Richard Cory’s Illusion of Divinity
It is a common notion for people to believe other people tend to have better lives than their own. Regardless of the situation, people will compare the worst part of their own life to the best parts of other peoples’ lives, creating a wider disparity than what exists. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” narrates a scenario portraying the cliché notion that just because someone’s life appears ideal, does not mean it is. This idea is emphasized in almost every line of the poem and strengthened through subtle and obvious contrast, which is what stuck out most to me—how excessive the contrast is between the people and Richard Cory.
The first stanza introduces the character Richard Cory, and it immediately gives him an aura of grandeur. The first of many contrasting descriptions in this poem is between the “people on the pavement” and the poem’s subject being a “gentleman from sole to crown”. He is noble through and through without a single trace of anything less in him according to the description. Even the diction elevates his status. Using the word “crown” instead of “head” creates an image of royalty, widening the gap between him and the general population. The following line reinforces this by describing his slimness as imperial. However, in the third stanza, his status is elevated higher when he is deemed “richer than a king”. The narrator describes this man as ideal and having everything anyone could desire: a perfect physical form, proper manners, and money.
There is even the contrast of the acquisition of things. The diction used to describe Richard Cory implies his fortunate state as being effortless. As previously explained, he is compared to royalty, even better than royalty. There is no mention of having to earn or work for anything, everything about him just is. Contrariwise, it is specifically mentioned how the people had to work and they still lacked basic things, such as decent meals.
The poem is also characterized by polysyndeton. The repetition of “and” creates a sense of the endless favorable traits he possesses. The majority of the poem is essentially a list of how great he is; the only flaw presented is “he fluttered pulses when he said,/‘Good-morning’”. Again, there is a distinguishable shift at the beginning of the final stanza. It is not initiated with “And” like the previous two stanzas, instead it starts with “So”. This variance draws attention to the disparity between their lifestyles, and it signals a shift in the use of polysyndeton from emphasizing an abundance of fortune to an abundance of misfortune. This seems to create a dulling effect on the situation because the word is so overused at this point. It draws out the labors of the people, and changes Richard Cory’s suicide from being a dramatic incident to just another event on the list of misfortunes.
Of all the ways Robinson contrasts Richard Cory from the people, what I found most intriguing was how he is depicted as divine. There are three stanzas used to describe him, each of which provide three positive descriptors. The first stanza describes him as a “gentleman”, “clean flavored” and “imperially slim”. The second stanza tells how he is “quietly arrayed”, human when he talked”, and “he glittered when he walked”. Then, in the following stanza, he is described as “richer than a king”, and good enough to be envied. There is no mistake about him being described as god-like. Three typically symbolizes the trinity and religious perfection, yet it does not hold up in this instance as Richard Cory succumbs to suicide. Despite seeming perfect, he was still flawed and evidently must have been struggling more than the common folk. Interestingly, the last stanza describes the general people with four actions: they worked, waited, went without, and cursed. They are described as nothing but miserable, and yet they have the will to continue with life. By using four descriptors, a larger number than Richard’s three, it does seem to indirectly suggest how even though they had laborious lives, they still made more out of living than Richard Cory.
Despite how uninteresting the underlying idea of this narrative poem is, its presentation is engaging because of the polarity of the general population from Richard Cory. Each line emphasizes his perfection and effortless lifestyle, making him seem like a divine being in opposition to everyone else’s difficult lives. While he is lauded for doing nothing other than existing, the people work hard and receive nothing. Regardless of how things appear, nothing is as flawless as it seems.
Do We Really Want To Be Richard Cory?
11 November 2015
Edwin Arlington Robinson struggled with depression throughout most of his life, especially during his early years as an adolescent. When asked about his childhood, Robinson himself described it as “stark and unhappy” (Poets.org). He even wrote in a letter to a friend of his, Amy Lowell, that “when [he] was six years old, [he] remembered wondering why [he] had been born” (Poets.org). It is no surprise that this bleakness that encumbered his childhood is clearly reflected in his most famous poem, “Richard Cory”. In this poem, Robinson reveals something to the audience that everyone needs to realize: people’s outside appearance and demeanor are not always directly representative of their overall level of happiness and general satisfaction with life.
Richard Cory, the person that the poem is about, seems to have it all and is a well-respected, handsome, and wealthy man. Robinson describes Richard as “always quietly arrayed” and writes that he “glittered when he walked.” The audience is clearly made aware that Richard is “somebody” in this town. Richard is someone that the community as a whole knows, respects, admires, and even worships. Not only does the community venerate Richard, but they also “wish that [they] were in his place.” No one knew Richard was depressed or discontented with his life, and they especially did not expect him to be one to commit suicide. Richard was able to dissimulate his true feelings of severe depression by disguising himself as a commendable character that everyone aspired to be like. Richard suffered from depression so severe that he took his own life, despite his worldly success.
The stigma associated with mental illness, or depression specifically, is the biggest barrier to mental healthcare today. When one admits or is revealed to have a mental illness, a phenomenon known as “social distancing” occurs, whereby people that are depressed or have another mental illness tend to be isolated by society. Studies show that “the majority of people hold negative attitudes and stereotypes towards people with mental illness” (Friedman). Depression is ranked as one of the world’s most disabling diseases, and because of this stigma associated with it, most people are embarrassed to talk to anyone or reach out for help. Cancer, liver disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and countless other diseases are all topics that we feel comfortable discussing on Facebook or in the aisle of the grocery store, but depression is a disease that is seldom spoken about in social environments. Up to fifteen percent of people diagnosed with clinical depression die by suicide (Suicide and Depression). Essentially, this can be translated to mean that clinical depression will be the cause of death for fifteen percent of people diagnosed with the illness. This number is comparable to most physical health illnesses, yet depression isn’t considered near as serious as physical illnesses that have comparable death rates.
Richard’s struggle with depression was completely and utterly unknown to the people of his town. In fact, the people believed the exact opposite about Richard– they believed he had it all and they desired to reach Richard’s level of happiness themselves. Richard was able to “put a face on”, or camouflage his crippling depression from society and appear as a successful, happy, revered man. Robinson writes, “so on we worked, and waited for the light, and went without the meat, and cursed the bread” meaning that the society desired to be like Richard. The people of the town wished to have the money, the looks, and the admiration that people had for Richard. When Richard was down town, Robinson writes that “we people on the pavement looked at him”, signifying that the common people were regarded as being “below”, or less than Richard. They were beneath him, on the pavement, looking up at him as if his life was more important than theirs will ever be. The people of this town regarded Richard so highly that not only was everyone envious of his material possessions and aesthetic appearance, but they were also covetous of his life as a whole. In the public’s eyes, he had, in a way, achieved self-actualization.
By telling the audience how highly regarded Richard was, Robinson forces us to take a look at our earthly possessions and all of the things we want and think “do these things really make us happy?” Richard’s decision to commit suicide, despite his social status, also raises the question of how important our status in society truly is. This poem teaches the audience a very important lesson that is relevant to almost every reader– even the wealthiest, most attractive, highest regarded person still has problems. Money, good looks, and fame don’t always bring happiness. Richard looked like should be happy; he had everything one could ask for. This poem tells us that just because a man looks like he should be happy with his life doesn’t mean he is actually happy with his life.
“Edwin Arlington Robinson.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Friedman, Mike, Ph.D. “The Stigma of Mental Illness Is Making Us Sicker.” Psychology Today. N.p., 3 May 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“Suicide and Depression.” All About Depression: Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
“Richard Cory” The Children of the Night by Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1897