Friday, November 27, 2009

Richard Cory

Already, Simon has updated the words of Jesus, in "Blessed." Now he turns for source material to the poem "Richard Corey" (the original spells the name "-ey," Simon's version does not). The poem is four verses by E.A. Robinson (readily available online; just search the poem's name with any search engine) about a wealthy man who inexplicably commits suicide.

One may compare Simon's updated version to the original line-by-line at one's leisure. In fact, this might be a useful exercise for a poetry class. The instructor may then ask the students to update the original poem again for the new millennium, or to choose another classic poem to update.

Here, we will focus on the overall characters in the poems rather than the structure of the poems.

The major difference between Richard Corey and Richard Cory is in their demeanor. Mr. Corey is "a gentleman... "[who] was always human when he talked"... "and admirably schooled in every grace." The poem does not say he shared his wealth charitably, however.

His literary descendant, Mr. Cory, does give to "charity" along with having "the common touch" --but he also is a playboy who attends opulent galas, bribes politicians, is rumored to host debauched "parties," and is hounded by paparazzi.

Regardless, there is little difference between the reaction of the speaker in one version and the other. In Robinson's: "We went without the meat and cursed the bread... wish[ed] that we were in his place." And in Simon's: "I curse my poverty/ And I wish that I could be/ Richard Cory."

But, as the Beatles cautioned, "Money can't buy... love." For all of Mr. Corey/Cory's seemingly enviable lifestyle, he was depressed, and his life felt empty. In short, this life was substantial, but not substantive. Even giving to charity, the usual remedy suggested for the ennui of the idle rich, did not seem to give Mr. Cory a sense of fulfillment; both the poem and the song end with the same words, that Richard "put a bullet through his head."

Today, we might recognize the plight of these wealthy men as depression, or some other legitimate, non-discriminating mental illness, and suggest therapy and/or medication. But they are only fictional figments, meant to educate the reader that money cannot purchase happiness.

How many celebrities of all walks-- entertainment, politics, business-- have achieved the pinnacles of fame and finance they so earnestly sought, only to realize the barrenness of the landscape once they reached these peaks? Inevitably, they seem try to fill this emptiness with physical possessions and pleasures. And we all know the stories of these celebrities' subsequent declines, descents, even deaths.

And yet, we would each wear the T-shirt that says: "Ironically, I'm one of the people who could have handled winning the lottery." If it were me, the claim always is, I would not fall prey to those lurid temptations! I would pay my debts and support my family and community, but otherwise not change my lifestyle very much. I would certainly be happy enough not to feel like killing myself!

Simon's speaker agrees. His reaction to Mr. Cory's suicide is "wonder," but not examination. In fact, he immediately reasserts that he wishes that he could "be Richard Cory."

Simon frequently visits the subject of the individual on the margins, forgotten by society. But until now, this subject has been abject-- poor, homeless, abandoned. "Richard Cory" is Simon's recognition that the desperation of alienation can affect those at the top of society's ladder as well as those who have had the ill luck of walking underneath it.

In an interview, Simon tells the story of he and Garfunkel sitting and listening to the radio one evening. They are in a car parked on the street between their two childhood homes. The song "Sound of Silence" finishes coming through the speakers, and the d.j. comments that this is now the #1 song in America. Art turns to Paul and says, "I bet those guys are having the time of their life right now."

Simon has taken his own advice. He has never rested on his laurels. He has continued to challenge himself musically and artistically, attempting film and stage productions. And he has worked against oppression, started the Children's Health Fund, and been part of innumerable fundraisers over the years for dozens of worthwhile causes. While some of Simon's actions have been provocative and controversial, they have never been scandalous. For his work, he has been universally acclaimed and honored.

Richard Cory wishes he could be Paul Simon.

The song was covered by Paul McCartney's post-Beatles band, Wings, on their live "Wings Over America" album. It was also covered by Van Morrison's early band, Them.

Next Song: A Most Peculiar Man


  1. Thank you so much. Your analysis is so great!

  2. I heard Simon say in an interview some years back that this song was really bad. He thought the poem was forgettable to begin with, but the song didn't even rise to the level of the poem. I don't think it's the worst of S & G, but I'm inclined to side with Simon on this one.

  3. To the first Anon-- Thanks!

    To the second Anon-- Well, regardless of Simon's own assessment, Paul McCartney covered it. I will take you at your word, and add this to the list of Simon's least favorite of his own work, alongside "I Am a Rock" and "Dangling Conversation."