Biography Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

photo of Edwin Arlington Robinson
  • Time Period1869 - 1935
  • PlaceMaine
  • CountryUnited States

Poet Biography

Born and raised in Maine to a wealthy family, he was the youngest of three sons and not groomed to take over the family business. Instead, he pursued poetry since childhood, joining the local poetry society as its youngest member. He attended Harvard, but his personal life was soon beset by a chain of tragedies that are reflected in his work. His father died, the family went bankrupt, one of his brothers became a morphine addict, and his mother contracted and eventually died from black diphtheria. Because of the highly infectious nature of the disease, the local mortician was unwilling to even tend to the body, forcing Robinson and his brothers to bury her themselves. Shortly after, he met a woman, Emma Shepherd, with whom he fell deeply in love, but he was also convinced that marriage and familial responsibilities would hinder his work as a poet, so he introduced her to his eldest brother, who married her. Though this brother agreed to support Robinson (and did provide a modest monthly stipend for as long as he could with his bankrupt business), the relationship between the poet and his brother's wife was a source of tension between them. Later, his middle brother died, apparently a suicide.

For several years, Robinson lived in poverty, continuing to write and publish with the help of his friends. His first break came in 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt read one of Robinson's early works, Children of the Night. He was so impressed by it that he arranged a job for Robinson at a custom house, so that he could continue writing. Unfortunately, this was the least fecund period in his creative career, and when he lost the president's patronage after Roosevelt term of office ended, his employers cracked down on Robinson until he eventually quit.

Soon after, he wrote The Town down the River, which was critically acclaimed. In 1911, he found a patroness in the person of the widow of composer Edward MacDowell and worked to improve his poetry even further. He also attempted writing plays, but these were not well-received. Another, anonymous patron, who began supporting him in 1916 ensured that Robinson was financially self-sufficient. He began work on an Arthurian trilogy, Merlin, Lancelot, and Tristram.

In 1922, Robinson received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems: He won it again in 1925 for The Man Who Died Twice and in 1928 for Tristram, the third part of his trilogy. With his new-found fame and fortune, he made a radical change in his lifestyle too, tending to himself and even starting to drink again, claiming that he was doing it to protest Prohibition. He published regularly until the day he died, in New York City in 1935.

A song based on Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" was recorded by Simon and Garfunkel on their second album, Sounds of Silence.