was reared in Gardiner, Me., the prototype of his Tilbury Town, and after studying at Harvard (1891–93) was employed in New York City. His first volume of poems, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), was privately printed. In these early poems, strongly influenced by his reading of Hardy, he presents the first of his spare, incisive portraits of the people of his Tilbury Town, marked by a dry New England manner that proved cryptic to his few readers. One reviewer stated that “The world is not beautiful to him, but a prison house,” to which Robinson later replied: “The world is not a ‘prison-house,’ but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” Some of the poems of this book were reprinted, with additions, in The Children of the Night (1897), containing the “Credo” in which the poet recognizes that there is “not a glimmer” for one who “welcomes when he fears, the black and awful chaos of the night”; but states that he feels “the coming glory of the Light” through an intuition of a spiritual guidance that transcends the life of the senses. Many of the other poems are psychological portraits, similar in form to those of Browning, including such character studies as those of the wealthy and wise Richard Cory, who committed suicide for lack of a positive reason for being; Cliff Klingenhagen, with his mysterious ironic philosophy of life; the spiteful miser Aaron Stark; Luke Havergal, the bereaved lover; and romantic old John Evereldown.
The Children of the Night impressed Theodore Roosevelt, and, upon the publication of Captain Craig (1902), the President helped Robinson escape from work as inspector of subway construction to a clerkship in the New York Custom House (1905–10). The Town Down the River (1910) contains “Miniver Cheevy” and other portraits. After this date, Robinson was able to give his entire time to poetry, much of which he wrote during his annual summer residence at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
“The Man Against the Sky” is the title piece of a collection of poems (1916) setting forth the author's philosophy of life with striking symbolic power. Other poems in the volume include “Flammonde,” “Cassandra,” and the Shakespearean study “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford.” With Merlin (1917) he began the Arthurian trilogy completed by Lancelot (1920) and Tristram (1927, Pulitzer Prize), in which he studied the characters as individuals who act according to their particular passions, independently of supernatural powers. The Three Taverns (1920) contains poems further illustrating this attitude, and a volume of Collected Poems the next year won a Pulitzer Prize.
Robinson's steady production of verse continued with Roman Bartholow (1923), a dramatic narrative presenting a subtle psychological analysis of a sick soul; The Man Who Died Twice (1924, Pulitzer Prize), the tragic story of a man's dissipation of his artistic genius; “Dionysus in Doubt,” the title poem in a collection (1925), and “Demos and Dionysus” criticize the standardization and materialism of equalitarian society, which the poet found inimical to “romance and love and art” and to the development in a transcendental fashion of the individual “self and soul”; Cavender's House (1929), a blankverse dialogue between Cavender and the ghost of the wife he murdered for a supposed infidelity; The Glory of the Nightingales (1930), a verse narrative concerned with the rivalry between two friends for the love of a woman, and their later reconciliation; Matthias at the Door (1931), in which the chief figure, through bitter disillusion, loses his egocentric complacency and learns to understand others; Nicodemus (1932), adding ten poems to the body of his work, including four on Biblical themes; Talifer (1933), a narrative of modern life, which shows the poet in a novel mood of optimistic cheer; Amaranth (1934), a somber narrative concerned with a group of frustrated artists; and King Jasper (1935), a poetic narrative that constitutes a final statement of Robinson's sense of the tragedy of human life in a chaotic world, and of his unfaltering mystic faith in a “glimmer” of light beyond. He collected his Sonnets, 1889–1927 (1928), and a selection from his letters was published in 1940.