By Ann Conway
“Here where the wind is always north-north-east
And children learn to walk on frozen toes…”
From “New England,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Edwin Arlington Robinson grew up in Gardiner, Maine; I live a couple of blocks from his house, which still stands. Nothing much changes here. The brook that ran beside Robinson’s childhood bedroom now runs by mine.
Until recently, I never knew much about Robinson, who is much lionized in Gardiner; there is a monument to him on the Common, a festival, a web site. But then I read Scott Donaldson’s Edward Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life, a biography twenty years in the making. Robinson, a bachelor, was quiet, half-deaf, poor, often melancholy. He devoted himself to his craft and to his many friends. He drank. But what people remembered most of him was that he was “a fine man”—rarely angry or unkind, reserved in the old Maine way.
He was ambivalent about Gardiner, which remains a spare, lovely river town. In the poet’s day, Gardiner was extremely prosperous—its wealth built on the ice of the great Kennebec River, ice which, before the advent of refrigeration, was sent around the world.
Robinson disliked what he saw as the complacency of prosperity, the worship of the God of Mammon. He often wrote of respectable churchgoers who “fished a dime for Jesus, who had died for men.” But the poet was also formed by Maine. He was a classicist who saw the ordinary: “Tilbury Town’s” forgotten denizens, tender old men, reclusive spinsters. He loved “The Clerks.” Isaac and Archibald. Aunt Imogen.
In his quietness, he adored profligacy: “Those who boil elsewhere with such a lyric yeast / Of love that you will hear them at a feast / Where demons would appeal for some repose / Still clamoring where the chalice overflows / And crying wildest those who have drunk the least.”
In the spring of 1935, Robinson died in New York City, where he had lived, in failing health, for many years. He was an exile from Gardiner, leaving not long after an 1896 row with his older brother, Herman. Although he would remain in close contact with his relatives, he had wanted to leave for years. Herman’s wife, the beautiful Emma, was the poet’s first and lifelong love, but he could never win her. His family history was Gothic—filled with illness, destitution, dashed hopes. Herman died of alcoholism; another brother, Dean, suffered from an opium addiction. A few years ago, I attended a Christmas party at the house, which has been long out of family hands. The rooms were small. I felt a heaviness in the air.
This brutal winter I have worked mainly alone; I left a job months ago. I have felt both fearful and content. Sometimes confused. Robinson, with his clarity and gentleness, has become for me an anamchara—the sort of soul friend we solitary writers need. This kind and committed man—in his biography and his poems—he shows me how to live.
I took a break this morning and walked the dog to the boat landing. The Kennebec was all snow and ice, with a few patches of open black water. I could hear the smelt fishermen talking in their shacks near the far shore. Right here, I thought, Robinson boarded the Islander to Boothbay Harbor. Fleeing the constraint of town for the wild sea.