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This book derives from the conviction that Edwin Arlington Robinson was a great American poet and an exceptionally fine human being. The story of his life deserves telling and has not been told.

Robinson was born December 22, 1869, at Head Tide, Maine, and died in New York City on April 5, 1935. He grew up during the latter days of the Victorians—Tennyson, Browning, Arnold—in England and the Fireside Poets—Longfellow, Lowell, Bryant—in the United States. But the energy was waning, and by the turn of the century most poetry had degenerated into prettified evocations of the natural world. From the start, Robinson declared his independence from that genteel tradition. A few others joined him, among them in England A. E. Housman, whose A Shropshire Lad appeared in the same year—1896—as EAR's first volume, The Torrent and the Night Before. Among the British poets Robinson most admired, Housman (1859-1935) was a decade older than he, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) a generation his senior, and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) his near contemporary. Robinson, who was to become our first truly modern poet, goes back a long way in time.

When he died in 1935, Robinson reigned as the nation's leading poet. "With the death of Edwin Arlington Robinson," the New York Times editorial declared, "America has lost not only one of the finest poets of our time, but one who ranked with the great poets of the past." Robinson was the only poet of his time and place, the Washington Evening Star observed, whose name could "be associated with the very greatest names in the history of letters." From newspapers around the country came similar encomiums reflecting patriotic pride in his accomplishment: he was the nation's "preeminent poet," our "most distinguished poet."

That was 1935. Over the succeeding seventy years, Robinson's reputation has declined. True, there was a flurry of attention during his centenary in 1969. Then three separate volumes of selections of his poems appeared in the 1990s, making his best work—the short- to medium-length poems—more easily available to the reading public than it had been for years. This state of affairs did not last for long; only one of these collections remains in print. Hence it remains compelling to reiterate Donald Hall's plea in The Essential Robinson (1994), for restoration of EAR to the American pantheon. Robinson's reputation, it seems clear, declined in the wake of the triumph of such modernist poets as Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams. Unlike them, Robinson remained devoted all his life to traditional forms. His poetry on the page came to look almost old-fashioned in its use of meter and rhyme. Yet, as Hall pointed out, that twentieth century generation of great modern poets actually began with Robinson "in his realism or honesty, and his relentless care for the art of poetic language."

Robinson's strongest partisans still are found among fellow poets like Hall and Robert Mezey, editor of the Modern Library's 1999 volume of Robinson poems.

    -Scott Donaldson, Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life
For whatever reason, 2007 was a year when we received a number of biographies, most of them good, of really likable people: Calvin Coolidge; Washington and Lafayette; Condi Rice; and de Tocqueville among them. You wouldn't think that would be so unusual, but it has been said that every biographer comes to hate his subject and there's an industry these days in writing biographies that ruin folks' reputations. Happily, these books were different and it may be that none of the authors admired the person he was writing about more than Scott Donaldson, as the excerpt above suggests. It is certainly the case that none of them faced a more difficult task.

Writers don't generally lead action-packed lives, but E. A. R. led an especially quiet one. He determined early on that he would be a writer and devoted himself to the craft to the exclusion of nearly everything else. His life was spent growing up in Maine, attending Harvard, and then almost entirely in New York City or, summers, at the MacDowell Colony, outside Peterborough, NH, model for Grover's Corners in Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

His work experience was rather meager, involving mostly a government sinecure, secured for him by Teddy Roosevelt who admired his poetry. Finding such busy work for him was necessary because the literary world was so slow to publish and then appreciate him. He never married nor had children, his great love -- for his brother's wife -- and subsequent love interests coming to naught. He never went to war. He traveled abroad only once, and then to England, not anywhere exotic. He was a Republican but not active in politics, with the exception of a series of tirades against Prohibition late in life. He did drink quite a bit and, though it exacerbated a depressive personality and clearly seems to have diminished the volume of work he completed, he was not a drunken caricature, like Charles Bukowski. He was kind to nearly everyone, if not quite friendly, and apparently had few enemies nor enmities. Like a character in one of his own poems, it was a life that might have passed unnoticed but for his pen and the words he wrote. And so the poems and their importance are at the center of this biography as much as E. A. R. is and Mr. Donaldson is as much a literary critic as a biographer. But he proves exceptional at both of these disciplines.

As regards the life story, while it may not have been fraught with incident, Mr. Donaldson fills it up with the personality of E. A. R.. The poet comes across as a nearly archetypal crusty New Englander, emotionally distant in many ways but avuncular in others. Indeed, it wouldn't be at all surprising if he reminds you of an unmarried uncle or bachelor friend of the family who you call "Uncle," though maybe with a more tragic mein The author does a fine job of showing how the classic Yankee reticence offered protective cover for a man who was the most loyal and helpful of friends and who, more important to his art, felt great empathy for his fellow citizens, none more than those who might be seen as life's losers:
His involvement in the plight of others was one of the two things that enabled Robinson to outlive his dejection. Even in his despair, he maintained his sense of fellowship with other human beings, especially those whom fortune had not favored. [...] Committed to doing what he could for others, Robinson could not abide the callousness or self-centeredness everywhere around him. "This utter lack of consideration for others goes far toward making this life of ours the rat-trap that it is. [...] With the world so beautiful and life itself so hideous, I don't wonder that [the] closing choruses of the Greek tragedies were all alike."

Perhaps we are not surprised to find such sensitivity--even hyper-sensitivity--lurking beneath the carapace.

But, wait, what was the other thing that kept him going? His work, of course:
The other saving grace --what kept Robinson from letting depression become oblivion--was his stubborn faith in the worth of his poetry. A less committed artist would have given up the battle in the face of the reversals he suffered, from the indifference of a reading public that did not buy his books to the lack of acceptance or even outright hostility of magazine editors.
That Robinson's faith was justified and that subsequent adulation was justified, Mr. Donaldson makes apparent in close readings of a number of the poems and by placing Robinson squarely in the American tradition, specifically the American religious tradition. Consider his analysis of E. A. R.'s Octaves:
Throughout the "Octaves" runs Robinson's conception of life as "a spiritual exercise." The world is a terrible place, but we must accept it in the hope that "something better will come sometime." Death itself is a release, not a source of sorrow.

    And when the dead man goes it seems to me
    'T were better for us all to do away
    With weeping, and be glad that he is gone.

Hard though life might be for the living, there was compensation in our common plight.

    There is no loneliness--no matter where
    We go, nor whence we come, or what good friends
    Foresake us in the seeming, we are all
    At one with a complete companionship;
    And though forlornly joyless be the ways
    We travel, the compensate spirit-gleams
    Of wisdom shaft the darkness here and there,
    Like scattered lamps in unfrequented streets.

In that final vivid image lay the glimmer of the light that was to illuminate so much of Robinson's later work. In questing for it, he warned, we must look ahead and not to the past.

    We lack the courage to be where we are: --
    We love too much to travel on old roads,
    To triumph on old fields; we love too much
    To consecrate the magic of dead things,

It is no good romanticizing our existence, yet despite all doubts, we should not succumb to faithlessness.

    Forebodings are the fiends of Recreance;
    The master of the moment, the clean seer
    Of ages, too securely scans what is,
    Ever to be appalled at what is not;
    He sees beyond the groaning borough lines
    Of Hell, God's highways gleaming, and he knows
    That Love's complete communion is the end
    Of anguish to the liberated man.

To avoid a disastrous loss of faith (recreance), one must learn like "the master of the moment" to catch sight of heaven beyond hell and to find "complete communion" in an altruistic love for one's fellow man that parallels the love of God.
The balances here -- anti-utopian but not disheartened, realistic but hopeful, messianic but not seeking to immanentize the eschaton -- are quintessentially American. Mr. Donaldson consistently brings out such themes and in so doing, while he explicitly states that E. S. R. is not the greatest American poet -- a title that may belong to one of his peers, Robert Frost or T. S. Eliot -- an argument could be made that he is the most American.

At any rate, it is a great biography of an American poet and worth reading as much for the richness of the ideas Mr. Donaldson finds in the poetry as for his loving portrayal of the poet.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Scott Donaldson Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (Columbia University Press)
    -ESSAY: Recovering Robinson (Scott Donaldson, New Letters)
    -EXCERPT: Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life
    -PROFILE: Reconstructing Robinson: Biographer taps, augments Colby's renowned collection (Colby Magazine, Winter 2007)
    -REVIEW: of Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life, by Scott Donaldson (D. H. Tracy, Contemporary Poetry Review)
    -REVIEW: The First American Modernist: a review of: Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (ERNEST HILBERT, February 26, 2007, NY Sun)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The enduring specter of E. A. Robinson: On the underappreciated American poet (X.J. Kennedy, The New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (Charles Simic, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (Patrick Kurp, The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Book-related and General Links: