We live in a society where celebrities are idolized for their wealth and fame. We assume that because they are rich, they must be happy. We envy their fancy cars, elaborate wardrobes, palace-like mansions, and carefree social lives. Most of us, if given the opportunity, would put ourselves in their position. However, the expression “it’s lonely at the top” exists for a reason. Sometimes fame and wealth only bring misery. Edwin Arlington Robinson, in his poem “Richard Cory,” claims that appearances aren’t always what they seem and people should not be judged by their material trappings.
Robinson begins by having a townsperson describe Richard Cory. According to the speaker, Cory is superior to the common citizens living in the town. When Robinson writes, “Whenever Richard Cory went downtown, / We people on the pavement looked at him,” he is telling us that the citizens are lower than Cory because they stand on the “pavement”(lines 1-2). These lines imply that he lives elsewhere, somewhere better, and is lowering himself to their level.
The speaker continues to demonstrate Cory’s higher status by comparing him to royalty. Robinson writes that Cory was “[…] a gentleman from sole to crown,” leaving the reader to make an obvious association between “crown” and king (3). Cory is further described as “imperially slim,” again suggesting a royal figure (4).
Robinson claims that Cory tries to fit in by not making himself seem better than the townspeople. Robinson writes that Cory is “[…] always quietly arrayed, / And he was always human when he talked” (5-6). However, we see that his celebrity status still separates him from the townspeople. Robinson describes how, “[…] he fluttered pulses when said / ‘Good morning,’ and he glittered when he walked” (7-8). His mere presence apparently makes both women and men somewhat nervous and giddy, akin to being star-struck. Additionally, “glittered” denotes both glamour and wealth.
Robinson further emphasizes Corey’s status when he describes him as “ […]richer than a king” (10), implying that his wealth bears a connection to nobility and all that goes along with that elevated status. In fact, when Robinson writes that Cory is “[…] admirably schooled in every grace,” he is underscoring the dignity of Cory’s position, his access to proper education, a mannered existence.
The speaker, after portraying Cory as something nearly beyond man in his perfection, goes on to show the expected reaction from the townspeople: they are envious. He writes, “In fine, we thought he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place” (11-12).
The chasm between townspeople and Cory is underscored. They are uneducated workers scrabbling for a meal while he lives an elevated life of luxury. We see the depths of oppositional roles between Cory and the people when Robinson writes, “So on we worked and waited for the light, / And went without the meat, and cursed the bread” (13-14). Waiting for light suggests they are short on hope, and apparently they are not accepting of their lot, or they would not “curse” the bread.
Ultimately, our expectations are undermined in the closing of the poem, as the speaker relays how “[…] Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head” (16). In this moment, we are left to wonder how someone who seems to have everything would throw his life away, and a creeping thought emerges: perhaps everything is not what it seems.
Robinson’s poem leaves us with the knowledge that appearances do deceive. The life the townspeople so desperately admire and wish to inhabit was in reality, devoid of something necessary for life. Perhaps it is the very status so admired by the people that leaves Cory feeling so isolated; his inability to fully connect may have eventually been his downfall. We can only speculate as to the cause of Cory’s suicide, but surely the poem offers us a clear message to stay away from envious thoughts, as they are very often just illusion and don’t tell the whole story of another’s life. Robinson, in his poem, “Richard Cory” seems to suggest that what others have may be just what we don’t want.
- Robinson, Edwin Arlington. “Richard Cory.” Literature: An Introduction to
Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 4th Compact ed. Upper
Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2009, 521.