Skip to main content

Edwin Arlington Robinson's “Karma" and "Richard Cory"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Introduction and Text of "Karma"

Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Karma" portrays a man who thinks about a former friend who has died; the man at first thinks he wishes his friend were still alive, but then reconsiders, finally remaining confused about what he really wishes.

Robinson's poem is a well-structured Petrarchan sonnet with an octave and a sestet following the traditional rime-scheme, ABBAABBA CDECDE.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Karma

Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God's images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,
Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.

Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.
Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fulness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.

Reading of "Karma"

Commentary on “Karma”

An omniscient narrator dramatizes the musings of a man whose thoughts and actions vaguely imply the concept of karma—sowing and reaping.

First Quatrain: The Air at Christmas Time

Christmas was in the air and all was well
With him, but for a few confusing flaws
In divers of God’s images. Because
A friend of his would neither buy nor sell,

It is Christmas time with Christmas in the air. By placing Christmas in the air, the speaker implies a nebulous association with the holiday for the man he then begins to analyze. The speaker says, "all was well / With him," introducing the subject of the karmic example.

With Christmas in the air and all being well with the subject in question, still there is concern because for this man the images of God remain somewhat perplexing by possessing "confusing flaws."

The logical, linear thinking man cannot quite grasp the "divers of God's images." So what to do, but dive right into the heart of his prickly problem: his friend "would neither buy nor sell."

Second Quatrain: The Metaphoric Axe

Was he to answer for the axe that fell?
He pondered; and the reason for it was,
Partly, a slowly freezing Santa Claus
Upon the corner, with his beard and bell.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The axe fell on his friend, an exaggerated metaphor for the downfall of the friend— probably first financially, followed by his death, likely by suicide.

The man ponders, and the omniscient speaker asserts that the reason the man was now contemplating that lost friend was in part because of a "freezing Santa Claus," who was collecting donations upon the corner, no doubt, for the Salvation Army.

The Santa is decked out in his beard, and he is ringing a bell.

First Tercet: Flitting Through the Mind

Acknowledging an improvident surprise,
He magnified a fancy that he wished
The friend whom he had wrecked were here again.

The thought, coupled with his wish that his lost friend were here again, flits through the man's mind. The thought coming to the man is described as an improvident surprise because the man likely did not give the friend much thought at other times of the year.

Christmas, now in the guise of a freezing, bell-ringing Santa, causes the man to "magnif[y] a fancy that he wished / the friend" still here. His conscience is bothering him, and he is unsure just what he should be thinking or wishing regarding his friend.

Second Tercet: Acknowledged Uncertainty

Not sure of that, he found a compromise;
And from the fulness of his heart he fished
A dime for Jesus who had died for men.

His uncertainty is acknowledged when he reveals that the man was not sure of that, referring to the wish of having the friend back. But then the man finds a way to assuage his possible guilt and uncertainty.

The man retrieves a dime from his pocket and drops it into Santa's bucket. The speaker colorfully describes the action: "he found a compromise; / And from the fulness of his heart he fished / A dime for Jesus who had died for men."

The contrast of “offering a dime” vis-à-vis “dying for humanity” implies the continued lack of a clue of the man whose karma is being examined. His karma, of course, will remain with him, and just as he has continued to sow, he will continue to reap.

Portrait of E.A. Robinson

Portrait of E.A. Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory”

Edwin Arlington Robinson's uncomplicated poem, "Richard Cory," offers a fascinating portrayal of its subject—a rich, well-respected man who by committing suicide shocks the sensibilities of the common folks that had admired his wealth and stature.

Introduction and Text of "Richard Cory"

Readers are indeed shocked when in the final stanza they are accosted with the line delivering the message that Richard Cory one night, "Went home and put a bullet through his head."

The question provoked by this act does not appear to have a definite answer, but it does convincingly imply that despite outward appearances and wealth, one may feel so empty inside that one prefers death to life.

The speaker represents all those neighbors who thought Richard Cory's life was far superior to their own. However, it becomes clear that they had been led astray by outward appearance.

Had they been able to become acquainted with the inner life of the man they so admired, they might have discovered the specifics of Richard Cory's existence. But for purposes of the poem, only the mystery is necessary; indeed, it is preferable because life is full of such mysteries.

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Reading of "Richard Cory"

Commentary on "Richard Cory"

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s "Richard Cory" renders its message in quite a literal poem, virtually devoid of any figurative language—appropriate for both the speaker and the subject of the poem.

First Stanza: The Richness of Literal Language

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

Although the poem employs no poetic device such as metaphor, symbol, or simile, its use of language is rich and full. The opening line exemplifies the richness: if Richard Cory "went down town," then he had been up town.

Stereotypically, being up town indicates a neighborhood where the well-to-do lived. This dichotomy continues throughout the poem: a dichotomy of contrast between the wealthy and the less well off.

The poem's speaker is one of the less well off, those who thought of Richard Cory as being "richer than as king."

Those "on the pavement" indicate the working class, apartment dwellers who struggled to survive, while Richard Cory moved in the circle of ladies and gentlemen—not just men and women who work hard for their meagre pittance.

Richard Cory was "a gentleman from sole to crown"—from his feet to his head. "Crown" is a pun, meaning top of the head as well as the head ornament of a king. "Crown" is, in fact, the only term in the poem that offers a slightly figurative use.

The poem functions quite well without any obvious figurative language. The fact that this poem remains quite literal demonstrates that literal language completely free from literary devices can function poetically.

Second Stanza: A Nice Man

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

Despite Richard Cory’s being so rich and kingly, the man was still a very nice human being. He did not snub people; he engaged pleasantly with them. The speaker, who is obviously obsessed with Richard Cory's status, and no doubt a bit envious, would have expected Cory's behavior to have been arrogant. But the opposite was true.

Still Cory's appearance dazzled those who encountered him. He made the common folk a little uneasy when he spoke to them, even though he was affable and friendly and seemed to be happy. Those common folk seemed unable to identify with Cory simply because of the differences between the classes.

Apparently, Richard Cory looked like them as a physical specimen—such as similar racial makeup, education level, mores, interests only differentiated by wealth levels, but they perceive Cory was from a different "class."

They would consider him high class as opposed to their middle or low classes. Even in a supposed "classless" American society, citizens have always made distinctions based on class which is normally based on wealth, rather than heredity.

Third Stanza: The Vacuousness of Envy

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

The speaker, likely because of his nervous admiration of Cory, exaggerates Cory's wealth by claiming he was "richer than a king." In addition to being financially successful, Cory was well educated.

He possessed knowledge, and he also possessed the grace with which to behave properly. The speaker and his milieu concluded that Richard Cory possessed everything a human being needed to be successful. They envied him; thus, they wanted to be Richard Cory.

As the poem progresses, however, it will be realized that such claims regarding Richard Cory must be taken only provisionally, as it will become obvious that those "people on the pavement" have completely misread the qualities of Richard Cory, especially after learning of the wealthy, accomplished gentleman’s final act.

Fourth Stanza: Looks Can Be Deceiving

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

In the two opening lines of the last stanza of the poem, once again differences between the two socio-economic classes are dramatized. The working, struggling folk "on the pavement" worked and struggled so that one day they too could be like Richard Cory.

They worked, struggled, and complained. Then the irony of their complaining unfolds when this paragon of virtue that they had idolized and idealized "went home and put a bullet through his head." This act told them that looks can, indeed, be deceiving.

Dramatizing a Truth

The poem, "Richard Cory," dramatizes a truth about life with all its appearances, contradictory evidence, and unexpected occurrences, confirming that life and human behavior, indeed, remain a mystery.

The poet has accomplished this fine achievement in a poem without one metaphor, simile, or other poetic device. The literal language is rich and deep and without nuance. It does its job like the people on the pavement, and it does it without gloss and glitter.

This lack of figurative or "poetic" language is not an anomaly; many fine poems do not rely on any figurative language such a metaphor, image, personification, simile, or other literary device.

The only requirement for a poem to function well is that the language be authentic and possess levels of truth. Readers must be able to identify with the claims beings made, even if such claims do reflect the readers’ views or knowledge.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles