There was not much ahead of him,/And there was nothing in the town below,
Though these were the words of his poetic creation, the intoxicated Mr. Flood, they might well have been Edwin Arlington Robinson’s very own thoughts as he turned his back on his birthplace and left Gardiner, Maine, forever. And yet, in stark contrast to the despair of these lines, Robinson went on to become a major, if mysterious force in American poetry, and “Tilbury Town,” the pseudonym he gave Gardiner, would come to embrace and honor the memory of their native son, just as for E.A.R. himself, reluctantly acknowledged his Tilbury Town as one of those indelible places in the heart.
Edwin Arlington Robinson’s depictions of the people and places in Gardiner are forever tinged with the melancholy and despair of an artist who feels out of joint with his time and place. And though he would try to disassociate his poetry from his birthplace, saying that his work bore only shadowy similarities to real people and places there, his portrait of Tilbury Town remains seared into the American consciousness as the iconic, stifling, provincial small town, its inhabitants a collection of disappointed individuals battling hypocrisy, doubt, and New England conventionality.
For despite the poet’s denials, virtually all of his poetic opus is born of and inextricably linked to the citizens and locales of this central Maine river town. E.A.R. saw Gardiner as a repressive community peopled with tortured souls, and he depicted Tilbury Town as the emblem of the American dream gone awry, where creative spirits like himself were either destroyed by neglect and misunderstanding or forced into exile. Moreover, he saw it as the graveyard of his love, a place where he reluctantly left his heart, going off into the urbane world of letters.
Robinson’s relationship to Gardiner is but one of the many ironies in his life and work. Despite the fame and recognition he eventually received for his poetry – three Pulitzer prizes in the 1920s – he saw himself as one of the most misunderstood geniuses in twentieth century literature. The town which he fled and which never fully appreciated him in his lifetime came to lionize him as a great literary figure after his death. And, indeed, the once bustling and prosperous nineteenth century Gardiner is today a sleepy, waterfront community, whose identity is largely derived from its association with Robinson.
Gardiner sits at the confluence of the Kennebec River and the Cobbossee Stream, south of the state capital of Augusta. Founded during the Revolution, in the nineteenth century it rapidly grew into of wealthy shipping and industrial center, serviced first by steamboat routes and later by railroads. In the poet’s day the waterfront was busy; the shops were thriving, sawmills were humming, banks solvent, and the streets of the compact hilltop town were lined with stately clapboard houses. As the town historical society described Gardiner in 1900, “all that mattered to the townsfolk were voting the Republican ticket and holding a steady job.”
This was perhaps a bit of an oversimplification because for a small community of then 5,000 inhabitants, Gardiner enjoyed a considerable literary reputation as a kind of “little Concord.” Laura E. Richards, daughter of Julia Ward Howe, presided as civic and cultural lioness, and the town boasted a small but distinguished literary circle which included Dr. Alanson Tucker Schumann, Dr. Gertrude Heath, Caroline Swan, and Judge Henry Webster, al of whom would help nurture young Robinson’s early poetic gifts.
For the most part, the Robinson family were merchants, not artists – a prosaic fact which tormented the sensitive young port. Though E.A.R., the third son of a lumber merchant, was actually born in the coastal village of Head Tide, Maine, on December 22, 1869, the family would move to Lincoln Avenue in Gardiner in 1870 so Robinson’s father could assume directorship of a local bank. E.A.R., a shy, quiet boy, attended the local grammar and high schools and worshipped with his family at the Congregational Church. He passed his boyhood immersed in books – “an incorrigible fisher of words,” as he once described himself – though he also loved to romp in the nearby fields and streams and engage in the usual youthful pranks with his comrades.
Robinson acknowledged his vocation as a writer in 1889 and later wrote: “ I finally realized I was doomed – or elected – or sentenced for life to the writing of poetry.” Dr. Schumann had become his mentor and introduced him to Caroline Swan’s literary circle. Shortly before when he was nineteen, Robinson fell in love with and briefly courted Emma Shepherd. But the slightly older Emma, while she fondly encouraged E.A.R. poetry and enjoyed his attentions and those of the third Robinson brother Dean, eventually settled on the older Herman Robinson, then a successful business man, as the best choice for a husband. E.A.R. was shattered by her marriage to his brother in 1890, refusing to attend the wedding. It was a passion that the poet would cling to his entire life, and it would indelibly shape his melancholy and his love-hate relationship with Tilbury Town.
In 1893 not only was Robinson grieving for the loss of Emma Shepherd, but also for the failure of his father’s businesses, which forced the poet to return home from Harvard. Back in Gardiner, he took solace in the society of the Quadruped Club with whom he shared his early writings. 1896 became what E.A.R. would call his annus horribilis. His father died, a sorely disappointed man, followed shortly thereafter by his mother. His pharmacist brother Dean succumbed to a drug overdose. Just as he saw his first volume of verse, The Torrent and the Night, into print, Herman Robinson’s business also failed; he was forced to separate from his wife and three daughters, plunged into alcoholism, and eventually died a lonely man in Boston. E.A.R. fled to New York City, seeking a place in literature, though he helped bring Herman’s body back to Gardiner in 1903, and likely proposed again to the widow, who refused him. The poet returned to his impoverished life in New York and also began to drink heavily for a time, until his poetry caught the attention of Kermit Roosevelt, and President Teddy Roosevelt granted Robinson a post at the New York Customs House, a sinecure which gave him stability (as it had Nathaniel Hawthorne before him).
Robinson was unable, however, to relinquish Emma’s hold on his heart. In 1909, he returned to Gardiner for what he hoped might be “an indefinite stay,” but which turned out to be his final farewell. He stayed with his widowed sister-in-law and his three nieces at their nearby Farmingdale house, which Emma had now inherited from her mother. This seven-month period in the poet’s life is shrouded with secrecy. Whether he and Emma did actually become lovers, as one biographer, Chad Powers Smith believes, or whether the romance remained a tormented platonic passion, Emma did refuse yet another offer of marriage from the poet.
In her old age after E.A.R.’s death, Emma Shepherd Robinson would confess to her daughter Ruth that the love had been mutual. Her other daughter Barbara would posit later on that she had refused “Uncle Win” because she still loved and pitied the dead Herman. Numerous other theories about the thwarted romance abound, among them the rumor that when she had last seen her ailing husband, out of respect and pity she had promised never to remarry. But perhaps the most piquant clue can be found in a passage Emma had marked in her copy of Robinson’s the March of the Cameron Men, which alludes to a suitor’s being refused by his beloved because she believes he is on his way to literary greatness and does not need to be encumbered by step children and a wife or a return to the claustrophobic atmosphere of small town life. Wherever the truth lies, in the fall of 1909, E.A.R. left Gardiner never to live there again, though he, Emma, and the girls stayed in touch, and the poet sent gifts and financial support to his family for the rest of his life.
During the last twenty-five years of his life, Robinson’s literary star rose. He became a regular at the MacDowell Colony. He received his first Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems in 1921, and then his second for The Man Who Died Twice in 1924 and Tristram in 1927, before he died of stomach cancer on April 6, 1935 in New York City. Fittingly, or perhaps ironically depending on one’s perspective, his ashes were returned to Gardiner to be interred in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery. It is said that Emma Shepherd Robinson placed rose petals in the coffin (as did Rosalind Richards with whom he had also briefly shared an intense friendship). Local legend has it that when Emma, herself, died in 1940 and was buried in the Robinson family plot, her coffin contained letters from the poet whose contents have never been revealed.
Robinson’s first Pulitzer Prize recognized many of his Tilbury Town poems, while his later works moved toward longer narrative genres. Throughout his career he valued the musical properties of verse and experimented with poetical diction, forms, and structures. He regarded poetic formlessness as an anathema, once calling “movies, prohibition, and free verse a triumvirate from hell.” He employed complicated and elegant forms such as the villanelle and rondeau, and, of course, the sonnet and the dramatic monologue with grace, precision, and incisiveness, and his forays into blank verse in his Arthurian trilogy still displayed a deep respect for the formal.
But technician though he was, Robinson remains largely remembered today for his poetry of people and place – a reputation perhaps augmented by Emma and Barbara’s posthumous annotation of his works and their identification of the characters and events which they believed inspired them.
A visit to Gardiner today allows the pilgrim to take a walking tour of places closely associated with E.A.R., and as one follows the poet’s path, one can conjure up the verse portraits of his fellow “Tilburyians.” There is the mordantly ironic self-mockery of Minniver Cheevy – child of scorn who sighed for what was not/And dreamed – who cursed the commonplace and missed the medieval grace of iron clothing – of the disillusioned Romantic who believes himself born too late, Who scratched his head and kept thinking” and then Minniver coughed and called it fate/And kept on drinking. On envisions the dejected poet in self-imposed exile in New York City, reflecting on his own paralysis and inability to feel at home in his hometown.
From E.A.R.’s boyhood home on Lincoln Avenue to that of his neighbor and mentor Caroline Swan on School Street, to the grim red brick office block on Water Street where the Quadruped Club met in the years after Robinson left Harvard, to the stately Jacobean style Public Library designed by Henry Richards and built in 1929, which today holds a sizeable portion of the poet’s archives, the visitor can imagine the constricted scope of this prim, genteel town as E.A.R. might have experienced it in the early twentieth century. In George Crabbe Robinson seems to lament what he feared would be his own fate as a poet were he to stay in Gardiner, writing:
Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows-/Hide him in lonely garrets,/Whether or not we read him, we can feel/From time to time the vigor of his name /Against us like a finger for the shame.
Then there are the portraits of numerous Tilbury Town folks whom Emma and Barbara have identified as members of the Robinson clan or friends. Aunt Imogen loosely disguises descriptions of Robinson’s three nieces, Barbara, Marie Louise, and Ruth, with E.A.R. himself depicted as the spinster aunt. Written in 18978, the poem speaks poignantly of Robinson’s loneliness and discreetly concealed love for Emma, of his annual visit to his sister-in-law’s home in which he lavishes demonstrable love on the girls – the penance of a dream and that was good – and his reluctant acceptance of his own bachelorhood:
For she was born to be Aunt Imogen/Now she could see the truth and look at it…../Now was the time to dance the folly down.
Other portraits are equally ironic and somber such as the sharply limned depiction of the title character of Flammonde, whom his mentor and friend Henry Richards identified as William Henry Thorne, a defrocked priest from New York who had become a literary publisher and friend of Caroline Swan with whom he issued a short-lived journal in Gardiner. E.A.R. knew him from their literary circle as a somewhat flamboyant, exotic character with firm address and foreign air and something in his walk. The poem set in eight-line stanzas of rhyming couplets also paints an image of the aspiring young poet: There was a boy that all agreed/ Had shut within him the rare seed/ Of learning before he questions the illusive meaning of truth which Flammonde/Thorne represents. What was he? And what was he not? concluding that no matter, his image remained permanently etched on boyhood memory.
We cannot know him much we learn/From those who never will return/Until a flash of unforeseen/Remembrance falls on what has been./We’ve each a darkening hill to climb/And this is why from time to time/In Tilbury Town, we look beyond/Horizons for the man Flammonde.
If Flammonde embodied Robinson’s own desire to escape Tilbury-Gardiner, Richard Cory, one of the most penetrating and concise of his lyrics captures the hypocrisy and inner despair of one of its prominent citizens. By all accounts Richard Cory is a portrait of Herman Robinson – a man who was envied by the townsfolk, who was a gentleman from sole to crown, clean-favored and imperially slim, who fluttered pulses, who was rich – yes richer than a king – in short, a glittering presence that Tilbury folks imagine to have everything/ To make us wish we were in his place. And then Robinson adds the shattering ending: Richard Cory one calm summer night went hone and put a bullet through his head. While Herman Robinson did not shoot himself, though he effectively drank himself to death, Dean Robinson had reportedly attempted suicide the night of Herman’s wedding, so the grim reality was ever present for the poet, as were the complicated relationships E.A.R. had with his brothers, especially Herman. His feelings, born of admiration, envy of Emma, and the cautionary tale that Herman’s life became all spurred the poet’s impulse to flee.
Of all the Tilbury Town poems, perhaps those associated with Emma Shepherd Robinson are the most poignant. There is Cortège written about his memory of Herman and Emma’s wedding night when “Win” refused to attend the festivities and shut himself in his room to lament what seemed to him a funeral. He depicts the mournful wail of Gardiner’s four o’clock train leaving Depot Square for St. Louis, which carries away his beloved, as a cortège:
Four o’clock this afternoon/Earth will hide them far away…../Four o’clock this afternoon/Fifteen hundred miles away.
But perhaps the loveliest of all the Tilbury poems is the musical incantation of Luke Havergal (beautifully set as a song by John Duke). It is a poem about death, but there are flickers of hope in the love which transcends the grave. The verse describes the western gate of Oak Grove Cemetery where the entire Robinson family rests. It is fall and the crimson leaves upon the wall conjure up the red ivy on the gates. The poet heeds the disembodied voice – the call of the leaves which will whisper there of her and some/ Like flying words, will strike you as they fall./ But go and if you listen, she will call. And then the lovely refrain: Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,/ Luke Havergal.
The poem then descends into the poet’s customary gloominess – “The dark will end the dark” – and his doubt “God slays himself with every leaf that flies/ And hel is more than half of paradise.” But from this torment also comes a voice of transcendence with its message:
Out of a grave I come to tell you this/Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss./There is the western gate, Luke Havergal…./If you trust her she will call –
The voice which beckons is the siren sound of death, but it is also the song of love.
As the visitor stands before the imposing wrought iron gates of Gardiner’s cemetery, just a short walk from the poet’s childhood home, one has the unshakeable feeling of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s presence. Though the poet tried to disassociate himself from Gardiner, though he ultimately did achieve the urbane artistic life and literary recognition of which he dreamed, he remains inextricably linked with his “Tilbury Town” as much by his absence as by remembrance. “I shall have even more to say when I am dead,” Robinson wrote in that masterpiece, “Children of the Night,” a poem in which he struggled with agnostic doubt about the existence of a higher power and tried with an Emersonian affirmation of the Self to find meaning in life. In the poem’s majestic twelve quatrains, Robinson embarks on a journey which begins in life’s embittered sea, and travels to honest doubt and on to the Hamlet-like utterance that leads to hope:
It is the faith in the fear/That holds us to the life we curse/So let us in ourselves revere/The Self which is the Universe –/Let the Children of the Night/Put off the cloak that hides the scar –/And let us be Children of the Light/And tell the ages where we are!
It is a hope born of despair, a light emerging from the night, but Robinson has given us the clue to its source halfway through the poem: And if God be God, He is love – .
Not only does this declaration answer the poet’s philosophical quest, but it explains another conundrum of his life. No matter how desperately he sought to escape the small town repressiveness of Gardiner, he could never wrench the place from either his artistic consciousness or his heart. It remained, for many complicated reasons, not the least of which was Emma Shepherd, embedded there in Tilbury Town. E.A.R..’s life was etched in chiaroscuro; his passions for his art, for his sister-in-law and their lost love, as well as for his artistic mission were powerful and often dark.
On Gardiner’s town green where its citizens erected a monument to the poet, in the library where his high school diploma hangs and so many of his papers reside, and throughout the streets where the visitor can walk in Robinson’s footsteps, one can palpably feel his presence. But perhaps the place one senses Edwin Arlington Robinson’s spirit most is standing in the shadow of the family monument where the names of his parents, brothers, and Emma join his own, and where, if one is still, one can almost hear a voice which whispers
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,/Luke Havergal.