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Monday, January 24, 2011

Number 47: Edwin Arlington Robinson "Reuben Bright"

Reuben Bright

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 cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

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.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Hap Notes: Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) spent the first part of his life as sort of an ink-stained wretch. He wrote poetry taking odd jobs to keep alive and lived in poverty. He went to Harvard for a couple of years but could not afford to keep going. Besides, he already knew he wanted to write since he was 11 years old. His first (revised) book of poetry Children of the Night met with little success and he just kept on plugging away despite some family tragedies.

For instance (and very relevant to Reuben Bright, actually) his mother died of "black diphtheria" and because no mortician would touch the body, Robinson and his two brothers had to lay her out, dig the grave and bury her (his father was already dead.) Her death came just a few days after publishing his first book of poetry. One of his brothers, Dean, overdosed on morphine and his other brother, Herman, married the girl Edwin loved but rejected because he wanted to write. Robinson decided to marry his work (although later in life he had lots of ladies who doted on him.)

He was a pretty dejected unknown until Teddy Roosevelt. I mean that literally.

Roosevelt, when he became president, requested Robinson to come to the White House. Teddy loved Children of the Night (his son showed it to him) and was stunned that Robinson was so poor and so unknown. He arranged for Robinson to have a job with the Custom House in New York. Robinson's job there was to come in, open his roll-top desk, read the daily paper and then leave, placing the paper on his chair to signify he'd been there. When Taft was elected, the job pretty much dried up, but Roosevelt tried to help Robinson by talking Scribner's into republishing Children of the Night and writing articles praising Robinson's poetry. The effect of the articles was somewhat like being part of Oprah's book club only without as much clout as Winfrey. Established literary critics didn't think TR was the best judge of literary quality. Robinson sold a few more books and that was about it.

Robinson's most enduring poems are ones like Reuben Bright; psychological character studies of people. He did eventually win a whopping three Pulitzer Prizes. So TR was right. Maybe Oprah is, too, who knows? Robinson was probably the most famous poet in America when he died.

Anyone who has been around the death of a loved one, especially from a protracted illness, knows the sick hollow feeling Bright has in the poem. The idea of butchering creatures would certainly not feel right after watching death take someone. Remember, too, that this probably isn't a clean white hospital death- his weeping made the women cry- women who were probably at his home to help him care for her, neighbors and the like. She more than likely died at home.

It's a heartbreaking portrait of a man's grief.

Robinson's technically clean, thoughtful poetry was influential to a variety of poets, notably Frost. Frost said,"His theme was unhappiness itself, but his skill was as happy as it was playful." Robinson's vocabulary is usually clear and quite modern. His work is shamefully undervalued today although he has contemporary champions in W.S. Merwin and James Dickey.

One of the most important qualities of Robinson's work, I think, is his compassion for his subjects- the people he creates. He doesn't judge- he tells you a story. The stories are about love and longing and laughter and grief. Life.

Here's a good Robinson quote: ""I don't expect recognition while I live but if I thought I could write something that would go on living after I'm gone, I'd be satisfied with an attic and a crust all my life."

You can find more Robinson here:

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