203. Richard Cory: Edwin Arlington Robinson

The last post–Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”–was a bit long and deep and could be considered a downer.  Suicide.

This  is about a suicide, too.   Not as much of a downer.  Perhaps it’s Aristotle’s often quoted “comedy = tragedy + time”.  Not that Robinson is funny, but Cory’s death isn’t as tragic as the narrator in Carson’s poem.

“Richard Cory” is a staple of the American Literature textbooks.  For some reason, in eleventh grade, I took a shine to the poem.  This poem was the one I analyzed for one of the three required papers we wrote–I even made a graphic novel of the story for extra credit.  I think it might be because  nobody seemed to champion Robinson.  He was a stop in the chronological march through the text, obligatorily tossed into the Realists.  This is the only poem they gave us.

I hadn’t come into contact with “Richard Cory” again until I took an Introduction to Poetry class in graduate school (I was making up for not having taken any English classes as an undergraduate–one of three “older” people among the nineteen year-olds.)  Our professor, Del Janik, used to the appropriately titled “Introduction of Poetry” by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.  The class was transformative, showing poetry to not be a quirky writing style but an intentional manipulation of language leading the reader towards art.  Professor Janik helped.  But Kennedy and Gioia broke poetry down element by element, chapter by chapter, and built it back up.  By the end of the course, I realized that I would never be a poet because, darn it, it’s hard work.

Let me take a moment to recommend X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia’s “Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing”.  The section on poetry is really the “Introduction to Poetry” book.  Like poetry, Kennedy and Gioia do the same break-down with fiction and drama.  It is full of great stories, poems and plays.  A nice variety, both classic and modern.  The editors have a great sense of humor and understand the Literature is not all weight, but can be fun.  My favorite aspect of the text is that, in the back, they index the Literature by themes.  When I’m teaching a certain theme, I flip to the back and find several great pieces.  It’s a hefty, textbook price, but worth it.

And, he included not only Robinson’s “Richard Cory”, but compared it to Simon & Garfunkel’s version.  Here is them singing it live, 1966

I offer the lyrics below Robinson’s original.  Note the similar perspective, but with slightly different emphasis. Robinson wrote during the Progressive Era, and this is certainly a product of those times. Still, ask students which is the better poem? Which do THEY relate to?

You can also get into a whole “are songs poetry” discussions, but….

It might also serve as a springboard into historical criticism. Does it being historically significant (Progressive Era, 1960’s) matter? Why, or why not? Taking away the historical significance, which is the better piece? Neither? Does time pass it by?

And, you could touch on the suicide/death thing. Is this tragic? Really? How so? Or, looking at that Aristotle idea of time, does this no longer sting?

Richard Cory
Edwin Arlington Robinson

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,
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:
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,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Richard Cory
Simon & Garfunkel

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.

But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.


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