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children of the night

1 november 2022

Many years ago, the Kansas City Royals drafted a pitcher named Luke Hochevar. He played in the majors for a decade, winning 46 games and losing 65 … no great star, as it turns out, but for a while he was highly regarded. From the first I heard of him, all I could think of was Edwin Arlington Robinson. "Go to the bullpen gate, Luke Hochevar / There where the bunting hangs upon the bar / And in the twilight wait the dugout's call."

I may be the only person who did that. The stock of lines from Edwin Arlington Robinson in my mind is so miscellaneous and so persistent that it's hard to think of anything sometimes without some verbal interference from him. "Luke Havergal" is the most gorgeous poem in Robinson's very Nineties collection Children of the Night, which I have been reading straight through for once instead of just summoning up bits from my neural net.

God slays Himself in every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half of paradise.
The real "Luke Havergal" is considerably lovelier than my baseball parody. It invites parody through sheer loveliness. One gets a sense of the poet swept away by music, trying to arrive at melodic effect while only hinting at plot, character, or situation. With its gatherings of westwardness and the grave, "Luke Havergal" pulls things off. Not all of Robinson's poems are as successful, but he wrote a great many and had a good earned run average.

"Richard Cory" is a major anthology piece, its title character starkly unknowable but available as an applied platitude: something like "money can't buy happiness" or "you never know what someone is thinking." The poem is so familiar – it's what people immediately quote when prompted with "Edwin Arlington Robinson" – that it's hard to read back through it to arrive to anything other than platitudes. But it's a smart poem constructed, again, around a core of mystery.

Mysterious men with euphonious names … one throwaway lyric that also appears in the 1897 collection Children of the Night stands, perhaps, for a major mode in Robinson's verse. The identities of "Two Men" nag at the poem's speaker: "Melchizedek, Ucalegon." One has a cameo in the Bible and the other is a walk-on in Homer. Nothing more can be known about them; pace Thomas Browne, their biographies really do seem "beyond all conjecture."

And so with all of Robinson's lyric-title heroes: we know two or three stray facts about them, but the bulk of their being stays well below the waterline of their poem. As he says of one of them, the absurdly-named sonnet character Fleming Helphenstine: "He dodged,—and I have never seen him since." We sometimes don't even see Robinson's characters to begin with.

A substantial part of Children of the Night is a sonnet collection – not a sequence, more a series of Robinson's typical concerns distilled into sonnet form. They are full of striking lines: Aaron Stark with a miser's nose "And eyes like little dollars in the dark," for instance. Not all of them succeed. Sonnets, even well-crafted ones, can seem like make-work items; some of Robinson's show a conventional sonneteering anxiety over the constraints of the sonnet. But Robinson was an exceptional sonneteer, and at times you come across one of his sonnets where idea, arc, and phrasing come together in tremendous fusion.

"The Clerks" is one. Idea: young people who are full of energy and idealism grow old, but are still the same people, and the same march toward old age awaits us all. Arc: from an evocation of those dusty clerks as a class, to "Poets and kings," to the closing metaphors of cataloguing and measuring the inexorable progress of time. And phrasing:

Poets and kings are but the clerks of Time,
Tiering the same dull webs of discontent,
Clipping the same sad alnage of the years.
"Tiering" seems familiar if used in an odd sense: stacking up, classifying piles of … what, fabrics, texts? The tissue of our life, anyway. And then "alnage," which will send you scrambling to a dictionary, and it had better be unabridged.

"Reuben Bright" is a great sonnet; Robinson's biographer Scott Donaldson dwells on an anecdote of W.S. Merwin swinging into a recitation of "Reuben Bright" from memory. The anecdote confirms the long if not-always-obvious influence that Robinson had on American free verse, ordinary-language traditions. But "Reuben Bright" is troubling, too. The title character's association with a grubby manual trade sets up the contrast between his brutal appearance and the depths of his sentiment when he is widowed. Then the last thing he does in the poem is tear down the slaughter-house – as if the romantic affect of his love for his late wife finally shocks him out of the squalor of a trade that even the poet's higher-class speaker has to admit is "honest." Why can't he grieve and go on being a butcher? But perhaps grief turns him vegetarian.

One of the most haunting passages in Robinson's work is the sestet of the sonnet "On the Night of a Friend's Wedding." I don't think much of the octave. It's not about the friend or the wedding; it's about how much everyone there seems to like the speaker, a poet …

But everything is all askew to-night,—
As if the time were come, or almost come
For their untenanted mirage of me
To lose itself and crumble out of sight,
Like a tall ship that floats above the foam
A little while, and then breaks utterly.
I don't think he's upset that his friend is getting married, while he isn't, or can't. I think he's had a glimpse beyond the veil: a vision he can't explain that leads to an insight he can't convey.
Oh, brother men, if you have eyes at all,
Look at a branch, a bird, a child, a rose,
Or anything God ever made that grows
begins another Robinson sestet; it is less clear why we should look at those things. The sonnet in question (just called "Sonnet") is ostensibly about the excellence of love, but mostly from the perspective of love's utter absence – hence the cry of anguish that breaks out at the start of its sestet.

Children of the Night includes a set of 33 octaves without sestets. I don't think much of them either; they are blank-verse octaves and highly abstract in theme. But when he threw himself into rhyme, and mixed concrete details with his characteristic evasiveness, Robinson was and remains a great poet.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. Children of the Night. 1897. In Collected Poems. 1937. New York: Macmillan, 1966. 71-109.