Something hopeful shines through the dark pessimism of a Christmas poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, who salvaged friendship and fame from bitter failures in his childhood and youth.
The poem is called Karma. It won a Pulitzer in 1925, one of three times the prize would be awarded to Robinson.
Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.
Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fullness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.
Many of Robinson’s poems focused on failure, and it isn’t hard to understand why. He was born on Dec. 22, 1869 in Alna, Maine, but his parents moved to Gardiner when he was two. He described his childhood as stark and unhappy. His mother was disappointed he wasn’t a girl. His parents didn’t name him until he was six months old, and then did it by asking a man from Arlington, Mass., to pick a name out of a hat. Even then Robinson hated the name ‘Edwin” as well as the nickname ‘Win.’
His oldest brother Dean, a doctor, became addicted to laudanum. His middle brother Herman married the woman he loved, Emma Shepherd. He boycotted the wedding, and the marriage turned out to be a disaster. Herman turned to drink, suffered business failures and died a pauper.
Edwin Arlington Robinson spent two years at Harvard, where he hoped to be published in a literary magazine but failed. He returned to Gardiner. His father had died and Emma, now a widow, had moved in with the Robinson family. He twice proposed to her and she twice refused. He moved to New York to live the life of an impoverished poet. At 26 he spent $100 to publish his first book, The Torrent and the Night Before. He meant it as a surprise for his mother. She died of diphtheria days before the books arrived.
He had more luck with his second book, The Children of the Night. Kermit Roosevelt read it and recommended it to his father, President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt like it, too, and got Robinson a job at the New York Customs Office, where he had plenty of time to write.
In 1916, an anonymous donor provided him a monthly stipend, which allowed him to continue writing poetry uninterrupted. Poet Amy Lowell gave him a rave review in The New Republic; critic William Stanley Braithwaite had called him ‘America’s foremost poet.’ He began to achieve literary success, winning the Pulitzer Prize three times during the 1920s.
He spent 24 summers at the MacDowell art colony in New Hampshire as an eminence gris. There he had a comfortable routine and the respect and affection of musicians and artists.
Edwin Arlington Robinson died of cancer in 1935.