Google his name. You'll find almost 300,000 references to that wealthy, handsome, impeccable dresser with the pulse-fluttering voice; who though much envied by the "people on the pavement" went home "one calm summer night" and "put a bullet through his head."
My high school English teacher, Mr. Berman, shocked our class with his deadpan reading of Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory" back in 1956. Type the title into the search box at You Tube and you'll find that today's teenagers still find the 114 year old poem shocking. Dozens of them have produced videos for English class, dramatizing the elegant life and sudden death of one of the most enigmatic figures in American poetry.
Both the first and last names of Robinson's suicidal hero encourage English teachers to talk about "symbolism." Mr. Berman was no exception. Richard, of course, is a royal name, appropriate for one "richer than a king." And although the poem describes the outer man it tells us nothing about his inner life. All we have is the rind. Cory's core is impenetrable.
When I first heard Richard Cory I thought it was simply a powerful dramatization of the old clichÃ© you can't judge a book by its cover. Our class had already read The Merchant of Venice with the inscription on one of Portia's caskets that said all that glitters is not gold. Robinson suggests that all is not what it seems to be with his hero by observing that "he glittered when he walked."
Still, I had an intuitive feeling that I was missing something; that the poem had another dimension that I couldn't quite perceive. I had to wait for Simon and Garfunkel to turn Richard Cory into a song ten years later on their Sounds of Silence album before I could discover it.
Paul Simon took Robinson's generic description as an invitation to let his imagination run wild. Simon's Richard Cory is "a banker's only child" with "political connections" who owned "one half" of his town including the "factory" that was its economic engine. The paparazzi snapped his picture when he went to "the opera" or "a show." Robinson's Cory merely "fluttered pulses"; Simon's held "orgies on his yacht." His lyric transformed a late nineteenth century cultured "gentleman" into something closer to a twentieth century Hugh-Hefner-like playboy!
Simon didn't stop there. He brought the class warfare subtext of the poem to the fore by transforming Robinson's speaker into a fully-fledged character, making the song as much about the singer as the man sung about.
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
Were he here today, Simon's desperate factory worker would be part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, protesting the "Crony Capitalism" of the 1% and demanding a share of their obscenely large pie.
It's a brilliant song; but in over-defining both Cory and the singer Simon loses some of the mystery that powers the poem. The shock we experience when Robinson's Cory pulls the trigger is somewhat attenuated. Still, the song encouraged me to take another look at the "voice" in Robinson's poem.
I had assumed that it was simply the voice of the poet; what literary critics like to call the "omniscient author." Reading the poem again, however, I was struck by the number of clichÃ©s the speaker uses: "from sole to crown"; "quietly arrayed"; "richer than a king"; "waited for the light"; "calm summer night." Who was telling the story? Would any self-respecting poet use such trite language?
I started to see considerable distance between Robinson and a carefully created persona—a self-appointed representative of the "people on the pavement" who felt betrayed by an idol whose unexpected demise suggested that none of the possessions they envied could assure happiness.
Read this way, the poem is still about the impossibility of fully understanding what is going on inside another human being. But it was like one of those double-image toys they used to put in cereal boxes. Turn it one way and it looked like a dog; another and it became a cat. Approach "Richard Cory" from a slightly different angle and it's less about the poem's namesake than the man telling the story.
Suddenly, Robinson's speaker became a character. I could picture him talking to five or six men loitering with him "on the pavement." I could hear the pent-up anger in his voice. There was something manipulative, almost sadistic in the calculated, incremental way he set his listeners up. I could sense him grinning at the shocked expression on their faces as he delivered the sucker punch. He was using Richard Cory to justify his own mediocrity; and patronizing his listeners by giving them an excuse for theirs.
That speaker of unspeakable truths, La Rochefoucauld, said: "In the misfortune of even our best friends we always find something that does not wholly displease us." After Sylvia Plath committed suicide Time interviewed some of her former classmates. Their reminiscences reminded me of Robinson's poem. Sylvia, they said, was the teacher's pet; the star of the class; everyone knew she was going places. One could feel their unspoken subtext: And look what happened to her! Maybe it's not so good to be that talented.
America's preoccupation with fallen personalities and political figures—from John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, and Charlie Sheen to Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, and Amy Winehouse—is further evidence that it is human nature to take comfort, even pleasure in seeing those who appear to be more fortunate than us self-destruct.
There's something of this mean-spiritedness in the speaker Robinson creates in "Richard Cory." The poet is showing a character to us and hoping we will notice his lack of empathy. Viewed this way I think we have a richer, more interesting poem. But whether you think the tale is told by the poet, a self-serving persona, or a whining factory worker one thing is certain: none of them have a clue as to who Richard Cory really was or why he did what he did.
So I decided to rehabilitate poor Richard; to rebut Simon and Garfunkel with a more sympathetic portrait of Cory's life via an inside account of the circumstances surrounding his death. At last we have an answer to the question that has nagged readers for generations. Why did Richard Cory put that bullet through his head?
Richard Cory His Untold Story
Turns out Richard Cory had pancreatic cancer;
Was told he had, at best, six months to live.
After the initial shock, he called his lawyer
To help draw up the will in which he'd give
The wealth so many envied mostly to charity
His custom-tailored suits to Salvation Army.
Probate only noticed one peculiarity:
That provision for his cat! Was Cory barmy?
No one but his doctor knew what was going on.
There was no one on the pavement he could tell;
His friends were fair-weather; parents long gone;
Glib how are yous were answered with I'm well.
The Pain finally got so bad he couldn't walk
Downtown; couldn't even climb out of bed.
You can guess the rest. To hell with idle talk
As to why Dick put that bullet through his head.
from the author's chapbook Crazy Dave Talks With The Poets
For David Alpaugh and Lynne Knight's Richard Cory video see:
YouTube - Richard Cory His Untold Story