Much like his most famous poem Richard Cory, the life of Edwin Arlington Robinson was a dismal and dark one. Born into wealth in 1869, he later wrote that at the age of six, he wondered why he was born. He attended Harvard University, but his family struck financial trouble, and soon he was in the face of poverty. His father passed due to stroke, his mother to diphtheria. He lost both of his brothers, one to suicide. It was difficult for Robinson to earn a living as a poet, but after many years his works began to attract attention, most notably that of Theodore Roosevelt.
The President praised Robinson, who soon found himself with a steady job, and a successful poetry career. Robinson went on to earn three Pulitzer Prizes. Despite his success, his poems reflected unhappiness. Robinson died in 1935 of cancer, just hours after completing his final book.
Richard Cory, his most famous poem, is told from the perspective of an unknown narrator.
The speaker “worked… and went without meat, and cursed the bread,” illustrating he is from a lower class. In an admiring and jealous tone, the narrator speaks about a man named Richard Cory. The wealthy Richard Cory is “a gentleman from sole to crown,” slim, well groomed, and “admirably schooled in every grace.” As if to add insult to injury, the man is not ostentatiously dressed, rather “quietly arrayed,” and relatable to others when he talks. The narrator “thought that [Richard Cory] was everything”, making him wish that he was “in his place.
” The poem takes an ironic and jolting twist when suddenly “one calm summer night” the perfect Richard Cory “went home and put a bullet through his head.” This short, four stanza poem, has a big message, and it poignantly articulates the real-life themes of jealousy and the meaning of happiness.
The irony of the poem takes form in the jealousy of the narrator. This Richard Cory is, in the speaker’s eyes, almost godlike. The narrator looks at Richard Cory’s wealth, good looks, charm and education, then back at his own job and possessions and curses what he has. The narrator wants to be Richard Cory- or at least thinks he does. This is a shared element of human inclination- we always want what we don’t have. The irony comes in when all that Richard Cory seems to have isn’t enough to keep him from killing himself. The narrator fails to see beyond Richard Cory’s mask of perfection until he ends his life. In the end, the narrator is happier than his own idol. In the end, the narrator has something Richard Cory doesn’t- the will to live.
This irony brings on a second major theme, the meaning of happiness. Richard Cory’s tragic suicide emphasizes the fact that happiness doesn’t come from money, good looks, or charisma. Then how can we be happy? The people “on the pavement… curs[ing] the bread,” are happier than the glittering gentleman who walked among them. These attributes are superficial. The simplest things in life are often enough. Yet society glamorizes its celebrities and millionaires and strives to look like them, wishes to have what they have, when really we should be counting our own blessings. Richard Cory points out the wrongly directed material ambition of the real world. Another point of happiness involves Richard Cory’s isolation from others by their idolization of him. He lives in the public eye, but others believe they aren’t good enough to be around him, and he is alone. No one really knows Richard Cory. And what use is wealth without anyone to spend it with? What use is charisma without anyone to charm? Richard Cory has so much, but it becomes useless without people in his life to share it with. The narrator and his equals never even think to befriend this god. Without friends, Richard Cory has little chance to truly be happy.
The main reason I chose this poem was the interesting parallels between Richard Cory and its author. The dark tone of the poem can be related to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s unhappy life. Robinson began life with wealth that didn’t make him happy, much like Richard Cory. His own brother committed suicide, which was how Richard met his end. Many of Robinson’s poems had elements of death in them, which is something he had experience with. Perhaps Robinson struggled with suicidal depression in his own life. In addition, this poem really struck me with its relevance to the life of Americans. We are surrounded by images of “perfect” celebrities, and by comparison, are unsatisfied with our own lives. Even in our personal lives, posts on social media would have us believe that others are better looking, richer, more successful, and having more fun than we are. Richard Cory lived such a life, and it didn’t end well for him. It’s time for us to open our eyes and realize happiness is right in front of our noses. Instead of wishing for meat, let’s be grateful for bread.