Category Archives: Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

The Clerks, by Edward Arlington Robinson

I did not think that I should find them there
When I came back again; but there they stood,
As in the days they dreamed of when young blood
Was in their cheeks and women called them fair.
Be sure, they met me with an ancient air,—
And yes, there was a shop-worn brotherhood
About them; but the men were just as good,
And just as human as they ever were.

And you that ache so much to be sublime,
And you that feed yourselves with your descent,
What comes of all your visions and your fears?
Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage of the years.

 

Note: “alnage” is an old word referring to a measure of cloth. So why does the poet use it here? Well, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology all feature a group of divine beings who weave Fate, spinning and weaving each person’s life and destiny. (The average reader of poetry in Robinson’s time knew that without having to consult a footnote.) And “tiering” is another old word, meaning “to arrange in layers,” or “to cascade in an overlapping sequence”–thus, weaving. So the poets and kings weave dull tapestries, the same dull images over and over again, and not any more significant than the fate of your local nobody. (Well–that sounded so much better the way Robinson said it than it did in my dry explanation, didn’t it?)

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Miniver Meter

Miniver Cheevy by Edwin Arlington Robinson is written in a curious meter: each stanza consists of three lines of 4 beats followed by a single line of two beats. Now as most poems which run 4 beats in a line do so throughout (or alternate with 3 beat lines), the unusual choice in this poem rather startles the ear. Consider the beginning (better yet, first click on the link for the whole poem, and read that–otherwise the following discussion will spoil it for you):

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
.            Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
.            And he had reasons.

The sudden rhyme brings an unexpected and abrupt end to the stanza, at once engaging our attention. It is unfamiliar to us; and yet, it is not unnatural. “And he had reasons” sounds like an interruption in the flow, but it is exactly the type of self-interruption a storyteller would use. Here the narrator is telling us the story of Miniver Cheevy: he sets the tone, and is ready to run with it–but then stops for a moment to give us this important explanation.

Well, so much for the first stanza. But he employs the same metrical abruptness in every stanza, and he surely isn’t interrupting himself in those places. And stanza after stanza, our ear notes the short line, and wonders at it. Why, there’s supposed to be another beat or two there! Why is the poet doing this?

Then we get to the final stanza, and we understand:

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
.           Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
.            And kept on drinking.

The final line is perfect, and justifies the entire poem. The poet has painted a picture of a man who complains about his mundane life and desires his fantasy of the past–and then drowns himself in alcohol in order to cope with that. Miniver coughs, and calls it cruel fate that he was born into the wrong time period; but we see what he cannot (or will not). And this is made clearer in 2 beats rather than 4, both as a matter of wit, and because the line stands out metrically. For 8 stanzas, our ear has noted this line, a sense of anticipation building up; this is the payoff.

It is often a good idea to write with the end in mind. Here, the poet almost certainly had the end in mind before beginning this poem. An image of a bitter drunk, captured in that last sentence–and then the construction of the entire build-up, both semantically and metrically, to support this line.

In my own writing, I have on several occasions only selected a meter after selecting a particular phrase that I wanted in the poem. This could be the end, or a particularly important image earlier in the poem. But having that particular phrase as a goal became not so much a constraining as a creative force for the rest of the poem. Every word, every phrase, every beat, had purpose.

If you haven’t been writing with the end in mind, I encourage you to give it a try. Whether you are writing to paint a picture, make an argument, or simply to express your own emotion or person, your end result will be both clearer and more powerful than before.

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Miniver Cheevy

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 send 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 medieval 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.

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured 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 in his head.