‘Richard Cory’ is a poem that shows why we should not judge people on appearances as it subverts our expectations in the final line. Regarding the structure and form, the poem is written in four quatrains written in iambic pentameter with a simple ABAB rhyme scheme. The language is straightforward though quietly stirring. The fact that the rhythm and rhyme are so consistent throughout makes the revelation at the end of stanza four all the more shocking. There is almost a conversational tone to the poem. The frequent use of ‘and’ adds to this effect, loading detail upon detail as the speaker tells the sorry tale of Richard Cory.
Richard Cory Analysis
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured, and imperially slim.
This is our introduction to the eponymous character, Richard Cory. He is held in great esteem by the townspeople. This is clear as he attracts their attention for they ‘looked at him’ and noted that “He was a gentleman from sole to crown’. The final line of this stanza suggests that he was a morally upright fellow, and the adjective ‘imperially’ implies that he carries a sense of grace and regality about his person.
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.
The repetition of ‘And he was always’ shows consistency and warmth of character. The fact that ‘he was always human’ indicates his sincerity. Despite his wealth and good looks, he talked to people without condescension or pretension. However, this does not stop him from causing a stir when he wishes them “Good Morning!” The exclamation mark suggests that he has a genuine pleasure in meeting others. The verb ‘glittered’ is ambiguous as it hints at both his sparkling personality, but in the literal sense, it could be his watch or other accouterments which glint when they catch the sunlight.
Although he was ‘quietly arrayed’ there was something intoxicating about his person which meant that as he passed he ‘fluttered pulses’. We have the immediate image of young ladies catching their breaths and fanning themselves as he passed, and the men looking on wistfully, wishing that they possessed something of his wealth and charm.
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.
After suggesting that he came from a monied background, we are now informed that this was indeed the case, and the dashes in the line serve to emphasize the point. The assertion ‘yes’ and the comparative line ‘richer than a king’ snare the interest of the reader. We wonder how this man has made his fortune and picture some dashing Gatsby-like character. However, unlike Jay Gatsby who rose to wealth through illegal means such as gambling and bootlegging, Richard Cory appears to have acquired his riches through hereditary means, by the reference to a king, or perhaps through business. A doubt is sown in our minds in line three of this stanza where the speaker states ‘We thought that he was everything’. This alerts us to the fact that all may not be well, and also reminds us of the old adage, ‘be careful what you wish for.’ The final monosyllabic line with its frequent alliteration propels us along to the poem’s conclusion.
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 this stanza, the speaker alludes to the difficulties faced by the other inhabitants of the town. The ‘so’ at the beginning almost carries a sigh, to suggest fatigue and hardship. There is an obvious discrepancy between the life led by the gentleman, Richard Cory, and the people who look up to him. While he ‘allegedly’ enjoys the good life, the others struggle. This is conveyed through the long drawn out assonance and the repeated ‘w’ sounds in the first two lines of the stanza. They have insufficient money even to have access to the most basic of goods since the ‘went without the meat and cursed the bread’, which was obviously of poor quality and lacking in nourishment. Even the word ‘cursed’ stands out here, as it seems ill-fitting after the descriptions of Cory.
There is thus a disparity between their lives and that of Cory, except they are not alone in their suffering. Such are his demons, that he shocks them all, by returning home from one of his strolls in town ‘and put a bullet through his head’. The reader is left speechless by this revelation, and the fact that this event is preceded by the line ‘one calm summer night’ further compounds their shock.
We are left wondering what on earth could have preempted the suicide from a man who appeared to have everything, including the respect of the townspeople.
About Edwin Arlington Robinson
Edwin Arlington Robinson, (1869-1935) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was also nominated for the Nobel prize for literature. He was born in Maine but had an unhappy childhood since his parents seemed largely indifferent to him. His siblings went on to suffer great hardship through addiction to alcohol and drugs, and Robinson’s poetry often dwelt on bleak themes, perhaps based on these first-hand experiences. Many think that the poem ‘Richard Cory’ could have been based upon his brother who came to an inauspicious end when his business collapsed.