)

The Count is ““a poet and a skeptic and a critic” and a musician who

“Played half of everything and ‘improvised’
The rest: he told me once that he was born
With a genius in him that ‘prohibited
Complete fidelity,” and that his art
‘Confessed vagaries,’ therefore.”

Another of the classic type, a more extreme version.  Some of these phrases made me doubt the date of the poem, but these are proto-Beatniks.  Count Pretzel provides a perfect parody of the kind of E. A. Robinson sonnets that impressed me so much in Robinson’s previous book, The Children of the Night (1897); never let me say Robinson does not have a sense of humor about himself.

                                            I had sinned
In fearing to believe what I believed,
And I was paying for it…  (13)

Perhaps that gives an example of the kind of wisdom available not necessarily from the mouth but from simply knowing Captain Craig.  “I knew / Some prowling superfluity if child / in me had found the child in Captain Craig” (13).  Robinson was himself one of the types, just not so much as Captain Craig.

At some point I will give up Robinson’s original books and finish him off in a Selected Poems. But not yet.


  1. Your posting reminds me: both in the past and present, isn't it amazing that some "stuff" ever gets published? Almost every anthology or collection by any author contains some really questionable "stuff." I wonder what writers, editors, and publishers are thinking when they include certain selections.

  2. My tastes go the other way. Why did you exclude so much good stuff? More more more please.

    Today, if you really wonder, you ought to ask the anthologists. Send them an email.

  3. he was born
    With a genius in him that ‘prohibited
    Complete fidelity,” and that his art
    ‘Confessed vagaries,’ therefore.”

    Absolutely fantastic. Highly suitable for my CV.

    Tim, part of making new art is breaking apart the art of the past to see how it's made, and then making three-wheeled steam-powered carts of your own before you fully comprehend the technology. Sometimes these half-comprehended vehicles are quite attractive, more interesting than the well-formed later vehicles in fact. I'm pushing this image too far, sorry.

  4. 'Tis a fine metaphor. It coincides with something I just read about Bronson Alcott's first train ride when he and his family returned to Concord after their disastrous utopian experiment. But I meander too far from your point, which I understand. So, full steam ahead with the shared passion: words morphed into art.

  5. The "confessed vagaries" lines are the best thing in the poem that I understood. There are places where the imparting of meaning got more direct - ironic but still - and I got lost.

    Robinson sometimes has the feel of a recent technology that is about to become obsolete, but that is just because I know what happened next. The characters in "Captain Craig" gave the opposite feeling - soon enough there will be a lot of these fellows out there riding the rods.