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Richard Cory

Richard Cory

E. A. Robinson 1897

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

First published in E. A. Robinson’s second book of poems, Children of the Night, “Richard Cory” is one of the short, lyrical and dramatic character sketches that Robinson is now best known for, although during his life he was most famous for the long poems he wrote later in his career. Robinson created an imaginary place called “Tilbury Town,” which he peopled with various failed and frustrated people. Richard Cory is one of those people. The poem may be read as an ironic commentary on the American dream of wealth, success, and power. The very embodiment of that materialistic dream, Cory kills himself for some unspecified reason, perhaps a spiritual emptiness or alienation from his fellow human beings. His death leaves the people who wanted to be like him wondering about the purpose of life. The speaker, a representative of the working-class people who admire and envy Cory, thought of the man in medieval terms as a king. Robinson seems to question the values of both Cory and the speaker, as well as that of the American dream.

Author Biography

A descendent of the colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine, in 1869 and grew up in the nearby town of Gardiner, his model for the fictitious Tilbury Town that figures prominently in his early verse. His father, Edward Robinson, and mother, Mary Elizabeth Palmer

Robinson, were descended from old New England families. Robinson’s father retired from his successful mercantile business at the age of 51, moving the family to Gardiner at that time so his sons could enjoy a better education.

Robinson’s early years were marked by the advantages of an upper middle-class upbringing. He developed an interest in poetry while still in high school, and he was encouraged by a physician neighbor who shared his interest. He published his first poems in a local newspaper and, when he attended Harvard University for two years, in the school’s publication The Harvard Advocate. But a decline in the family’s circumstances forced him to return home. His father died in 1892; a recession in 1893 devastated the family’s finances; and his brother Dean, a doctor, developed a drug addiction that eventually cost him his practice and led him to suicide. In 1896 Robinson’s mother died of black diptheria, just weeks before The Torrent and the Night Before, the author’s first, self-published book of poetry appeared.

Robinson lived in the family house with his two brothers and their families until 1897 when, following a dispute with his brother Herman over his wife, Emma, Robinson left for New York City. Some critics surmise that Robinson’s recurring poetic theme of a triangular love relationship comes from this incident. In 1897 The Children of the Night, a gathering of Robinson’s poems from his first collection and supplemented with others, was published. In New York Robinson shared an apartment with a friend and became acquainted with a more cosmopolitan society than he had previously known. Among the new people he met in New York was a charming derelict named Alfred H. Louis, who served as a model for the disreputable title character of Robinson’s long poem Captain Craig, which was published in 1902.

Partly because of the lukewarm critical response to Captain Craig, Robinson did little writing for the next several years. He worked for brief periods at a number of jobs, including an office assistant, an advertising editor, and as a time-checker. It was during this period that Robinson also began drinking heavily. But in 1904 The Children of the Night attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt after his son sent him a copy of the book from school. Roosevelt was impressed with Robinson’s work and recommended it to Scribner’s publishing house, which issued a new edition. In addition, Roosevelt gave Robinson a position with the New York Customs House so that he could write without financial worry. Robinson’s finances, however, remained insolvent until the late 1920s.

Robinson made his sole trip overseas in 1923, visiting England for six weeks in reaction, so he claimed, to the passage of Prohibition. In 1927 he published his one commercial success, the long poem Tristram, based on an ancient legend. The book sold some 57,000 copies in its first year. In 1935 Robinson was diagnosed as having cancer and died just hours after completing corrections to the galleys of his final book. Although Robinson endured early neglect of his poetry, he eventually received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work. He was also awarded the Levinson Prize, a gold medal from the National Institute and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and several honorary degrees.

Poem Text

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,                           5
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:                      10
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,                    15
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem, one of the “people on the pavement,” implies by contrast that Richard Cory is not on the pavement with him and his lower-class peers. The speaker calls Cory a “gentleman,” suggesting his upper-class status, and he makes puns on “sole,” meaning both the bottoms of shoes and a person’s spiritual essence, and “crown,” meaning both the top of one’s head and a symbol of royalty worn on the head. The word “imperially” also suggests royalty. And the expression “clean favored” may imply both that Cory is well groomed and that he is clearly a man of privilege.

Line 5

The description of Cory as “quietly arrayed” is an oxymoron because it seems to contradict itself. The word “quietly” implies that Cory is dressed conservatively rather than in loud clothing, but the word “arrayed” means that he is dressed in fancy clothing. “Arrayed” also implies orderliness, and may mean dressed or ordered for battle, suggesting—like the word “crown” earlier—Cory’s kingliness. The whole expression may literally refer to a fine, well-pressed, dark-colored suit, but the conflict between the definitions of the two words, when they are applied to clothing, also reflects the speaker’s perception of Cory as both normal and superior.

Lines 6-8

The speaker comments that Cory was “human,” or normal, in conversation, yet that he created abnormal excitement (“fluttered pulses”) with such regular expressions as “Good-morning.” The line break and the comma after “he said” in line 3 allow for an abnormal pause before “Good-morning.” This pause dramatizes the second of anticipation one of the people on the pavement might feel in awaiting the simplest of pronouncements from the kingly Cory. Literally, “glittered” may refer to some watch chain or jewelry or tie-pin that Cory wears catching the sunlight, but figuratively it may refer to the armor of a king ready for battle or to the unusual spiritual aura that seems to surround the man.

Lines 9-10

The speaker compares Cory to a king, at least in wealth, and he remarks that Cory has a good education “in every grace,” suggesting both that Cory is well read and may speak several foreign languages, and that he has excellent manners, can make small talk easily, and knows which fork to use at a fancy dinner. The word “grace” also has religious significance; in Christian belief, people are saved from eternal damnation by the grace of God. The speaker’s use of the word may imply that he looks upon Cory as blessed.

Lines 11-12

These lines explain that the speaker and his class (“us”) wish that they could be Richard Cory. But the phrasing may indicate rather that they want his kinglike “place” in society. The apparently throwaway phrase “In fine” in line 11 is loaded with possible significance. “Fine” can mean “finery,” referring to Cory’s clothes, wealth, manners, and education. Or it can mean “the end” (in music), foreshadowing Cory’s tragic death. Or it can mean “a monetary penalty”; Cory loses everything when he commits suicide. When these three definitions are read in the poem, they suggest that Cory is everything in finery, in death, and in monetary punishment that could make the speaker wish to be dressed in fine clothes, dead, and with his money taken from him.

Lines 13-16

At the time he addresses the reader, the speaker already knows that Richard Cory has shot himself in the head. For maximum irony, and to achieve as much shock effect as possible on his audience, the speaker saves this revelation until the end, but he may feel that his behavior and attitude previous to Cory’s suicide were inappropriate. He and his working-class peers worked and expected “the light” to come. Meanwhile, they could not afford meat because it was too expensive, and they were unsatisfied with the bread they could afford. “The light” is a vague expression, traditionally suggesting a mental, spiritual, or religious revelation. “The meat” and “the bread” are more concrete physical images, but in sequence with “the light,” they may take on more symbolic significance as synecdoches, or examples

Media Adaptations

  • An audio cassette, Edwin Arlington Robinson, from the Cross-Cultural Review Chapbook is available from Imperial International Learning.
  • Part of the Sound Seminars series, Robert Pack: On Edwin Arlington Robinson was released by Jeffrey Norton Co. in 1962.

used to represent what they are examples of. “The meat” may represent and be an example of everything they could not afford to have but wanted badly and valued highly, and “the bread” may represent and be an example of everything they could have but did not enjoy or appreciate. Given that Richard Cory kills himself at night, “the light” may suggest a dawn of some sort, one which Richard Cory does not live to see. What seemed a “calm summer night” to the speaker was apparently not so calm for Richard Cory, even if it had the ultimate calming effect on him. And the dawn or revelation that the narrator seems to expect—how to be in Richard Cory’s place—ironically come like a bullet in the speaker’s head. Richard Cory’s place during his life was to be a kingly, upper-class, wealthy gentleman in fine clothes, but after the suicide, Richard Cory’s place is a grave. Since the speaker’s aim in life seems to have been to be like Richard Cory, Cory’s death brings his goals into question, if it does not outright kill them.

Themes

Wealth and Poverty

The poem’s last line is pivotal and surprising because Richard Cory is powerful and in control, and a man such as that would seem to have no reason to kill himself. In the first stanza, he is shown to be different from the “people on the pavement,” because he is wealthy and powerful. The glamour of Cory’s appearance seems to be more impressive than the size of his bank account; his wealth is only mentioned once, in line eight, and even then it is put in terms of his likeness to royalty and not in terms of what he could actually buy. The reason his wealth is important is that it is thought to have made him a better person—glamorous and cultured—than most people. For those not financially wealthy, it was difficult to just afford meat or fuel for their lamps. They were too busy keeping life and limb together to pay attention to the luxuries of life, like higher education and social status.

With Cory’s suicide, it becomes clear that happiness has escaped him. Because he had material success, everyone just assumed he had attained a spiritual peace and emotional fulfillment. They misjudged him because of superficial appearances. Like the narrator, readers are left wondering what money really buys, other than material goods. It turns out that the rich are afflicted with the same despair and spiritual bankruptcy as the rest of the population.

Success and Failure

As this poem demonstrates, success is relative. Richard Cory evidently was not satisfied with what he had accomplished in his life. Many of the townspeople admired him and envied his privileged life. The “light” referred to in the poem’s ninth line is just barely symbolic, a mixture of the actual means to pay for gas or electric lighting, of enlightenment, and of God’s grace. The people want some sort of approval that would let them feel that they are not failures, that their lives had attained some level of success. Richard Cory evidently did not feel the light’s salvation, even though the people of the town all felt that he, if anyone, would have.

Public vs. Private Life

So much attention is given to Richard Cory throughout the first twelve lines of the poem that it is difficult to believe that the poem’s speaker did not know him well enough to anticipate the unhappiness that led to his suicide. Looking back, though, after the surprise ending, it is clear that the description of Cory’s virtues were superficial and the speaker did not really know him.

Why would a wealthy man like Richard Cory even have a public persona? Assuming that he is not an entertainer, and his income is not dependent on his popularity, why should he hide his despair? Cory’s motive for disguising his true self cannot be determined with any certainty from the facts given in this poem. The fact that he seems to be “admirably schooled” is given from the perspective of one of his admirers, making this a very unreliable witness. His outward self may have shown many signs of the coming tragedy that might have been noticed by someone who was less in awe of him. It is almost impossible to tell who created Richard Cory’s public image.

Style

“Richard Cory” is a dramatic monologue, meaning that the speaker is assumed to be speaking to an audience. It is divided into four verses of four lines apiece. Each line is in iambic pentameter, meaning that it can be divided into five pairs of accented and unaccented syllables, with the unaccented syllable first. The first line may thus be read in a singsong fashion, as if someone were skipping while reciting:

When e   / ver Rich   / ard Cor   / y went   / downtown   …

The correct way to read poetry is to downplay these accents and to speak as naturally as possible, but the poet creates effects by varying this expected rhythm pattern to mimic the more complex patterns of human speech. Since it is impractical for a poet to write down every change in tone and voice he wants the reader to intone, the poet plays the reader’s tendency to read in a singsong pattern against the reader’s wish to read the poem as prose. The conflict between the two readings encourages the reader to find a compromise, and by varying the degree to which the reader is able to read singsong or prosy, the poet guides the reader to use the desired tone.

Other devices modify the accent pattern. For example, words with alliteration tend to be accented. In “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” for example, the syllables that start with “p” are read with more emphasis than the other syllables. In line two of “Richard Cory,” the singsong reading puts the emphasis on the word “on,” but the alliteration with “people” and “pavement” gives more emphasis to the accents on the first syllables of those words and reduces the relative importance of the accent on “on.”

The rhyme scheme for “Richard Cory” is abab cdcd efef ghgh. This scheme with the last two lines repeating the rhythmical and rhyme pattern of the first two lines creates balance between these pairs of lines, which Robinson uses effectively to give a sense of control to the poem’s tone. Robinson ends sentences at the end of each pair of lines, and he slows the reading of the poem by ending clauses

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a dialogue between Richard Cory and a Tilbury citizen. Let Cory explain his feelings at the time of his suicide and anticipate the response of the listener. Do they find common ground?
  • Write Richard Cory’s suicide letter. In it, explain what he was upset about. Did he feel that the world had treated him unjustly, or was he suffering some sort of guilt about the way he had behaved? Be sure to address specific details to the relatives and friends that you think he left behind.
  • Why did the people curse the bread? What does that tell you about their feelings about and opinion of Richard Cory?

and phrases at the end of lines and putting commas, colons, and periods there. This technique is called end-stopping because it forces the reader to stop briefly at the end of each line.

Historical Context

The Robber Barons

The last decade of the nineteenth century is considered “The Gay Nineties,” implying that it was a festive era during which Americans forgot their worries. This may have been true for the fortunate ones, the millionaires and children of millionaires who enjoyed great fortunes, but, as “Richard Cory” implies, many people at the time were not financially comfortable.

Between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, America expanded westward, relocating indigenous peoples onto reservations and encouraging Americans to settle on their land. This expansion was driven by railroads, which needed steel, investment capital, and cheap labor. The key industries of the time—including railroads—were controlled by just a few individuals, who are referred

Compare & Contrast

  • 1897: Gold discovered in Alaska the previous year started reaching the United States. Prospectors looking to get rich quickly moved to Alaska, creating the Alaska Gold Rush. By the end of the year, the territory had produced gold worth $22 million dollars.

    1968: Oil was discovered in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Circle. During the 1970s environmentalists and indigenous peoples fought construction of the Alaskan Pipeline, which was constructed across thousands of miles of virgin wilderness to pump oil from Alaska’s northern coast to Valdez, in the south.

    1989: A tanker loaded with oil from the Alaskan Pipeline crashed a few miles out of Valdez, spilling the million gallons of oil and creating an ecological disaster.

    Today: Alaska still provides approximately one fourth of the oil produced in the United States, but the Prudhoe Bay fields will reach depletion soon.

  • 1897: The population of the United States was estimated around 72,189,000.

    Today: The population of the United States is estimated to be around 250,000,000, with a growth rate of 10 percent per decade.

  • 1897: United States auto manufacturers produced 100 cars, up from 25 the year before.

    Today: The top three auto manufacturers in the United States produce over $375 billion annually.

to as the Robber Barons because of the unscrupulous tactics they used to amass their wealth. Today, the names of Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan are most often recognized for the schools, libraries, buildings, and foundations that their money helped to build. Yet citizens of the time knew that these men had built their fortunes by exploiting weak labor laws, bribing public officials, and, in general, transforming the government that the Founding Fathers dreamed of into a government run by wealthy interests.

The lives of these powerful men seemed to follow the same general pattern: they rose from humble, working-class families; accumulated great fortunes by recognizing growing industries; bribed government officials to ensure continuing success; and finally, driving their competitors out of business. For example, J. P. Morgan was a banker who controlled so much wealth that the federal government came to him for a loan during the financial crisis of 1895. He refused because the United States lacked the collateral for a loan, but he was willing to buy millions of dollars in United States bonds, which he quickly resold for an astronomical profit. Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould made their fortunes building railroads on government land, reasoning that westward expansion was in the public interest, and using steel rails provided by Carnegie’s U.S. Steel Corporation. By the 1890s, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation provided 90 percent of all petroleum products used in America.

The Robber Barons were able to control entire segments of the economy by buying up all competition—they were large enough to accept short-term losses if they lowered their prices until their competitors went bankrupt, and then bought the bankrupt business. To get around laws that prohibited owning manufacturing facilities in several states or holding stock in out-of-state companies, Rockefeller legally made Standard Oil into a “trust,” which was not legally a company and therefore could do business in all states. Other companies followed; by the early 1890s, 5,000 separate companies were classified under 300 trusts. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was supposed to curb this practice of market control, but the pro-business government seldom enforced it, and numerous exceptions were allowed. In a 1895 case, for example, the Supreme Court refused to apply the antitrust laws to the company that owned 98 percent of the country’s sugar-refining capacity, maintaining it was a manufacturing monopoly and not a commercial monopoly, and therefore exempt. By 1900, America was well on its way to becoming one of the world’s great industrial giant, but it reached that point by granting favors to a few enterprising individuals.

Organized Labor

At the same time that some individuals were amassing unprecedented fortunes through their control of vital industries and their government connections, most Americans were laboring in unsafe working conditions for wages that barely kept them and their families alive. Trade unions have existed in the United States since the 1790s, and striking had been found legal in court in 1842; but the Civil War devastated the American economy and made it difficult for unions to interest workers in walking away from the jobs they had.

In the 1870s, unions began to gain popularity. The growth of unions can be traced to a few important reasons: the shamelessness of the richest Americans and their conspicuous wealth and indifference to their workers; and newspaper publicity—especially humorous cartoons—depicting the Robber Barons as pigs gorging themselves at the public trough. In addition, the indignation of the workers was compounded by unfair collusion between the wealthy and the government; for example, when several strikers were convicted without any evidence following a bomb explosion at the infamous Haymarket Riot in 1894, occurring during a strike against the McCormick reaper company, workers across the country were enraged.

Some union organizers were inspired by the works of Karl Marx, whose Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. This significant political tract inspired people all over the world to explore the relationship between workers and wealth. Two of the most powerful and influential union leaders in the country’s history emerged during the 1880s and 1890s: Samuel Gompers, who was the president of the American Federation of Labor from its inception in 1886 until his death in 1924; and Eugene V. Debs, who led the powerful American Railway Union from 1893 to 1897 and then ran for president on the Socialist ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and once again in 1920, while he was serving a jail sentence for his vocal opposition to World War I.

Critical Overview

Robinson is most admired for his ability to write lyric and dramatic poetry. Allen Tate states that “Mr. Robinson’s genius is primarily lyrical” and that “Richard Cory” is “a perfect specimen of Mr. Robinson’s dramatic powers—when those powers are lyrically expressed.”

W. R. Robinson points to “Richard Cory” as one of several poems set in the fictional Tilbury Town, a place of “spiritual crassness and blindness” that links Robinson “with small-town New England, the repressive, utilitarian social climate customarily designated as the Puritan ethic.” (The Puritan ethic is the Christian emphasis on good works as evidence that one is saved from eternal damnation in Hell.) Robinson is often compared to Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote similar short-lyric poems on the citizens of a small town in the book Spoon River Anthology. Louis Untermeyer says that Robinson is “at his height” in such poems and that “none of the people in Spoon River (to which many of these characters bear a sort of avuncular relation) is pictured more surely and unforgettably than [‘Richard Cory’].”

Since the ending is so important to understanding the poem, critics often judge “Richard Cory” based on whether they like how it ends. Richard P. Adams reads the poem as an anti-materialistic poem and says that Cory’s suicide “leaves the reader free to decide, if he has his own courage to do so, that working and waiting and going without, and even cursing on occasion, may be a pretty good life after all.” William H. Pritchard seems to agree. He sees Robinson as “someone who relished ironic incongruities” such as the difference between the way the speaker of “Richard Cory” sees Cory and the way Cory’s inner life really is. However, Yvor Winters does not value the poem as highly; he calls it a “superficially neat portrait of the elegant man of mystery,” and he calls Cory’s suicide “a very cheap surprise ending,” saying that “all surprise endings are cheap in poetry, if not, indeed, elsewhere, for poetry is written to be read not once but many times.”

Criticism

David Kelly

David Kelly is a writer and instructor at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. In the following essay, Kelly examines the role of

What Do I Read Next?

  • The connection between Robinson’s poems about Tilbury Town, including Richard Cory, and the poems of Edgar Lee MastersSpoon River Anthology, published in 1915, has frequently been noted—both poem sequences provide a view of small-town America.
  • Reviewers often compare Robinson to Henry James, a novelist who also explored the American attitude toward wealth. The Dial Press collection from 1944, The Great Short Novels of Henry James, includes the classics Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, and more.
  • All of Robinson’s poems, including “Richard Cory,” are gathered in The Collected Poems Of Edwin Arlington Robinson, published in 1937.
  • Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio (1919), tells the stories of citizens in a small town in Ohio.
  • A great but often-neglected novel, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion also explores human the inner lives of privileged people. The character Richard Cory would fit comfortably into this novel.

wealth in the poem, focusing on how it influences the reader.

Americans can rest comfortably with the knowledge that Richard Cory, miserable wretch, pulled the trigger on himself, thereby assuring us that the wealth most of us will never know is not worth having anyway. If Cory actually was the person the poem tells the reader he was, not just rich but also human, graceful and kingly, it would have been proof that one can rise to the top without getting a swelled head or losing touch with the people, and, frankly, that sort of unbridled success has to be treated with suspicion.

Interestingly, if Cory’s story happened today, someone would make a point to investigate this humanitarian millionaire, to find the business deal in his past that he concluded less than civilly, or the abandoned relative, or the pills or surgery that kept him so slim, or the child he bounced on his knee just a little too long.

The secret about Richard Cory’s suicide is not why it happened—the reader has some idea of why—but the fact that it seems so natural that he would do it. In theory, accumulation of wealth is what America’s economy is built on. Capitalism makes our society work, motivating citizens to get up out of their chairs, to build new things, to think and create and search for new solutions. Wealth is quite a motivator. Research scientists, for example, might drive themselves day and night in their search to cure diseases, simply out of love for mankind—but for the rest of us, it takes the promise of something more, in the way of recognition and financial rewards, to get us to do our jobs.

Without trying to belabor the obvious, in our society superior achievement is rewarded with wealth and prestige. We do not know how Richard Cory earned money, but we can see in the poem what an inspiration he was to the people on the pavement.

In its purest form, wealth can motivate people to do their best work, until they ascend to that category we call “the rich.” The correlation between work and money is not pure; being who we are, humans tend to add moral implications to the equation, so that making money is more than a measure of work but also a measure of how good one is at heart.

To some degree, this explains why corporations also bestow benefits on chief executives—great benefits like cars, club memberships, vacations, and even homes. Companies consider these perks to be important because an executive who is living well will inspire junior executives to rise to his level by working hard. These fringe benefits convey approval and success in a way that cold hard cash does not. For example, after the first inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981, Nancy Reagan replaced the tableware in the White House with $209,000 worth of Lennox china. To some, this seemed like egotistical waste of money, but it was intended as an inspirational message, to show “the people on the pavement” the extreme luxury that one can earn from working hard and rising to the top of one’s field.

Regardless of how economic theory justifies building one’s fortune, America has never been completely comfortable with limitless acquisition of wealth. This philosophy can be traced to the Puritans, a sect of English Protestants whose religious beliefs opposed luxury and welcomed hardship. A number of religious and philosophical orders settled in America during colonial times, but the Puritans were able to leave their mark on the way the culture developed because they survived. They accepted the difficulties of living in the strange wilderness without requiring worldly gratification or reward. For Puritans, work was itself a way of following God’s will, just as comfort was the devil’s way of luring men away from God. We still use the phrase “Puritan work ethic” today to describe that specifically American drive to keep working regardless of the reward, for the sake of work alone.

And so Americans have two opposing views of wealth. Economically, greed is good; it inspires people to work harder to buy more and then find ways to work even harder. Yet spiritually the belief is prevalent that the pursuit of material goods is a futile, empty endeavor that isolates people from what is really important. Ours is supposed to be classless society, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal—but that basic principle is contradicted if wealthy people are considered better than ordinary people. To put it another way, we all want to be in Richard Cory’s place, but that does not keep us from thinking the worst of him.

Richard Cory’s suicide at the end of the poem seems natural, even if it does come as a shock, because the reader is prepared to believe that a wealthy man is hiding either shame or misery. One reason for this is that sometimes the rich are hiding something; it is naive to assume that the morals of the rich are better than anybody else’s.

Another reason the reader may be suspicious is that the rich have more resources and therefore have more places to hide their secrets, from secret walled-up rooms to undeveloped plots of land to Swiss bank accounts. A rich man may have paid people to be silent about what he has done. A poor man almost surely has not.

Finally, we accept that Richard Cory had something hidden all along because he just seemed too good to be true throughout the poem. If anyone can create a false impression, an educated, wealthy person can. Modern readers are just too sophisticated to rely on outward appearances, as the poem’s narrator apparently did, perhaps because he needed someone to look up to.

Wealth makes us suspicious and wealth makes us jealous, and when it comes to comparing ourselves

“Americans can rest comfortably with the knowledge that Richard Cory, miserable wretch, pulled the trigger on himself, thereby assuring us that the wealth most of us will never know is not worth having anyway.”

to someone who has more, we remind ourselves about the camel who can pass through the eye of a needle easier than a rich man can get into heaven. We have more rich people to look at today than Robinson did in his time. They serve the same basic intellectual and moral needs for us that they served when this poem was written. In Robinson’s day, the models of unrestrained wealth, such as Andrew Carnegie or Cornelius Vanderbilt or John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Mellon, were people who had built their astronomical fortunes from scratch, feeding both the hopes for personal growth and the fear of corruption that rich people are bound to stir up in common folk. There was a greater distance between wealthy people and average people.

Today we do not believe that the divide is that great. We believe that the person next door might win tonight’s lottery and be a millionaire in the morning. We believe that any one of our acquaintances who can read a teleprompter, walk a runway, chat amicably, or catch a ball—that is, just about anyone—might just be considered as talented as Carnegie or Vanderbilt and be showered with just as much money. We believe that the rich are more like us than Edwin Arlington Robinson believed, but we also have a more steady barrage of scandals, exposed by the same media culture that is producing these instant millionaires. Every day the newspapers and television remind us that rich people have secrets, that they are vulnerable to scandal.

The other thing that we like to believe about the rich is that those who do not have secrets are lonely, too far removed from “the real world” to really enjoy life. Alienation is a common cause of suicides, and it would certainly apply to Richard Cory; for all of the talk about him, he is kept at a distance, treated like an object, forced to live a role, different than the common people with no rich friend or even a complacent chauffeur to talk to.

In modern American life the image of the isolated billionaire is a steady fixture: the character of Charles Foster Kane in the movie Citizen Kane dies wealthy but friendless; and in real life, Howard Hughes was unbelievably rich but so phobic about germs that he sealed himself off in a disinfected room and died, in 1976, like a hermit. Common sense implies that the very wealthy would have countless friends, but those “friends” are more likely to be attracted by money and therefore not true friends at all. Believing that it is lonely at the top makes life more bearable to those who do not think they will ever get there anyway.

It is an American tradition to want to be rich, but at the same time to wish the rich person unhappiness. The converse of this is, of course, the tradition of the rich person to not care who thinks ill of him or her. In Richard Cory’s death, there is a kind of justification for the rest of us, the people on the pavement, the ones who are waiting for the light—we can rest assured that money does not buy happiness after all.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Sources

Adams, Richard P., “The Failure of Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in Tulane Studies in English, Vol. 11, 1961, pp. 97-151.

Chernow, Ron, “The Lady and the Titan,” in Vanity Fair, May, 1998, pp. 224-38.

Currie, Harold, Eugene V. Debs, Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Lindsey, Almont, The Pullman Strike, The University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Pritchard, William H., “Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Prince of Heartbreakers,” in The American Scholar Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter, 1978-79, pp. 89-100.

Robinson, W. R., “The Alienated Self,” in Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poetry of the Act, The Press of Western Reserve University, 1967, reprinted in Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Francis Murphy, Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 128-47.

Tate, Allen, “Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936, pp. 123-201.

Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, Hill and Wang, 1982.

Untermeyer, Louis, “Edwin Arlington Robinson,” in American Poetry since 1900, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 40-66.

Winters, Yvor, Edwin Arlington Robinson, New Directions, 1946, 162 p.

For Further Study

Barnard, Ellsworth “‘Of This or That Estate’: Robinson’s Literary Reputation,” in Edwin Arlington Robinson: Centenary Essays, The University of Georgia Press, 1969, pp. 114.

The poet’s reputation has changed in the past thirty years, since this essay was published; still, this account of Robinson’s fluctuating reputation during his lifetime and in the decades soon after makes an interesting lesson in the history of American poetry.

Coxe, Louis O., Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry, Pegasus Press, 1969.

Biographical and critical study.

Franchere, Hoyt C., Edwin Arlington Robinson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969.

This book-length survey of Robinson’s life and work provides basic biographical and critical information, without breaking new ground. A useful all-around reference.

Fussell, Edwin S., “One Kind of Traditional Poet,” in Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Francis Murphy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, pp. 95-109.

Contrasts Robinson’s works with his reputation as an “old-fashioned” poet. Fussell also reports on how Robinson answered his younger critics.

Stovall, Floyd, “The Optimism Behind Robinson’s Tragedies,” in Appreciation of Edwin Arlington Robinson, edited by Richard Cary, Colby College Press, 1969, pp. 55-74.

This book was published “for the 100th anniversary of Maine’s most illustrious poet,” according to the title page. Stovall’s essay examines Robinson’s whole career, mentioning “Richard Cory” in passing.

Winters, Yvor, Edwin Arlington Robinson, New Directions Books, 1971.

Considered one of the definitive texts of literary criticism of Robinson. Important reading for anyone studying this poet.

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