Monday, March 7, 2016

No more than twilight on a ruin - Edwin Arlington Robinson's The Town down the River

I believe I will continue to spend the week rummaging through old books of poems.  No pretensions to any insight.  Look at this; look at that.

Today, The Town down the River (1910) by Edwin Arlington Robinson, his third or fourth book of poems, depending on how I count (#2 contained all of #1).  It was his first book published after acquiring an unlikely patron, President Theodore Roosevelt.  Robinson was no longer a struggling bohemian, and as if to justify his new status, the book contains the most famous poem he would ever write, “Miniver Cheevy.”

I mean, this was once a genuinely famous and popular poem, widely memorized, a common cultural reference, which staggers belief.  It has shriveled up because it is all too relevant.

Miniver loved the days of old
   When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
   Would set him dancing.

Too obsessed with King Arthur, World of Warcraft, Renaissance Fairs, etc., dismissive of ordinary life –

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
   But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
   And thought about it.

– he becomes a failure, joining a host of other Robinson characters.  The poem is ripe for an update.

What else is in this book.  As usual, the better poems are shorter, although “An Island,” the Robert Browningish monologue of Napoleon’s last words, is fun.

Ho, is it you?  I thought you were a ghost.
Is it time for you to poison me again?
Well, here’s our friend the rain, -
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine
Man, I could murder you almost,
You with your pills and toast.  (ellipses in original)

But mostly, the characters are American, from Robinson’s childhood, like “Uncle Ananias,” the story-teller – “Of all authoritative liars / I crown him best” – or more small-town failures like “The Doctor of Billiards”:

Of all among the fallen from on high,
We count you last and leave you to regain
Your born dominion of a life made vain
By three spheres of insidious ivory.

Perhaps he is the same doctor, “’Liar, physician, hypocrite, and friend,’” who is on trial for a mercy killing a few pages later in “How Annandale Went Out.”  He is acquitted in the last line – “’You wouldn’t hang me?  I thought not.’”  I would write more about the poem if I understood it, but the title character was introduced in “The Book of Annandale” in (1902) and returns in some way in “Annandale Again” (1932).  There is more to this story that I don’t know.

Robinson’s Tilbury Town device has some kind of cumulative effect.

We go no more to Calverly’s,
For there the lights are few and low;
And who are there to see by them,
Or what they see, we do not know.
Poor strangers of another tongue
May now creep in from anywhere,
And we forgotten, be no more
Than twilight on a ruin here.  (from “Calverly’s”)

But it is really Robinson’s melancholy, ironic temperament or stance that brings the Tilbury world to its dim, sad life.

At some point, I should perhaps give up the original volumes of poetry for Robinson’s Selected Poems.  Not yet, though.


  1. I know Robinson almost exclusively for "Richard Cory" -- and that, only because of Simon & Garfunkel.

  2. Pretty true for me, too, except that I remember frequent references, in books from the right time, to "Miniver Cheevy." The Wiki for the poem says Catch-22 had one of them, but there were many more, or I imagine there were. It says Woody Allen dropped a "Miniver Cheevy" reference into a 2011 movie!

  3. Even Robinson's Arthurian poems are melancholy and ironic.
    There's a couple of extra ironies to Calverly's. C.S.Calverley was a nineteenth century English comic poet who wrote comic poems in praise of beer and tobacco and was an invalid for most of his life.
    The first line echoes both Byron's "So, we'll go no more a roving" and a French children's singing rhyme and dance "Nous n'irons plus au bois" ("We'll to the woods no more" in Housman's version) about the revival of life in the seasons.

  4. Thanks for the annotations on Calverly's (which I now see I misspelled at every opportunity). The echo of Byron I caught, but not the rest.