By Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Edwin Arlington Robinson's “Miniver Cheevy” is a dramatic lyric poem centering on a twentieth-century misfit who dreams of living in the heroic age of sword and horse. Charles Scribner’s Sons published it in 1910 as part of a collection entitled Town Down the River.
Although the poem mentions no specific locale, readers of Robinson’s poetry know that Miniver Cheevy lives in fictional Tilbury Town, a community modeled on Robinson’s hometown of Gardiner, Maine. Gardiner is on the Kennebec River in southwestern Maine a few miles south of the state capital, Augusta. Robinson used Tilbury Town as the setting of many of his poems, including the highly popular Richard Cory, although his poems seldom mention the town by name.
“Miniver Cheevy” is an unusual but apt name for the poem and its misfit dreamer. Consider that Miniver is the name of a white or gray fur used in earlier times to trim the ceremonial robes of royals and nobles. In his dreams about the past, Mr. Cheevy perhaps sees himself in such fine robes as an important person at the court of a king—or as the king himself.
too, that Cheevy resembles words derived
from the French noun cheval
(horse) to identify gallant knights
(chevaliers) and their code
of honor (chivalry). The name of game lands near the
border of Scotland
and England was Chevy Chase (or Chace) to refer to
hunts there by nobles
on horseback. A famous poem, "The Ballad of Chevy
Chase," centers on a
storied 1388 battle at the site between Englishmen
and Scots after the
latter mistook an English hunting party for an
invasion force. Of course,
Miniver Cheevy can also be a coinage derived from
the term minimum
achiever, a label that sums up Mr.
Cheevy’s meager abilities
in the modern workaday world.
The structure of "Miniver Cheevy" is neatly symmetrical, containing eight four-line stanzas (quatrains). The first and third lines of each stanza have masculine end rhyme, and the second and fourth lines have feminine end rhyme. Masculine rhyme occurs when the final syllable of a line rhymes with the final syllable of another line. Feminine rhyme occurs when the final two syllables of a line rhyme with the final two syllables of another line.
Robinson begins the first line of each stanza with Miniver and the third line of each stanza with either he or Miniver. He also lengthens the second line of each stanza and shortens the last line of each stanza, enabling him to present the long and the short of Miniver's misery.
In addition, he rhetorically parallels the openings of the second, third, and fourth stanzas with the openings of the fifth, sixth, and seventh stanzas. The opening line of the eighth stanza then rhetorically parallels the opening line of the first stanza.
Following is an illustration of this pattern:
Stanza 1, line 1: Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,.
What accounts for Miniver Cheevy’s fixation on the past?
Mr. Cheevy would tell you that he cannot abide the workaday world around him, for it is humdrum and bourgeois, lacking the heroic spirit and aesthetic taste of ages past. Miniver himself has the required gallantry and refinement, he would assure you, but cannot use these qualities because he was born in the wrong century in the wrong place. If he could go back in time—to Arthur’s Camelot, for example—what wonders he would work. Riding a horse and wielding a sword, he would lead knights in a charge, lay siege to castles, and carry home vast treasures. Minstrels would sing of his valor; fair maidens would swoon at his smile.
What Miniver would not tell you, however, is the truth about his own past. Early in life, he was a “child of scorn” (line 1) because his parents and the community in which he lived did not accept him for what he was. Was he disfigured, awkward, peevish, incorrigible–or perhaps illegitimate? It does not matter. What matters is that he protected himself by escaping into books and living vicariously in their stories. He became Achilles at Troy, Alexander at Thebes, Gawain at Camelot. Over the years, he became so fixated on his dream world that he neglected to develop the social and vocational skills needed to cope with the real world. Consequently, he became a misfit and ne’er-do-well. But rather than blame himself and his shortcomings for his failures, he blamed the world around him. He was too good for it. Fate had fixed him in the wrong century.
And so he dreamed on—and fed his dreams with drink.
When Robinson created Miniver, he looked inward, for—in a way—he was Miniver. From the very beginning of his life in December 1869, Robinson's mother frowned on him: she wanted a girl. When a boy was born, she had no ready name for him. Not until six months later—in the summer of 1870—did he receive an identity. The big moment came when the Robinsons were vacationing at a resort in Harpswell, Maine.
[T]he ladies on the verandah challenged her [Mrs. Robinson] to name the baby. The ladies placed names in a lottery, and the name drawn was “Edwin.” Because the lady who proposed “Edwin” as a name was from Arlington, Massachusetts, baby Robinson became Edwin Arlington Robinson, a name that was anathema to him throughout his life. He hated the family’s habit of calling him “Win,” and as an adult he always signed himself as “E. A.” (Smith, Danny D. "Biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson." Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Virtual Tour of Robinson's Gardiner, Maine. 17 July 2008 <http://- www.earobinson.com/pages/HisLife.html>.In an age of industrial growth and emerging technologies, as well as entrepreneurial derring-do and materialism, Robinson preferred writing poetry. In the 1890s, when he was in his twenties, his brother Herman married the woman Edwin loved. Then his father died, his family went bankrupt, his mother died, his brother Herman began drinking heavily, and in 1899 his brother Dean died after becoming addicted to Morphine. Edwin worked at various jobs to sustain himself while writing his verses. He knew poverty. He knew failure. And, like Miniver and his brother Herman, he turned to alcohol.
However, after his poetry gained recognition in the first decade of the twentieth century—President Theodore Roosevelt was one of his admirers—he began succeeding as a poet but continued to struggle financially. After Roosevelt intervened on his behalf to get him a government job in a customs house, Robinson's financial problems eased, and he received favorable reviews for Town Down the Driver, the collection in which "Miniver Cheevy" appeared. Eventually, he went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes.
Over the years, "Miniver Cheevy" came to be recognized as one of his finest poems.
In depicting Miniver Cheevy as a misfit dreamer, Robinson satirizes the Minivers of the world who spend too much time dwelling on the "the good old days" instead of living in the present.
But, paradoxically, he also satirizes Miniver's financially successful contemporaries for debasing the past. He says, for example, that Romance, a mainstay genre of many classic literary works, is "now on the the town" (line 15). In other words, the Romance genre that once regaled readers with wonderful tales in exquisite prose is now a down-and-outer living on the public dole, perhaps in the form of tawdry novels in pedestrian prose that boorish parvenus buy instead of the classics. Art—real literary art—is "a vagrant"; the powers that be in the present world are too caught up in their enterprises and too aesthetically deficient to pay attention to it.
Miniver Cheevy escapes the burdens of everyday life by dreaming of bygone days and soothing himself with a bottle of liquor. It is normal, of course, to think about the past; but it is abnormal to dwell on it constantly.
Miniver rationalizes that fate is at fault for his failure, as line 31 points out. How could he be blamed for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time?