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The Arrested Artistry of Elinor Wylie

Though Elinor Wylie might not be the first-rate poet she fancied herself to be, she did write some first-rate poems that deserve to be read and remembered. In addition to four volumes of poetry, she also wrote four novels in the eight-year burst of productivity before her death in late 1928 at the age of forty three. Critics and prominent literary friends extravagantly celebrated her work as it appeared; the few scholars who subsequently became her only likely readers argue that her work – all of it – deserves greater attention than it receives. They contend that her turbulent life story interferes with serious consideration of her writing, yet insist the two cannot be separated. While she may have composed some highly personal poems as well as fictional curiosities, and while she may have drawn on her own experience as artists invariably do, she also generated verses that, on their own merit, warrant attention from readers who neither know nor care about her various marriages and miscarriages. Wylie is one of those poets who would be better served by a volume of selected instead of collected poems and by proponents who don’t pretend that everything she did bears the mark of genius.

During her lifetime, Wylie’s won esteem from writers who ultimately maintained fame far longer than she did. William Butler Yeats praised her poetry, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald. William Faulkner acknowledged her intelligence. Aldous Huxley told Wylie that one of her novels “has something of the quality” of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, her artistic hero. Bram Stoker dedicated a novel to her, though this tribute had little to do with her as an artist since at the time she had yet to write anything. (Ernest Hemingway also admired her form.) Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wylie’s personal friends and professional colleagues, dedicated work to her as well. “I wonder if there has ever been written a more distinguished first novel,” Sinclair Lewis mused about Jennifer Lorn (1923).

Co-inhabitants of Wylie’s since-sunken literary Atlantis raised her flag especially high. Biographer Stanley Olson, who calls his subject by her first name throughout Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart, sums up critical response to Wylie’s Nets to Catch the Wind (1921) by observing: “The technical precision was widely admired, indeed, accused of being too fluent…. Elinor’s imagery was startling, and then just as startling was the unrelieved confidence that ran through the book. It was staggeringly precise for a first book.” Millay didn’t routinely puff her pals’ work in print; she wrote only one book review. In it she writes: “The publication recently of Elinor Wylie’s Nets to Catch the Wind is an event in the life of every poet and lover of poetry. The book is an important one.” Olson says both Malcolm Crowley and Wylie’s friend Edmund Wilson “placed her alongside T.S. Eliot as the representative of the happy marriage of erudition and unexpected imagery, of intense emotion tied to a deep respect for form.” Of her second book of poetry, Black Armour (1923), Wilson writes: “Even when her poems are not suffused with beauty, they are alive with intelligence; at worse, she can charm us with her distinguished manner and fascinate us with her literary dexterity.” He also judged her as “next to Edna Millay, probably the most remarkable of contemporary American poets.” Writer Carl Van Vechten, another dimmed literary light, organized a parade in New York City in commemoration of Jennifer Lorn’s publication. Van Vechten believes the novel’s achievement relates to its ambition: “Certainly the perfection of this book is miniature … but this condition should be obvious, that perfect works of art are always on a small scale.” Hamlet and Moby-Dick may be great, Van Vechten allows, but they are not perfect like Jennifer Lorn.

Wylie briefly performed the rare trick of achieving popular as well as critical acclaim. As Evelyn Helmick Hively documents in A Private Madness: The Genius of Elinor Wylie (2003), Wylie was lionized in New York City literary circles, where she found “total acceptance and admiration,” but she also attained “wide popularity.” Black Armour “was instantly successful in America.” Wylie was “among Knopf’s best-selling novelists.” Readers of Jennifer Lorn “responded as enthusiastically as critics, and sales were surprisingly good, paving the way (with gold) for the publisher’s eager acceptance of her second novel.” The third, The Orphan Angel (1926), “was surprisingly successful both critically and financially.” It was distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club. (Wylie had friends on the selection board.)

Wylie also was a gossip columnist’s dream. The Somerville, New Jersey-born Elinor Morton Hoyt scandalized society in Washington DC, where her family moved in 1897. When she married for the first time, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt (under whom her father, Henry Hoyt, served as solicitor general) attended the wedding. Four years later, she left her husband, abandoned her three-year-old son and fled to England, where she lived under an assumed name with a married man. President William Howard Taft (who appointed Wylie’s father, his Yale classmate, to be counselor of the State Department) offered to use the diplomatic or consular corps to talk some sense into Horace Wylie, who years later became her second husband. Gore Vidal remembers people still murmuring the name of Washington’s “scarlet lady” even decades after her 1910 elopement with Wylie. Her first husband later committed suicide, as did two of her siblings. Another almost killed himself, either deliberately or accidentally, in a drunken leap from an ocean liner. She left Wylie for writer William Rose Benét, a very influential editor, poet and novelist from a once-prominent literary family; he won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1941, a dozen years after his brother, Stephen Vincent Benét, got the award. Cynical types speculated that Wylie might have had mercenary rather than romantic motives for marrying a man who shepherded her work into print. Near the end of her short life she became enamored with yet another married man (and, according to some scholars, documented her longing with atypical passion in the “One Person” segment of 1929’s Angels and Earthly Creatures).

Paradoxes and contradictions characterized Wylie’s temperament. She claimed to respect the very conventions she flouted and said she wanted a traditional family and a quiet life. She chose to see her son only rarely after leaving her first husband yet frequently complained of childlessness. She tried to have children with her second and third husbands, either miscarrying, or having babies that were stillborn or lived only a few days; she was known to exaggerate the number of lost babies at cocktail parties. At a gathering in her studio at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she spent several summers, she was asked to recite one of her poems and afterward complained to another writer:

Did you see how they hate me, how they all hate me? … They are trying to down me, to injure me, to keep me from working. But I won’t be downed! I have a typewriter and a better brain than any of them, and they won’t succeed. I’ll beat them all yet! Did you see how they asked me to recite so they could laugh at me? … And did you see how they left the door open on purpose so the mosquitoes would get in and bite me tomorrow when I am trying to write? The mosquitoes! I’ll tell you they will stop at nothing!

This bundle of arrogance and insecurity, competitiveness and self-doubt managed to win friends and continued to get invited to parties (although some hosts and hostesses shunned her because of her having lived with another woman’s husband). Edmund Wilson declared himself “quite addicted to her.” He says she was “vain but not in a disagreeable way.” Her likeness could appear without identification in magazines like The New Yorker, one of many where her work appeared; readers were expected to recognize the “queen of poets,” as Columbia professor, magazine editor and Elinor Wylie Poetry Fellowship sponsor Carl Van Doren dubbed her.

How does such a figure – respected as a skilled writer, considered a physical beauty, regarded as a forceful personality, followed as a disreputable celebrity – fade away? Not surprisingly for someone reduced to being the subject of mostly academic interest, Wylie’s fate has been attributed to various causes. Perhaps she didn’t deserve the ecstatic approbation bestowed by her friends and her disappearance naturally followed from a more level-headed assessment of her talents. She might have simply fallen out of fashion; it happens. Related to this is Wylie’s extensive allusiveness and historical knowledge, which might not appeal to modern readers less familiar with Milton, Donne, Keats or Shelley – especially Shelley – or less intrigued by the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century settings of her novels. By far the most popular explanation is that Wylie as a person – by pinballing from one man to another, by outraging peers with hysterical episodes and undisguised selfishness, and by doing it all in expensive silver dresses – obscures Wylie as a writer.

Or maybe her champions are the problem. Her most determined standard bearers, scholars like Judith Farr, William Drake and Helmick Hively, insist that her work is so highly personal that it must be read in conjunction with the life they say overshadows it. By insisting that knowledge of her biography is a prerequisite for making sense of her work, they suggest her art lacks the power to speak for itself. By asserting the necessity of their own scholarship, they drain Wylie’s work of pleasure by casting it as the province of specialists. And it doesn’t help that – as is the way with literary studies – in making the case for the neglected writer, they find all of her work important, if not of equal quality.

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Wylie, though praised for her style, is dismissed (when considered at all) as a versifier content with using her pretty lips to blow shiny bubbles. Elaine Showalter slots her firmly among the lesser poets. She finds technical capability in Wylie’s work, but sees no evidence of influence. There is some validity to this. Wylie displayed a fascination with little trinkets and bright surfaces, and several poems do little more than describe finely wrought objects. “King’s Ransom,” invokes mythic figures merely to admire a piece of jewelry. She names chapters of Jennifer Lorn for things, usually small, fine ones (“The Italian Vinaigrette” and so forth). Since the novel involves little in the way of incident, this makes a kind of sense. Sometimes, however, the objects named are of only slight relevance to the story (“A Gross of Brass Knockers”).

Wylie often uses such baubles for a larger purpose. The description of Jennifer Lorn when Gerald Poynyard first sees her is typical. The girl (she’s just seventeen when Poynyard decides after a single glance that he wants to marry her) is beautiful, of course. While Wylie does remark on the title character’s features – her “complexion of rose and cream” – she devotes significant space to describing a painted representation of her. She writes of a miniature portrait that didn’t exist after the French Revolution: “it seems a pity that the little ivory oval did not survive the Reign of Terror, as by all accounts it must have been not only an excellent likeness but a delicate and distinguished work of art.” The picture has a counterpart in “The Byzantine Image” of the Virgin Mary that appears in the chapter of that title. Not only does one suggest the other, the “carving of great antiquity” takes the place of the one Poynyard never picked up from the Parisian painter. Echoing too the red jasper bowl Poynyard purchased for his bride but then decided not to part with, the image he takes from the hands of an expiring prince prostrate on his wife’s grave is more valuable to him as “an exquisite work of art” than for the “distinct resemblance to [his] late dear wife.”

Finely calibrated tension between love for beautiful things and love between actual people vibrates through much of Wylie’s writing. In Jennifer Lorn, she mocks the pompous and uncaring husband for his preference, yet devotion to the decorative animates all her work. The aesthetic outlook Lorn attributes to the husband at times seems like it could be Wylie’s own: “his taste was always for the fanciful and singular, though chaste and delicate, in art.”

In her second novel, The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925), Wylie takes the conceit of people made into art a step further and unreservedly indulges her enthusiasms, such as witchcraft and magic. The glassblower Alvise Luna is described as “a liar and a sorcerer.” Chevalier de Langeist uses a gilded magic wand, incantations, and special herbs and spices to transform a glass figure formed by Luna into Virginio, the nephew long wished for by the aptly-named Innocent. In the novel Olson calls her “most exquisite and famous prose creation,” Wylie scrupulously colors what she carefully describes, such as the chandelier – “a fantastic thing of flowers and icicles and silver bells” – in the Luna’s dingy apartment. Clothing, such as Virginio’s singular white outfit, matters to her, as do faces, like Rosalba Berni’s, with her black lashes, scarlet lips and white skin dotted with golden freckles.

Wylie, who often prefers describing an object to propelling her narrative, again resorts a painting. In the final chapter of The Venetian Glass Nephew, she writes: “A little brush, smoothing thin pigments on a polished cedar panel, may trace more lightly and precisely than any pen the figures of Virginio and Rosalba, the wedded lovers of a fairy-tale, who now live happy ever after, in a world of porcelain and Murano mirrors.” They are not even porcelain and glass; they are representations of those substances rendered in two dimensions or, at a further level of artifice, written accounts of the same. In other words: completely bloodless. Rather than elevated to the status of art, they are reduced to mere decorations of the sort Wylie lovingly describes.

Wylie knows she might be perceived as trivial. In poems like “Pretty Words,” however, she makes it clear that prettiness is not all she treasures in literature:

I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.

Many of her poems bristle with just such sharp points. She may fill verses with flowers and filigree, but she does so not because of unconcern about supposedly more substantial matters but precisely as a means to engage them. Critics who want to cast her work exclusively in the miniaturist mold must overlook all the poems that do not fit.

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While Showalter at least pays Wylie the courtesy of considering her as an individual poet, William Drake, in The First Wave: Women Poets in America 1915 – 1945, concerns himself with “the dynamics of a movement” rather than in the “importance and merit” of the art it engendered. In the 1987 study of the “surge of women’s creativity” between the first and second world wars, Drake says part of the reason for women writers’ rise to prominence in the 1920s was their move into editorial positions at magazines (including Wylie’s short stint as poetry picker at Vanity Fair.) He argues that the “alarming discovery” of women’s “authentic power and self-determination … threatened not only the entrenched privilege of conservative males, but also the patronizing sympathy of liberals….” In reaction, Drake believes, women’s art was later overlooked precisely because women made it. In his scenario, writers like Wylie are deliberately neglected for non-artistic reasons (though this, of course, implies their work has the importance and merit he professes an unwillingness to judge). Millay takes a similar position. The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry believed the committee didn’t give Wylie’s posthumous Collected Poems (1932) an award because it disapproved of her morality. Stanley Olson inadvertently supports the argument that unenlightened men found womanhood incompatible with serious artistry when he idiotically claims Wylie “turned herself into a writer when she discarded the idea, and hope, of being simply a woman.”

It is precisely as a female writer that Wylie warrants posterity’s attention, or so Farr argues in The Life and Art of Elinor Wylie (1983). She concedes that Jennifer Lorn no longer reaches the general reading public, but believes it could because it describes “the difficulties of a complex feminine personality in a way that will be of increasing psychological interest,” presumably as the sort of sexism Drake sees weakens. Wylie’s work matters, Farr suggests, because it reveals the conflict between a woman’s desires and social expectations. These can also be seen in The Venetian Glass Nephew. At first Count Carlo Gozzi, author of fairytales Rosalba secretly loves, thrills to the prospect of the young woman marrying “a fantasy in Murano glass instead of vulgar flesh and blood!” Later, however, when the marriage of a vigorously physical teenage woman and a breakable glass boy proves unhappy, Gozzi despairs of having helped to wed her “to a glass manikin instead of decent blood and bone.”

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Another possible reason for critical neglect of Wylie is her traditionalism. Compared with the experimentation that characterized poetry in the 1920s, Wylie’s formally conventional work, with is strict rhymes, appears out of step. Hively mentions Wylie’s “interest in the restricted forms not very popular in her own era.” Farr sees Wylie’s resolve to write as she wished as a source of creative strength: “it represents a pattern of constancy to proven stratagems and insights that characterizes the greatest artists.” Further, says Farr (who rejects Olson’s informality and instead uses the writer’s full name throughout her book): “Like the best American writers, Elinor Wylie cared about tradition and, before she died, proved herself its champion.” She did this, according to Farr, as “as practitioner of what might be called the classical lyric – its subjects, love, death and nature; its manner, direct and melodious, consciously graceful and witty.”

Entanglement in literary contretemps that subsequently lost their sense of urgency also leaves some of Wylie’s work looking unessential. She repeatedly juxtaposes glorious art and a debased world, yet also sees risks in venerating art for art’s sake. Farr sees Wylie expressing “distrust of literary Aestheticism” in The Venetian Glass Nephew and concern about art’s “coldness compared to nature’s vitality” in Black Armour, while Jennifer Lorn “burlesques the characteristic failure of broad human sympathy that is the brittle failing of Aestheticism.” Farr continues: “Elinor Wylie probably chose such a theme because she was herself instinctively, if not contentedly, prone to the symbolic affection for porcelain instead of human beings….” Wylie’s own “excesses of that sensibility” chafe against her demonstration of “the fatuity of obsession with the superficial.” She aims to make The Venetian Glass Nephew something more than just elaborate escapism by adorning it with references to debates about faith and skepticism, intellect and emotion, beauty and passion. Yet if, in turning flesh to porcelain, Wylie pits messy life against art, then she sets up a dialectic she can’t resolve.

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While Wylie’s fans, both in her day and after it, laud her evident erudition, detractors see it as a flaw. Van Doren, for example, says of The Venetian Glass Nephew: “Here are formal words fixed in a schematic pattern but glinting with the light which they catch and throw off. The whole book is built with … lovely, amused formality… and every paragraph flashes erudition.” Poet and critic Clive James says an “inability to disguise his influences” ruined most of Theodore Roethke’s poems, and the same has been said of Wylie’s. Wylie displays her influences with exceptional openness. Edna St. Vincent Millay complained of “abject Yeatsianism” in Wylie’s “Madman’s Song” from Nets to Catch the Wind. “It was as if Elinor was unable to assimilate and transform her sources; she had done too much research,” Olson says of Jennifer Lorn. While “brilliant metaphors, feats of imagery, and lengthy description” abound in the novel, they “stand in the place of events.” Consequently, “Elinor comes close to suffocating her story.”

Wylie’s obsession with Shelley was artistically disabling – unless it was creatively enabling. It bored Edmund Wilson. Olson says it “brought out the worst in her” and “threw her off balance, obscured her sense of judgment, and inspired her worst writing.” Edward Garnett (a reader for British publishing houses and husband to translator Constance Garnett) tried to dissuade Wylie from publishing her most Shelley-centered work, The Orphan Angel, which the novelist James Branch Cabell, who adored her first two novels, called “one of the most gloomy errors in literary history” and “a most inane wasting of wood pulp.” Sinclair Lewis agreed: “It wasn’t merely an orphan; it was a bastard.” Farr concedes that a certain poem “might be puzzling to a reader who did not know of Wylie’s devotion to Shelley,” but even Wylie’s weaknesses start to look like strengths in Farr’s telling. Wylie saw similarities in her biography and Shelley’s, including ostracism because of their “sexual delinquency.” Farr recognizes – as Wylie did – that Shelley was the superior poet, but says they shared a “yearning for perfection” and directed their actions toward “moral and intellectual fulfillment.” And Wylie was persecuted for this, Farr contends. By envisioning Shelley as an angel, Wylie was “defending herself.”

In The Orphan Angel, which imagines Shelley being rescued and traveling to the United States instead of drowning in 1822, Wylie doesn’t only imply her hero represents an ideal; she explicitly labels him as one. As a literary figure Shiloh (the Shelley character) embodies superhuman greatness. He wishes only to devote the “overflowings of a mind” to future generations. After having sailor David Butternut rescue Shiloh, Wylie speeds the Witch of the West across the ocean so the pair can search for Sylvie la Croix (a.k.a. Silver), the sister of Jasper Cross (a man Butternut had previously killed and whom Shiloh conveniently resembles). Along the way they meet various women, who immediately fall in love with Shiloh, and occasional men, who fall in love with him too. Shiloh sometimes thinks about the wife and child he left behind, wondering if he should return. At the end, he sits and does – nothing, or almost nothing. The stunning, and stunningly un-self-aware, poet thinks about where to go next, having, over the course of nearly a year, traveled from Boston to San Diego (mostly on foot). He also thinks about writing, possessing as he does the “godlike prerogative” to catch “in a net of pencil-marks” the wild syllables that make music in his mind. While Wylie obviously adores her protagonist and insists on making everyone who sees him swoon, she gives him obnoxious traits, such as his insufferable superiority. He’s called “too good,” but his purported goodness has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with appearance, manners (when he is not overwhelmed by the crude crowd) and his divine poetic powers.

Wylie again makes a poet the unlikely hero of her last novel, Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard (1928), which also relies heavily on Shelley and his associates. “If Mr. Hazard is a composite portrait of the dead romantics,” Farr explains, “his component images are chiefly Shelley’s and, to a lesser degree, Byron’s.” She clarifies that “Mr. Hazard is not, as was Shiloh, an exclusively Shelleyan prototype.” By the age of forty, Hazard, who fought for Greek independence in the 1820s (like Wylie’s historical heroes), has become an exceptionally sensitive, unheralded poet. After a fifteen year absence, he returns to England (leaving a wife and child behind in Spain) and contracts influenza. Far greater than his physical infirmity is a character weakness for which poetic talent and a romantic temperament can’t compensate. He befriends Lady Clara Hunting and enjoys a summer spent with her daughters, Allegra and Penserosa, until an exceptionally mild insult from a rationally-minded mathematics tutor, Mr. Hodge, shatters his confidence. Even though Hazard recognizes the slightness of Hodge’s slight (having merely remarked “Poor Milton” upon learning Hazard was writing a sonnet to the author of Paradise Lost), it leaves him unable to write and he flees his new friend and her daughters. In Farr’s assessment, The Orphan Angel “is Wylie’s lament, once again, for what she admired most in the life and art of a poet like Shelley: high-flown conceptions, a reckless generosity of self, an unconformity of genius whose titanism was splendid even in failure.” Readers who don’t share such an outlook might not care for Wylie’s protagonists as much as she does.

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Though Wylie’s Shelley fixation divided critics, her biography usually gets the blame for her lack of recognition. Even writers who hold Wylie in high regard believe her personality interfered with her reputation as a writer. Clive James, who praises Wylie’s poetry, says her “high-flown pretensions had long been laughed at when she was remembered at all.” Poet Carol Rumens believes Wylie’s “fatally colourful biography outshines her literary reputation.” Explaining the selection of Wylie’s “Sanctuary” as a 2009 “Poem of the Week” on the Guardian’s Book Blog, Rumens allows that Wylie “may be minor in scope” but says “she certainly has her place in the starry line-up of twentieth century female wits” such as Parker. Rumens concludes that Wylie, even though she still haunts anthologies, does not “seem to have reaped many benefits from recent feminist revision of the canon.”

Yet Wylie’s few late twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century admirers have worked assiduously, if not noticeably, on her behalf. Farr puts her alongside Edith Wharton and Henry James, who, she says, share Wylie’s “enthusiasm for refined civility.” She sees The Orphan Angel as similar to, and possibly a model for, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Drake declares it “one of the more astonishing tours de force in American literature” despite its flat ending. Clive James likens Wylie to another poet he regards as “a blessing,” Richard Wilbur: “There are several poems by Elinor Wylie (try ‘Wild Peaches’ just for a start) in which you can already hear Wilbur.” James treasures the skilled poet’s elegant control, and points to Wylie as evidence “that it was by no means a rare thing for American poets to match European formality at its own game.” Farr also turns to Wilbur when defending Wylie. She says he objected to the “‘prescription’ of experimentalism” and didn’t deem experimental poetry as automatically superior to the “open sort of song” of more traditional poetry, which she says, “always retains its importance for the working artist.” “I can think of one thoroughly ‘experimental’ poet on whom Elinor Wylie has been a recent influence,” Wilbur writes in his introduction to Selected Poems of Witter Bynner. Hively can think of several poets in debt to Wylie, including Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke.

Wylie’s would-be rehabilitators hope to revive interest in her work by playing a game of literary connect-the-dots, drawing lines from actual incidents and acquaintances to Wylie’s works and characters. Gerald Poynyard is Horace Wylie; Jennifer Lorn is Elinor Wylie – as are Lady Clara, Rosalba, Shiloh, Mr. Hazard and others. “To explore the intricacies of Elinor Wylie’s life and to appreciate the nuances of her poetry,” Hively alleges, “a knowledge of her family background and her upbringing is necessary.” Further, she finds it “imperative … to know the life of the artist in order to understand her art.” Predictably, Hively considers Wylie’s best poems to be the ones that mostly closely follow the contours of their author’s experience and thus lend themselves to biographical scrutiny, such as the “One Person” sonnets. Drake’s conviction that family dynamics crucially determine artists’ development similarly compels him to scrutinize writers’ personal lives.

Rather than illuminating Wylie’s work, such biographical criticism leads it further into the dark as scholars get lost in the hedge works of their own construction. Hively contends that “Wylie’s personal life has at times attracted more attention than her work,” but because Wylie “used language to transform the chaos of her reality into an order that her mind could sustain,” the chaos must be spotlighted. Nevertheless, she complains: “Too often recent critics recall only the struggles and the scandal of Wylie’s life, if they acknowledge her at all.” The work must be read in the light of those notorious events, she says, but then finds it unfortunate when they get dredged up. Farr calls one poem “probably autobiographical,” as if that explains anything about the poem. She unearths the autobiographical origins of Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard – someone said “Poor Shelley” upon learning Wylie was writing a sonnet to the author of Prometheus Unbound – and believes Hazard’s weariness expresses Wylie’s own, as if this says anything about the novel.

Like others more interested in the circumstances in which Wylie wrote, or in the social forces to which she might have responded, than in the artistry of her work, Drake finds it hugely significant that the “transformation of a flesh-and-blood woman into a lifeless objet d’art was a theme central” of hers. It may be possible to find plausible explanations for why writers write about what they do. Certainly correspondences between Wylie’s life and her writing do exist. But while her personal experience may have fostered her interest the porcelain figurine theme, noticing this reveals nothing about how she handles it. Finding that Wylie’s writing demonstrates her “quest for a life that found beauty in every facet,” as Hively does, that it shows a “determination to achieve a life of meaning,” as Farr does, and that it serves as “a positive response to indignity and rejection,” as Drake does, reduces works of art to artifacts of therapy, as something artists make to help themselves feel better.

Biography-mining inevitably deflects focus from the work to its maker, and efforts to champion Wylie’s analyzing it in conjunction with her personality are disastrously counterproductive. It’s quite easy to dislike Wylie the person. (“It would be a pity that a first-rate poet should be turned into a second-rate poet by marrying a third-rate poet,” she replied when Edmund Wilson expressed concern about her marrying Benét, whom the friends regarded as an inferior writer.) But it’s not necessary to like her. Better to steer away from these critical dead ends and turn instead to the poetry.

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Wylie can gain the respect of readers who didn’t know her, didn’t live during her moment of fame and don’t simultaneously hold her work in one hand and Olson’s biography in the other. In other words: readers of literature as literature. James, for instance, especially prizes poems that lend themselves to memorization and recitation. So he intends much acclaim when he says, in the introduction to his 2008 collection of poems Opal Sunset, that Wylie wrote “at least one poem (‘Wild Peaches’) so strongly phrased that it committed itself to my memory without permission.” He, perhaps unknowingly, restates Millay’s remark that another Wylie poem contains “lines not easily forgotten.” Rumens praises Wylie’s “confident skill with rhymed quatrains,” her “reaching toward a daring, extra-poetic vocabulary,” her “bracing” avoidance of sentimentality” and her “imaginative intelligence.”

Wylie considered herself primarily a poet, but many of her poems are forgettable. James urges gathering a poet’s best work rather than treating it all as though it merits equal attention. In As of This Writing, he claims that the top-notch writer shows up only seldomly in Theodore Roethke’s Collected Poems and that

the real Roethke collection, when it appears, will be a ruthlessly chosen and quite slim volume some two hundred pages shorter that the one we now have, but it will stand a good chance of lasting, since its voice will be unique. In this respect, history is very kind: the poet may write only a few good poems in a thousand negligible ones, but those poems, if they are picked out and properly stored, will be remembered as characteristic.

Wylie’s third husband assembled her Collected Poems, bringing together her published volumes of poetry, previously uncollected pieces and formerly unseen works. He might not have had the critical distance to accept that Wylie might have benefited from a thinner greatest-hits collection.

From early poems to late ones, Wylie concerned herself with beauty’s enduring appeal and impermanence. She makes it the subject of the first poem in her first book, Nets to Catch the Wind, which does have plenty of lines devoted to the look of things but also contemplates both the virtues and unreliability of her favorite topic. In “Beauty,” she imagines the quality as a woman beyond conventional definitions of morality: “Say not of Beauty she is good, / Or aught but beautiful…” Beauty is unbound: “O, she is neither good nor bad, / But innocent and wild!” “Fabulous Ballad,” one of the “hitherto uncollected poems” Benét put in Wylie’s Collected Poems, conflates an appreciation of beauty with ethical behavior in a narrative about a wealthy woman who lends a sapphire necklace to a poor admirer of it. Her husband questions trusting a “dishonest and malicious” gypsy with “something precious”; she advises him to refer to Corinthians 13 (which counsels charity) and says: “…leave this beggar-woman and myself / To love these stars’ incomparable virtue.”

In many poems, Wylie commends – or prays for – strength and perseverance. Farr calls “courage in adversity” one of Wylie’s “perennial themes.” “The Eagle and the Mole” – which Yeats called “a lovely heroic song” – urges determined independence, which takes the form of “that stoic bird” of the title:

When flocks are folded warm,
And herds to shelter run,
He sails above the storm,
He stares into the sun.

In one of the sonnets comprising the “One Person” series that opens Angel and Earthly Creatures, the speaker addresses the unattainable but much loved individual to whom the poems are dedicated (for the sordid details, see one of those critics who worry about her distracting biography while they recount it). She asks him to forgive her errors and remember instead her “intrepid song” and “the fortitude that has endured so long.” In another from the same sequence, she requests: “My lord, adjudge my strength, and set me where / I bear a little more than I can bear.”

The simultaneous submission and defiance coded in those lines offer a variation on the irresolvable contradictions typical of Wylie. She undermines in one place what she elsewhere advocates – sometimes even within the same poem. “‘Desolation Is a Delicate Thing’” – a piece from Trivial Breath (1928) with a quotation from Shelley for a title – considers the sadness of sorrow’s lessening. If suffering contributes to the creation of beauty – if anguish is her muse – then short-lived sadness is a paradoxical cause of disappointment. Yet in “Speed the Parting,” she counters: “How dingy a thing is fear, / And sorrow, how dull to cherish!” In “Minotaur” she disdains delicate filigree and “the over-fine” –

Distrust the exquisite,
The sharpened silver nerve,
The lacquered, nacred curve
Wherein a moon is lit.

– while still managing to speak appreciatively of “flesh refined to glass.”

While Wylie values physical beauty, the artistic creation takes precedence. In “Madman’s Song,” the poet says it would be better to lose one’s looks than falter in the pursuit of one’s goal:

Better to see your check grown hollow,
Better to see your temple worn,
Than to forget to follow, follow,
After the sound of a silver horn.

The “follow, follow” in the third line is typical; Wylie frequently uses repetition for stress and for effect. Another poem in Nets to Catch the Wind, “Winter Sleep,” says of a snow-covered house: “It’s there that I’d love to lie and sleep, / Soft, soft, soft, and deep, deep, deep!” In “Incantation,” a poem about summoning images with words and hence the magic of poetry, “black” and “white” both appear in each of the six stanzas. Rumens dismisses “Incantation” as “a rather pointless study in … dark and light,” but as in much of Wylie’s work the rhyme and repetition reinforce her conviction that art both originates in and counteracts pain:

A bright spark
Where black ashes are;
In the smothering dark
One white star.

“Three Wishes” from Black Armour begins: “Sink out of being, and go down, go down…” In another of the “One Person” sonnets Wylie put herself in the position of the man’s dog: “Am I not your hound for faithfulness? / Put forth your hand, put forth your hand to bless.” In ballads such as Trivial Breath’s “The Devil in Seven Shires,” which recounts the ways humans can go wrong, “she uses the repetitions and metric emphases of that form to explore the relentlessness of evil,” according to Farr. The use of outdoor country settings and activities like hunting in “Madman’s Song” is also characteristic.

Hunting recurs in “Wild Peaches,” for instance, one of the poems most praised by her small band of admirers. The first three of the poem’s four parts (sonnets except for the thirteen-line third) catalogue a cornucopia of opulence – an earthly paradise – the poet’s lover has promised in a new place: “We’ll live among wild peach trees, miles from town, / You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown.” In this idyll, hunting will offer no challenge: “The squirrels in their silver fur will fall / Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.” This very ease drains the scenario of its appeal. “We shall live well – we shall live very well,” she announces amid the details of ample food and fine weather only to then reject such easy living: “Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones / There’s something in this richness that I hate.”

“Wild Peaches” captures the tension evident in much of Wylie’s work, both poetry and prose. She both revels in and reviles the “richness” she describes. The poet declares: “I love the look, austere, immaculate, / Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.” Yet she says this only after exuberantly painting a colorful picture. Wylie is wary of her own preferences. She is discomforted by her superficial attraction to small beautiful things. (“Miranda’s Supper” in Trivial Breath provides another example of this.) She worries that devotion to beauty might make her shallow, but she cannot suppress her allegiances. “The Fairy Goldsmith” details various fanciful objects, noting their bright coloring (“And glimmering green / With aquamarine, / A silvery fish”). The poet concludes that the fantastic objects like “A humming-bird’s wing / In hammered gold” and “an elfin girl / Of mother-of-pearl / And moonshine made” “will crumble away / Into quicksilver dust.” Bright miniatures, like the portrait of Jennifer Lorn, will perish “in your monstrous day.” She expresses this awareness only after lovingly memorializing such things. (Those “fairy-land” items, like the elves and goblins in “Lilliputian,” raise questions about Wylie’s taste, suggesting that her avowed love of beauty sometimes veered toward pleasure in garden-gnome kitsch.)

In “Wild Peaches,” “The Fairy Goldsmith” and many other works, Wylie tempers her admiration of beauty with constant consciousness of decay, destruction and death. In Trivial Breath, she meditates on beauty’s transience, sometimes bravely facing it (“Innocent Landscape”), other times trying to do so while still wishing it could last a little longer (“Speed the Parting”). “Bitter springs of truth” trickle through Wylie’s aesthetic Eden, to adapt a line from “‘Fire and Sleet and Candlelight’” (which has inverted commas as part of the title, a line Wylie takes from a traditional English song about death). Here Wylie doesn’t limit her despair over beauty’s brevity to pretty little objects; we all fall apart and can’t be put back together:

Your race is ended –

See, it is run:

Nothing is mended

Under the sun.

Consequently, she alternates between contemplation of decorative and “dark and monstrous” things, and sometimes she pairs them, as in “Blood Feud.” Throughout Wylie’s poetry and prose, silver represents immaculate beauty in all its remote coolness. In the poem about a killer killed, she covers it in blood:

His enemies found him by a forest spring,
Which, as he died, lay bright beneath his head,
A silver shield that slowly turned to red.

Even in this gloomy vignette, the ensanguined armor remains bright. People and animals die, and pretty things deteriorate, but something of that incorruptible silver somehow always shines through in Wylie’s world. In Trivial Breath, art, again, emerges in “Hospes Comesque Corporis” as imaginations’ frail chance for a degree of permanence:

And the small soul’s dissolving ghost
Must leave a heart-shape in the dust
Before it is inspired and lost
In God: I hope it must.

“Speed the Parting” recognizes that creatures die and beauty fades but discourages mourning.

Though luminous things are mould
They survive in a glance that crossed them,
And it’s not very kind to scold
The empty air that has lost them.

Having existed and having been perceived justifies creation and can change the way one looks at death:

Therefore die when you please;
It’s not very wise to worry;
I shall not shiver and freeze;
I shall not even be sorry.

If the poet starts to assume a silvery coldness, she goes on to explain that art and life should be enjoyed rather than cried over in anticipation of their inevitable end. In “Valentine,” the last poem in Nets to Catch the Wind, Wylie pledges to preserve her heart in “a carven silver cup,” knowing she’ll need to consume it before it turns to dust: “But I shall keep it sweet / By some strange art; / Wild honey I shall eat / When I eat my heart.” The poem, with its curious combination of domesticity, decoration, wildness and bitterness, connects to the volume’s first poem and reiterates the themes running throughout the collection and indeed throughout her entire body of work.

Wylie forges silver into weapons as well as armor. She polishes her preferred material in “Sea Lullaby,” a poem about the death of a child. The sea, personified as “A treacherous smiler / With teeth white as milk,” chokes a “strong little boy” to death “for a joke.” In the end:

Now in silence she lingers
Beside him all night
To wash her long fingers
In a silvery light.

Nature, which can produce the shining light of the moon reflected on water, can also kill, suggesting that what appears beautiful could disguise something sinister, as if what the poet elsewhere lovingly admires shouldn’t be trusted. Aesthetics and virtues do not always align.

Yet sinfulness can be energizing and murderous hatred inspiring. Being despised can break a person or it can create a figure like the one in “A Proud Lady” who has “turned the pain to a grace / And the scorn to a charm.” The poet tells the woman of the title that she takes strength from others disapproval by responding with irony.

From the world’s hand which tries
To tear you apart
You have stolen the falcon’s eyes
And the lion’s heart.
What has it done, this world,
With hard finger-tips,
But sweetly chiseled and curled
Your inscrutable lips?

Falcon’s eyes flash again in “The Falcon,” where the poet seeks strength in her imagination even knowing it’s a bird “that flies so far, that dies so soon.” If she’s to consent to domestic captivity, “The bird Imagination” demands to be told she’s beautiful, as if challenging someone to explain why beauty shouldn’t be admired:

Weave her a chain of silver twist,
An a little hood of scarlet wool,
And let her perch upon your wrist,
And tell her she is beautiful.

As in “The Eagle and the Mole,” the poet ventures boldly upward in pursuit of creative liberty. For her, appreciation of beauty is not a retreat into the parlor but a heroic response to life’s ugliness.

People with similar attitudes appear in Black Armour. The beautiful people of “Preference” have mouths with “Irony in either corner” and carry “a dagger in the heart.” The struggling woman of “Let No Charitable Hope” states:

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

She has the ironic mouth, the falcon’s eyes and the productive waywardness of the Proud Lady. Wylie’s preferred kind of person has the “cool and laughing mind” admired in “Nonchalance.” As Farr puts it, “pride, in Elinor Wylie’s poetry, is a means to confront and overcome the world”; this can be seen (less effectively) in her prose as well. Jennifer Lorn also has eyes like a falcon, which don’t suit her early on in the novel that shares her name. Rather than the psychologically complex woman Farr sees, Lorn is “really rather stupid,” as Olson bluntly phrases it. Her initial laziness, dependence and incuriosity seem at odds with the penetrating vision and pride of the fierce raptor. Later, however, her “falcon eyes” gaze on the “enameled falcon” of Prince Abbas and the two run off together intending to marry, until they realize her husband was not killed as she thought. During those weeks, Lorn “for the first time in her life … was conscious of a desire to be strong and bold.”

Though in an essay Wylie said she couldn’t understand James Joyce, she endorses the strategy of silence, exile and cunning Stephen Dedalus announces in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Remoteness and isolation permeate her poems. A longing for pristine silence (and impractical footwear) drifts though “Velvet Shoes,” which concludes:

We shall walk in velvet shoes:

Wherever we go

Silence will fall like dews

On white silence below.

We shall walk in the snow.

In a reflection on unhappy marriage in Trivial Breath, “Where, O, Where?,” Wylie writes of escape as internal exile. “I need not die to go / So far you cannot know / My escape, my retreat.” The poem concludes: “You shall see me no more / Though each night I hide / In your bed, at your side.” One partner fails to see; the other refuses to reveal. The speaker is not simply ignored or overlooked; she conceals herself in plain view.

In Black Armour, “Peregrine,” one of Wylie’s longer poems with very short lines (a metrical form her third husband claims she made famous), describes a wandering spirit, a romantic outcast. (Fitzgerald liked the poem, at least when he thought Wylie based it on him.) His ceaseless movement toward no reachable destination takes on nobility:

As a king goes
He went, not minding
That he lived seeking
And never finding.

“Peregrine” brings “The Falcon” to mind, and not only because of the title. The rambling isolation of the one recalls the soaring imagination of the other. (Hively sees “Peregrine” as describing “the Wylie marriage as Elinor saw it at its demise,” oblivious to how this devalues the poem.)

Joyce’s character calls his tactical trio a defense, and Wylie often reiterates the need for protective measures. In “The Tortoise in Eternity,” the creature of the title carries its necessary armor on its “scornful back” and observes of vulnerable human beings:

Sticks and stones may break their bones,
And words may make them bleed;
There is not one of them who owns
An armour to his need.

Wylie endeavors to make such a protective shell via artistry and imagination.

Yet Wylie harbors no illusions of the permanence of beauty and art. “Epitaph” from Black Armour echoes “Madman’s Song” from Nets to Catch the Wind by registering cruel experience’s effect on physical appearance. In this poem, however, the speaker doesn’t surrender looks in exchange for redeeming art; instead, enduring hardship makes her more attractive:

In coldest crucible of pain
Her shrinking flesh was fired
And smoothed into a finer grain
To make it more desired.

Desired, perhaps, but not appreciated or adequately memorialized when the once gorgeous flesh begins to rot:

For this her loveliness was curved
And carved as sliver is:
For this she was brave: but she deserved
A better grave than this.

In “Malediction upon Myself” from Trivial Breath the poet says she should lose both her own beauty and her ability to evoke it via her “finger ends” should she ever deny beauty’s presence even among urban filth. “Last Supper” imagines enjoying beauty at the very last moment before death. She sings of the cessation of thoughts coloring her soul in “Song,” writing:

When I am dead, or sleeping
Without any pain,
My soul will stop creeping
Through my jewelled brain.

She leaves it ambiguous whether soul or thoughts persist once they part, but seems to know that no one will notice in any case.

Undeterred, Wylie makes art about art, her own and other people’s. “Castilian” portrays Diego Velasquez after a long day at the easel grinding out commissioned work instead of painting what he’d like to paint. “Unfinished Portrait” conjures an artist “accused / Of gold and silver trickery” who opts not to transform her beloved into a work of art, instead leaving him “an uncaptured element.” In “Benvenuto’s Valentine” Wylie favors the imaginative type, the bards who “wrought and planned / Such intricate and crystal things,” to the subjects of their myths and legends. The presents enumerated in “Gifts at Meeting” include both food – recalling the wealth elaborated (and rejected) in “Wild Peaches” – and other works of art, such as “a painted book,” but in this case they are offered out of fear of reprisal rather than love. Art again has a defensive element. In “To Claudia Homonœa,” she can leave the man who loved her “for all her years” “nothing but his tears. “ In “Confession of Faith” from Trivial Breath, Wylie writes of erecting “defense / Against love’s violence” and declares: “In futile breath, / I dream no ill of Death.”
Elinor Wylie in 1922 – Carl van Vechten papers, Yale

In several pieces (and not just the ones about Shelley), she confesses inadequacy, but even her admissions of weakness coyly proclaim fortitude. “Self-portrait” displays “This soul, this vanity, blown hither and thither / By trivial breath, over the whole world’s length,” anticipating the title of her third collection of poems. “Cold-blooded Creatures” denounces egotistical humans for not considering other creatures whom “the intolerable load” also burdens, such as the “lidless fishes” that “Swim staring at a night-mare doom.” In siding with the fishes, she proclaims her willingness to face all living things’ inevitable fate. “Parting Gift” acknowledges the artist’s inability to bestow grand things like the Metropolitan Tower or the island of Capri or even homely things like cherry pies; she can’t guarantee happiness or beauty. But she can give small gifts of art, like “a very little locket / Made out of a wildcat hide” – or like a poem. In “Let No Charitable Hope,” the speaker acknowledges that she is no soaring eagle:

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
The little nourishment I get.

Whatever her pleasure and baubles and jewels, Wylie never stop noticing that feeding body and soul take hard work.

In her writing about Shelley, Wylie reiterates the inferiority theme as well as her commitment to art. The title “A Red Carpet for Shelley” plainly announces the conceit repeated in each of its four sonnets, one of which includes these lines:

If my devout affection had been given
Commensurate power, which doubt nor custom dulls;
If I possessed the pure and fiery pulse
By true divinity informed and driven,
I would unroll the rounded moon and sun
And knit them up for you to walk upon.

While she professes to lack Shelley’s talent and greatness, and apologizes to him for the quality of her gift, she still asserts: “I have the proper scarlet of my veins, / The clean involved precision of my mind…” and thus perhaps the capacity to build something more than “a strange road” for another poet to walk upon. Besides, in “To a Book,” she expresses pride in her work. In one of the “One Person” sonnets, she says of Shelley, “Now I must end the knightly servitude / Which made him my preserver…” This doesn’t amount to a declaration of independence, however, since she merely hopes to shift devotion from one man to another. An unflattering so-designated self-portrait Benét includes in Wylie’s Collected Poems manages to be self-deprecating while still venerating poetry (and especially “a certain English man of letters”).

The poems from the “Earthly Creatures” section of Angels and Earthly Creatures that Farr derides as “frivolous lyrics suitable for Vanity Fair or Smart Set” are less densely allusive than other poems in the collection but they contemplate the same traditional subjects of her other classical lyrics. “Robin Hood’s Heart,” for instance, heralds the drive and industry Wylie regularly endorses:

The grave is not forgiving,
And he who shortens his life in time
May lengthen it in living.

“Nonsense Rhyme,” despite its title, is a call for passionate intensity. The poet prefers striving and failing to “the moderated soul / That climbs no fractional inch to fall.”

The formerly ungathered poems Benét added to the quartet of previously published volumes in Wylie’s Collected Poems may generally be of lower quality, but as usual with her work, some pieces really shine. The strongest poems here explicitly address the art of poetry. In one of the multiple pieces simply called “Sonnet,” the poet confesses many faults but asserts that she has an irreproachable work ethic. It reprises the governing image of Black Armour:

This is the breastplate that you cannot pierce,
That turns and breaks your most malicious point;
This strict ascetic habit of control
That industry has woven for my soul.

Whatever else her faults, Wylie wasn’t lazy. Wylie didn’t lack ambition as an artist and didn’t regard her subjects as unimportant. Her artistry quite often rose to the level of her ambition. Should the right editor come along to assemble it, a thin collection of her most vibrant poems would be a fine, silver momument to all her working and dreaming.

____
John G. Rodwan, Jr., an Open Letters Monthly contributing editor, has also had work published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Blood & Thunder, The Second Pass, California Literary Review, Spot Literary Magazine, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, Logos, American Writer, Free Inquiry and the Humanist, among others. He has lived in Detroit, Michigan; Geneva, Switzerland; Brooklyn, New York; and Portland, Oregon.

3 Comments »

  • Richard says:

    I guess I’m the only one who worries about the thirteen line non-sonnet in Wild Peaches. I wish I could find some contemporary discussion. Why 13 lines, for such a meticulous writer?

  • Shannon says:

    An enjoyable read on Wylie’s small but memorable body of work and how her unorthodox life (especially for the time) informed and shaped her artistic legacy. Thanks!

  • Rob says:

    I’ve been quite taken(now, moreso)with Elinor Wylie ever since I learned her eternal resting place is about a mile from my home. Her poetry is exceptional. “Wild Peaches” has my vote for “Best American Poem” should anyone decide to compile a list. And the thirteen line non-sonnet, Richard? Perhaps a bit of deliberate imperfection, the author’s recognition of her own limitations.

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