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Happy Birthday, E.A. Robinson
I actually had a couple of other posts brewing (or gestating, as Annie Finch put it), but the twin prompts of Ange’s Malice of the Sonnet post and a timely reminder via Writer’s Almanac, made me realize a short post on Edwin Arlington Robinson was in order today.
Ange’s wonders aloud whether the reason she dislikes sonnets “is that, far from being rigid, most of them are not rigid enough.” One of the thrills of working in form is submitting to that rigor and discipline (not unlike a dancer), and, far from exerting control over one’s subject, giving up control to the form. Sonnets are often about their own strictures and bonds. Robinson explores the paradox that “mastery” of form is achieved only by a kind of slavery to it in this sonnet:
The master and the slave go hand in hand,
Though touch be lost. The poet is a slave,
And there be kings do sorrowfully crave
The joyance that a scullion may command.
But, ah, the sonnet-slave must understand
The mission of his bondage, or the grave
May clasp his bones, or ever he shall save
The perfect word that is the poet’s wand!
The sonnet is a crown, whereof the rhymes
Are for Thought’s purest gold the jewel-stones;
But shapes and echoes that are never done
Will haunt the workshop, as regret sometimes
Will bring with human yearning to sad thrones
The crash of battles that are never one.
Although I do think the octave of that sonnet is bolder and better than its conclusion (and its mannered archaism will not recommend it to folks already skittish of the sonnet), Robinson was a master of the form, and of the form’s cruel-clarity (again per Ange’s post). This is a much-anthologized but justifyably celebrated sonnet, a short story in 14 lines, without an ounce of pity in it–indeed there is nothing extra in it at all–and the more wrenching for that:
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half the night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
It is a sonnet largely hewn of everyday monosyllables (there is one trisyllabic word in the poem, “mournfully,” that lingers in the line as the butcher perhaps lingers over the needlework of his dead wife before shutting them way). The set up of the syntax is elegant (“Because” is a great beginning for a poem) and far from the catalogue of declarative sentences that make up so much contemporary poetry, avant garde or main stream. And there is the distance of archness or irony in the tone–who are “you and I” that we should look down at a butcher as a “brute” (yet knowing that perhaps we do)?
“Brute” is indeed the key word in the poem, since it is a word the divides, arrogantly, the human from the animal. Reuben Bright has been a slaughterer of animals–we don’t expect him to blanch in the face of the facts of death. His reaction–not only grief, but grief and fright, and the image of a man crying “like a great baby” (how cruel-clear that is), is shocking. And in the end, he concludes that death is death–whether to human or brute–and wants no more part in it.