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Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Source

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 Robinson's "Richard Cory"

Introduction

Robinson's rather uncomplicated poem, "Richard Cory," portrays its subject, a rich, well respected man, who shockingly commits suicide.

Readers are indeed shocked when in the final stanza they are accosted with the line delivering the message that Cory one night, "Went home and put a bullet through his head." The question provoked by this act does not appear to have a definite answer, but it does simply imply that despite outward appearances and wealth, one may feel so empty inside as to prefer 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 were just judging a book by its cover; could they have read the book they might have discovered the specifics of Ricard 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.

Commentary

First Stanza: "Whenever Richard Cory went down town"

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. 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 meagre pittance.

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.

Second Stanza: "And he was always quietly arrayed"

Despite his being so rich and kingly, Richard Cory 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.

Third Stanza: "And he was rich—yes, richer than a king"
The speaker, 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 Cory possessed everything a human being needed to be successful. They envied him. They wanted to be Richard Cory.

Fourth Stanza: "So on we worked, and waited for the light"

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 struggled 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.

Dramatizing a Truth

The poem, "Richard Cory," dramatizes a truth about life with all its appearances, contradictory evidence, and mysterious behaviors. 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 unnuanced. It does its job like the people on the pavement, and it does it without gloss and glitter.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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