Maine has had many notable authors, writers and poets in its history, and one of the most remarkable of these literary figures was a friendly optimist, a largely forgotten, multitalented man from Harpswell who often wrote of the Pine Tree State, its people and Maine life.

Maine Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert P.T. Coffin. Courtesy photo

Robert Peter Tristram Coffin was born on March 18, 1892, sixth into a family of 10 children on an East Harpswell saltwater farm to James William Coffin and Alice Mary Coombs.

Educated locally, Coffin attended nearby Bowdoin College and graduated in 1915 before advancing to Princeton University where he would receive his master’s degree in 1916.

While World War I raged in Europe, Coffin entered military service at Fort Williams Army Base in Cape Elizabeth. By December of 1917, Coffin was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the American Expeditionary Forces of the United States Army, Company B, 72nd Artillery.

In 1918, Lt. Coffin met and fell in love with Ruth Neal Phillips while in training in Massachusetts. The two were married on June 18 at Jamaica Plain. The couple would go on to enjoy a 29-year marriage.

By the time the training of the 72nd was completed, the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, had already been signed and The Great War had ended. Yet, after a great deal of training, the Maine unit still shipped out through Canada for Limoges, France.


While in service in Europe, Coffin attended classes at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and he wrote many letters home, some of which were published in the Brunswick Record (which decades later merged with the Bath Daily Times to become The Times Record) as “A Soldier’s Letters.”

Coffin was discharged from the United States Army on Jan. 25, 1919, and received a doctorate from Oxford in 1920. Coffin then returned to his wife Ruth and a career teaching at Wells College in Aurora, New York.

By 1924, Coffin’s first volume of poetry “Christchurch,” was published by Thomas Seltzer in New York, and “The Book of Crowns and Cottages,” was published a year later. Coffin’s career as a writer, a poet and an author had begun.

Aside from his books, Coffin was actively writing essays, articles, short stories, novels, poetry, biographies and nearly every kind of authorship. By 1930, he also published “Laud, Storm Center of Stuart England,” and “Dukes of Buckingham” a year later.

After a tenured 13 years, Coffin left the hallowed halls of Wells College in 1934 and returned home to Brunswick, his College Street home and his beloved alma mater at Bowdoin College, where he became the Pierce Professor of English.

While at Bowdoin, Coffin continued to pen a slew of writings which now fill Bowdoin’s archives. Then, Coffin published two novels at Bowdoin, “Red Sky in the Morning” in 1935 and “John Dawn” the next year.


Yet, his most notable achievement stands out. Just two years after his return to Bowdoin, Robert P.T. Coffin published a book of poems titled “Strange Holiness” with Macmillan Publishers.

His work was so well received that a three-member commission of Columbia University professors at Joseph Pulitzer’s organization awarded the 44-year-old Coffin a cash award of $1,000 and the 1936 Pulitzer Prize in poetry “for the best volume of verse.”

Coffin joined with Maine’s elite group of Pulitzer Prize winners: Gardiner’s own Laura Richards (1917) and Edwin Arlington Robinson (1925 and 1928) as well as Camden’s Edna St. Vincent Millay (1923).

In his exemplary career, Coffin had written 40 books and worked in nearly every genre of articles, short stories, essays, poems, criticisms, lectures, biographies, novels and other written works. Bowdoin Professor Herbert Ross Brown said in Coffin’s eulogy that Coffin’s work combined the purest of Maine’s qualities of “folk memory and folk sense.”

Coffin was also a prolific artist who illustrated many of his own works in watercolor landscapes and pen drawings, all of which Bowdoin College featured on Robert P.T. Coffin Day, which was held on July 9, 1948.

On Jan. 20, 1955, the Maine poet laureate suffered a sudden heart attack while preparing to deliver a reading of poems at the Westbrook Junior College on Stevens Avenue in Portland. He was just 63 years old. He was interred at the Cranberry Horn Cemetery in his beloved East Harpswell.

While his career is generally remembered as one dedicated to prose and poetry, his many written works are often recalled as optimistic, passionate and down-to-earth. Today, the life of Robert Peter Tristram Coffin is remembered as a true inspiration in prose nurtured on the rocky Midcoast of Maine.

Lori-Suzanne Dell is a Brunswick author and historian. She has published four books and runs the “Stories from Maine” Facebook page. 

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