Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.
E.A. Robinson: America's Poet Laureate of Unhappiness
E.A. Robinson was an American Modernist poet. Unlike some of the later Modernist poets, Robinson wrote in traditional rhyme and meter. What made Robinson a Modernist was his simplified language and his pessimistic view of the world. While most of the poets that came before him shied away from writing about dark and depressing topics, Robinson's poems were filled with characters who were miserable. Because of this, Robinson has been called 'America's poet laureate of unhappiness.' Let's take a closer look at two of Robinson's poems and what makes them interesting.
One of Robinson's most famous poems is 'Miniver Cheevy.' Let's read the poem and then see what it means and why it's important.
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.
Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.
Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.
Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.
Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.
The poem is about a man, Miniver Cheevy, who spends all his time wishing he'd been born in an earlier era. He thinks the olden days of ancient Greece or King Arthur's Camelot were much better than the modern days. But instead of doing something productive about his love of the past, such as becoming a history teacher, he resigns himself to wishing he was born back then and (in a comedic twist) drinking away his misery.
'Miniver Cheevy' uses a traditional rhyme scheme known as ABAB, which means that every other line rhymes. It also has a set meter: every stanza has four lines. The first and third lines of each stanza have eight syllables, the second line of each stanza has nine syllables, and the last, shorter line of each stanza has five syllables.
Why does Robinson use lines of differing lengths instead of making all the lines have eight syllables? By making longer and shorter lines in each stanza, Robinson creates an uneven feeling to the poem. Just as Miniver Cheevy feels out-of-sync with his era, the meter of the poem seems a little out-of-sync and off-kilter as well.
Some people believe that 'Miniver Cheevy' is about Robinson himself, but others dispute that. After all, Robinson was busy changing the way poems were written: he was looking forward into the future, not backward into the past. Whether or not it's a self-portrait, it is an amusing and interesting poem.
Another one of Robinson's poems is less amusing but no less interesting. Like 'Miniver Cheevy,' Robinson's poem 'Richard Cory' gives a darker view of life than many people were used to. Let's take a look at this poem.
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Well, I bet that last line got your attention! 'Richard Cory' starts out pretty ho-hum: a man is great and accomplished and rich and everyone loves him. In fact, everyone in the poem is pretty bummed that they're not Richard Cory. Meanwhile, Richard Cory himself is depressed, and, in a surprise ending, he kills himself.
Like in 'Miniver Cheevy,' here Robinson uses a traditional ABAB rhyme scheme. But 'Richard Cory' uses a traditional meter, too: iambic pentameter, which is a line of ten syllables where the even-numbered syllables are stressed. In this way, Robinson sets up the poem as normal and unremarkable, which makes the ending even more shocking.
The poem discusses two major themes in poetry: you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and money can't buy you happiness. Richard Cory's suicide is in stark contrast to what the townspeople think of him: they judge him by what he has and how he looks. But the truth is that there's more to Richard Cory than meets the eye. No matter what he looks like from the outside, and no matter how much money he has, he's not happy.
E.A. Robinson's poems 'Miniver Cheevy' and 'Richard Cory' are Modernist poems because of their simple language and pessimistic view of the world. In 'Miniver Cheevy,' Robinson uses meter to highlight the fact that the main character feels out-of-sync in his own time and wishes for a bygone era. The surprise ending of 'Richard Cory' gives the reader much to ponder, including the ideas that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and that money can't buy happiness.
Completing this lesson should prepare you to:
- Explain why E.A. Robinson is considered a Modernist poet
- Summarize the plot, structure, and meaning of 'Miniver Cheevy' and 'Richard Cory'
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