Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem Reuben Bright


  1. Scott McCleve says:

    For maybe a million years we lived on the Pleistocene savanna in Africa.
    We lived in clans of maybe 150 people [Dunbar’s Number: you could look it up].
    We watched the skies for vultures that told us some huge beast was dying.
    We got there with our dogs [yes, we had dogs on the savanna] & fire brands.
    We took over the carcass, & we lived on that carcass for maybe 10-15 days.
    So — for a million years or more — WE DIDN’T HAVE TO KILL ANYTHING.
    And I think we “know” this from our DNA, our genome.
    Later, we became herders & farmers with livestock that we regularly butchered.
    That was out of necessity, & ranch-&-farm families just got used to the killing.
    When was the last time you killed something in order to eat it?
    But we never have achieved an accommodation to the suffering of these animals.
    The screaming & struggling, the blood & the horror are inescapable.
    The attempts of the animals to escape, their obvious horror at their fate is awful.
    The screaming of hogs being butchered is especially traumatic.
    [“He screamed like a stuck pig!”]
    We have regrets when a loved one dies — & sometimes we reform in their memory.
    I think that’s what Reuben did.
    Reuben Bright is “listening to his genome” when he stops the butchering.
    I suspect that his wife was never comfortable with the way they made a living.
    Also — What about his last name — Bright?
    How does that echo thru this poem?
    The BRIGHTness of gushing blood as a warm & sensitive being is bled out?
    Was he BRIGHT in that he was able to change his life to something less savage?
    Even his first name — Reuben — suggests redness, as in “ruby” & “rubicund”.

  2. I just lost my wife to along and painful battle with cancer, and I worked two jobs to support my family all my life to support my wife and kids (now moved out and married). My role was “the provider” who earned “an honest living” and “did right” with everyone, especially my family. When my wife was destined to die, I had to prepare for the future. I quit my second job and kept my teaching position. My wife passed away, and my school retired me at age 70. “[Tearing” down the slaughterhouse” for me is moving forward with my new life, facing an unknown future but remembering all the great experiences of my past life (packing away items most mournfully and throwing in cedar boughs to preserve those things (and memories( forever), but having to reluctantly and fearfully face an unknown future full of Covid 19 dangers, economic uncertainty, and social isolation. That’s what Robinson’s poem means to me.

    • Kelly says:

      Hello, I am a college student in China and it is the first time for me to truly encounter a foreigner and say something to him. After reading your words, I feel really sorry and sad. However, my English is poor so it is hard for me to express all I want to say to you. I think you are a strong man, struggling even when it is difficult. Everything will pass, and tomorrow is just another new day.

  3. William Burrison says:

    Another brilliant case of portraiture poetry by EA. it’s an interesting take not only on the power of personal loss but on vocational stereotyping. Reuben might’ve been a poet as well as butcher, for all we know. We tend to associate butchering with a certain roughness, anger, violence. Reuben may have had his share of that, as “tore down” certainly suggests an angry statement. By closing shop, is he giving up on life, or trying to turn over a new leaf, mend his ways, so to speak, enter into a more gentleman-like realm? — We’re not meant to know. There’s a sense of ironic ambiguity there, as emerges in much of EA’s best writing.

  4. John Bravo says:

    My take on this poem is much different than any I have ever read or heard. Reuben Bright was a butcher because it was a means to support his wife and family. He suffered and sacrificed his life for the sake of his wife because that was what was required of him. When his wife died that burden was removed and he could finally cleanse himself of that self-imposed duty and start his life again for himself. He never really wanted to be a butcher and he now has no need for the slaughterhouse.

  5. michael cook says:

    I just lost my mother, and this poem makes me want to tear down the slaughter house in my heart. I know how Reuben felt…

  6. dave says:

    after 9-11 when the country was seized with bloodlust and revenge , i was feeling isolated and a little crazy, i would write this poem on the side walk in chaulk , it was the only thing i felt that people could’s a masterful description of death on a personal level which to me seems to cut thru all of the dogma that people use to insolate themselves from a truth which on some level they already know.

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