I'm a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing, and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.
A few weeks ago, I asked my students to read “Richard Cory,” a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I was out of the classroom that day to plan a department in-service training, and when I returned, the substitute said that they had a hard time with it.
How I wish I had remembered that I had an analysis paper for this poem in the dusty piles of my old college papers; I could have left it with them. However, I didn’t come across it until this morning. Here it is with some updates, revisions, and lesson plan ideas.
Analysis of "Richard Cory"
Summary and Theme
A narrative poem, “Richard Cory” is the story of a man who seems to have it all. The people of the town, who are clearly of a lower financial class, place Richard Cory on a pedestal. They look up to him and want to be just like him. In the end, though, they learn a valuable life lesson: Richard Cory kills himself, showing the people of the town that some things can’t be purchased and that looks can be deceiving. The central idea, or theme, of “Richard Cory” is that wealth and status don’t ensure happiness.
Robinson uses connotation extensively to place Richard Cory high on a pedestal above the townspeople. Connotation is the use of words to suggest meanings beyond the dictionary definition. To lower the townspeople, Robinson places them “downtown.” This suggests that Richard Cory is coming down, or lowering himself, to the level of the townspeople when he comes into town.
He also places people on the “pavement,” which is lower than the sidewalk where Richard Cory most likely walks. Robinson positions the characters to show the differences in their financial status. He also shows that it is the townspeople, and not Cory, that seem to define these positions.
Although this poem is written by an American poet and set in an American town, connotation is used to suggest a noble, royal image of Richard Cory. His name, Richard, is the name of many kings. Also, Richard contains the word “rich,” which suggests his wealth. There are many other royal connotations and images in this poem, including “sole to crown,” “imperially slim,” and “schooled in every grace.” Crown, imperially, and grace all suggest royalty.
Robinson uses denotation, or the use of words for their exact meaning, to emphasize this image of Richard Cory being local royalty. Richard Cory was a rich, well-educated man. Robinson writes, “And he was rich . . . and admirably schooled . . . ” to make his point. On the outside, Richard Cory is a perfect man.
Robinson uses metaphors to create a noble image of Richard Cory as well. A metaphor makes a descriptive comparison between two objects or ideas. Robinson says that Cory was “richer than a king” and “he glittered when he walked.” These statements are not literal, but they create an image of nobility and privilege. Richard Cory is a representation of wealth, status, and privilege.
The entire poem, before the last line, displays a tone of admiration and respect. The poorer, lower-class townspeople respect and admire Richard Cory. They look up to him, literally and figuratively. They want to be him. This build-up of Richard Cory’s character allows the last line to have a huge impact. The impact and irony of the last line is used to emphasize Robinson’s point that looks can be deceiving and to give the poem an ironic tone in the end.
The irony of the poem is expressed by the tone and the theme. Irony, in this case situational irony, occurs when the outcome of a situation is unexpected or a surprise. Richard Cory appears to have it all. The people of the town want to be just like him because his life appears to be perfect. In reality, Cory is lacking happiness, the key ingredient to “having it all.” The irony of the poem is that this man, who seems to have everything, kills himself because he is unhappy.
Six of the lines in the poem begin with “and.” The repetition of this word helps to build a mental picture of Richard Cory. More importantly, the repetition places Cory higher and higher on his pedestal. This use of repetition helps build the narrative towards the climax. This technique adds to the impact and shock of the last line of the poem.
The Meaning of the Poem
Robinson uses the elements described above to create an image of the human condition. The townspeople are striving for the dream of having it all. Richard Cory is their role model for this perfect life. In striving for what they interpret to be the top, everyone, except Richard Cory, forgets that happiness is more important than money and status. With his suicide, Richard Cory shows that having even the greatest financial wealth and status does not mean that a person has everything needed for a fulfilling life.
This poem can be used for a close reading exercise. Close reading is a strategy that is becoming a current buzzword when educators discuss the implementation of the Common Core Standards. Close reading is exactly what it sounds like: reading a text very closely. Students should:
- read the text through cold without the teacher telling them the meaning.
- annotate the text as they read (underline and circle pieces of the text, make written comments, and ask questions in the margins).
- look for patterns and elements that stand out to them.
- consider those patterns and elements for meaning.
- read the text through several times.
In your "Richard Cory" close reading lesson, you can do the following:
- Give the poem to students and ask them to read it closely.
- Ask them to pull it apart and note the elements that stand out to them.
- Have a class discussion about what they discover.
Word Choice and Meaning
After the initial close reading, you can focus the dissection of the poem on noting the literary elements. This poem shows good examples of connotation and denotation.
- Discuss Robinson’s word choices and the impact those words have.
- Discuss the impact if you were to change some of the words.
Word choice and discovering the meaning and impact of those words can lead to a discussion of the impact your students make with their words when they speak and write.
The theme of this poem is very relevant today.
- Guide students to uncover the theme and make connections to the world they live in today.
- Assign students to revise the poem to make it about a wealthy celebrity today who has died unhappy or who has fallen out of the spotlight.
The impact of this poem is a brilliant way to exemplify the meaning of irony. Students won’t likely forget Richard Cory’s story. Have students identify the other literary elements and their purpose for the meaning of the poem as well.
Show students the YouTube video of Simon and Garfunkel’s "Richard Cory" (linked below). This song is clearly inspired by Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem. Compare the two. This discussion could also lead to an assignment about adapting the poem and writing their own version.
Ask students to write a paraphrase of the poem. To paraphrase, students should rewrite the poem in their own words to show that they understand the basic meaning of the poem. Here is an example:
When Richard Cory came into our lower-class neighborhood, everyone stood aside and watched him. He was a complete gentleman, inside and out.
He dressed neatly and conservatively. Even though he spoke to us on our level, people got excited when he spoke to them.
He was very, very rich. He was educated and proper. In short, we held him on top of a pedestal, and we dreamed of being up there with him. We worked hard, sacrificing and striving for a position next to him. Then, Richard Cory unexpectedly killed himself.
As mentioned in some of the previous lesson ideas, all of the following literary terms and devices are elements present in this poem. You can use this poem to teach or review any or all of these literary techniques:
- Situational irony
Why Robinson's Poem Works Well in the Classroom
This poem has been one of my all-time favorites since I read it in high school. It is one of those poems that spoke to me and stuck with me over the years. It stays with me because it is relevant and shocking, and it speaks to a truth about the human condition.
Even though it was published in 1897, it could have been published yesterday. As a society, we are still placing wealthy people on a pedestal. Our society today has a seemingly unhealthy fascination with celebrities and people who have status and wealth. For that reason, I believe this is a great choice for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the thesis statement of a poem?
Answer: A poem doesn’t have a thesis statement.
Question: Reread Arlington's poem with the thought of people like Robin Williams, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in mind. Arlington was so right. What is on the surface may not reflect what is beneath, don't you think?
Answer: That is very true. It is a good point to ponder so that we can take care of our loved ones.
© 2013 Donna Hilbrandt
prince on June 09, 2020:
Questions: 1. What is the main idea of the poem? 2.) What is the mood? 3.) How would you describe the rhythm of the poem? Quick or slow? 4.) How does the rhyme pattern affect the poem? 5.) What are some images that bring out the drama of the poem? 6.) What makes this poem so powerful? 7.) How would you depict the last tow lines of the poem on video without being graphic? 8.) How would you update this poem to make it more modern? 9.) How could you make this poem into a five minute video? Would you include reasons for Richard Cory killing himself?
Ravindu on February 16, 2020:
This is very useful
whoami on February 06, 2020:
asma aswer on February 02, 2020:
thank you, this was very helpful
Roshelle Cooray on January 09, 2020:
Thanks a lot. This was very useful for my studies. Learnt a lot and eveything you have written are easy to understand. This is also a favorite poem of mine.
Chamuditha Dilshan on December 16, 2019:
This facts are very important and so we can understand this poem very easy.Thank you very much.
Ahmazarudeen on July 21, 2019:
Question- Please explain "fluttered pulses". Is it a phrase to say 'elegance in speech'? Thanks
Nelsha Munasinghe on July 05, 2019:
It's really useful for students
Celenie on May 20, 2019:
Thank you, I've learned a lot from this site, that I can use in my lecture in my upcoming practice teaching.
ESRA on March 26, 2019:
This analyzes opened my mind and gave me brilliant ideas about the poem. Thanks a lot...
sachithra on March 01, 2019:
Thank you very much. It is really helpful to me.
Hashini Fernando on December 10, 2018:
thanking for giving such a great analysis
soumiamoujjane on October 23, 2018:
thank you very much . it was really helpfull for me
Afnan Nedal on April 10, 2018:
Thank you very much. That was helpful.
Chamodi peduruarachchi on February 21, 2018:
My English Literature teacher recently finished this poem and v had to write some long answers and this analysis was really useful! Thanks for it.
jayasekara on January 06, 2018:
thank you very much for your great analysis.
Al Greenbaum on January 24, 2017:
I remember the S&G song from when I was a teenager. Kids like songs and videos that illustrate points you want to get across in a lesson. I remember a class enjoying "Dead Poets Society", when we were studying poetry.
Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on June 16, 2015:
It has always been one of my favorites. Thanks for reading, FatBoyThin.
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on June 16, 2015:
I never realised this poem existed – thought the Paul Simon song was an original idea. Interesting Hub, thanks for sharing.
Aliceson on March 27, 2015:
Thank you for the great anaysis. It really helped me to understand and analyze this poem.
Mel Carriere from San Diego California on October 20, 2013:
I am not a teacher, but I thought I would drop in and read the commentary on this poem. Poetry is a list art and hubs like this help to bring it back to life.
Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on August 10, 2013:
Thanks Nell Rose! This poem is one of my old favorites. I appreciate the share :)
Nell Rose from England on August 09, 2013:
This is fascinating reading, and very useful for students, I had never heard this poem before, I learn something new everyday! voted up and shared, nell
Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on May 19, 2013:
Thanks, MsDora. This is one of those poems that sticks with a reader. I love that about literature. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 19, 2013:
I had just begun to like Richard.. I appreciate the analysis of the poem, and the lesson ideas are meaningful. Relevant, truly.
Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on March 22, 2013:
I will, teaches. Stay tuned. Thanks for the read!
Dianna Mendez on March 21, 2013:
Thanks for the update in trends and lessons on reading excellence. I would love to see more on the close reading, please do make a hub on this.
Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on March 17, 2013:
Suzette: I just came across that song, and I will definitely incorporate it in my lesson. Thanks for reading.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on March 17, 2013:
Great hub donnah! I didn't remember that Simon & Garfunkle did that song. Just shows the timelessness of the poem. Enjoyed your hub as I have taught this poem also.
Donna Hilbrandt (author) from Upstate New York on March 17, 2013:
Thanks, Bill. We are all facing a big shift in the education standards at the moment, so the more ideas we can all share the better. I appreciate the read :)
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 17, 2013:
Very creative, Donnah! Great suggestions for teachers. Well done!