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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.

-- Edwin Arlington Robinson




Beyond Moralizing: "Richard Cory" as Poetic Experience

"Richard Cory" was composed about 1890 during the age of the great robber barons such as Astor, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. By the 1960's Edward Arlington Robinson's poem had captivated readers so much that the poem was the inspiration for a stage play and also inspired a song by Simon and Garfunkel in 1966. The readers of the 1890's, the anti-establishment "hippies" of the 1960's, and the students in my poetry classes usually have read the poem as a critique of the materialism of American life, and with good reason. Clearly the poem implies that material wealth is not the answer to all of life's problems; however, "Richard Cory" is a poem, not merely an illustration for a sermon against avarice. To appreciate Robinson's piece properly one must see beyond the obvious moralizing. One must also see the aesthetic pattern in the diction of the poem, and -- especially -- one must assess the poem as a recreation of an intense experience.

Ordinary people living in the 1890's knew exactly what "richer than a king" meant. They were familiar with the fortunes and life styles of people like John Jacob Astor whose residence in uptown New York had dozens of bedrooms; they had at least seen pictures of Andrew Carnegie's uptown New York residence, a building pretty much on the scale and design of Buckingham Palace in London. And they had seen, when one these financial kings had come "downtown," their elegance of dress and manners. It was easy to envy such vast wealth:

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.
Obviously the suicide of Richard Cory demonstrates to all of us that "money isn't everything" and that the ancient maxim is very true: "The root of every evil is the love of money." It's hard to miss the moral lesson of the poem.

Beyond and perhaps even above that obvious moral lesson, however, lies Robinson's poetic skill. Consider, for example, how Robinson's choice of words regularly reinforces the ironic idea that Richard is some kind of royalty. Not only is he "richer than a king," he is "imperially slim," evidently suggesting that he was more like an emperor than a mere king. Also, when Robinson adapts the idiomatic expression "from head to foot" into "from sole to crown," he has indicated that Richard's head seems to be an appropriate place for an emperor's crown. The reader also should notice the subtle distinction between "down town" and its opposite "up town." Richard is obviously lowering himself or showing off to go "down town" because he is really an "uptown" sort of guy. Consider also Robinson's choice of the word "glittered." That's an allusion to the expression "all that glitters is not gold," the ancient warning that we should never trust appearances. By saying that he "glittered when he walked," the poet is already suggesting that something may be deeply wrong with poor Richard. And then consider that he was "quietly arrayed." How does one glitter quietly? "Glittering quietly" is obviously a paradox indicating that there are paradoxical contradictions and complexities in Richard's character. Robinson's skill at romping about playing word games forces us to say the poem is very skillfully made.

The abrupt news that Cory is dead is a shock and a surprise. But we have no answer to why " Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head." Richard's story remains untold. In fact, it is the untold story of why he killed himself that makes this poem such an effective re-creation of real life. The sudden stunning ending of the poem is a mirror of what happens in real life. We can read and re-read the poem, but all we can come up with is speculation about what happened on that "calm summer night." Nevertheless, the experience is clear: "We always wanted to be like Cory and have what Cory had, but now he's killed himself. Why, in the name of all that's holy, would a guy like Corey kill himself?"

So we leave the poem confused, irritated, and unsatisfied. Hey! That's what is supposed to happen. Robinson has just led us through a vicarious experience of life as it really is lived. It is not the pious moral against avarice that Robinson writes about. It is the often-repeated and ever-bewildering experience of learning that our misplaced faith in wealth has led again tragedy. Richard Cory blew his brains out and, at the same time, turned our values inside-out and upside-down.

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Here are the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel's song.

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker's only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he's got.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.