The Man against the Sky

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The course of Edwin Arlington Robinson's (1869–1935) literary career is one of the most curious and one of the saddest of any American writer. For roughly the first twenty years of his poetic life, he lived and wrote in his native Gardiner, Maine, in near-total obscurity. His residence in the Maine village (the source for his imaginary Tilbury Town) was interrupted when he attended Harvard for two years as a "special student," one who had no intention of graduating. By 1899 he had removed to New York City, where he would live for the remainder of his life. With the 1916 publication of The Man against the Sky, Robinson's reputation began to improve dramatically, and by 1927 he had won three Pulitzer Prizes, was awarded two honorary doctorates, and most improbably of all, published a long narrative poem, Tristram (1927), that became a national best-seller. Then started the slow slide into obscurity once again. When he died in 1935, Robinson was nearly as neglected as he had been at the beginning. For a time, however, he was considered the most gifted living American poet, whose nearest rival was T. S. Eliot (1888–1965).


Robinson' s first volume of poetry, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), was privately printed at his own expense, and his meager income was supplemented by an anonymous stipend donated by those who thought he showed great literary promise. His literary fortunes improved somewhat when Kermit Roosevelt showed his father a copy of The Children of the Night (1897). Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was so taken by the poetry that he secured a position for Robinson in the New York Customs House, convinced Scribners to reissue the volume, and wrote an appreciative essay for the Outlook. Thus it was that one of the most public of men in the country came to the aid of one of the most demure and reclusive. The president whose favorite adjective was "bully" sponsored a poet who was widely regarded as an incurable pessimist. On that score Robinson had the ready answer of an unflinching realist: "There's a good deal to live for," he wrote in a letter, "but a man has to go through hell really to find it out. The process is hard but the result pays" (quoted in Anderson, p. 63).

There is no gainsaying the dark and severe outlook that saturates Robinson's poetry, but whether that derived from his individual temperament or reflected a considered philosophic judgment is an open question. His "philosophy," such as it was, he once defined in a letter as "mostly a statement of my inability to accept a mechanistic interpretation of the universe and of life" (Selected Letters, p. 165). While he was at Harvard, Robinson had been exposed to the antagonistic though stimulating intellectual oppositions of William James (1842–1910) and Josiah Royce (1855–1916). The first had articulated a genial pragmatic philosophy of openness and possibility, the second advanced a stoical idealism that found the human condition essentially tragic. Both James and Royce, however, set themselves against the scientific materialism of Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, and others. If for the philosopher a mechanistic worldview was an unacceptable intellectual proposition, for the average man and woman there was a felt oppressiveness to a vision that declared consciousness a mere "motor accompaniment" to the movements of the brain, God and soul pleasant and delusive fictions, and free will an impossibility. Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) was speaking dramatically but accurately when he described the current worldview in a letter in 1897:

E. A. Robinson's Tilbury Town belongs in the company of those other fictional villages where the outward lives and inner turmoil of its citizens are the subject of poetic or fictional treatment. Mark Twain's St. Petersburg, Missouri, Stephen Crane's Whilomville, New York, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River, Illinois, and even William Faulkner's Jefferson, Mississippi, are microcosms of a larger sectional and sometimes national life. Perhaps due to his own sense of failure, Robinson often wrote poetic portraits of citizens who, for one reason or another, had not achieved in life or had fallen on hard times. Bewick Finzer is one of the latter. It is unclear how he lost his fortune; he may have been the victim of one or another of the several financial panics that occurred between 1893 and 1907. It is clear, however, that Finzer's failing could have happened to anyone in Tilbury Town. For that reason, he serves as an object lesson to the community, and its citizens are willing to grant him an annual "loan." They know he is a bad risk, but they spare him the humiliation of acting the beggar, for their sakes as well as his.

Bewick Finzer

Time was when his half million drew
The breath of six per cent;
But soon the worm of what-was-not
Fed hard on his content;
And something crumbled in his brain
When his half million went.
Time passed, and filled along with his
The place of many more;
Time came, and hardly one of us
Had credence to restore,
From what appeared one day, the man
Whom we had known before.
The broken voice, the withered neck,
The coat worn out with care,
The cleanliness of indigence,
The brilliance of despair,
The fond imponderable dreams
Of affluence,—all were there.
Poor Finzer, with his dreams and schemes,
Fares hard now in the race,
With heart and eye that have a task
When he looks in the face
Of one who might so easily
Have been in Finzer's place.
He comes unfailing for the loan
We give and then forget;
He comes, and probably for years
Will he be coming yet,—
Familiar as an old mistake,
And futile as regret.

Robinson, "Bewick Finzer," in The Man against the Sky, pp. 119–121.

There is a—let us say—a machine. It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold!—it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. . . . It is a tragic accident—and it has happened. . . . It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair, and all the illusions—and nothing matters. (Watt, p. 153)

By the early years of the twentieth century, however, the authority of a mechanistic determinism was already beginning to fade. It was being challenged or displaced by a vitalist philosophy that disputed Spencerian evolutionary theory, the laboratory experiments of Marie Curie, the depth psychology of Sigmund Freud, and the mathematical calculations of Albert Einstein. Apparently none of these intellectual options was particularly appealing to Robinson, for he would not, or could not, accept a universe that was relativistic or believe the remedy to the fateful human condition was somehow contained in the anodyne slogan "Take life by storm!" Nor were the modernist techniques in poetry, cinema, and the visual arts that developed as means to disclose a new order of understanding at all satisfactory to him. As late as 1934, in Amaranth, he would confess:

I lean to less rebellious innovations;
And like them, I've an antiquated eye
For change too savage, or for cataclysms
That would shake out of me an old suspicion
That art has roots.

(P. 67)

Robinson was suspicious of free verse and imagism and, though he liked some of Eliot's poetic effects, believed that he was taking the wrong road poetically. Instead, Robinson embraced conventional poetic forms—dramatic and interior monologues, sonnets, narratives, lyrics, poetic dialogues, and others—most often with regular meter and rhyme schemes. He accepted the poetic idiom of his day, but he sought within established conventions to shape a poetry that fit his temperament. As Robert Frost (1874–1963) said of him, "Robinson stayed content with the old-fashioned way to be new" (p. 60).

And he was new. The ways that Robinson attempted to be original are several. He stripped his verse of the taint of Romantic idiom and trite symbolism in favor of poetic conversations or meter-making arguments. He avoided the self-conscious polish of so many of his contemporaries who, in the estimate of George Santayana and others, perfected a mode of expression without having anything in particular to express. On the other hand, he brought to his poetry deep erudition, but without the perplexing allusiveness of an Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot, and he achieved a certain vividness without the support of a controlling "image" or a system of complex symbols. The building blocks of Robinson's verse were not symbols nor even words but phrases. This is appropriate because his chief interest was not in things or places or ideas but in people, in individuals who in their unique griefs and passions disclosed some mystery that could not be explained away by science, psychology, or sociology.


"The zone of individual differences," wrote William James, " . . . is the zone of formative processes, the dynamic belt of a quivering uncertainty. . . . It is the theatre of all we do not take for granted" (p. 192). By contrast, and James is speaking of Herbert Spencer here, "the sphere of the race's average, . . . no matter how large it may be, is a dead and stagnant thing, an achieved possession, from which all insecurity has vanished" (p. 192). Where there is no insecurity, there can be no tragedy and no dignity. To convey that drama of the small, individual difference, Robinson sought to use a "language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said." The poetic method of "Eros Turannos" (Tyrant Passion), perhaps the most disturbingly beautiful of the twenty-six poems that make up The Man against the Sky, is illustrative. The poem begins:

She fears him, and will always ask
What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.

(P. 67)

Throughout the first four stanzas, a seemingly omniscient narrator informs one in no uncertain terms that this is a home where "passion lived and died" and yet remains for her a "place where she can hide." The woman has sacrificed her "sagacity," which once could have sounded the depths of the man behind his gestures, and has used such love as remains to her to transmute her "Judas" into something she can at least live with. Her pride is her only comforter.

Such is the woman the narrator pictures for readers, but then there is a shift in point of view:

We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be.

(P. 69)

As more than one critic has observed, the introduction of the "we" narrator in this poem, as in so many of Robinson's poems, functions as the chorus in a Greek tragedy—distancing the reader from the incomprehensible, or at least incommunicable, thoughts and feelings of the woman while at the same time connecting her life to the vital concerns of the community. Such speculative interest in the story of this house is not harmful, one is told, for they

That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
Take what the god has given.

(P. 70)

Between what the townsfolk have "guessed" and some sustaining quality within the woman herself resides the mystery of her life, James's "quivering uncertainty." This is a pervasive quality in The Man against the Sky. It exists in "Old King Cole," the widower with two errant sons who appears curiously merry and refuses the condescending pity of Tilbury Town: "And if I'd rather live than weep / Meanwhile, do you find that surprising?" (p. 41). It exists in the dramatic monologue "Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford." Jonson ponders the enigmatic genius of Shakespeare but is equally disturbed by Shakespeare's apparent indifference to learning, society, art, even his own gifts. It resides in the dreamy self-delusion of the once affluent "Bewick Finzer," who in punctually applying for a loan and a second chance each year has become for the town as "Familiar as an old mistake / And futile as regret" (p. 121); and in the "Veteran Sirens" who, no longer lovely, still refuse their age:

Poor flesh, to fight the calendar so long;
Poor vanity, so quaint and yet so brave;
Poor folly, so deceived and yet so strong.

(P. 86)

In "Cassandra," a latter-day prophetess whose prophecies are accurate but whom the people refuse to believe, warns an ill-fated community of its optimistic devotion to the "Dollar as your only Word":

The power is yours, but not the sight;
You see not upon what you tread;
You have the ages for your guide,
But not the wisdom to be led.

(P. 21)

Blindness, spiritual, moral, or other, is a persistent theme for Robinson. He once remarked that the world is "but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks." Cassandra asks a complacent and cheery crowd, "And are you never to have eyes / To see the world for what it is?" (p. 22). The "laughing crowd / Moved on. None heeded, and few heard" (p. 22). The Man against the Sky is an inventory of half-lived lives comprised of timid griefs and anxious disappointments. Robinson's characters are often wounded, but they are ennobled by their power to endure the hurt; they are blind, but they grope their way in some vague direction nevertheless. The opening and closing poems ("Flammonde" and "The Man against the Sky") bracket the others in a way that gives the volume coherence and indicate that the nightmare of a world war was much on his mind.

Flammonde, meaning literally the world on fire, is a man of obscure origins. He has fallen upon hard times and become a beggar, but he retains a courteous refinement that appeases the malcontents of the village. A certain generosity of spirit about him resolves the difficulties of others but not his own, and he himself remains a mystery:

How much of it was of him we met
We cannot ever know; nor yet
Shall all he gave us quite atone
For what was his, and his alone.

(P. 6)

The final image is of an uncommon man no longer among them who follows the path laid out for everyone:

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.

(P. 7)

The title poem that concludes the volume reclaims the image of a man mounting a hill at sunset in order to engage in broader meditations about enigmatic human struggles. The narrator of "The Man against the Sky" regards a hill lit by sunset as "the glory of a world on fire" (p. 130). By 1916 the conflagration of a world war forced upon untold hosts of men and women raises questions of purpose and immortality. Robinson's poem contains no answers to those questions other than the sturdy refusal to believe that "All comes to Nought" (p. 148). The narrator knows nothing of the man who climbs that hill other than that he moves alone, "As if he were the last god going home / Unto his last desire" (p. 130). By the end of the first stanza the man has crested the hill, and the remainder of the poem is a catalog of surmises.

It may be the man descended to climb yet another hill, "where more of him shall yet be given" (p. 132). Or, preserving his innocence, he may have discovered that he already possessed the "promised land" (p. 133). Or, a cynic, he may have struggled to his tomb "unreconciled" (p. 138). He may have been a materialist, who saw with his "mechanic eyes / A world without a meaning" (p. 139). Even so, the materialist in his desire for purpose may build "A living reason out of molecules / Why molecules occurred" (p. 139) and take some odd measure of pride in "being what he must have been by laws / Infrangible and for no kind of cause" (p. 139). Whatever lured the man on or made him hesitate, one is told:

His way was even as ours;
And we, with all our wounds and all our powers,
Must each await alone at his own height
Another darkness or another night.

(Pp. 141–142)

Perhaps, Robinson suggests, we are

no greater than the noise we make
Along one blind atomic pilgrimage
Whereon by crass chance billeted we go
Because our brains and bones and cartilage
Will have it so.

(P. 143)

But if one believes this to be true, then it is fitting to keep still and die meekly. We know nothing of the next world, and not much of this one, the poem implies, but this much we do know:

That we may laugh and fight and sing
And of our transience here make offering
To an orient Word that will not be erased,
Or, save in incommunicable gleams
Too permanent for dreams,
Be found or known.

(P. 144)

What that Word may be, the narrator does not say. This is but the slightest basis for a faith in immortality, or even in some unknown purpose. Nevertheless, the poem stands as Robinson's most explicit poetic statement of what may pass for a philosophy—a rebuke to the mechanistic temper of his times. Whatever reassurances the poem offers are to be found in the steadiness of tone in the narrator, not in the painful world he describes. His is a stoic and idealist's faith founded upon the simple yet realistic observation that while men and women may "curse life" and pity their plights, so long as they continue to endure and continue to live, they willy-nilly bear witness to some imperishable absolute that outlives complaint.

see alsoLyric Poetry; Philosophy; Scientific Materialism; Village Dwellers


Primary Works

Frost, Robert. Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Edited by Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Colliers Books, 1968.

James, William. The Will to Believe. Edited by Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. Amaranth. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. The Man against the Sky. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. Selected Letters of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Edited by Ridgely Torrence. New York: Macmillan, 1940.

Secondary Works

Anderson, Wallace Ludwig. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Barnard, Ellsworth, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson: Centenary Essays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969.

Coxe, Louis Osborne. Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry. New York: Pegasus, 1969.

Franchere, Hoyt C. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Twayne, 1968.

Joyner, Nancy Carol. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Kaplan, Estelle. Philosophy in the Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

Murphy, Francis, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Neff, Emery Edward. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: W. Sloane Associates, 1948.

Richards, Laura Elizabeth Howe. E. A. R. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Van Doren, Mark. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Literary Guild of America, 1927.

Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.

Winters, Yvor. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: New Directions, 1971.

Tom Quirk