Children of the Night
7 Poems of E.A. Robinson for medium voice and piano
- Dear Friends
- The Torrent
- Reuben Bright
- The Dark Hills
- John Evereldown
- The Pilot
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) is known today for short poems personifying characters like Richard Cory and Miniver Cheevy, poems studied by every school child, but he worked hard for several decades before being recognized. Theodore Roosevelt’s advocacy helped, and acclaim followed. Robinson’s Collected Poems (1921) won the first Pulitzer ever awarded to poetry, and he received three Pulitzer Prizes in seven years.
Robinson was born on December 22, 1869 in Head Tide, Maine, and his invented Tilbury Town is the New England setting for what W. R. Robinson has called “the repressive, utilitarian social climate customarily designated as the Puritan ethic.” While not all the songs refer to the town explicitly, its residents include people like the delicate butcher Bright and somewhat less sensitive Evereldown. Robinson’s world is populated with such flawed characters pursuing dubious ends, like the speaker of “The Torrent.” But the poet rejected the idea that he was a pessimist. “The world is not a prison house,” he wrote, “but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”
Unlike his contemporaries who explored free verse, Robinson preferred laconic, everyday speech and traditional forms. One of his favorite is the iambic, sonnet-like structure exemplified in four of the poems presented here. Robert Frost declared: “His theme was unhappiness itself, but his skill was as happy as it was playful. There is that comforting thought for those who suffered to see him suffer.”
Children of the Night was composed in the early days of the 2020 pandemic for Clara Osowski, 2020. It . The work was premiered by Clara Osowski and Sonja Thompson on February 10, 2022 at Landmark Center in a Schubert Club Courtroom Concert, St. Paul, Minn.
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.
And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.
I found a torrent falling in a glen
Where the sun’s light shone silvered and leaf-split;
The boom, the foam, and the mad flash of it
All made a magic symphony; but when
I thought upon the coming of hard men
To cut those patriarchal trees away,
And turn to gold the silver of that spray,
I shuddered. Yet a gladness now and then
Did wake me to myself till I was glad
In earnest, and was welcoming the time
For screaming saws to sound above the chime
Of idle waters, and for me to know
The jealous visionings that I had had
Were steps to the great place where trees and torrents go.
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
The Dark Hills
Dark hills at evening in the west,
Where sunset hovers like a sound
Of golden horns that sang to rest
Old bones of warriors under ground,
Far now from all the bannered ways
Where flash the legions of the sun,
You fade—as if the last of days
Were fading, and all wars were done.
“Where are you going to-night, to-night,—
Where are you going, John Evereldown?
There’s never the sign of a star in sight,
Nor a lamp that’s nearer than Tilbury Town.
Why do you stare as a dead man might?
Where are you pointing away from the light?
And where are you going to-night, to-night,—
Where are you going, John Evereldown?”
“Right through the forest, where none can see,
There’s where I’m going, to Tilbury Town.
The men are asleep,— or awake, may be —
But the women are calling John Evereldown.
Ever and ever they call for me,
And while they call can a man be free?
So right through the forest, where none can see,
There’s where I’m going, to Tilbury Town.”
“But why are you going so late, so late,—
Why are you going, John Evereldown?
Though the road be smooth and the path be straight,
There are two long leagues to Tilbury Town.
Come in by the fire, old man, and wait!
Why do you chatter out there by the gate?
And why are you going so late, so late,—
Why are you going, John Evereldown?”
“I follow the women wherever they call,—
That’s why I’m going to Tilbury Town.
God knows if I pray to be done with it all,
But God is no friend to John Evereldown.
So the clouds may come and the rain may fall,
The shadows may creep and the dead men crawl, —
But I follow the women wherever they call,
And that’s why I’m going to Tilbury Town
From the Past and Unavailing
Out of cloudland we are steering:
After groping, after fearing,
Into starlight we come trailing,
And we find the stars are true.
Still, O comrade, what of you?
You are gone, but we are sailing,
And the old ways are all new.
For the Lost and Unreturning
We have drifted, we have waited;
Uncommanded and unrated,
We have tossed and wandered, yearning
For a charm that comes no more
From the old lights by the shore:
We have shamed ourselves in learning
What you knew so long before.
For the Breed of the Far-going
Who are strangers, and all brothers,
May forget no more than others
Who looked seaward with eyes flowing.
But are brothers to bewail
One who fought so foul a gale?
You have won beyond our knowing,
You are gone, but yet we sail.
Now in a thought, now in a shadowed word,
Now in a voice that thrills eternity,
Ever there comes an onward phrase to me
Of some transcendent music I have heard;
No piteous thing by soft hands dulcimered,
No trumpet crash of blood-sick victory,
But a glad strain of some still symphony
That no proud mortal touch has ever stirred.
There is no music in the world like this,
No character wherewith to set it down,
No kind of instrument to make it sing.
No kind of instrument? Ah, yes, there is!
And after time and place are overthrown,
God’s touch will keep its one chord quivering.
Poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Public domain. I, II, III, V, VII from The Children of the Night, 1897. VI from The Town Down the River, 1910. IV from The Three Taverns, 1920