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Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Karma"

Updated on December 20, 2015
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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


An omniscient narrator dramatizes the musings of a man whose thoughts and actions vaguely imply the concept of karma-reaping and sowing.

Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Karma" portrays a man who thinks about a former friend who has died; the man at first thinks he wishes his friend were still alive, but then reconsiders, finally remaining confused about what he really wishes.

Robinson's poem is a well-structured Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and a sestet following the traditional rime-scheme, ABBAABBA CDECDE.

First Quatrain: "Christmas was in the air and all was well"

It is Christmas time with Christmas in the air. By placing Christmas in the air, the speaker implies a nebulous association with the holiday for the man he then begins to analyze. The speaker says, "all was well / With him," introducing the subject of the karmic example.

With Christmas in the air and all being well with the subject in question, still there is concern because for this man the images of God remain somewhat perplexing by possessing "confusing flaws." The logical, linear thinking man cannot quite grasp the "divers of God's images." So what to do, but dive right into the heart of his prickly problem: his friend "would neither buy nor sell."

Second Quatrain: "Was he to answer for the axe that fell?"

The axe fell on his friend, an exaggerated metaphor for the downfall of the friend—probably first financially, followed by his death, likely by suicide. The man ponders, and the omniscient speaker asserts that the reason the man was now contemplating that lost friend was in part because of a "freezing Santa Claus," who was collecting donations upon the corner, no doubt, for the Salvation Army. The Santa is decked out in his beard, and he is ringing a bell.

First Tercet: "Acknowledging an improvident surprise"

The thought, coupled with wish that his lost friend were here again, flits through the man's mind. The thought coming to the man is described as an improvident surprise, because the man likely did not give the friend much thought at other times of the year.

Christmas now in it guise as a freezing, bell-ringing Santa causes the man to "magnif[y] a fancy that he wished / the friend" still here. His conscience is bothering him, and he is unsure just what he should be thinking or wishing regarding his friend.

Second Tercet: "Not sure of that, he found a compromise"

The uncertainty is acknowledged when the speaker reveals that the man was not sure of that, referring to the wish of having the friend back. But then the man finds a way to assuage his possible guilt and uncertainty.

The man retrieves a dime from his pocket and drops it into Santa's bucket. The speaker colorfully describes the action: "he found a compromise; / And from the fulness of his heart he fished / A dime for Jesus who had died for men."

The contrast of offering a dime verses dying for men implies the continued lack of a clue of the man whose karma is being examined. His karma, of course, will remain with him, and just as he has continued to sow, he will continue to reap.

Reading of Robinson's "Karma"


Selected Poems (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)
Selected Poems (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

A collection of Robinson's most widely anthologized poems, including "Karma"


© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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