Unreal Nature

October 4, 2014

The Justification of his Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… the role is jealous of all other roles.

This is from the essay ‘Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Brief Biography’ found in The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1976):

Robinson was a man almost without biography who became a legend to his friends. He was decent, reticent, likable, and contrary — he himself called it selfish. He was not going to work for a living. He would do nothing but write poetry, except at times prose fiction or drama for their economic potentialities. But in this he failed; prose was not his language. And unsuccessful prose he ultimately transmuted to poetry. The prose sketch of 1894, “in a lighter vein,” “of a philosophic tramp … looking for rest” becomes in a few years Captain Craig.

Edwin_Arlington_Robinson_1888
Robinson at age 19 [image from Wikipedia]

To think of oneself as a poet has serious consequences, even if one’s dignity precludes the dionysiac role of a Hart Crane. The professed poet must keep writing, “scrivening to the end against his fate,” for it is the justification of his life. So he wrote too much, and when written out he could not swear off. Again, the role is jealous of all other roles. Without an independent income and a secure place in society loneliness, dispossession, chronic indigence follow. Finally, the role is vatic; the poet must intuit and communicate a meaning in the universe. So he kept asking the inadmissible question, What is it all about? especially considering the pain. That it was unanswerable he thought guaranteed the question. He spoke again and again of the Light, which was not the Grail, now a woman, now “The light behind the stars,” and always something that blurs “man’s finite vision with misty glimmerings of the infinite.” He believed in love and in belief with “a kind of optimistic desperation.”

Edwin_Arlington_Robinson
Robinson later in life [image from Wikipedia]

… Though he wrote too much, he wrote much that was distinctive and good, and even in the dull wastes there are fragments. He commanded from the beginning the full range of late Victorian styles, from the flat naturalistic prose line (and his own special roundabout pentameter) through incantatory jingle and the tightly rhymed stanzas of the light verse tradition to the full diapason of Romantic rhetoric: “Something of ships and sunlight, streets and singing, / Troy falling , and the ages coming back / And ages coming forward.” He had a gift for simile, “the stillness of October gold / Went out like beauty from a face,” and especially for the abstract simile: the recurrent cadger “Familiar as an old mistake, / and futile as regret.” He could secure the commonplace with the right epithet: “At someone’s tinkling afternoon at home.” He could manage unobtrusive profundity: “Love builds of what Time take away, / till Death itself is less than Change,” and mark the quiet defeat of a life:

…………….. nor was there anything
To make a daily meaning for her life …
But the blank taste of time.

(This post is here because I’m reading Cunningham’s essays; I was not aware of Robinson before today. I do like the bits of his poems quoted above.)

-Julie

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