Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson: Summary and Critical Analysis

The speaker of this poem belongs to the lower class. When Richard Cory went to the city, the speaker and his friends would look at him. Richard Cory looked a perfect gentleman. He seemed to be enjoying all the advantages. He was well dressed. He talked very politely. But when he said good morning, he would be over-excited.

Edwin A. Robinson (1869-1935)

The jewellery he wore would shine brightly. He was richer than a king. He was trained in every kind of polite behavior. The speaker was jealous of him and wished that he had been Richard Cory. The working class people would work hard but they could afford only bread, not meat.

They heard that one night Richard Cory went home and shot himself dead. 'Richard Cory' is a character sketch of a legendary character who lived in the poet’s native town of Gardiner, Maine. This modern American poem quietly exposes the irony of a rich gentleman’s life. Cory was the only son of an extremely rich merchant who ‘owned’ almost half the place. He was everyone’s ideal and dream. But he killed himself suddenly, without apparent reason. The incident has become the subject matter of other poets also, but Robinson’s viewpoint and the meaning is unique. Irony is the main feature in the poem.

The narrator of the poem seems to be one of the workers in some of Richard Cory’s factories. He is among the poor people who looked at Cory in amazement as he went downtown. He describes the gentleman with exaggeration which is almost absurd. This tells how highly these poor people regarded by him. As the narrator describes, Richard Cory was a gentleman ‘from sole to crown.’ This is an indirect comparison with a king. He then adds that he was “imperially slim”. Of course, he was “richer than a king.” He was “clean favored” and “human” when he talked. He was trained in “every grace”. In short, this man made everyone wish that they were in his place. But the irony is that he “went home and put a bullet through his head.” There was no reason that the poor people could see. Probably, he was unhappy. He was depressed. He was tired of life itself. Perhaps his status did not allow him to speak out. Perhaps he was burdened with inarticulate grief and worries.

Richard Cory is basically an ironic poem. It deals with the irony that rich people are not happy with their life, and the poor think that wealth is the guarantee of happiness. Richard Cory, the character, is also an individual who represents the irony of modern American life.

The poem develops in such a way as to suddenly expose the irony of all its overstatement until near its end. In the first three stanzas of the poem, we are given the impression that Richard Cory is a man who has all what he wants from life and is completely satisfied. The exaggerated descriptions of his appearance, wealth, personality, and even slimness sound as if Cory’s life is an example of perfection. Only that we are a bit puzzled by the uncommon wording and expressions. Some expressions are somewhat absurd and we fail to make sense out of them. But we are still under the impression that it is because the speaker doesn’t know the proper words to express the high appreciation he has about Richard Cory. Suddenly, in the last two lines of the poem we see that Richard Cory’s life was different from what it appeared. It is clear that he had been living with a suicidal depression. All the appreciation of wealthier life, great personality, and all the big words given to describe Richard Cory now tell us a striking irony. The exaggeration in all that description adds to the irony, the irony that material possession and fine appearance don’t ensure happiness and peace of mind. We now rather begin to doubt whether the speaker is only a simple man who doesn’t know the right words to describe. We now feel that he is using absurd words to indicate the absurdity of the apparent perfection and happiness of Richard Cory. After we learn that he commits suicides without any good reason we now begin to search for a probable reason from the preceding stanzas. His slimness (stanza1), quietness and fluttering and glittering (stanza2), his being richer than a king and his enviably perfect manners (stanza3) all become ironic in the light of the fact that none of them were making his personal life happy and satisfying. The speaker thought that poor people are the only sufferers in life, as if poverty is the only problem in life. Now we see that it is a foolish idea. Happiness is not a matter of being rich or powerful. To have a high status, a lot of money or to be popular are no guarantees of happy life. This in general, is the theme of the irony; it is also an irony about the material prosperity of the modern American.

There is also another more general irony about human beings. The speaker also says that they did not eat the bread they could get and they went without the meant that they could not get. They cursed the bread they could get! This is an irony; those who get something like something else, something better, and those who do not get it are dreaming of it, somewhere.

The poem Richard Cory by Robinson has also been described as a modern ballad by some critics. It is in simple four line stanzas and a rhyming scheme as abab. It is tragic and has a moral. It is also dramatic in a sense that it is a thought-provoking compressed little story.

Related Topics

Miniver Cheevy: Summary and Analysis

Edwin Arlington Robinson: Biography