Thursday, September 15, 2011

Elinor Wylie

I can never tell, when I discover a poet new to me but many years gone, whether I should feel like I have found a beautiful though dusty artifact in an antique store, or like I have simply come late to the party. I had never heard of Elinor Wylie before, but I’m glad I found her. I’m self-conscious, though, at the thought that I was supposed to have known about her all along. I found this sonnet of hers in an old textbook, sandwiched between Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There’s something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.

I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay;
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
I love this. This era—with Frost, Millay, and E. A. Robinson in the States (and Kipling and others in the UK) were writing—this is when English poetry hit its peak: a modern sensibility paired with a classic form. It surpasses the ornate decoration of earlier times while employing a technical skill that at the time was being busily abandoned by everyone else.

There’s a stanza from another of Wylie’s poems that has been buzzing around in my head since I read it—from her poem “Let No Charitable Hope”:
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.
It somehow brings to mind William Ernest Henley (“Invictus”) and Dorothy Parker at the same time. As if those two could collaborate. I wonder if they would have gotten along.

More reviews to come!

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