Just like Philip Larkin, Edwin Arlington Robinson is a poet better read in reduction. A good Selected, perhaps, or even just a handful of some of his better-known work will do more for his reputation than an appraisal of everything he’s ever published. This wasn’t always the case, however, as Robinson won three Pulitzer Prizes, and was even called the ‘greatest American poet’ by Yvor Winters at a time when a dozen or so far better American writers had already peaked. This shows how easily E.A. Robinson can worm into one’s mind, in his best poems, as well as the ease with which his critics are taken in by their own aesthetic biases…including Winters, himself, who was quick to accept whatever fit his aesthetic worldview at the expense of the poetry itself.
Yet that shouldn’t take away from what’s on the page, either. And while Yvor Winters was wrong for placing weird and artificial limits on poets – ‘Write little; do it well’ was a chief motto – his love for brevity sometimes led him to the right judgments, too, as with one of E.A. Robinson’s best poems:
Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.
So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay –
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.
Although I didn’t know it then, The Sheaves was my first ‘in’ to poetry as a high school freshman. I recall the teacher sort of passing it out, very briefly discussing it, then quickly moving on to better known yet qualitatively inferior poems. I wasn’t much of a reader then, but was confused by her lack of appreciation for the poem’s mysteries, the strange imagery and diction, and how nicely the sonnet’s division plays against itself once the whole thing is taken in. Now that I can articulate what was mere feeling, once, let’s break the poem down bit by bit.
The first two lines are already memorable. The syntactical inversion of ‘long’ plays off the line’s ‘o’ assonance, all the while encapsulating the sounds in an unconventional image (‘shadows of the wind’) that is nonetheless both logical and believable. The second line hints at the rest of the poem’s trajectory, as life is made to ‘yield’ to something unalterable, with no invocation of either God or science, as was often done in poetry, but a sense of finality in the word ‘assigned’ reinforced by the semicolon and … Continue reading →