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Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Introduction and Text of "Richard Cory"

In the final stanza, the line delivering the message that Richard Cory one night, "Went home and put a bullet through his head," is shocking and disturbing, as it reveals the tragic act of suicide.

The question—why did Richard Cory do this?— provoked by this act does not have a definite, stated answer, but the poem does imply that despite outward appearances and wealth, Cory felt so empty inside that he preferred death to life.

The speaker represents all those neighbors who thought Richard Cory's life was far superior to their own. However, it becomes clear that they had been led astray by outward appearance.

Had they been able to become acquainted with the inner life of the man they so admired they might have discovered the specifics of Richard Cory's existence. But for purposes of the poem, only the mystery is necessary; indeed, it is preferable because life is full of such mysteries.

Richard Cory

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.

Reading of "Richard Cory"

Commentary

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s "Richard Cory" renders its message in quite a literal poem, virtually devoid of any figurative language—appropriate for both the speaker and the subject of the poem.

First Stanza: The Richness of Literal Language

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.

Although the poem employs no poetic device such as metaphor, symbol, or simile, its use of language is rich and full. The opening line exemplifies the richness: if Richard Cory "went down town," then he had been up town. Stereotypically, being up town indicates a neighborhood where the well-to-do lived. This dichotomy continues throughout the poem: a dichotomy of contrast between the wealthy and the less well off.

The poem's speaker is one of the less well off, those who thought of Richard Cory as being "richer than as king." Those "on the pavement" indicate the working class, apartment dwellers who struggled to survive, while Richard Cory moved in the circle of ladies and gentlemen—not just men and women who work hard for their hand-to-mouth earnings.

While the phrase, "richer than a king," exemplifies hyperbole or exaggeration, its functions quite literally, as the the speaker and his fellows likely over-estimate the value of Cory's estate.

Richard Cory was "a gentleman from sole to crown"—from his feet to his head. "Crown" is a pun, meaning top of the head as well as the head ornament of a king. "Crown" is, in fact, the only term in the poem that offers a slightly figurative use.

The poem functions quite well without any obvious figurative language. The fact that this poem remains quite literal demonstrates that literal language completely free from literary devices can function poetically, as it takes as its subject the primarily physical, material level of existence.

Second Stanza: A Nice Man

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.

Despite Richard Cory’s being so rich and kingly, the man was still a very nice human being. He did not snub people; he engaged pleasantly with them. The speaker, who is obviously obsessed with Richard Cory's status, and no doubt a bit envious, would have expected Cory's behavior to have been arrogant. But the opposite was true.

Still, Cory's appearance dazzled those who encountered him. He made the common folk a little uneasy when he spoke to them, even though he was affable and friendly and seemed to be happy. Those common folk seemed unable to identify with Cory simply because of the differences between the classes.

Apparently, Richard Cory looked like them as a physical specimen—such as similar racial background, education level, mores, interests only differentiated by wealth levels–but they perceive Cory was from a different "class."

They would consider him high class as opposed to their middle or low classes. Even in a supposed "classless" American society, citizens have always made distinctions based on class which is normally based on wealth, rather than heredity.

Third Stanza: The Vacuousness of Envy

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.

The speaker, likely because of his nervous admiration of Cory, exaggerates Cory's wealth by claiming he was "richer than a king." In addition to being financially successful, Cory was well educated. He possessed knowledge, and he also possessed the grace with which to behave properly.

The speaker and his milieu concluded that Richard Cory possessed everything a human being needed to be successful. They envied him; thus, they wanted to be Richard Cory.

As the poem progresses, however, it will be realized that such claims regarding Richard Cory must be taken only provisionally, as it will become obvious that those "people on the pavement" have completely misread the qualities of Richard Cory, especially after learning of the wealthy, accomplished gentleman’s final act.

Fourth Stanza: Looks Can Be Deceiving

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.

In the two opening lines of the last stanza of the poem, once again differences between the two socio-economic classes are dramatized. The working, struggling folk "on the pavement" worked and sacrificed so that one day they too could be like Richard Cory.

They worked, struggled, and complained. Then the irony of their complaining unfolds when this paragon of virtue that they had idolized and idealized "went home and put a bullet through his head." This act told them that looks can, indeed, be deceiving.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Dramatizing a Truth

The poem, "Richard Cory," dramatizes a truth about life with all its appearances, contradictory evidence, and unexpected occurrences, confirming that life and human behavior, indeed, remain a mystery.

The poet has accomplished this fine achievement in a poem without one metaphor, simile, or other poetic device. The literal language is rich and deep and without nuance. It does its job like the people on the pavement, and it does it without gloss and glitter.

This lack of figurative or "poetic" language is not an anomaly; many fine poems do not rely on any figurative language such a metaphor, figurative image, personification, simile, or other literary device.

The only requirement for a poem to function well is that the language be authentic and possess levels of truth. Readers must be able to identify with the claims beings made, even if such claims do reflect the readers' views or knowledge.

Simon & Garfunkel Song Based on the Poem, "Richard Cory"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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