Subject Material

The Bitter Taste of Success

Published: 20.12.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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How can we measure or define success? For some, success means fortune and fame. Being somebody in other people's eyes is the ultimate dream for many people. But does success equal happiness? In some cases it may, but in most cases material success does not necessarily lead to happiness. Fame and prosperity come at a cost, and what we see of so-called succesful people is only the outside. A glittering and glamorous facade may, in fact, be a shiny disguise to cover the unhappiness underneath...

 

Edwin Arlington Robinson

American Poet Edwin Arlington RobinsonAmerican Poet Edwin Arlington Robinson
Fotograf: Bettmann
It seems that suffering and depression is a common phase for many poets to go through. If so, Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) is no exception. He had a difficult boyhood and was a shy and quiet child. He grew up in a time identified by the rise of big business in America, and the material success of his elder brothers made him conscious of the different aspects of capitalism. During the last decade of the 19th century, both his parents and his two brothers died; and with no family ties, Robinson moved to New York City. He lived in bohemian Greenwich Village, where he was inspired by friends to continue his writing in spite of the fact that no editors wanted to publish any of his work. His first volumes were published at his own expense and partially sponsored by his friends.
He had different stray jobs, but was dedicated to his poetic vocation and wrote when he had time and inspiration. In 1905, a magazine published some of his writing, and after more than ten years of dedicated work he received his first pay check for the work he really wanted to do. His article was accidentally read by Kermit Roosevelt, the son of the President of the United States, who liked his writing and offered him a job at the Customs House in New York harbor. This was the turning point for Robinson, who now had a small salary and also time and energy for poetry. His first collection of poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, and so did his long narrative “The Man who Died Twice” in 1924. Robinson was a versatile writer who produced not only poetry, but prose and critical essays as well. He is among the most cherished American poets of the 20th century.

“Richard Cory” was written in 1897 and is one of Arlington’s most famous poems. Read it carefully a couple of times and reflect on the issues below.


Richard Cory by Edward 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.

 

 

Some Issues to Consider

  1. If you look at when the poem was written and Arlington’s situation at the time – do you think there may be a connection?
  2. In what way is the poem a comment on the classic American success story?
  3. What is implied by "the different aspects of capitalism"? (See introduction.)
  4. Does the expression “We people” ring a bell?
  5. How do you see a man who is “imperially thin”?
  6. What does it mean that he “fluttered pulses”?
  7. How does the poet increase the effect of the last line of the poem?
  8. What would you say is the theme of the poem?


Research

  • In 1966, the American pop duo Simon and Garfunkel made their own version of “Richard Cory” (with apologies to E. A. Robinson). Follow the link below and read the lyrics of the song, then compare with the original poem – what do you think?
    Richard Cory by Simon and Garfunkel 
  • Follow the YouTube link on the lyrics site and watch a live performance of the song by Simon and Garfunkel.