She puttered away her twenties. In her thirties she gave birth to sonnets that startled many contemporaries with their gem-like brilliance. She wrote four historical novels widely admired when first published, although interest in them diminished in the masculine era of the 1940s and 50s. In every decade since, her poetry has been rediscovered by readers foraging quietly through libraries across the country. Two of her poems have become emblems of the women's movement.
I was one of the foragers. In the early 70s I came upon a volume of Wylie poems in my city library's "old" stacks. The book's spine was turning brittle. This was before our library began downsizing its collection in favor of bestselling fiction and self-help books, sending many older works to the university to be buried in basement archives. I had set out to read a different poet every month, going alphabetically. I finally arrived at the W-Zs. Wylie was my twelfth discovery.
One book I found was the biography by her sister, novelist Nancy Hoyt. Hoyt paid tribute to Elinor's "fondness for the small and perfect"--a fondness that extended to small English cottages, Dresden porcelain miniatures, intimate dinners with friends, and her own bright, brilliant "pomes." Hoyt also introduced my favorite Wylie poem: one of the "Bird Songs," written for an English friend, Edith Olivier, in 1928:
The Little Clock
Half-past-four and the first bird waking,
Falling on my heart like a thin green leaf.
If you are alive, your heart is breaking,
If you are dead, you are done with grief.
Half-past-five and the birds singing sweetly,
World washed silver with the rain and the wind.
If you are a saint, you have lived discreetly,
If you are a sinner, you have surely sinned.
Half-past-seven and the birds singing madly;
Sun flames up in the sky like a lark,
If there are things to remember sadly,
Wait and remember them after dark.
Elinor Morton Hoyt Hichborn Wylie Benet was born September 7, 1885, in New Jersey, much to her embarrassment. Fortunately, she had Philadelphian roots. She attended a private elementary school for girls in Bryn Mawr. Although her father began poor, he ended up Solicitor General of the United States, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. When Elinor was 12, the Hoyt children moved to Washington, D.C.
She attended private secondary schools in Washington, graduating in 1904. This ended her formal education. In December 1906 she married Harvard graduate Philip Hichborn, son of a rear-admiral. She seems to have tried hard to be a conventional wife, but Hichborn was depressive, an emotional abuser, and perhaps even mad. Elinor's mother refused to hear of Elinor leaving or divorcing him. So when Elinor finally broke, it was after several years of pent-up misery added to grief over her father's sudden death and the jolting discovery that Mr. Hoyt had had a mistress for many years.
In 1910, when her son was three, Elinor abandoned child and husband and ran off with Horace Wylie. A Washington lawyer with a wife and three children, Wylie was 17 years older than Elinor. This hadn't prevented him deliberately stalking her over several winters, turning up beside her on sidewalks, in stores, wherever she might be. Eventually he'd won her over.
They lived in England until World War I broke out and Americans not contributing to the war effort became unwelcome there. It took all the Wylies' money to get to Maine, where they rented an apartment and found themselves still stigmatized. They finally returned to Washington and got clerical jobs to survive. By then Elinor was disillusioned with Horace. She had met William Rose Benet, Stephen Vincent Benet's brother, who admired Elinor's younger brother Henry, Elinor's poems, and finally Elinor herself. Bill offered her the first real hope of becoming a professional author.
In 1920-21 Bill, a widower whose three children were being raised by his mother and sister, helped Elinor get established in New York City. Her book of poems, Nets to Catch the Wind, was published in 1921 to small but satisfactory acclaim. In 1922 she became literary editor of Vanity Fair magazine at the same time other of the "Bohemian lady poets of the 20s" were having their day: Marianne Moore at Dial, Louise Bogan at The New Yorker, Lola Ridge at Broom, and Harriet Monroe at Poetry. New York would never again offer such opportunity to women.
In 1923 Elinor divorced Horace, published a second book of poetry, saw her first novel released (Jennifer Lorn), and married Bill. They moved his children in with them, but Elinor made an inadequate stepmother. Eventually Bill's sister assumed permanent custody over them.
One biographer has observed that Elinor had three lives:
...That of childhood, shy, timorous, and fairly sheltered; followed by the second, which was passed buried alive; and the third, the shortest of all, as a very famous writer and woman. This period spanned eight years and she acted as if she knew it would be short (Olson 248).
In the space of a year or two, Elinor became a New York icon. She was so sought after by editors and socialites that Thomas Wolfe felt he had to deride her following as "cultish." Through sheer hard work, her writing got only better with her third novel (The Venetian Glass Nephew) and fourth book of poems (Angels and Earthly Creatures).
An associate who had once condemned Elinor for behaving erratically at a party wrote her to apologize. He had just read her Shelley novel, he said, and concluded she "took in so much more" than other people that it was impossible for her to act like them. In like manner, her talent and willowy, fragile beauty wooed many 20s literati.
In 1928 Elinor returned to England alone. There she fell in love again, again with a married man.
But this time it was apparently on her side alone. She suffered a fall that aggravated the pain she
already suffered from Bright's Disease. She sailed back to New York to spend Christmas with
Bill. On December 16, 1928, she died quietly at home of a stroke.
This assessment should probably be challenged. One reason is that some fine American poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others confessed to admiring her poetry (and were unquestionably influenced by it).
Another argument is that stereotyping some fine poets as inferior has removed them from textbooks and classroom study and thus done terrible damage to poetry as a people's art. For not long after most of the lady poets of the 20s and 30s fell into disappreciation, poetry died in the popular voice. My mother grew up reciting, and hearing adults recite, poems of all degrees of quality, to the delight of public and family audiences. By the time I came along, in the 40s and 50s, poetry had shifted to the province of academia; only straight-A students understood it and nobody listened to, much less enjoyed, it.
Perhaps the most telling measure of Wylie's standing as a poet is her readership. It continues. If she did not pioneer modern directions, she brought an existing tradition to a peak. For this she deserves respect as well as love.
Farr, Judith. The Life and Art of Elinor Wylie. Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Hoyt, Nancy. Elinor Wylie: The Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935.
Kizer, Carolyn. 100 Great Poems by Women: A Golden Ecco Anthology. (1995; paperback 1998).
Olson, Stanley. Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart. New York: Dial Press, 1979.
Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Suppl 1, pt 2, Vachel Lindsay to Elinor Wylie. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979, 427-53.
Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Obscure: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Indiana, 1991. Talks about self-images used by 20th century American poetesses including Amy Lowell's androgyne, Sara Teasdale's passionate virgin, Elinor Wylie's woman warrior, H.D.'s Greek persona, Edna St. Vincent Millay's body conscious romantic, and Louise Bogan's stoic.
Links to Further Information
The MacDowell Colony - Biographies: William Rose Benet (1886-1950). Quotation from this site: The most famous sonnet sequences in English literature are those by Shakespeare (154 in the group), Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Spenser's Amoretti, Rossetti's House of Life, and Mrs. Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. William Ellery Leonard, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and W. H. Auden have done distinguished work in the sonnet and the sonnet sequence in this century.
Theodore Roethke. In February 1930 Roethke withdrew from law school to pursue a master's degree in literature. At this time, his favorites among the modern poets were Elinor Wylie (for her lyricism), and e.e. cummings for his courage in experimentation.
History of Blanche Knopf, wife of Alfred A. Knopf . At the end of World War II, Alfred Knopf turned over the European side of the business to Mrs. Knopf, and she traveled to the continent almost yearly. Among the writers she successfully courted were Elizabeth Bowen, Hammond Innes, Angela Thirkell, Alan Sillitoe, Mikhail Sholokhov, Mario Soldati, and Elinor Wylie.
Review by Joe Osterhaus of In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems by Josephine Jacobsen (The Johns Hopkins University Press). Osterhaus writes, And the strength of the collection as a whole is enough to make us reconsider the eras in which Jacobsen wrote. She has received so little attention that she provides a new point of comparison with other more prominent poets. From the perspective this collection affords she becomes one of those figures who, like Elinor Wylie or Turner Cassity, share some of the impulses of the great modernists and mid-century poets, but who, for a variety of modesties of inclination and temperament, created poems that redefine but do not entirely rechart the center.
Most-loved 815 poems (chosen by 33,000 Internet users): Wylie's "Let No Charitable Hope" is #246. Her "The Eagle And The Mole" is #794.
Poetic tribute to Elinor Wylie by her dear friend, Edna Saint Vincent Millay.
Sept. 7--American poet Elinor Wylie was born on this day in 1885. Katherine Ann Porter said that Wylie showed up at Porter's New York apartment door one night in a suicidal fit, saying that Porter was the only person on earth she wanted to say goodbye to. Porter said, "How sweet of you to think of me, Elinor. Goodbye." And she closed the door.
Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
I love smooth words, like gold-enamelled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish,
And tender ones, like downy-feathred birds:
Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
Or purring softly at a silver dish,
Blue Persian kittens fed on cream and curds.
I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.
NOW LET NO CHARITABLE HOPE
Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.
I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.
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.
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