February 22, 2018

E. A. Robinson's First Pulitzer

On this day in 1921 Edwin Arlington Robinson's Collected Poems was published, bringing the first of his three Pulitzers. Robinson is often regarded as the first major American poet of the 20th century, one respected for having struggled in poverty for decades in order to master his simple rhythms and plain diction. Many of his most anthologized poems portray the longings and escapes of those who live in "Tilbury Town," the fictitious and too-Puritan New England village he based upon his own upbringing in Gardiner, Maine. Robinson grew up wealthy, and the family's slide into bankruptcy at the turn of the century had a "Richard Cory" impact on his two older brothers: Dean, the brilliant and seemingly successful doctor, became addicted to morphine and eventually killed himself; Herman, the town's most prosperous businessman, became an alcoholic. Robinson had his own battle with alcohol, perhaps fought as in "Mr. Flood's Party":
    Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
    Over the hill between the town below
    And the forsaken upland hermitage
    That held as much as he should ever know
    On earth again of home, paused warily.
    The road was his with not a native near;
    And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
    For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:
    "Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
    Again, and we may not have many more;
    The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
    And you and I have said it here before.
    Drink to the bird." He raised up to the light
    The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
    And answered huskily: "Well, Mr. Flood,
    Since you propose it, I believe I will". . . .
Apart from sharing the anti-Puritan theme, Robinson is linked to fellow New Englanders Hawthorne and Melville along interesting byways. As Hawthorne had checked sacks of coal loading in Boston Harbor, so Robinson checked loads of shale during the building of the New York subway; as President Pierce gave Hawthorne a job in a Customs House, so President Teddy Roosevelt gave Robinson one -- the same New York Customs House where Melville had worked decades earlier. Robinson's stay there was comparatively short, and the job, says biographer Chard Smith, "consisted of opening his roll-top desk, reading the paper, closing the desk, leaving the paper in his chair to show he had been there, and going home" to write. Because Roosevelt had pulled strings to give him "the most powerful loafing that has ever come my way," Robinson gave the President the dedication to his 1910 volume of poems.

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