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Edwin Arlington Robinson - Collected Poems 1896-1921

Edwin Arlington Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1921 with his Collected Poems. That work was a compilation of the eight books of poetry he had released up to that time. In this project, we offer you all eight of those books, recorded as Robinson published them in the course of his early career.

Children of the Night

Children of the Night, from 1897, is Edwin Arlington Robinson's second book of poetry. He self-published his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before, in 1896; most of the poems in it also appear in this volume. This book already contains one poem destined to become known as one of his masterpieces, namely the famous portrait of a suicide, "Richard Cory" - the man who "glittered as he walked," the character who may have been inspired in part by Ediwn Arlington Robinson's own brother. However, that certainly does not exhaust the list of first-rate work the young poet delivered in this volume.

His sharp eye and incisive way with words shape the memorable clarity of his portraits of Aaron Stark, Luke Havergal, Cliff Kllingenhagen, Reuben Bright, and others in a way not to be matched until Edgar Lee Masters followed in Robinson's footsteps through the poetic life of Spoon River. Robinson also brings us many other powerfully articulated visions, such as the words of the Chorus of Old Men he translates from Aegeus. Startlingly modern, startlingly fresh, his world is one in which, as John Drinkwater said of him, man is beset by character - which is fate.

What the critics said:

"This small volume gives evidence that a new poet has arisen amongst us; one who is yet sure to win his place and keep it among the true singers." (The Boston Transcript, first notice, 1897.)

"It is dangerous to prophesy or even to praise too highly in the case of a volume of verse; but it is easily within the bounds of caution to say that this little book is worth reading; that its message is ennobling and stimulating, and that no one can doubt its promise for the future. It bears what is, after all, the only test that one can apply in the case of one's contemporaries, the test of a repeated reading." (The Boston Transcript, second notice, 1897.)

Captain Craig

In 1921, Edwin Arlington Robinson was only 52 and many of the pieces in his Collected Poems were written long before that. Yet he shows gifted understanding of old age, the passage of time, the slow decline that everyone must suffer, and the final cease and release of death. Isaac, in Isaac and Archibald, puts it very well to the poet's 12-year-old alter ego: "But even unto you and your boy's faith/Your freedom, and your untried confidence/A time will come to find out what it means/To know that you are losing what was yours/To know that you are being left behind/And then the long contempt of innocence/God bless you, boy I don't think the worse of it/Because an old man chatters in the shade/Will all be like a story you have read/In childhood and remembered for the pictures."

The title poem of the book, "Captain Craig," is a series of monologues by a cranky, iconoclastic, perceptive and sometimes brilliant old eccentric, now in his final days, as he converses and entertains a set of younger men who befriend him. The old man is fascinating as he intertwines his themes of life and joy with his knowledge of his own approaching end. The other poems in the book are short studies in love, life and death, often from surprising points of view. Throughout the book, his portraits of men and women come vividly to life; the insights into personality and character he found almost a century ago ring just as true today. His instinct for human nature, his understanding of the great issues that shape life and fate, and his ability to find deep meaning in the commonplace make his work as intriguing today as it was in his own day - a day in which he won no less than three Pulitzer Prizes.

What the critics said:

"Captain Craig" is one of the most remarkable and strongest poems of our day. It will not bring to its author popularity, for he makes no attempt to appeal to the popular taste by coming down to its level. But on the poet, the dreamer, the philosopher, the scholar, the work can but make a profound impression." (Connecticut Magazine)
"You cannot but feel the genuineness of the author's vocation and his sincerity and strength. He gets at life in his own way and has his word about it - a word that is decidedly worth listening to." (The Atlantic Monthly)

"Mr. Robinson works in oak, nor does he choose plane and sandpaper with which to finish his task. He prefers the biting and laborious edge of the chisel - which does not leave a surface of unruffled smoothness, to be sure, but does bring out the grain of the timber in a way that far surpasses mere polish." (Out West)

The Town Down the River

In 1910, when Edwin Arlington Robinson published The Town Down the River, he included what has become one of his most famous poems: "Miniver Cheevy". His portrait of this man, a "child of scorn" who "wept that he was ever born," who "sighed for what was not", who "scratched his head and kept on thinking", captures Arlington's sense of life in 32 immortal lines.
The other poems in the book, though not as famous as "Miniver Cheevy", amplify and explore Arlington's sense of the fate of humankind in ways both serious and comic. He can be mystically, really Biblically, allegorical, as in "The Wise Brothers"; he can be amused, cynical, and detached, as in "Doctor of Billiards". He can be both relieved and amazed to find a human life that has redeemed itself, as in "Shadrach O'Leary", and both frightened and bewildered by the inscrutable lives that confront him, as in "Alma Mater".

No matter what mood he takes, his instinct for human nature, his understanding of the great issues that shape life and fate, and his ability to find deep meaning in the commonplace make his work as intriguing today as it was in his own day - a day in which he won no less than three Pulitzer Prizes.

What the critics said:

"Mr. Robinson is quietly himself; he is neither a reactionary nor a rebel; he steers clear of the commonplace and escapes the strain of a deliberate and painful attempt to be original." (The Outlook).

The Man Against the Sky

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In The Man Against The Sky, Edwin Arlington Robinson presents us with a gallery of characters drawn from the streets, homes and gathering places of Tilbury Town, his fictional Northeastern dwelling place. A mysterious compelling stranger, a woman living on charity, a welcoming home - this and other portraits give us a compelling and perceptive view of the range of human character and feeling.

As if to widen the horizons of Tilbury Town, he also imagines people from distant times and places. We hear Ben Jonson speculating about Shakespeare; we see Galahad at the moment of taking his seat at the Round Table, and Cassandra in her old age. At the end of the book, he sums them all up in the brilliant and troubling poem that gives the title to the book, a portrait of a man seen against a fiery sky, a lonely man, unknown, yet representative of all humanity and of the human struggle to achieve - or, at the very least, continue the struggle.

What the critics said:

"There can be no doubt of the high position he holds in American poetry when we examine The Man Against the Sky.... It would seem as though his previous books were merely working up to this achievement, so far beyond them is this volume. A little book of 149 pages, and yet, in reading it, one experiences a sensation akin to that of the man who opens a jar of comopressed air. It is a profound wonder that so much can have been forced into so small a space. For The Man Against The Sky is dynamic with experience and knowledge of life." (Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry)

Merlin

In Merlin, Edwin Arlington Robinson delves into the minds and hearts of a gallery of characters from the story Camelot: Gawaine, Bedivere, Lamorak; Arthur himself; his fool, Sir Dagonet; and most importantly, Merlin himself and the woman he loves, Vivian. He places the action at the moment when Guinevere and Lancelot have fled to Joyeux Gard, and Arthur, goaded on by Modred and Gawaine, is reluctantly preparing an army to make war on them.

It is at this time that he needs the advice and support of his old mentor, Merlin, more than ever before in his reign and his life, but it is at just this crucial time that Merlin has found that the love of Vivian is more important to him than kings, wars, knights, or Camelot itself. Age has finally caught up to Merlin, and he knows he cannot give what Arthur needs to save and restore Camelot.

Robinson's focus throughout is on character. He does not give us jousts and quests. Rather, he gives us the quiet thoughts and conversations that turn the kingdom toward the final war, as each character tries to balance old loyalties, old dreams, old hopes and fears against new realities and new imperatives. Against that background, the sadness that is Merlin plays against the quick playfulness and hope of Vivian, leaving us with a new and remarkably touching view of the last days of Camelot.

What the critics said:

"In Merlin, however, where Mr. Robinson's romantic alter ego, so long frustrated, at last speaks out, we can not for long doubt that he reaches his zenith as a poet. The sense of scene and portraiture are as acute here, certainly, but the fine actuality with which they are rendered is, as in the best poetry, synonymous with the beautiful; and the poem, though long, is admirably, and beyond any other American narrative poem, sustained. Merlin and Vivian move before us exquisitely known and seen, as none of the people whom Tennyson took from Malory ever did. It is one of the finest love stories in English verse." (Conrad Aiken, "The Poetry of Mr. E. A. Robinson", The Freeman, September 21, 1921, p. 48.)

Lancelot: A Poem

The beautiful, elegant, heartbreakingly sad story of Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur is Edwin Arlington Robinson's subject in his 1920 novella in verse, Lancelot. His focus throughout is on one side of the triangle, that of Lancelot and Guinevere. As in his previous Arthurian poem, Merlin, he does not give us Malory's tales of jousts and tournaments; he sets his poem instead in the quiet moments of reflection, hope, anger, forgiveness, remorse and honesty that allow him to explore the meaning of this, one of literature's most enduring love stories, in the depths of the hearts and minds of his characters. Measured, elegiac, but always clear-eyed, he faces unflinchingly the agony of love that cannot be, and in so doing, breaks our hearts while satisfying our souls.

What the critics said:

"Lancelot is, in our estimation, the greatest single poem that has been written by an American poet. It is, in addition, one of the greatest Arthurian poems extant. It is as vast, or vaster in its conception than anything of Lord Tennyson's; and it is not marred by the Tennysonian softness. By contrast, however, neither is it exalted by anything like Tennysonian poetry. It is more restrained and nearer to earth - by which it suffers; it has more insight and more reality - by which it gains. Now that it is one of our memories, what we recall chiefly is a series of groups which are really moods: Gawaine and Lancelot in the garden, Lancelot and Guinevere in the garden, Gawaine and Bedivere and Arthur, Lancelot and the fire in Joyous Gard."

"All day the rain came down on Joyous Gard
Where now there was no joy, and all the night
The rain came down-"

"Lancelot sits there before the fire, seeing nothing; but:"

"Now and again he buried
A lonely thought among the coals and ashes
Outside the reaching flame and left it there
Quite as he left outside in rainy graves
The sacrificial hundreds who had filled them."

"In that moment of calm and despair was the climax of the play whose scene was Camelot. There was no hysteria, only calm. That is this poet's way." (Yale Literary Magazine, October 1920, No. 760, p. 46.).

The Three Taverns

In this collection of dramatic narratives, Robinson explores his key interests: character and man's confrontation with the rocks and hard places of human existence. He gives us a fascinating piece of alternate history: a dialogue between Alexander Hamlton and Aaron Burr, testing who will betray and who will resist. He gives that bitter old man, John Brown, full scope to vent his deep-seated anger, and lets Rahel Varnhagen, in her old age, touch us with her memories of love. The title poem is a vigorous account of himself by St. Paul, seemingly not too long post-Damascus.

What the critics said:

As Harriet Monroe wrote:

"One "gets" completely "the inextinguishable grace" of the vagabond in Peace on Earth, and the nothingness of Taskar Norcross,

"a dusty worm so dry / That even the early bird would shake his head / And fly on farther for another breakfast."

But it is in Mr. Robinson's meditative poems that one tastes most keenly the sharp and bitter savor of his high aloof philosophy. He is not for Demos:

"Having all,/ See not the great among you for the small, / But hear their silence; for the few shall save / The many, or the many are to fall-- / Still to be wrangling in a noisy grave."

He offers no solution of the problem of creation, either in general or in detail, but he presents it in vivid lines:

"There were seekers after darkness in the Valley of the Shadow, / And they alone were there to find what they were looking for."

He insists-

"That earth has not a school where we may go / For wisdom, or for more. than we may know."

But meantime,

"Say what you feel, while you have time to say it- / Eternity will answer for itself."

-- Review of the original publication of the book, by Harriet Monroe, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, volume 18, 1921, p. 273-4.

Avon's Harvest

In Avon's Harvest, Edwin Arlington Robinson devotes the majority of the audiobook to one long narrative poem of the same title, which tells the story of how a man's life was destroyed by the slow canker of an unreasoning hatred he formed as a young man, and of a sudden act of violence that flared out of it.
Robinson's wields his sparse, simple, yet brilliantly polished verse like a scalpel, dissecting layer after layer of Avon's mind until the whole is laid bare as if on an operating table.The rest of the audiobook includings a number of short poems, most particularly the famous "Mr. Flood's Party," in which an old man's courage, fortified with liquor, suffices to get him home yet one more night.

What the critics said:

"His new poem Avon's Harvest is the most astounding of all he has written. It brings home two things about Robinson which have never been so marked: his intense dramatic power; and the fact that like Browning, certain of his work could be in prose. Avon's Harvest would be a short story, though we doubt of an equal effectiveness in the hands of any prose writer we can think of. It is the story of a man possessed by a fear, and at times it is suggestive of Poe in its horror. But this is its only resemblance to Poe, for Robinson is as austere as New England can produce, and is verse is Puritan in its contempt for decoration. Often in other poems we have felt this to be a disadvantage. In ‘Avon's Harvest’ it is overwhelming in its power." (The Yale Literary Magazine, volume 86, p. 307-308.)

"With true New England frugality, it weaves a closely knit, formidable tragedy out of meagre materials - a college antagonism, a blow, a long worm-eating revenge; and its creeping emotion of horror is all the more powerful, perhaps, because of the poet's restraint. Probably a psycho-analyst would diagnose Avon's case as insanity - delusions induced by fear of the serpentine, ruthless being whose offensive love had changed into consuming hatred. But such a gradual burrowing insanity was never more sharply and powerfully presented. The thing is done with a kind of cold thrift, as effective in its way as Poe's lush and shadowed eloquence; the music in the one case being slow and stern, and in the other rich and full of somber color." (Poetry, volume 18, p. 273-274.)

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