The Sheaves by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

  • I have only one objection to free verse and that is that it seems to me to be a makeshift. About the best I can say is that the best free verse that I have seen contains subject matter for good poems. ~ EA Robinson

Before Frost brought a vernacular gait to Iambic Pentameter, Robinson was the first poet to bring a modern American diction to meter and form. Some readers might argue for Emily Dickinson, but Dickinson never ventured beyond the common meter of the hymn and ballad.  I also don’t feel a uniquely modern American diction in her poetry (as opposed to British). If we heard Emily Dickinson speak today, she would probably sound more British than American. (In the environs of Boston and Amherst the British accent was still studiously cultivated.)

  • I know that many of the new writers insist that it is harder to write good vers libre than to write good rhymed poetry. And judging from some of their results, I am inclined to agree with them. ~ EA Robinson

But where Robinson’s voice may sound modern, his heart remains with the classicists. Where modern poets write as though the poem were just another species of prose, poetry to Robinson is more than content. A poem is also an excursion into the felicities of language. The two go together. A good subject is heightened by the language’s expressiveness, and vice versa. I know I like to get my licks in when it comes to free verse (it’s like skeet shooting), but appreciation of Robinson’s poetry is heightened when a reader understands a little about his life.

  • Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said. ~ EA Robinson

Until the very end of his life, Robinson was ignored. Times and poetic tastes were changing, and for good reason. As Robert Mezey points out in his introduction to The Poetry of E.A. Robinson, the luminaries of the times were writing chestnuts like the following:

What is a sonnet? ‘T is the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstacy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.

And that little morsel was by Watson Gilder, the John Ashbery of his day, famous in his age and held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Every heard of him? Mezey provides another example:

Alone it stands in Poesy’s fair land,
A temple by the muses set apart;
A perfect structure of consummate art,
By artists builded and by genius planned.

The subject matter of these two extracts by no means typify every poem written at the end of the 19th century, but they do reflect what was popular and esteemed. Poetry by this point was so pleased with itself that poets could write swooning poems about poetry.

The only poet to survive the 1890’s was E.A. Robinson. When every other poet of his generation was writing forgettable metrical and rhyming poetry in a decidedly British tradition, Robinson’s survived by doing something none of the other poets did – appealing to readers in their own language.

  • I had no idea of establishing any new movement in poetry. As I look back I see that I wrote as I did without considering how much of the old poetical machinery I left behind. I see now that I have always disliked inversions as well as many other conventional solemnities which seem to have had their day. I could never, even as a child, see any good reason why the language of verse should be distorted almost out of recognition in order to be poetical.  ~ EA Robinson

Just as Robinson rejected the burgeoning age of free verse, he also rejected the excesses of traditional poetry. He represented the first among America’s rarest poets – those who could infuse traditional poetry with a the modern voice – something that a poet like the much younger Edna Saint Vincent Millay, for example, never really managed to do. Even in the 21rst century, the number of poets who can skillfully infuse traditional poetry with a modern, vernacular voice are few and far between.

  • My poetry is rat poison to editors, but here and there a Philistine seems to like it. ~ EA Robinson

Despite Robinson’s unique genius, he was ignored until the last decade of his life. He lived in boarding houses, with generous admirers and friends and skirted homelessness. He lived, at times, in abject poverty, drank whiskey to excess, depended on free lunches at saloons, and haunted taverns. He was the Charles Bukowski of his age and, in truth, his clear-eyed observation of fellow men put him in the same league as Bukowski. The two poets could have been friends in another era.

  • I’ve always rather liked the queer, odd sticks of men, that’s all. ~ EA Robinson

It’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which Robinson was ignored. Mezey, in his introduction, suggests that Robinson was a poor self-promoter. He kept to himself. He didn’t tour or give lectures. He preferred solitude. But luck and critical reception plays a part. Frost’s sudden success, for example, was more luck than design. Frost met Ezra Pound and was championed by the famous poet. As a result, American publishers, who had previously ignored Frost, took notice. Robinson, it seems, never enjoyed that kind of breakthrough until the very last decade of his life, when Tristram won the Pulitzer prize. A healthy income and fame finally caught up with him. That was in 1927. He died April 6th, 1935.

  • I think we must leave my contemporaries out of it. I don’t mind your saying, though, that I think a lot of Robert Frost’s work. ~ EA Robinson

Robinson continues to be overlooked. My own opinion is this: Robinson possessed a masterful ear for the colors of language, its rhythm and poetic form. What he lacked, perhaps, is a great poet’s gift for imagery. One will rarely find the ravishing sensuality of a Keats— sensitivity to touch, taste, smell and texture— or the arresting metaphor (or extended metaphor) of a Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. Robinson’s plain style equally characterizes his poetic abilities. He seems, sometimes, almost embarrassed by the poetic image. He limits himself to only the most necessary description. In what some consider to be one of his greatest poems, Eros Turannos, the reader will be hard put to find anything that might be called simile, metaphor or imagery. A face is an “engaging mask”. We read of the “foamless weirs of age”, but the image is more like a still-life. Robinson frequently prefers the abstract to the concrete. We find collocations like “blurred sagacity” or “dirge of her illusions”, or “kindly veil”. These evoke nothing and range from the inventive to the mundane. They are intellectual abstractions. In his great poem For A Dead Lady, the reader will find abstractions like “overflowing light”, “eyes that now are faded”, “flowing wonder”, and the slightly more inventive “woman-hidden world”, but all these collocations are of the still-life variety, and some are just mundane, like “flowing wonder”. When Robinson does describe, his sense of imagery is mostly prosaic. We find “pounding waves” or “A sense of ocean and old trees”. Such descriptions are as typical of the novelist as of the poet. You will never find anything like Frost’s extended metaphor in Birches:

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

You will only find, every now and then, the seeds and hints of something that might have more fully flourished in the hands of a poet with a more metaphorical bent. What Robinson excels at is the pithy line. There’s a tight, powerfully succinct, terse and epigrammatic feel to his lines that, to a reader who revels concision and eloquence, is a joy to read. Robinson’s style is compressed and elliptical – talents that naturally made him a master of the short poem. In truth, most modern poets (some of whom are widely read) have no more talent for simile or metaphor than Robinson, but lack Robinson’s powerful feel for language. The wonder is that Robinson isn’t more widely read. To some, probably, he reads like a watered-down Frost, to others, more used to the transparently straight forward voice of free verse, Robinson’s powerfully compressed lines can feel archly intellectual. Robinson ends up neither here nor there. But read him for the concision of his lines. Read Robinson for his ability to compress a whole story into the space of a few lines.

  • I am essentially a classicist in poetic composition, and I believe that the accepted media for the masters of the past will continue to be used in the future. There is, of course, room for infinite variety, manipulation and invention within the limits of traditional forms and meters, but any violent deviation from the classic mean may be a confession of inability to do the real thing, poetically speaking. ~ EA Robinson

What makes Robinson’s poem, The Sheaves, so unique among his poems is that it offers the reader both powerful concision and  an almost Keatsian (or Frostian) beauty of imagery and metaphor – the latter being more of a rarity. To me, who values both these elements, The Sheaves is his greatest, most perfect and most moving poem. Others, for other reasons, might choose other poems.

Here it is:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

And here, for those who enjoy such things, is how I’ve scanned the poem:

What does it mean?

My first answer would be to say that it means what it says. Robinson called himself a classicist. What that means aesthetically, and from a poet’s perspective, is that the beauty of the great poem is both in what is said and how it’s said. Robinson’s quote: “Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said.” To a classicist, a poem is a linguistic performance. (In that respect, rap has more in common with traditional poetry than with free verse.) Perhaps an apt analogy is to compare the classicist’s ideal oem to a statue by Michelangelo. We might ask how to interpret the Pietà: Why, for instance, did Michelangelo choose to omit signs of the passion when sculpting Christ? But no one would care if the sheer skill of its conception, in and of itself, weren’t a masterpiece of genius. In other words, we can appreciate the beauty of the statue without needing to interpret it or give it meaning. It’s meaning is, emphatically, not what makes the Pietà a masterpiece. Likewise, Robinson’s sonnet, The Sheaves, isn’t memorable for what it says (which is fairly mundane) but for how it’s said – the sheer skill of its conception. Robinson’s sonnet is, in a sense, like a sculpture. It’s an aesthetic, by the way, a way of writing poetry that is almost entirely absent in modern poetry. As I have writtene elsewhere, modern poets write at the alter of content. If we were to rewrite Robinson’s sonnet as  free verse, it would loose much of a power and beauty, and this isn’t necessarily to diminish free verse, in and of itself, but to distinguish between the different aesthetic approaches of a poet like Robinson and most modern poets.

  • Many causes prevent poetry from being correctly appraised in its own time. Any poetry that is marked by violence, that is conspicuous in color, that is sensationally odd, makes an immediate appeal. On the other hand, poetry that is not noticeably eccentric sometimes fails for years to attract any attention… More than ever before, oddity and violence are bringing into prominence poets who have little besides these two qualities to offer the world… ~ EA Robinson

The sonnet is a beautiful example of a Petrarchan Sonnet written in Iambic Pentameter. As far as metrical innovation goes, the sonnet has nothing out of the ordinary to offer. There is one interesting spondaic foot: |vast mag|ic. The spondee, I think, reinforces the sense of vastness. The effect probably wasn’t cultivated by Robinson but, in a metrical poem, the accentual nature of the language takes on a little added emphasis.

What is beautiful about the poem is an opening quatrain like the following:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.

Robinson’s sonnet begins in a kind of darkness – the beautiful image ‘shadows of the wind’. From there, the sonnet’s world begins to grow into a beautiful golden brilliance: green wheat, as though by some vast magic, is turning “slowly into gold”. After the first quatrain, the second gives to an impersonal landscape, something like thought, shape and intent.

Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

What is the It that begins the second line of the quatrain? – body and mind. Robinson begins to shape the landscape into something human or divine (though the magic is undivined).  The reader is in a world of ambiguity, but Robinson has introduced all the elements of a metaphor that, like the landscape, will coalesce and beautifully take shape in the sonnet’s closing sestet (last six lines). What is the body? What is the mind? Does the mind of meaning or intent? He doesn’t yet tell us, only that it is like nothing that was ever bought or sold. It is without price or estimation. It cannot be constrained by any limitation but is free. And it’s meaning? Robinson is content with ambiguity. The read will ask, but Robinson will only answer that it is a “mighty meaning of a kind, That tells the more the more it is not told.” There is a power in these lines that is comparable to a zen koan. Lao Tse might have written such lines in his Tao Te Ching. To me, the simple, plain spoken mystery and truth in these two lines is equal to anything written by any other poet in any other language or  time. Such is the mystery of life that tells the more the more it is not told. The reader, the novitiate, seeking answers, must be silent. True knowledge does not come through the telling, and yet tells the more it is not told.

And now all the pieces of the metaphor will come together in one of the most beautiful images of all of poetry.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —

Robinson begins the patrarchan sestet with an almost off-handed tone, anticipating and equal to anything Robert Frost was to write in later years. We are back to the impersonal landscape of wind and shadow. Robinson writes, simply and matter-of-factly, that though all days are not fair, fair days went on until a thousand golden sheaves “were lying there”. The first three lines are all but a restatement of the sonnet’s opening octave. But Robinson has placed the elements of a greater “meaning”, a “meaning of a kind that tells the more it is not told” the will take life with “body and mind”. The leaves will lie there, shining and still, but not for long. They will wait there like nothing that was ever bought or sold, until one day, they will be embodied,

As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Body and mind coalesce. In these last two lines, with a power akin to the closing couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet, body, mind and meaning take shape, become metaphor, embodied in the inexpressible will and beauty of a thousand girls, whose meaning is greatest if left, perhaps, “untold”.  They have slept but will arise out of the impersonal shadow of the wind, suddenly alive, willful, free, golden haired, light, and inexpressibly lovely. Their meaning is in a beauty that defies definition. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, Robinson almost seems to say. But their beauty is fleeting. The arise. They do not come to us, speak to us, or explain. They will go way and that is all ye know and all ye need to know.

So will we all.

Can there be a more beautiful or profound way to express something so simple? I find this poem to be one of the greatest poems of the English language.

Other readers of Robinson:

5 responses

  1. Truly a great poem and thanks for bringing it out to enjoy. What makes it truly great is that it captures the moment when a man realizes one split second of surety. Enjoy the moment.

  2. Hi Patrick,
    This is a great discussion of a truly beautiful poem. Thank you for bringing it to attention.
    I think what is best about the poem is that the poet does not try to give the scene a more discursive (abstract) meaning, as you have not in your discussion of the poem. The u of the scene is its meaning, as the poem is a faithful embodiment of it. This is still the best and most persuasive argument for formalism in poetry. We can’t recognize (See) physical beauty without seeing it embodied, and every body has its (own) form. The poet translates or transliterates that form so we can experience it. It may not be the thing itself (Das ding-an-sich), but it is the permanent possibility of experiencing the real deal.
    Robinson was the real deal, too, wasn’t he! You have made me want to get out his work and give it a renewed appreciation! And thanks for that too.
    Regards,
    Kevin

  3. A wonderful poem and a passionate plea for Robinson. Because you have been brave enough to offer a metrical reading, what do you make of the hiccup in the line: “Fair days went on till on another day”? I hear something just short of a proper caesura between “went on” and “till on”. Perhaps it is the aural proximity of “on till” and “until”? Whatever it is, I like it.

    • Hi Jeremiah, thanks. And yes, I read it that way too although, strictly speaking, I think one would probably punctuate the line this way:

      Fair days went on till, on another day,
      A thousand golden sheaves were lying there…

      I suppose one could make the argument that till should receive a strong accent. I could read it this way:

      So in a land where all days are not fair,
      Fair days went on till, on another day,
      A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,

      I would definitely be down with that reading, though no one could say whether that reflected Robinson’s own reading.

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