A few weeks ago, I asked my students to read “Richard Cory,” a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I was out of the classroom that day to plan a department in-service training, and when I returned, the substitute said that they had a hard time with it. How I wish I had remembered that I had an analysis paper for this poem in the dusty piles of old college papers. I could have left it with them. However, I didn’t come across it until this morning. Here it is with a updates, revisions, and lesson plan ideas.
This poem has been one of my all-time favorites since I read it in high school. It is one of those poems that spoke to me and stuck with me over the years. It stays with me, because it is relevant, shocking, and speaks to a truth about the human condition. Even though it was published in 1897, it could have been published yesterday. As a society we are still placing wealthy people on a pedestal. Our society today has a seemingly unhealthy fascination with celebrities and people who have status and wealth. For that reason, I believe this is a great choice for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Ask students to write a paraphrase of the poem. To paraphrase, students should rewrite the poem in their own words to show that they understand the basic meaning of the poem.
When Richard Cory came into our lower class neighborhood, everyone stood aside and watched him. He was a complete gentleman, inside and out.
He dressed neatly and conservatively. Even though he spoke to us on our level, people got excited when he spoke to them.
He was very, very rich. He was educated and proper. In short, we held him on top of a pedestal, and dreamed of being up there with him. We worked hard, sacrificing and striving for a position next to him. Then, Richard Cory unexpectedly killed himself.
A narrative poem, “Richard Cory,” is the story of a man who seems to have it all. The people of the town, who are clearly of a lower financial class, place Richard Cory on a pedestal. They look up to him and want to be just like him. In the end though, they learn a valuable life lesson. Richard Cory kills himself, showing the people of the town that some things can’t be purchased and that looks can be deceiving. The central idea, or theme, of “Richard Cory” is that wealth and status don’t ensure happiness.
Robinson uses connotation extensively to place Richard Cory high on a pedestal above the townspeople. Connotation is the use of words to suggest meanings beyond the dictionary definition. To lower the townspeople, Robinson places them “downtown.” This suggests that Richard Cory is coming down, or lowering himself, to the level of the townspeople when he comes into town. He also places people on the “pavement,” which is lower than the sidewalk where Richard Cory most likely walks. Robinson positions the characters to show the differences in their financial status. He also shows that it is the townspeople, and not Cory, that seem to define these positions.
Although it is written by an American poet and set in an American town, connotation is used to suggest a noble, royal image of Richard Cory. His name, Richard, is the name of many kings. Also, Richard contains the word “rich,” which suggests his wealth. There are many other royal connotations and images in this poem including: “sole to crown,” “imperially slim,” and “schooled in every grace.” Crown, imperially and grace all suggest royalty. Robinson uses denotation, or the use of words for the exact meaning to emphasize this image of Richard Cory being local royalty. Richard Cory was a rich, well- educated man. Robinson writes, “And he was rich… and admirably schooled…” to make his point. On the outside, Richard Cory is a perfect man.
Robinson uses metaphors to create a noble image of Richard Cory as well. A metaphor makes a descriptive comparison between two objects or ideas. Robinson says that Cory was “richer than a king” and “he glittered when he walked.” These statements are not literal, but they create an image of nobility and privilege. Richard Cory is a representation of wealth, status and privilege.
All of the following literary terms and devices are elements present in this poem. You can use this poem to teach or review any or all of these literary techniques.
- Situational Irony
The entire poem, before the last line, displays a tone of admiration and respect. The poorer, lower class townspeople respect and admire Richard Cory. They look up to him, literally and figuratively. They want to be him. This build-up of Richard Cory’s character allows the last line to have a huge impact. The impact and irony of the last line is used to emphasize Robinson’s point that looks can be deceiving and to give the poem an ironic tone in the end.
The irony of the poem is expressed by the tone and the theme. Irony, in this case situational irony, occurs when the outcome of a situation is unexpected or a surprise. Richard Cory appears to have it all. The people of the town want to be just like him because his life appears to be perfect. In reality, Cory is lacking happiness, the key ingredient to “having it all.” The irony of the poem is that this man, that seems to have everything, kills himself because he is unhappy.
Six of the lines in the poem begin with “and.” The repetition of this word helps to build a mental picture of Richard Cory. More importantly, the repetition places Cory higher and higher on his pedestal. This use of repetition helps build the narrative towards the climax. This technique adds to the impact and shock of the last line of the poem.
Robinson uses the elements described above to create an image of the human condition. The townspeople are striving for the dream of having it all. Richard Cory is their role model for this perfect life. In striving for what they interpret to be the top, everyone, except Richard Cory, forgets that happiness is more important than money and status. With his suicide, Richard Cory shows that having even the greatest financial wealth and status does not mean that a person has everything needed for a fulfilling life.
Close reading is a strategy that is becoming a current buzz word when educators discuss the implementation of the Common Core Standards. Close reading is exactly what it sounds like: reading a text very closely. Students should:
- read the text through cold without the teacher telling them the meaning.
- annotate the text as they read. (Underline and circle pieces of the text, make written comments and ask questions in the margins)
- look for patterns and elements that stand out to them.
- consider those patterns and elements for meaning.
- read the text through several times.
Stay tuned, as I may write more on using this strategy in future hubs!
Close Read: This poem can be used for a close reading exercise. Give it to students and ask them to read it closely. Ask them to pull it apart and note the elements that stand out to them. Have a class discussion about what they discover.
Word Choice and Meaning: After the initial close reading, you can focus the dissection of the poem to note the literary elements. This poem shows good examples of connotation and denotation. Discuss Robinson’s word choices and the impact those words have. Discuss the impact if you were to change some of the words. Word choice and discovering the meaning and impact of those words can lead to a discussion of the impact your students make with their words when the speak and write.
Theme: As I stated above, the theme of this poem is very relevant. Guide students to uncover the theme and make connections to the world they live in today. Assign students to revise the poem to make it about a wealthy celebrity today who has died unhappy or who has fallen out of the spotlight.
Irony: The impact of this poem is a brilliant way to exemplify the meaning of irony. Students won’t likely forget Richard Cory’s story. Have students identify the other literary elements and their purpose for the meaning of the poem as well.
Compare: Show students the YouTube video of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory.” (below) This song is clearly inspired by Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem. Compare the two. This discussion could also lead to an assignment about adapting the poem and writing their own version.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt.