December 22, 2010

Robinson: a hell of a name for a poet

Edwin Arlington Robinson once said his three-part name sounded "like a tin bathtub bumping down an uncarpeted flight of stairs." By 1926, he concluded, "I have always hated my name with a hatred that is positively pathological." Though he went by the nickname "E.A.," he signed his works with his full name.

He was born on December 22, 1869 at Head Tide, Maine and went the first six months of his life unnamed. According to legend, while his parents were on vacation, a traveler from Arlington, Massachusetts picked "Edwin" from a hat and her home town was added in the middle. The future three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry later sarcastically thought it "a hell of a name for a poet."

Robinson grew up at a time when the Fireside Poets were waning. Like many of his generation, he broke away from that genteel tradition and followed a new pattern forged by the likes of Walt Whitman. Robinson published his first book, The Torrent and The Night Before, in 1896. The book includes a poem dedicated to Whitman and another one dedicated "Dear Friends":

Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own:—the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.

And whosoreads may get hiin some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores: —
So friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singiug is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

*Some of the information for this post comes from Scott Donaldson's Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2006). The portrait above, dated 1916, is from the E. A. Robinson site by the Gardiner (Maine) Public Library; the original image is in the special collections of Colby College.

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