On December 22, 2019, the sesquicentennial of a writer Donald Justice referred to as “the first modern American poet” passed without a whimper. Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) would’ve found this critical neglect fitting; obscurity was one of his perennial subjects. Though he won three Pulitzers and was a favorite poet of Theodore Roosevelt, Robinson, whose own mother waited seven months to name him, was attracted to characters few people acknowledged, cared about, or understood.
Before Robinson, very little lived experience had crept into the lines of late Victorian American poetry, which included the likes of rightly forgotten Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) and Robert Underwood Johnson (1853–1937): parlor versifiers Whitman famously dismissed as “tea-pot poets.” Rather than saturating his work with overblown symbols, hackneyed aphorisms, and hollow moralism, Robinson relied on the more sophisticated techniques of understatement, irony, and sparse detail. He also confronted such 19th-century taboos as alcoholism, homelessness, and assisted suicide.
So why has Robinson’s Collected Poems remained out of print since the 1970s? Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), another virtual nonperson for most 21st-century readers, Robinson is often overlooked as being insufficiently modern, unfashionably didactic, and even culturally problematic. Though this latter description might be justly applied to Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which perpetuates stereotypes of Native American life, none of these epithets accurately describes Robinson.
Understanding this collective lapse in critical judgment begins by acknowledging that Robinson continues to challenge dominant literary conventions. To begin with, his poems almost always tell a story, almost exclusively in meter and nearly always in rhyme; he also valued clarity of style and rationality of thought over the experimental fragmentation of many high modernists, and, unlike the Confessional poets who came later, hardly ever wrote about himself explicitly. Another reason for his neglect involves a commonly held misconception about literary history. Though Robinson was born nearly 20 years before Ezra Pound (1885), many consider him a peer of the much younger modernists who are often lumped together with him in anthologies of modern American poetry. Robinson broke new ground in his best books, which were published between 1897 and 1925, but his poems can sound antique when compared to The Waste Land (1922) and The Pisan Cantos (1948).
Yet it serves to remember that art has no present without its past. Acknowledging practices of earlier periods gives poets the knowledgeable freedom to experiment in their own time. Robinson’s best work offers contemporary practitioners options, ways of writing largely ignored by 21st-century American poets.
Robinson’s best poems are narratives in three types: 1) highly condensed, sonnet-length character sketches; 2) variations on the ballad stanza; and 3) middle-length stories in blank verse. Since my focus is on narrative, this list does not include Robinson’s many fine lyrics, such as “The Dark Hills” or “The Sheaves.” Nor does it include meditative lyrics like “The Clerks.” I have also left out Robinson’s book-length narratives, of which The Man Who Died Twice (1924) is perhaps the most convincing, as well as Robinson’s many dramatic monologues, which hold up against the achievements of Browning and Tennyson.
My overall contention is that Robinson’s current obscurity is based on false assumptions. Modern in everything but his lack of confessionalism and his meters, Robinson prefigures the narrative techniques of modern prose writers. Finally, he stands alone as the best poet of his generation — more distinctive than Trumbull Stickney, more rigorous than Edgar Lee Masters, and more expansive than Stephen Crane. Readers interested in gaining a more accurate representation of early modernism must recognize that Robinson did for American poetry what Émile Zola did for the French novel: he purified narrative verse by introducing not only the details, characters, and circumstances of modern life but the language in which it was experienced, and he did so within the tight boundaries of meter and rhyme.
II. “Dickens in 14 Lines”
In his narratives, Robinson displays certain tendencies typically associated with the realism and naturalism of early 20th-century American prose fiction. Like the novels and short stories of Henry James and Willa Cather, Robinson’s narratives explore human motivations, focusing on psychological complexities, economic realities, and the social climates in which characters either thrive or merely survive.
Robinson’s realism is most deftly handled in his briefest narratives: the sonnets and sonnet-length poems that render vivid portraits-in-verse of modern American characters who had not appeared in poetry before — poems that moved Mark Jarman to praise Robinson as “Dickens in 14 lines.” Indeed, with their Dickensian names like Ham Amory, Roman Bartholow, and Eben Flood (a pun on “ebb and flood”), Robinson’s characters come off as both commonplace and noteworthy, especially those who have fallen off or fallen away from what or who they once were.
This is Robinson’s most common narrative mode, which James Dickey summarizes concisely: “[R]unning into somebody in the street whom [the poet] knew under other circumstances and who is now a bum.” Other characters encounter an insurmountable force that either humbles or kills them (often by their own hand). Robinson also writes about New England towns that have been ruined by time but are still haunted by one or two nostalgic characters. Such poems prefigure late-modernist masterpieces like Robert Frost’s “Directive” (1946) and Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” (1958). In fact, Frost is the modernist closest to Robinson’s own approach — and the 20th-century poet who learned the most from Robinson. Both poets favor meters and narrative, specializing in Jamesian psychological nuances.
In these sonnet-length pieces, Robinson combines characterization, psychological richness, philosophical insights, moral ambiguities, American speech rhythms, and plot development with the musicality and subjective perspective we most often find in lyric. He accomplishes this through extreme economy of plot and character, or what Scott Donaldson refers to as “carefully-hidden clues” about “motivations and depths.” Even if deciphered, however, these clues “do not and cannot tell us everything” about a character. Robinson withholds information, doing so not to frustrate the reader’s expectations but to achieve a more realistic presentation. These dramatic withholdings reflect the poet’s thoroughly modern conviction that no one can ever truly know another person because one cannot even know oneself. This skepticism is precisely the place where Robinson overlaps with Eliot, whose PhD dissertation on F. H. Bradley dealt with the limits of knowledge, and whose own verse shimmers with unknowability.
“Reuben Bright,” a well-known sonnet, features a gentle butcher confronted in the opening octave with difficult news:
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And wept like a great baby half the night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
As Donald Hall observes, writing a poem about a butcher in the 1890s using common American diction was “daring, shocking, and unacceptable.” Of the 70 words that comprise the octave, 61 are monosyllables, as in “But when they told him that his wife must die.” Robinson’s plain style is a long way from the “tangled gonfalons” and “glorious eagerness” of Thomas Bailey Aldrich or the “vast Forever” and “nectar divine” of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Another source of surprise is the poem’s plot. For a character whose bloody profession requires him to slaughter animals, it may amaze some readers that his reaction to this news is so visceral. Yet the prospect of his wife’s death becomes unbearable, so much so that Bright “made the women cry to see him cry.” Why?
Robinson is always conscious of who is telling the story, and to whom it is being told. This recognition implicates both poet and audience. Bright, being no more “a brute than you or I,” has never made the connection between the harvesting of livestock by butchers and the harvesting of people by death. This introduces irony into the poem in a uniquely Robinsonian way. Rather than writing, “Reuben Bright, the butcher, was no brute,” the poet presents us with the significantly less decisive “I would not have you think that Reuben Bright / Was any more a brute than you or I.” Though his use of apophasis, Robinson here evokes what experimental psychologists refer to as “ironic process theory” or “the white bear problem.” In asking us not to think Bright is a brute (the slant rhyme is unmistakable), we cannot help but think he is one.
Tilbury Town (Robinson’s New England version of an “Everytown” similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) needs butchers to slaughter animals so the townspeople do not have to. As in most of Robinson’s narratives, the townspeople are represented in “Reuben Bright” by reader and narrator both (“you or I”), who Robinson reminds us are complicit in Bright’s butchery. He also reminds us that equating butchery with brutality is a position of privilege; “you or I,” as non-butchers, are spared the experience of slaughtering our dinner. This opens up the question: who is more brutish, the one who performs the slaughter or the one who pays to have it done for him?
In order to serve the town, and to support himself and his family, the butcher needs something in return. More than money, Bright requires the power of plausible deniability that allows him to resist connecting his killing of so many fellow mammals with human death. The townspeople confer this power onto Bright through cultural and societal consensus, by collectively deeming butchery “an honest living” and “right.” In the octave, this illusion, at least for the butcher, shatters.
Here is the poem’s Shakespearean sestet:
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
The violent expediency of the butcher’s final action is made more acute by the poem’s compression. This compression points toward the poem’s theme of inarticulateness in confronting loss. We see and hear the butcher’s mute reaction in the regressive force of his weeping “like a great baby.” The butcher’s tears mark his first step toward acquiring a literacy of grief and a final knowledge of his complicity in his wife’s death (whether actual or perceived). The physical effect of the assonance of this phrase is that butcher, wife, women, narrator, and reader all pause briefly at the two strong adjacent stresses of “great baby.”
Though we hear a scrap of the butcher’s babyish inarticulateness in the third line of the sestet (“He packed a lot of things that she had made”), which also consists entirely of monosyllables, including the evocatively nonspecific “things,” the poem ends with a violently redemptive action signaling a peripeteia. This final turn in Robinson’s sonnet indicates the moment when, in Dickey’s terms, Reuben Bright transitions from butcher to “bum.” In this regard, Bright performs a kind of revenge on the town, making his private loss public: Bright has lost the power of denial and the town has lost its butcher. Like Chekhov with his gun, Robinson prepares us for the poem’s culminating dramatic action not only by the sudden volta signaling the shock of the wife’s death (“after she was dead”), but by key word choices, those “cryptic clues” Donaldson identifies in Robinson’s best narratives. “Packed” evokes the phrase “meat packing,” “mournfully” and “chest” suggest the human heart, and “chopped-up” connotes the butchery the protagonist can no longer bring himself to perform.
These allusions suggest that Bright feels responsible for killing his wife, packing her remains away with business-like efficiency into the grave. Was there something in Bright’s character or his way of life that contributed to her death? Robinson avoids explanation, leaving the poem open to interpretation. Those “things,” which Bright cannot bring himself to name, serve as metonyms for the wife herself, her own corporeal existence “chopped-up” and “packed.” Such is the intensity, the rawness, of this husband’s grief, compounded by his puritanical realization that he is a “brute,” that everyone in Tilbury Town is a brute, and that all must pay the wages of their collective sins as they would pay the butcher for his meat.
III. “The Tea Was Cold, the Fire Was Dead”
Dismayed by Robinson’s book-length narratives, Frost once quipped, “This later stuff […] I can’t see how he can stay awake writing it.” But the ballad-like narratives that run between 24 and 100 lines constitute the poet’s most significant number of successful stories-in-verse. Interestingly, this corresponds to Poe’s contention, in “The Poetic Principle,” that “a long poem” is a “contradiction in terms”; and it’s worth noting that, like Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” some of Robinson’s brief narratives even involve the death of a young maiden.
Robinson’s poems in this mode resemble ballads for several reasons. First, they are spoken by an impersonal, anonymous narrator who serves as cultural representative of Tilbury Town. Second, they are composed of strophes resembling ballad stanzas: typically quatrains, sestets, and octaves of iambic tetrameter and/or trimeter that rhyme in some variation on the traditional a-b-a-b scheme. Third, they focus on a single dramatic episode in which the protagonist often speaks in dialogue or monologue. Fourth, because of their insistence on rhyme and meter as well as narrative, these poems can be considered “story songs,” which ballads often are.
Robinson wrote this type of poem throughout his career, but the largest concentration appears during a single decade. With the exception of “Hector Kane” (1932), Robinson’s best ballad variations can be found in The Town Down the River (1910), The Man Against the Sky (1916), The Three Taverns (1920), and Avon’s Harvest (1921). There are 21 such poems that stand as completely successful ballad-like story songs, including the following seven, which represent Robinson’s most noteworthy achievements in this mode: “Miniver Cheevy,” “Eros Turannos,” “Hector Kane,” “The Mill,” “Mr. Flood’s Party,” “The Poor Relation,” and “The Wandering Jew,” a poem Yvor Winters referred to as “one of the great poems not only of our time but of our language.”
Ballad-like narratives provide Robinson with the space necessary to develop a plot more fully. They are distinctly Robinsonian, however, because of the way the poet condenses often complicated details into images, dialogue, or abstract statements. As Justice observes, “Such compression […] comes about because the prose details are, practically speaking, left out.” As in traditional ballads, readers are encouraged to imagine why people behave as they do, with all the ambiguity we can muster.
I’d like to focus on an example that critics have tended to overlook. At 24 lines, it’s the briefest of Robinson’s ballad-like narratives and can therefore be quoted in full. The poem features another characteristic device: Robinson’s tendency to open a poem after the most pivotal action of the plot has taken place. Here is “The Mill”:
The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
“There are no millers any more,”
Was all that she had heard him say
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.
Sick with a fear that had no form
She knew that she was there at last;
And in the mill there was a warm
And mealy fragrance of the past.
What else there was would only seem
To say again what he had meant;
And what was hanging from a beam
Would not have heeded where she went.
And if she thought it followed her,
She may have reasoned in the dark
That one way of the few there were
Would hide her and would leave no mark:
Black water, smooth above the weir
Like starry velvet in the night,
Though ruffled once, would soon appear
The same as ever to the sight.
In a 1921 letter to Arthur Davison Ficke (1883–1945) about the death of poet and music critic Donald Evans (1884–1921), Robinson reveals his thoughts on suicide in no uncertain terms. “A suicide signifies,” Robinson writes, “derangement or despair — either of which is, or should be, too far beyond the scope of our poor little piddling human censure to require of our ignorance anything less kind than silence.” In other words, trying to ascertain the causes of suicide is not only arbitrary, it is cruel; the more respectful and humane response is silence.
Yet suicide was a subject Robinson would return to throughout his career. As Donaldson notes in his biography, critic Ellsworth Barnard, who edited a centenary edition of essays on the poet, found 14 suicides in Robinson’s poems, “not including a couple of probables.” “The Mill” features one definite and one probable suicide, the only poem in Robinson’s 1,000-page Collected Poems to do so.
But what makes “The Mill” effective is its technique of artful redundancy. The poem’s only line of dialogue, the husband’s heartbreakingly plain-spoken “There are no millers anymore,” provides at least three instances. First, it implies industrial redundancy, the superseding of the 19th-century New England gristmill by other methods of producing grain. Next, the poem features dramatic redundancy; the shuttered mill foreshadows the husband’s grim act of hanging himself. Finally, the poem embodies human redundancy, an actualization through suicide of what market forces have already established as fact. Robinson manages this layering effect through irony, a device more noticeable in a poem like “Mr. Flood’s Party.” For a miller to say, “There are no millers anymore,” moments before killing himself amounts to a suicide note in the form of an objective correlative.
The most haunting aspects of this poem, however, concern the wife. The “cold” and “dead” tea and fire foreshadow what she will find hanging in the mill. These modifiers reveal a dramatic contrast in time, which the poem enacts by beginning at the end of gristmill culture. For the wife, the present is “cold” and “dead,” alive only with “a fear that has no form,” whereas the past is “warm” and “mealy,” a living and nourishing thing. The mill here functions as a kind of third character, but only because the wife perceives it as such; the poem’s third-person perspective is limited to the wife.
Both “The Mill” and “Rueben Bright” provide tragic outlines of marriages bereft of articulateness. Robinson achieves this character-sketching through exclusion, or what Justice refers to as Robinson’s narrative obscurity: the poet’s habit of leaving out the “prose details.” Robinson never quite reveals exactly what has happened. This open-endedness can be evocative, as in “Eros Turannos,” or somewhat exasperating, as in “The Whip,” which offers generalizations about human nature (“God knows the gall we drink, / Is not the mead we cry for”) rather than clarifying the details of the plot that have occasioned these statements.
The end of “The Mill” leaves the reader with similar uncertainty, this time about the fate of the miller’s widow, but it does so in a way that haunts rather than taunts. It’s clear that the widow contemplates suicide by drowning herself in the “black water” that once powered the mill. But Robinson never lets her take the plunge. She “may have” chosen such a fate, opting for this method because it “would leave no mark.” But this last stanza offers more possibilities than facts. The tentativeness of Robinson’s grammar (“may have” and “would” instead of “did”) keeps the poem suspended in a kind of dangling present tense; the modal verb “may” has no past tense, only past options. Robinson prepares us for this dramatic suspension by opening the poem with the phrase “The miller’s wife.” Though the miller has already been deceased for some time (“The tea was cold, the fire was dead”), the wife has not yet seen his body “hanging from a beam” and is therefore still “wife” rather than widow.
Once she sees what has happened, she begins to “reason” not whether she should end her life but what the least offensive way of doing so would be. This implies that she does take her life. Many critics, including Winters, assume this is the case; Winters notes definitively that “she drowns herself in the millstream.” But implication is not conclusive evidence.
Robinson leaves us with the image of the widow “ruffling” the black surface with her descent into the stream, but this image is conditional, hypothetical, existing by implication rather than as a definitive fact. This ambiguity marks yet another trait that Robinson shares with the most ironic of the younger generation of modernists, especially Frost. “The Mill” is also an example of Robinson’s effective understatement. Handled by a lesser poet of Robinson’s generation, this poem might have lapsed into the moralism of political allegory or the spectacle of Gothic balladry. Robinson was too shrewd a Wordsworthian to succumb to such Victorian temptations.
IV. “The Penance of a Dream”
Robinson often wrote explicitly about political and social issues, literary history, and, with over 250 biblical allusions in his Collected Poems, philosophy and religion. His most effective poems confronting these subjects focus on the inner drama of specific human characters within a fictional framework. In this respect, Robinson was more attuned to the modern and contemporary impulse of incorporating the political, historical, religious, and philosophical into personal material, uniting public and private concerns as a way of making these subjects his.
But Robinson accomplishes this through fiction, producing short stories in verse rather than confessional, meditative, or discursive poems. “The Mill” is not about suicide or industrialization, though it certainly involves both. Instead, Robinson dramatizes subjects such as Neoplatonism, religious hypocrisy, German idealism, and the limits of capitalist and socialist economic systems through the lives of specific characters. In ballad variations such as “The Mill,” “Eros Turannos,” and “Mr. Flood’s Party,” Robinson humanizes what poets of previous generations might have abstracted through satire, sermon, or polemic.
Yet Robinson does so without forsaking the abstractions that often dominate philosophical, religious, and political discourse. More than “no ideas but in things” (a declaration that is itself an idea), Robinson understands that the greater challenge in poetry is to achieve clarity of thought and accuracy of narrative presentation, even if the most appropriate way of telling a story requires the kind of ambiguity and indirection he employs at the conclusion of “The Mill.” Such ambiguities create suspense and represent moments of Keatsian negative capability — Robinson’s authorial willingness to linger in mysteries and doubts.
Robinson’s mid-length blank verse narratives work similarly, but these poems are even less concerned with plot. Discounting the book-length novels-in-verse, the longer Robinson’s mid-length narratives become, the more diffuse the external action, and the more invested the poems are in subtle revelations through internal gestures, turns of phrase, and metrical variation. This privileging of the internal over the external amounts to a kind of Jamesian realism-in-verse.
One way Robinson manages this approach is through his use of meter. Meter allows the poet to achieve a feeling of inevitability by way of semantic and rhythmic interplay. A representative example can be found at the beginning of “Captain Craig,” Robinson’s nearly 2,000-line blank-verse narrative about an itinerant, Christ-like hero who finds himself begging on the streets of Tilbury Town. No citizen offers to help the captain, though he touches many sleeves, imploring, “My name is Captain Craig, and I must eat.” In this respect, the poem presents a damning moral indictment of the townspeople:
There was just a false note in the Tilbury tune —
A note that able-bodied men might sound
Hosannas on while Captain Craig lay quiet.
They might have made him sing by feeding him
Till he should march again, but probably
Such yielding would have jeopardized the rhythm;
They found it more melodious to shout
Right on, with unmolested adoration,
To keep the tune as it had always been,
To trust in God, and let the Captain starve.
The first line quoted above imitates the “false note” of the town’s “tune” by being almost unrecognizable as iambic pentameter (“there was JUST | a FALSE | NOTE in | the TIL- | bur- y TUNE”). Robinson underscores the irregularity of this line by following it with the highly regular “a NOTE | that A- | ble BOD- | ied MEN | might SOUND.” Given the miserly context of this passage, Robinson also puns on the words “Tilbury” and “note,” suggesting that these uncharitable townspeople have indeed buried the dollar “notes” in their “tills.”
Like Shakespeare in the plays of his final period, Robinson greatly varies his rhythms for naturalness and expressive effect. In the first line from “Captain Craig” quoted above, for example, Robinson takes full ironic advantage of the contrast he establishes between “false” and “able” notes. The sixth line quoted above also functions mimetically. The “yielding” to the looseness of metrical variations Robinson achieves there is, again, ironic. What Tilbury Town residents collectively perceive to be a potential surrendering of their “trust in God” by encouraging a vagrant stranger would actually constitute Christian charity. This passage is important, of course, not merely for its use of mimetic metrical effects, but for the astuteness of Robinson’s observations; this “Christian” hypocrisy continues to be prevalent in Tilbury Towns across the United States.
A briefer blank verse narrative, “Aunt Imogen,” is a poem on which critics have bestowed lukewarm praise. Winters, for example, places it “among the most successful of Robinson’s minor poems” and Barnard sums it up with a single word: “tender.” I would argue, however, that “Aunt Imogen” rivals Robinson’s finest mid-length blank verse narratives, such as the Wordsworthian pastoral “Isaac and Archibald,” the frustrated love story of two aging neighbors in “Mortmain,” and the mysterious tale of the obscure “Tasker Norcross.” Like these poems, which place apparently unremarkable characters at the center of each micro-drama, “Aunt Imogen” is a moving small-town tragicomedy that compresses the tension of a much larger story into 140 lines.
Like the passage quoted from “Captain Craig,” “Aunt Imogen” hinges on a pun. Written before the turn of the century, this poem originally titled “The Old Maid” deals with the failures and limitations of what “Imogen” can and cannot imagine: a family of her own. Aunt Imogen, who arrives at her sister’s house for her annual visit with her niece and two nephews, experiences a Joycean epiphany, realizing as she is rocking her youngest nephew that “there was no love / Save borrowed love.” In this understated yet highly emotional moment, she realizes that she will never become a wife and mother herself.
Significantly, Imogen experiences this epiphany while “Young George” expresses his view of the world as “a good place” and of life as “a good game — / Particularly when Aunt Imogen / Was in it.” Imogen intuits that this is how George feels before he expresses it directly to her. But when he does find the words, Imogen recognizes this act of articulation as representing George’s maturation from “little savage” to young man. Though still expressing a child’s outlook, George’s transition from “howls” to generalized statements of “unsophisticated confidence” remind Imogen of the passage of time. The poem continues:
And something in his way of telling it —
The language, or the tone, or something else —
Gripped like insidious fingers on her throat,
And then went foraging as if to make
A plaything of her heart.
Imogen’s conflation of “language,” food (“foraging”), play (“plaything”), love (“heart”), and violence suggests the intensity and confusion of this epiphanic moment. More importantly, though, George’s sentiment that life was benevolent and beneficent “Particularly when Aunt Imogen / Was in it” leads to Imogen’s recognition that in order to keep “the world” and “life” “good” for little George she must stay Aunt Imogen: unmarried and childless.
Robinson continues to combine violence and play through diction. At various points in the narrative, Imogen feels “besieged,” “pained,” “criminal,” “wrenched,” “thrust,” and “strangled.” Even those four weeks of Imogen’s visit with her sister’s family are described as “great bites of time” (italics mine), a play on Wordsworth’s “spots of time” that indicates the ambivalence Imogen feels toward her sister’s family. In one sense, Imogen’s “time” with the children can be painful, or delicious, or deliciously painful. In another sense, such moments can, as Wordsworth argues in The Prelude, “retain / A renovating virtue,” becoming memories that will nourish Imogen when she is away from her sister’s children amid “the cabs and clattered asphalt” of the city. The words “grief,” “sting,” “blow,” “thumped,” and “anguish” modulate the tone from “tender,” as Barnard labels Robinson’s poem, to disquieting, if not outright “insidious.”
The poem’s conclusion, which directly follows Imogen’s epiphany, offers the strangest of these conflations:
Now she could see the truth and look at it;
Now she could make stars out where once had palled
A future’s emptiness; now she could share
With others — ah, the others! — to the end
The largess of a woman who could smile;
Now it was hers to dance the folly down,
And all the murmuring; now it was hers
To be Aunt Imogen.
Though painful, Imogen’s realization has lifted the “pall” from her future by allowing her to see the “folly” of brooding about what “might have been.” This realization allows her to escape that impossible future and enter into the present where she may “share / With others” and “smile.” Ironically, Imogen’s awakening takes place as George sleeps in her arms. The poem ends with these lines:
— So, when Young George
Woke up and blinked at her with his big eyes,
And smiled to see the way she blinked at him,
’T was only in old concord with the stars
That she took hold of him and held him close,
Close to herself, and crushed him till he laughed.
This moment links tenderness and violence in one culminating action. Imogen’s desperate embrace of George is met with laughter rather than reciprocation. What Imogen feels is the closest she will come to motherly affection, yet George perceives it as a “game.” First, though, George’s smile mimics Imogen’s own, and in this brief moment they are indeed “in […] concord” with each other, if only briefly.
Robinson embodies this conflict in his handling of iambic pentameter in the poem’s last three lines, which begin with the following variation: “’T was ON- | ly in | OLD CON- | cord with | the STARS.” The spondee of the third foot, bound by the pyrrhics of the second and fourth feet, display an ironic discordance with strict iambic pentameter, suggesting that Imogen’s epiphany, her having arrived at the “truth” of her spinsterhood, is either an illusion or at odds with the natural order. Another way of interpreting these variations is that the fault of Imogen’s never becoming a mother is not “with the stars,” but with Imogen herself. Robinson here is alluding to Cassius’s monologue in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.”
All of these factors (George’s laughter at his aunt’s embrace, the allusion to Julius Caesar, and Robinson’s mimetic metrical variations) suggest that Imogen’s future will consist of many discordant and misplaced emotional interactions. The final tragic implication is that Imogen realizes “the truth” too late — when the youngest of her nieces and nephews, who will be the only “children” Imogen will “share,” has started growing up. Soon, he won’t even be there to laugh at his aunt’s embraces, which will, at that point, exist only as memory, in Imogen’s imagination.
“Aunt Imogen” provides a late 19th-century portrait of antiquated femininity with which few 21st-century readers would empathize. Still, such societal pressures did exist. Robinson is not expressing his own views but rather criticizing those of his time and place. Women like Aunt Imogen were typically overlooked or scorned by a culture that held female autonomy in contempt. Robinson’s treatment of Aunt Imogen is sympathetic, uncondescending, and should be recognized for the seriousness with which the poet presents her internal struggles against such powerful external constraints. Rather than discounting spinsterhood as somehow unworthy of poetry, Robinson invests a great deal in an important societal issue of his time, creating one of his most tragic and memorable female characters.
Throughout his career, Robinson retained a strong affinity for the marginalized, for individuals beyond the notice of polite society. As he wrote in an early letter to poet Josephine Preston Peabody (1874–1922), “my definition of poetry includes almost everything.” Everything and everyone. Robinson’s inclusive vision extended to characters as foreign to late 19th-century American poetry as suicidal millworkers, elderly clerks, lecherous ministers, desiccated barflies, and grieving butchers.
At the same time, Robinson avoided the cliché of “the common man.” As Robert Faggen observes, Robinson, who viewed poetry as a life of service, introduced to American literature “the unnoticed, uncommon man and woman, suffering but determined to keep their power through both laughter and detachment in a cruel, spiritually belittered world.” More than any other writer of his generation, Robinson was our poet of American dissolution, decadence, and decay — a revolutionary prospect in a society shifting rapidly from Gilded Age to Lost Generation. In this, he explicitly prefigures the modernists, and the modernist in Frost. With cunning irony, understated feeling, and unlikely beauty, Robinson made verse narratives about the scattered lives he observed from Head Tide, Maine, to Park Slope, Brooklyn. He has earned due recompense.
Brian Brodeur is the author most recently of Every Hour Is Late (Measure Press, 2019). New poems and criticism appear in Gettysburg Review, Hopkins Review, Literary Matters, Southern Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. Brian lives with his wife and daughter in the Whitewater River Valley. He teaches at Indiana University East.