Arts and Leisure

Edwin Arlington Robinson – The Poet Who Created Maine’s Tilbury Town

Why did Richard Cory shoot himself? Because Maine’s Edwin Arlington Robinson wanted it that way.

Robinson was born in Gardiner, Maine in 1869 and spent most of his first 30 years there. He formed impressions about how men and women pursued their lives and overcame adversity – or didn’t.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

His focus on these themes arose from his own family’s circumstances. Robinson’s father, a prosperous banker, lost much of his wealth in the recession of 1893. His eldest brother, a physician, ruined his health through addiction to laudanum. A second brother disappointed him by marrying the girl Edwin had his eye on.

The family downfall shaped Edwin’s world view as he delved deeper and deeper into the life of a poet. He  later earned the nickname “America’s poet laureate of unhappiness.” Yet the title doesn’t quite fit Robinson, more reserved than unhappy,

Robinson came by his name through chance. His mother expected a girl and didn’t pick out a name for him before his birth. Her illness following his birth distracted her from turning her attention to the task of naming him.

Summering in Harpswell, Maine, some visitors from away pressured her to name the six-month-old baby and so they drew names from a hat. Edwin was the first name and Arlington the second because the lady who drew the name came from Arlington, Mass.

Robinson’s second volume of poetry, Children of the Night, had modest success, but he struggled to publish subsequent volumes. Convinced he needed a change of scenery, Robinson moved to New York in 1899, His career, however, didn’t really take off until President Teddy Roosevelt discovered him.

Edwin Arlington Robinson (painting by Lilla Cabot Perry)

Children of the Night impressed Roosevelt’s son when he read it at school in Groton, Mass., and he gave a copy to his father. Roosevelt persuaded a publisher to reissue the volume and personally reviewed it. Roosevelt also found Robinson a spot on the public payroll at New York’s Customs House.

Tilbury Town

With that income to prop him up, Edwin published another book of poems, paid for by his old friends from Gardner who had faith in the town’s favorite son. Eventually, Edwin achieved that rarest of literary feats: He made a living from his poetry, much of which included allusions to the fictional Tilbury Town (in reality Gardiner).

In 1922 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems. He won it again in 1928 for his The Man Who Died Twice.

People often viewed Robinson as reclusive. His partial deafness and poor vision made him seem standoffish. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, either. But he was neither isolated nor dour. He summered at New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony, and chums from Gardiner recall him as a funny, mischievous young man. Though never married, Robinson had several romances. He had one with a young woman he tutored and another with artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones.

Though Robinson had a relatively optimistic world view and published a book a year the last few years of his life, history best remembers him for his struggles as a young poet and two of his short poems. Miniver Cheevy describes a man hopelessly trapped in his nostalgia for a past age. And Richard Cory, a short poem about a handsome, wealthy banker who abruptly shoots himself in the head without further explanation.

Richard Cory

Countless generations of schoolchildren and artists have analyzed the motivations and meaning of Richard Cory. And the poem has been dissected many times for the various poetic devices it employs. The story inspired plays, imitations, and songs – including Simon and Garfunkel’s Richard Cory.

Comedian Garrison Keillor proposed his own alternate version of the poem, concluding Cory’s suicide made sense if you’d known his difficult wife. As for the actual inspiration for Richard Cory, two theories are proposed.

Robinson’s biographer suggests he drew the character from Sedgewick Plummer, a Gardiner lawyer and banker who lost his fortune and home. His brother’s widow suggested he drew him from his brother. who lost most of his wealth and succumbed to alcoholism.

Robinson himself stayed silent on the matter – much to the consternation of young students of literature – and died in 1935 of cancer.

This story was updated in 2021. Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson courtesy Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, Maine. 

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