Monday, May 4, 2015

"Richard Cory" and the Surprise Ending

By Edwin Arlington Robinson 1869–1935
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 richyes, 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.

“Richard Cory” by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson first appeared in his self published volume of poetry The Children of the Night in 1897. I remember reading this poem for the first time in my 11th grade English class. I was instantly drawn to the dark tone of the piece being a moody and somewhat pessimistic teenager. I was astounded by Robinson’s ability to pack so much into what I thought at the time was just a little poem. Robinson managed to deal with some major literary themes in just sixteen lines of poetry. The main themes of the poem revolve around objectification, wealth self-hood, and death.

Looking back on it I believe that the poem resonated with me so greatly because I viewed myself as the narrator. I could identify easily with the people, “on the pavement” down town as I was growing up in a working class inner city neighborhood. Richard Cory was symbolic for me at the time of all of my favorite celebrities, the rich, the chosen ones who “glittered” from “sole to crown”. Richard Cory also reminded me of my wealthy great aunt who was fashionable and thin (imperially slim), well educated (admirably schooled) but yet humble (always human) when she graced our family’s presence at the requisite reunions, weddings or other familial gatherings. Like the townspeople of Arlington’s poem, I coveted the place of my own symbolic versions of Richard Cory. But I would come to realize with age that a person’s life is not made full by material possessions or the outward manners, which other people can observe. Instead a full life centers on the inner thoughts and immaterial aspects of our persons; the parts of our identity people can not observe or judge.

The poem, “Richard Cory”, is constructed in such a way to lead the reader in an unsuspecting manner to the violent end of the main character’s life. The reader is not offered insight into why Cory decided, “one calm summer night” to “put a bullet through his head”. The act of Cory’s suicide is presented in the same matter of fact manner as the rest of the poem. In the first two lines of the final stanza the narrator describes the menial task of life for him and those on the “pavement”. They go about their work, wait “for the light” (hope), go “without the meat, cursed the bread” (hunger). The night that Cory commits suicide is described as calm by the narrator, meaning for him and the others it was like any other night.

It is clear that Cory’s fortune did not form a barrier between him and Death. Sadly, Cory’s wealth did isolate him from the narrator and those on the “pavement”. Throughout the poem the narrator describes Cory as if he’s viewing him from afar, thus reiterating the distance between Cory and the common people of the town and placing emphasis upon Cory’s isolation. The narrator is strictly observant and offers no glimpse into the inner workings for Cory’s mind.

What was most frightening for me as a teenager after my first encounter with this poem was being confronted with the possibility that my “light” or my hope in a future of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”, away from my depressed neighborhood, may not prove as fulfilling as I thought if ever achieved. I was intrigued by the poems sudden and tragic surprise ending. Maybe Cory’s suicide was in some melancholy way an attempt at self actualization; a final and succinct act, unexplained and apart from the constant gaze and expectations of others surrounding him and his wealth. Maybe Robinson (the poet) was attempting to make a statement about the importance of a full spiritual life, full of love and intimacy, rather than a distant life of material excess. Or maybe this is just me over reading the text and applying authorial intent where it should not be at all (yeah, I think that’s more like it).

Regardless “Richard Cory” and its surprise ending caused the teenage girl I was once to think and begin to ponder questions of self-hood that I will probably wrestle with for the rest of my life. My hope has shifted from the immature goal of obtaining superficial wealth, like that admired by the narrator of the poem. Instead I seek a life that is “always human” not only in speech, as exemplified by Cory, but in the vein of a humanist perspective. A life centered on creating a complete internal self with the goal of eventual happiness and fulfillment. For these reasons, “Richard Cory” the poem itself and its surprise ending is a collection of verses that will forever resonate with me.

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