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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Walter Brooks Drayton Henderson (1887–1939)
 
IF love for men and a catholic understanding of all men who stand most in need of it, together with a subtle strength and firm beauty of art in making these things evident—if these are, as they are generally allowed to be,—powers especially proper to the poet of a democracy, then E. A. Robinson, because he is the richest possessor of them to-day in America, stands now the assured “dean” among our poets.  1
  Mr. Robinson has published five volumes of poetry: ‘The Children of the Night’ (1897); ‘Captain Craig’ (1902); ‘The Town Down the River’ (1910); ‘The Man Against the Sky’ (1916); and ‘Merlin’ (1917); in addition two plays, ‘Van Zorn’ (1914) and ‘The Porcupine’ (1915).  2
  His creed is love, announced at the start, demonstrated throughout, “Love’s the trade we’re plying,” as his first book has it:
  “Love builds of what Time takes away,
Till death itself is less than change,”
as it is given in his last. Naturally, it grows maturer throughout his work; also it loses a little of its early piety. But even at the start it was mature. It was (and is) tender without sentimentality, wise without cynicism. It holds fellowship with all humankind: and among them with those who are “blind with enmity for man’s unguarded fate”; perhaps even more with them than with those happy for whom “there is a music all day long, like flutes in Paradise.”
  3
  His idea of the poet’s function was as early and as clearly expressed: “To get at the eternal strength of things, and fearlessly to make strong songs of it.” He also indicated just what was to be his peculiar way of doing this. Grief and loss, disease and desolation, being the “dreams of wasted excellence”; and every dream having in it “something that flouts deformity,” he would find “a constant opportunity” in all sorrow. It is, however, not the failure that attracts him;—there is no suspicion of morbidness in his work—but that feature of innermost and abiding things it aids him to perceive. Wounds and sore defeat may be here. But what he sees and presents is the battles of which they testify. Or was the battle listless: did Leffingwell, for instance,—to choose one from a vivid troop of his restored,—prove himself a sorry knight, then:
  “What quiverings in the distance of what light
May not have lured him…?”
Did Clavering never come to anything, then he thinks of him as one who fared “amid mirages of renown and urgings of the unachieved.”—And says no more of Clavering.
  4
  This measuring of men through the medium (reconstructed) of the fights they fled or bled in, removes Mr. Robinson’s work very far from the realm of the obvious. Its greatest effect is seldom immediate. This comes slowly, mysteriously; revealing through suggestion or innocent-seeming disclaimer, little by little, the face of truth.  5
  So circumstanced, his style naturally has to maintain a classic restraint. It must be well balanced, urbane, human. All this it is, and withal has moods within its straight measure when it shows itself jovial, debonair, humorous, colloquial. Free it, too, for a moment from the necessities usually laid upon it, let the external circumstance need no more attention than the title gives it—then the poet is free to tell his whole story in overtones. Not prodigal of purely literary values—the poetic word or phrase—on these occasions it is as free of these as any other. Witness the irony of the lines on the ‘Veteran Sirens’ and the opulence of those on ‘The White Lights.’  6
  This richness, humor, debonair carriage may seem odd qualities in the work of a poet so much given to study the spirit through failure. But in reality they are inevitable—considering the poet; and even derive much of their peculiar pungency from a sort of mitigated fatalism with which the nature of his study informs him. To say the least, he is not one who,
  “Sees unchastened here below
The soul triumphant …”
and they, in part, are witness of the chastening of his vision. What else they represent connects with that surplus of spirit in the man which carries him into and then through failure and defeat: with his power of thought and with his mystic insight. The first of these he exalts as the principle of optimism. All the clouds of human gloom he matches and loses against “the gleam of its impenetrable mail.” Of the second he witnesses first and last that it is the ultimate reason of existence. Personally, responding to it, it is “the onward phrase of some transcendent music” that makes melody in ‘The Children of the Night,’ and even in the midst of his most soul-stripping poem, ‘The Man Against the Sky,’ it is the glimpses of that “orient word” which, though it cannot be found or known save in incommunicable dreams, remains ineradicable.
  7
 
 
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