David Perkins: On "Richard Cory"

"Richard Cory" concentrates on a particular character. The poem is no lyric self-expression, but an impersonal, objective report. The setting is an American town of the time, the provincial imagination engrossed and dazzled by a figure of consummate gentlemanly elegance (of royalty, as the townsfolk take it, if one regards a counterpoint in the images "crown," "imperially slim"). The idiom, though cultured, is colloquial, not in the least "poetic." Except at the end, the poem selects the most ordinary incidents as points of focus and plays down emotion.

Above all there are the irony and humor from which the poem chiefly derives its effectiveness. The surprise ending may be a little easy, and the implied moral--something like "how little we really know about the lives of others!"--may be trite. (The "idea" of the poem, Douglas Bush suggests to me, may have been taken from a bit in Bleak House, chapter 22.) But what matters is the attitude of the speaker toward himself and especially toward the other townspeople: his self-awareness, ironic distance, and detached amusement with the human comedy. The poem is subtle, however, and it is easier to sense this attitude than indicate its source. It depends very much on the characterization of the speaker through language, syntax, and metrical form. The idiom ("clean favored," "in fine") is itself "admirably schooled," the syntax controlled and orderly, and the neatness of the quatrains further contributes to the impression. One infers that the speaker is an educated man and hence that his self-identification with the too-admiring townsfolk is half ironic, a circumstance that becomes especially clear in the exaggeration of the lines,

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread.

The speaker has a self-conscious, fastidious awareness of his language. In the phrase, "yes, richer than a king," the "yes" means, "yes, we even used the stock cliché," and one thus understands that the phrasing throughout is adjusted in irony to convey the sayings and feelings of the townsfolk more than his own--for example, the subtly telling cliché, "from sole to crown," or the excessive enthusiasm (and bathetic fall) in the phrase "imperially slim." A speaker so aware must also be aware of the discrepancy between the commonplace actions of Cory (going down town, saying "good-morning," or simply walking) and the reactions of the townspeople (staring from the pavement, "fluttered pulses," their feeling that Cory "glittered when he walked"). Even the initial metrical inversion of the third line ("He was") counts by glancing invidiously at "we" others. The result is a reflective, shrewdly humorous portrait by implication of the town and townsfolk. Low-keyed, cerebral, ironic, impersonal, mingling humor and seriousness and implicating a whole social milieu, the poem was without precedent or even parallel in the 1890s.

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Criticism Overview
Title David Perkins: On "Richard Cory" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Perkins Criticism Target Edwin Arlington Robinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 23 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode
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