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In ‘Richard Cory' he explores the anonymous surfaces of life in another way - by suggesting, however cryptically, the contrast between those surfaces and the evident hell that lies beneath them. The character who gives the poem its title is described in admiring detail, from the perspective of his poorer neighbours. 'He was a gentleman from sole to crown', the reader is told, 'Clean favoured, . . . imperially slim' and 'rich - yes, richer than a king'. Comments like these hardly prepare us for the horror of the final stanza:

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and carved the bread,

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

The irony of these lines, and the poem as a whole, depends on the contrast between the serenity of Cory's appearance and the violence of his death; its melancholy, upon our recognising that Cory - for all his privileges - is as acutely isolated and spiritually starved as anyone else. 'There is more in every person's soul than we think', Robinson observed once, 'Even the happy mortals we term ordinary . . . act their own mental tragedies and live a far deeper and wider life than we are inclined to believe possible in the light of our prejudices'. This is precisely the lesson that the 'we' of the poem, Cory's neighbours in Tilbury Town, never learn: the night on which Cory shoots himself remains 'calm' in their view, and the use of that word only underlines the distance between him and them.

Quiet desperation, the agony that Richard Cory's neighbours failed to notice, is a distinguishing feature of many of Robinson's characters. The despair may come, apparently, from emotional poverty ('Aaron Stark'), the pain of loss and bereavement ('Reuben Bright', 'Luke Havergal'), or the treadmill of life ('The Clerks'): whatever, it is palpably there in an awkward gesture, a stuttered phrase, a violent moment as in 'Richard Cory' or, as in 'The House on the Hill', the sense that behind the stark, simple words lies an unimaginable burden of pain. Many of Robinson's poems, in fact, derive their power from reticence, a positive refusal to expand or elaborate.