Robinson was born in Head Tide, but his family moved to Gardiner, Maine in 1870. He described his childhood in Maine as "stark and unhappy. His family also had problems with alcohol and his brother Herman died in part due to that. It has been speculated that his poem Richard Cory may relate to his brother. His early difficulties led many of his poems to have a dark pessimism and his stories to deal with "an American dream gone away.
In the fall of 1891, at the age of 21, Edwin entered Harvard University as a special student. He took classes on English, French, and Shakespeare, as well as one on Anglo-Saxon that he later dropped. His mission was not to get all A's, as he wrote his friend Harry Smith, "B, and in that vicinity, is a very comfortable and safe place to hang".
His real desire was to get published in one of the Harvard literary journals. Within the first fortnight of being there, Robinson's "Ballade of a Ship" was published in The Harvard Advocate, a journal of less stature than the heralded Harvard Monthly. He was even invited to meet with the editors, but when he returned he complained to his friend Mowry Saben, "I sat there among them, unable to say a word". Robinson's literary career had false-started.
After Edwin's first year at Harvard the family endured what they knew was coming. His father, Edward, had died. He was buried at the top of the street in Oak Grove Cemetery in a plot purchased for the family.
In the fall Edwin returned to Harvard for a second year, but it was to be his last one as a student there. Though short, his stay in Cambridge included some of his most cherished experiences, and it was there that he made his most lasting friendships. He wrote his friend Harry Smith on June 21, 1893:
"I suppose this is the last letter I shall ever write you from Harvard. The thought seems a little queer, but it cannot be otherwise. Sometimes I try to imagine the state my mind would be in had I never come here, but I cannot. I feel that I have got comparatively little from my two years, but still, more than I could get in Gardiner if I lived a century."
Robinson was back in Gardiner by mid-summer, 1893. He had plans to start writing seriously. In October he wrote his friend Gledhill:
"Writing has been my dream ever since I was old enough to lay a plan for an air castle. Now for the first time I seem to have something like a favorable opportunity and this winter I shall make a beginning."
With his father gone, Edwin became the man of the household. He tried farming and developed a close relationship with his brother's wife. A confrontation ensued, and Robinson fled to New York, where he led a precarious existence as an impoverished poet while cultivating friendships with other writers, artists, and would-be intellectuals. In 1896 he self-published his first book, "The Torrent and the Night Before," paying 100 dollars for 500 copies. It was meant to be a surprise for his mother. Days before the copies arrived, however, Mary Palmer Robinson died of diphtheria.
His second volume, "The Children of the Night," had somewhat wider circulation. Among its readers was President Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit, who recommended it to his father. Impressed by the poems and aware of Robinson's straits, Roosevelt in 1905 secured the writer a job at the New York Customs Office. Robinson remained in the job until Roosevelt left office.
Gradually his literary successes began to mount. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the years 1922, 1925 and 1928. During the last twenty years of his life he became a regular summer resident at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where he was the object of devoted attention by several women although he maintained a solitary life and never married.