The Enduring Specter of E.A. Robinson

By Kennedy, X. J. | New Criterion, April 2007 | Go to article overview

The Enduring Specter of E.A. Robinson


Kennedy, X. J., New Criterion


It has been a long while--seventy-two years, to be exact--since Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) was hailed in his obituaries as America's foremost poet. In recent times, his work has been tacitly dismissed as old hat. Few current candidates for MFA degrees in creative writing, I suspect, have ventured any deeper into it than "Miniver Cheevy" and "Richard Cory"--items still, as the poet himself remarked, "pickled in anthological brine." Even back in his critical study of 1969, Ellsworth Barnard was sadly marveling that in the thirty years following the poet's death his name and fame had suffered a "slow return to obscurity." Ever since, that process seems only to have accelerated.

Causes for this neglect aren't hard to find. To the with-it poet of nowadays, Robinson's rhyming stanzas must look stodgy, his mastery of meter imperceptible, his poems boringly sane and rational, his symmetrical stanzas and sonnets less exciting in their appearance on the page than barrages of scatter-shot free verse. (Robinson didn't condemn free verse, but he had no use for it. "I write," he said, "badly enough as it is.") The shortage of imagery in his work makes it appear gaunt and spare. Compared to Robinson's poems, Robert Frost's seems almost sensuous. Moreover, Robinson's shy, retiring bachelor life has hardly made him a figure of legend. He neither belonged to a big-name poetic movement nor founded any, and so became invisible to the kind of literary, historian who can notice only flamboyant drum majors leading parades of Imagist poets or Beat poets or Language poets or whatever.

Often, Robinson's work has been written off as merely pessimistic. Robert Frost, whom Robinson characterized as "a jealous friend," may have been partly responsible. In an introduction to King Jasper, the long poem whose proofs Robinson was correcting on his deathbed, Frost slipped damnation into his praise. While saluting Robinson for having lodged more than his share of poems "where they will be hard to get rid of," he draws a comparison between himself and the dead poet clearly favorable to himself. Robinson, he declared, was a poet of grief and sadness, a "prince of heartachers" who "asserted the sacred right of poetry to lean its breast to a thorn and sing its dolefulest." And he added, "I know better where to look for melancholy." It would seem that too many subsequent critics have accepted this biased view.

Nevertheless, the 1990s brought several vigorous efforts to revive interest in Robinson. In 1994, Donald Hall, editing The Essential Robinson for Ecco Press, affirmed, "We must restore Robinson to the American pantheon." The off-putting bulk of the Collected Poems--1,502 pages--continued to invite winnowing. In 1997, Robert Faggen assembled another Selected Poems for Penguin Books. Robert Mezey, on not finding Robinson represented in an anthology of American poetry, thundered, "How can such ignorance and bad taste publish anthologies and win tenure and bask at the MLA? And what can account for this stunning neglect of a national treasure, one of the four or five best poets America has yet produced?" In 1999, Mezey and Faggen edited The Poetry of E. A. Robinson for the Modern Library. Although no sudden rebirth of critical attention ensued, somehow in the twenty-first century the specter of Robinson has refused to go away. Now the well-known biographer Scott Donaldson has launched a fresh campaign to do him justice. Donaldson, the author of lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Archibald MacLeish, John Cheever, and another neglected poet, Winfield Townley Scott, has now given us a smoothly readable, profoundly well-documented biography, with enlightening discussions of the poems and with photographs of key persons inserted in the text at the points where they enter the poet's story. (1) For good measure Donaldson has simultaneously brought out a newly selected Poems. (2)

Donaldson's impressively thorough job is the first biography of Robinson in forty years, despite the existence of more than 4,000 of the poet's letters, lying fallow. …

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