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, forming impressions about how men and women pursued their lives and overcame adversity – or didn’t.

His focus on these themes arose from his own family’s circumstances. His father was a prosperous banker, but much of his wealth disappeared in the recession of 1893. His eldest brother would become physician who ruined his health through addiction to laudanum. A second brother disappointed Edwin 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, who would later be called: America’s poet laureate of unhappiness. Yet the title doesn’t quite fit Robinson, who was more reserved than unhappy,

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

Summering in Harpswell, 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 became the second because the lady who drew the name came from Arlington, Mass.

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

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson (painting by Lilla Cabot Perry)

Roosevelt’s son was impressed with Children of the Night 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.

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 (which was 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.

Robinson is often portrayed as reclusive. His partial deafness and poor vision made him seem standoffish and he was not much of a conversationalist. But he was neither isolated nor dour. He summered at New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony and chums from Gardner recall him as a funny, mischievous young man. Though never married, Robinson had several romances, including one with a young woman he was tutoring 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 who is 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.

The motivations and meaning of Richard Cory have been analyzed by countless generations of school children and artists. 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 the character is drawn from Sedgewick Plummer, a Gardiner lawyer and banker who lost his fortune and became homeless. His brother’s widow suggested it was inspired by Edwin’s brother who lost most of his wealth and became alcoholic.

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

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