Last night I came upon a poem I had never heard before. I heard it in, of all places, an episode of the old “Perry Mason” show (“The Case of the Envious Editor”, first shown in 1961). One of the characters recited the poem, and I found it striking enough that I looked it up. The poem, written in 1897, is “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Here it is:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Richard Cory, handsome, well-spoken, and rich, is admired by the working people of his town as “a gentleman from sole to crown.” Although their lives were hard, and his appeared to be so easy, they didn’t resent him. Apparently he always treated them with respect and not condescension – he was “always human when he talked.” In fact, to his poorer neighbors, Richard Cory represented everything that they, themselves, would like to be.
And yet, it was he, and not they, who couldn’t stand to go on living. Why? What was wrong in Richard Cory’s life that he felt it was no longer worth living?
Of course the poem doesn’t tell us anything about what was going in Richard Cory’s mind and spirit. The townspeople knew him only by his actions, and that’s all we as readers know as well. But his final action speaks for itself – there was something desperately wrong in the rich and accomplished Richard Cory’s life that all his money and acclaim couldn’t fix. We can’t tell what it was specifically, but it seems to me that a passage in the Bible sums up this man’s situation very well:
Luke 12:15-21 And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” 16 Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. 17 And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ 18 So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”‘ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ 21 “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
What was Richard Cory’s problem that led him to put a bullet through his head? Whatever else may have been going on in his life, it’s clear from the way that life ended that Richard Cory, though fabulously rich in the things of this world, was not “rich toward God.”
From the outside looking in, Richard Cory was a good man. But on the inside, the poverty of his soul negated all his worldly advantages.