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