Skip to main content

In April 1897 Robinson, reporting the local news to Harry Smith, wrote "Frank Avery blew his bowels out with a shot-gun. That was bell." By the end of July he had completed, he told Miss Brower, "a nice little thing . . . . There isn't any idealism in it, but there’s lots of something else - humanity, may be. I opine that it will go." It has become one of the most familiar of Robinson's poems. But poems, like people, sometimes suffer from what familiarity so often breeds. This is especially true if the work appears to be fairlv simple and uncomplicated. It may be what led Yvor Winters to remark that "In 'Richard Cory' . . . we have a superficially neat portrait of the elegant man of mystery; the poem builds up deliberately to a very cheap surprise ending; but all surprise endings are cheap in poetry, if not, indeed, elsewhere, for poetry is written to be read not once but many times." This remark is itself surprising, for not all surprise endings are cheap, nor does a surprise ending prevent a work from being read with pleasure more than once. The use of surprise is a legitimate device that occurs in all literary forms. The issue is not whether the reader has been surprised but whether the author has so prepared his ground that the ending is a justifiable one, consistent with the total context. Actually, "Richard Cory" has a rich complexity that becomes increasingly rewarding with successive readings.

A wealthy man, admired and envied by those who consider themselves less fortunate than he, unexpectedly commits suicide. Cory's portrait is drawn for us by a representative man in the street, who depicts him as "imperially slim," "a gentleman from sole to crown," "richer than a king." An individual set apart from ordinary mortals, Cory is, in their opinion, a regal figure in contrast to his admiring subjects, "the people on the pavement." This contrast between Cory and the people, seemingly weighted in favor of Cory in the first three stanzas, is the key to the poem. Nowhere are we given direct evidence of Cory's real character; we are given only the comments of the people about him, except for his last act, which speaks for itself. Ironically, Cory's suicide brings about a complete reversal of roles in the poem. As Cory is dethroned the people are correspondingly elevated. The contrast between the townspeople and Cory is continued in the last stanza. The people

worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

but they went on living. Cory, wealthy as he was, did not live; instead, be "put a bullet through his head." This occurred "one calm summer night." Calm, that is, to the people, not to Cory. Because the people "went without the meat, and cursed the bread," it might seem that life was both difficult and meaningless to them. But difficulty is not to be equated with meaninglessness; in fact, Robinson is suggesting just the opposite. "Meat" and "bread" carry biblical overtones that remind us that man does not live by bread alone. It is "the light" that gives meaning. In opposition to meat and bread, symbols of physical nourishment and material values, light suggests a spiritual sustenance of greater value. As such it clarifies the intent of the poem, for it reveals the inner strength of the people and the inadequacy of Cory. Belief in the light is the one thing the people had; it is the one thing Cory lacked. Life for him was meaningless because he lacked spiritual values; he lived only on a material level. Once this is realized, the characteristics attributed to Cory in the first three stanzas take on added significance and become even more ironic: He was "a gentleman from sole to crown" (appearance and manner); he was "clean favored" and "slim" (physical appearance); he was "quietly arrayed" (dress); he was "human when he talked" (manner); he "glittered" (appearance); he was "rich" (material possessions); he was "schooled in every grace" (manner). "Glittered" not only emphasizes the aura of regality and wealth but also suggests the speciousness of Cory. Even his manner is not a manifestation of something innate but only a characteristic that has been acquired ("admirably schooled"). All these details are concerned with external qualities only. The very things that served to give Cory status also reveal the inner emptiness that led him to take his own life.