IHAS: Poet
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
IHAS header
Return to Profiles Menu
Roethke
Previous Next


EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON
(1869-1935)


A Maine poet whose numerous volumes of verse explore the repressive life of small-town American, Edwin Arlington Robinson drew inspiration for his portraits and tales from the tortured lives of his family and acquaintances. Transforming autobiography into myth, he set these stories in the fictitious Tilbury Town, the poet's emblem of the American dream gone awry, a place where creative genius is destroyed by neglect and misunderstanding.

Reared in Gardiner, ME, and educated at Harvard, Robinson's philosophical perspective came to combine the idealism of the waning Romantic Age with the dark pessimism of the dawning century. While he believed ardently in the divine spark within all man and nature, he inevitably found that spark clouded with what he called "the black and awful chaos of the night." Given the bleak history of Robinson's own life--poetic neglect, unrequited passion, and family problems with alcohol-- his view is not surprising; what is more amazing is the stoicism with which he persevered, ultimately winning national recognition for his long Arthurian poem, TRISTRAM, in 1928.

Robinson claimed to have experienced his poetic vocation as an epiphany when, at age seventeen, he became "violently excited over the structure of English blank verse." An admirer of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, he set about to cloak his own poetic persona in a series of masks, creating a gallery of characters, who were at once thinly veiled incarnations of his relatives and townsfolk and subtle manifestations of his own psyche.

Triptych by John Duke

Robinson's famous triptych set to music by John Duke limns portraits of three Tilbury men living lives of silent despair. Each has an autobiographical parallel in the poet's own existence. The outwardly successful Richard Cory, who one day surprises his townsfolk by putting a bullet through his head, is a portrait of Robinson's brother Herman who effectively committed suicide with alcohol after a series of disastrous business investments, dying prematurely in 1893. Miniver Cheevy with his fatal Romanticism and self-destructive drunken passivity again reminds of Herman, but also suggests the poet himself in his perennial sense of being unappreciated and misunderstood as an artist and intellectual, while Luke Havergal's mourning of a dead love and his epiphany that only through the western gate of death can there be true union of souls, is an aching hymn to Robinson's passion for his sister-in-law, Emma Shepherd.

THREE POEMS BY EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON
(Set by John Duke)

RICHARD CORY

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

"Good morning,"
And he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

MINIVER CHEEVY

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,

Grew lean when he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old

When swords were bright and steeds were
prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,

And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown

That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,

Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace

And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,

But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,

Scratched his head and kept on thinking:
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

LUKE HAVERGAL

Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,
And in the twilight wait for what will come.
The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;
But go, and if you listen she will call.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal--
Luke Havergal.

No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that's in your eyes;
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 of paradise.
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies--
In eastern skies.

Out of a grave I come to tell you this,
Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss
That flames upon your forehead with a glow
That blinds you to the way that you must go.
Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,
Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this--
To tell you this.

There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall.
Go, for the winds are tearing them away,--
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say,
(Nor any more to feel them as they fall;) [line omitted by Duke]
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal--
Luke Havergal.


Return Home Top of the page
[ Home | Profiles | Timeline ]

[ wNetStation ]       [ PBS Online ]

tml"> PBS Online ]       [ wNetStation ]