Critical Analysis of “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
“Richard Cory” is one of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s most studied and analyzed poems. The poem was first published in the year 1897 as part of the volume The Children of the Night (a revision of his earlier self-published volume The Torrent and the Night Before) and showcases the author’s adeptness at combining traditional poetic form with lean modern diction. Though the poem is highly recognized, it is also the center of several literary debates – often being commended and berated for its simple structure, obtrusive didacticism, obvious ironies, and use of the surprise ending as a literary device. However, despite the “on-the-fence” status of the poem and the author’s place in American literature, it is still the most read work of the author that continues to engage reader’s imaginations. The poem’s concise structure and deceptively simple construction is its greatest strength and primarily the reason for it to be said as one of those poems able to convey profound life truths despite its brevity. After all, “Richard Cory” goes beyond the obvious theme of appearances can be deceiving.
The poem is composed of four stanzas with four lines each. In addition, the poem is constructed with a melodic, almost obsessive, monotonous iambic pentameter and follows the rhyme scheme abab-cdcd-efef-ghgh (Davis, 4). The poem is structured in a way that the first 14 lines are read with a musical tone (as if metered) and punctuated with perfect ending rhymes. The primary purpose of the first 14 lines is to generate an image of Richard Cory and his status as perceived by the speaker and those around him, while the last two lines are designed to “shock” and “surprise” the reader as to the outcome of the poem (Davis, 4-6). Quoting Linda Sue Grimes from her explication of Richard Cory: “‘Richard Cory’ is a very simple poem: three stanzas describe the subject, Richard Cory, and the fourth stanza shocks the reader with Cory’s act of suicide”.
Beginning with the title “Richard Cory,” the poem already establishes that the poem’s titular character Richard Cory is of great importance. The title does not only refer to the subject of the poem but also alludes to his position in society. The title delivers the message that Richard Cory is important enough to be let alone as a titular name that does not need any accompanying explanation. His being is assumed to be enough to bridge that gap with the reader. It is saying: this is about Richard Cory and you better pay attention.
In the first stanza of the poem, the reader is introduced to Richard Cory as he is perceived by the speaker. The first stanza is carefully worded to hint at the dichotomy between the speaker and Richard Cory. The line “Whenever Richard Cory went down town” (Robinson 19, line 1) implies that the titular character must have come from and resided up town – a term indicating a wealthy residential neighborhood. Additionally, the line “[w]e people on the pavement” (2) suggests the narrator’s social class as beneath to that of Cory’s, for he was seen as a “gentleman from sole to crown” (line 3). Here, the word crown is used as a pun for both Richard Cory’s wealthy status and his hair. Hence, the first stanza establishes a complete divide between Cory and his admirers through the narrator’s constant use of “him” and “us” (Grimes; Davis, 5).
The second stanza, on the other hand, goes into detail about Richard Cory’s personality as it was perceived by the townsfolk. The lines “[…] he was always quietly arrayed, / And he was always human when he talked;” (5-6) describe Cory’s humble demeanor despite his stature – indicating that he “did not look down on the common folk; he did not behave arrogantly; he spoke to people the way the speaker would expect him to” (Grimes). The second stanza also highlights the narrator’s and the townspeople’s admiration for Richard Cory as indicated by the lines “he fluttered pulses when he said, / ‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked” (7-8). The second stanza’s primary intent is to imply that Richard Cory was well admired and that he was a genuinely nice person (Grimes).
In the third stanza of the poem, the narrator emphasizes Cory’s literal wealth by stating “And he was rich—yes, richer than a king, / And admirably schooled in every grace” (lines 9-10), playing at an exaggeration of Cory’s education, knowledge and good manners as proof of his wealthy roots. In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker overtly proclaims their admiration and envy of Richard Cory: “In fine, we thought that he was everything, / To make us wish that we were in his place” (11-12) and “conclude that Cory had everything a human being should have and everything they were striving for” (Grime).
Finally, in the last stanza, the reader is again made aware of the divide that exists between Richard Cory and his observers (Davis, 6). The lines “So on we worked, and waited for the light, / And went without the meat, and cursed the bread” (13-14) imply that the working class, who most admired Cory, went on with their lives working extra hard in the hopes of reaching Cory’s status. The second line demonstrate that this was not an easy task for the common folk, for they can only afford the simplest things with their wages (represented by the bread) and cannot even afford the luxury of meat. Here, the reader is given a glimpse of the narrator’s and the working class’s quiet yet continuing fight against desperation. These two succinct lines demonstrate why they see Richard Cory as a vision of perfection – a vision of hope (Davis, 5). However, this illusion is shattered with the last two lines of the poem when “Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head” (15-16). Shockingly, “the man who has everything, the man who was everything that these hard working folk wanted to be—this icon of success and happiness—[inexplicably] kills himself” (Grimes). The motive behind the suicide is left a mystery, but the act has many implications. According to Davis, one of those implications is that in “Richard Cory,” Robinson graphically suggests a culture that would rather allow a man of Cory’s potential to kill himself than rather permit him to give his heart to his reality (6). This notion is backed by Davis with the cliché interspersed throughout the poem: not all that glitters is gold. Davis claims that the words “glitter” in this context alludes to the “chill” in Cory’s personality – he would rather kill himself than help alleviate the misery surrounding him (6). Another is that it proves the old adage that appearances can be deceiving, while critics view the poem as a “comment on the gulf between appearance and reality” (Gellert). Unarguably, Grimes stated it best when she wrote that the poem depicts a “truth about life, its sense of the nature of human personalities, its rhythm, [and] its rhyme scheme.”
Davis, William V. “Edward Arlington Robinson’s ‘Richard Cory’.” Illinois English Bulletin 61.4 (1974): 4-6.
Gellert, Elisabeth. “‘Richard Cory’ Edwin Arlington Robinson.” Poetry Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of the Most Significant and Widely Studied Poets of World Literature. Vol. 35. MI: Gale Group, Inc., 2002. 17 March 2009 <http://www.enotes.com/poetry-criticism/richard-cory-edwin-arlington-robinson>.
Grimes, Linda Sue. “Robinson’s ‘Richard Cory’ Explication.” Suite101.com. 22 January 2007. 18 March 2009 <http://poetry.suite101.com/article.cfm/ro-binson_s__richard_cory_>.
Robinson, Edwin Arlington. “Richard Cory.” The Children of the Night. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.19–20.