Study Guide

Elinor Wylie

by Elinor Morton Hoyt

Elinor Wylie Essay - Wylie, Elinor

Wylie, Elinor

Introduction

Elinor Wylie 1885–1928

(Full name Elinor Morton Hoyt Wylie Benét) American poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

In her lifetime, Wylie garnered notoriety for her unconventional private life and acclaim for her poems and novels. She was considered one of the most distinguished American poets of the 1920s. Though her literary career lasted only eight years, she was recognized as an extremely adept, accomplished author. Wylie's poetry is marked by a lively inventiveness, a subtle treatment of emotion, and a detached sensibility that Louis Untermeyer has described as "a passion frozen at its source."

Biographical Information

Wylie was born in Somerville, New Jersey, the oldest child of parents well-known in society and public affairs. In 1905 she met and married Phillip Hichborn, with whom she had a son. After five years of a difficult marriage, Wylie left Hichborn and her son to live with a married lawyer, Horace Wylie. After being ostracized by their families and friends and mistreated in the press, the couple moved to England, where the poet published her first collection, Incidental Numbers (1912). They returned to the United States in 1916 after Hichborn committed suicide and Horace Wylie's wife agreed to a divorce; these events permitted the poet's second marriage in 1917. At the same time, friends such as John Dos Passos, John Peale Bishop, and Edmund Wilson convinced her to seriously pursue a writing career. In November, 1919, Wylie sent some poems to Poetry despite her fears that her work was not "modern enough." But Harriet Monroe, Poetry's editor, allayed Wylie's concerns, publishing four poems and asking for more. Wylie left her second husband and moved to New York in 1921. Nine years after Incidental Numbers, Wylie published Nets to Catch the Wind, a poetry collection which she considered her first significant book. It was followed in quick succession by three volumes of verse and four novels, several of which won high praise from America's most influential critics. One of these critics, William Rose Benét, became Wylie's third husband in 1923. In 1926, Wylie separated from Benét though they remained married, living together occasionally. During the last year of her life, she became romantically involved with Henry de Clifford Woodhouse, the husband of a friend. The relationship inspired the love sonnets in her last book. On the evening of December 16, 1928, during a visit with Benét, she completed the drafts for her last work, Angels and Earthly Creatures, and then suffered a fatal stroke.

Major Works

Wylie anonymously published her first book of verse, Incidental Numbers (1912), a small collection composed between 1902 and 1911. Though she did not find these poems worthy of inclusion in her subsequent volumes, they contain some of the themes she would continue to explore—magic, love, entrapment and isolation—and reveal her indebtedness to the poets of the aesthetic movement. Wylie kept this collection secret, claiming in a 1919 letter to Harriet Monroe, "I have never published any thing—never tried to, until the last few weeks." Wylie was greatly influenced by the works of Percy Shelley, though this was not the only influence on her work. Some aspects of her verse, in particular her wit and subtlety of thought, were in the tradition of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, especially John Donne. In what most critics regard as her best works, Nets to Catch the Wind (1921) and Black Armour (1923), Wylie dramatically portrays the disparities between the individual's aspirations and the limited satisfactions offered by life. Though Trivial Breath (1928) and Angels and Earthly Creatures (1928) contain some of Wylie's most ambitious poems, including the sonnet sequence "One Person," they also suggest that the poet abandoned the themes and convictions of her earlier work in pursuit of the cult of the beautiful. There is a sense in these works that the gifted individual requires beauty, refinement, and variety, while the world offers commonness, coarseness, and vulgarity.

Critical Reception

The peak of Wylie's literary reputation was reached early in her career. It has been suggested that part of the reason Wylie's contemporaries praised her work so effusively was because they were under the spell of her physical beauty and social charm. Her poems were considered intellectually brilliant, and she was compared to such masters as T. S. Eliot. Subsequent criticism has been scanty and less favorable. However, new works examining Wylie indicate a reawakening of critical appreciation for her, and the inclusion of her poetry in recently published anthologies confirms a continuing interest her works. Incidental Numbers, though often characterized as immature and undisciplined, has been well regarded by critics for its expression of Wylie's major themes and as a promise of its author's later development. The poems in Nets to Catch the Wind and Black Armour have been the subjects of several critical explications which have focused on their precise structural aspects and imagery. In these collections, particularly in such poems as "The Eagle and the Mole" and "Velvet Shoes," Wylie achieves what has been characterized as a genuine and consistent style altogether free from affectation. It has been asserted that these poems demonstrate her exceptional skill in handling the materials of her ornamental and illusory "crystal world." In her later verse, however, Wylie's perceptions have been assessed as less coherent, and her language redundant, highly conventional, even trite in content and idiom. Critics discussing Wylie's later works have tended to explore the relationship between Wylie's emotional life and her work.

Principal Works

Poetry

* Incidental Numbers 1912

Nets to Catch the Wind 1921

Black Armour 1923

Angels and Earthly Creatures: A Sequence of Sonnets 1928

Trivial Breath 1928

Collected Poems of Elinor Wylie 1932

Last Poems of Elinor Wylie 1943

Other Major Works

Jennifer Lorn: A Sedate Extravaganza (novel) 1923

The Venetian Glass Nephew (novel) 1925

The Orphan Angel (novel) 1926; also published as Mortal Image 1927

Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard (novel) 1928

Collected Prose of Elinor Wylie (novels, short stories, and essays) 1933

*Pub1ished anonymously.

†Published posthumously.

Criticism

Edna St. Vincent Millay (review date 1922)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie's Poems," in The New York Post, January 28, 1922, p. 379.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Nets to Catch the Wind, Millay describes Wylie as a poet of abundant talent and excellent taste.]

The publication recently of Elinor Wylie's Nets to Catch the Wind is an event in the life of every poet and every lover of poetry. The book is an important one. It is important in itself, as containing some excellent and distinguished work; and it is important because it is the first book of its author, and thus marks the opening of yet another door by which beauty may enter to the world.

The material from which these...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

Malcolm Cowley (review date 1923)

SOURCE: "The Owl and the Nightingale," in The Dial, Vol. 74, June, 1923, pp. 624-26.

[In the following review of Black Armour, Cowley praises Wylie 's ability to combine "intellect and emotion " and compares her poetry to that of T. S. Eliot.]

Fantasy is the quality of an agile mind working freely, as if in a vacuum. It consists in the unexpected combination of ideas and images so as to create a world apart from the world, governed by a more arbitrary logic. The poems of Elinor Wylie, at any rate the best of them, have fantasy. They share the quality with T. S. Eliot, and reading Black Armour for the first time one is reminded of him forcibly.

...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

Anna Hempstead Branch (review date 1928)

SOURCE: "Fiery Essences," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. V, No. 13, October 20, 1928, p. 267.

[In the following excerpt, Branch offers a complimentary review of Trivial Breath, emphasizing Wylie's intellect and the vivacity of her poems.]

It is a very great pleasure indeed, to be able to record in this review a sincere admiration of Elinor Wylie's new book, Trivial Breath. Her music, practically unfailing, ranges from the gossamer delicacy of "Desolation is a Delicate Thing" to the hard athletic vigor of "The Innocents" and "Minotaur." With all her lightness, gaiety, and elegance of diction, her often worldly, and often-sophisticated accent,...

(The entire section is 940 words.)

Donald Davidson (review date 1929)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie," in The Spyglass, Views and Reviews, 1924-1930, Vanderbilt University Press, 1963, pp. 115-17.

[In the following review, originally published in the "Critics Almanac" of The Spyglass, Davidson considers Angels and Earthly Creatures to be Wylie's best book of poetry and praises her use of traditional sonnet forms.]

The day before she died, it happened that Elinor Wylie was arranging for publication a book of poems. This book now appears under the title Angels and Earthly Creatures. Everywhere it reads as if she had the taste of death already on her tongue, so that one is moved to wonder whether Elinor Wylie did not, like...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

M.D.Z. [Morton Dauwen Zabel] (review date 1932)

SOURCE: "The Pattern of the Atmosphere," in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. XI, No. V, August 1932, pp. 273-82.

[In the following excerpt from a review of The Collected Poems of Elinor Wylie, Zabel faults Wylie's work, assessing it as repetitive and ineffectively ornate.]

Mrs. Elinor Wylie was a poet of late development but of enviable successes. By the testimony of every acquaintance, the graces exhibited in her verse are corroborated in her actual life. An agile wit was the factor which propelled her from charm to charm in her choice of materials: from historic themes of the most ingenious fragility and inaccessibility, to familiar encounters rendered...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)

Allen Tate (review date 1932)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie's Poetry," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXII, No. 927, Sept. 7, 1932, p. 107.

[In the following review of Collected Poems of Elinor Wylie, Tate acknowledges Wylie's technical skills but suggests that her poetry lacks distinguishing features that would establish her as a stylistically great poet.]

This collection [the Collected Poems (1932)] of the verse of Elinor Wylie contains her four volumes exactly as they first appeared and, in addition, forty-seven poems that were not printed in her books. Of these, twenty appear in print for the first time. The book is handsomely bound and beautifully printed, and the editing has been done with...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Harriet Monroe (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie," in Poets & Their Art, Macmillan, 1932, pp. 106-13.

[Monroe was a famous poet and the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. In the following excerpt, she praises Wylie's poetic skills and ability to capture the essence of passion and spirit in her poems.]

Though Elinor Wylie died at forty-two, in a sense her work was complete, was finished. She had perfected her style and delivered her message. Death merely rounded the circle, gave her career a wholeness, a symmetry, as when a thorough-bred racer wins a trophy at the goal which was his starting-point a few minutes before.

Her first poems, like the racer's first...

(The entire section is 1498 words.)

William Rose Benét (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: The Prose and Poetry of Elinor Wylie, Wheaton College Press, 1934, 24 p.

[In the following excerpt from the Annie Talbot Cole Lecture of Wheaton College, Benét describes his late wife as a "great poet," possessed of a natural talent and love of the English language.]

I contend that [Elinor Wylie] was a great prose writer because she was a great poet. What then is a poet such as she? Such poets have puzzled fine minds through the ages for definition of the quality of their work. For one thing, she was born to welcome the most intensely arduous mental labour in passionate exploration of the utmost resources of the English language in order to express every...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Alfred Kreymborg (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "Women as Humans, as Lovers, as Artists," in A History of American Poetry: Our Singing Strength, Tudor Publishing Company, 1934, pp. 438-65.

[In the following excerpt from his book of historical criticism, Kreymborg discusses the pessimism in some of Wylie's poems.]

The despair and disillusionment setting in after the World War found its most tragic voice abroad in T. S. Eliot. On this side the Atlantic, it found a feminine counterpart in the marvelous brain of Elinor Wylie. Her work was not a direct reaction to the aftermath, but was raised on the private life of an aristocratic nature in no wise akin with the mob or democracy. Among the new aristocracy of...

(The entire section is 2101 words.)

Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie and Léonie Adams: The Poetry of Feminine Sensibility," in A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946, pp. 282-99.

[In the following excerpt from their critical collection, the authors compare Wylie's style to that of other female writers including Edith Wharton, suggesting that Wylie's final sonnets were influenced by Wharton's novel The House of Mirth.]

Elinor Wylie, who was born September 7, 1885, and died in New York December 16, 1928, was not a precocious poet, and her publications, like the brilliant, public events of her career, were timed with art; she appeared before her readers as the finished artist,...

(The entire section is 2912 words.)

James G. South worth (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie: 1825-1928," in More Modern American Poets, Basil Blackwell, 1954, pp. 35-40.

[In the following excerpt from his collection of critical essays, Southworth faults Wylie's poetry, suggesting that it lacks the necessary quality that would enable it to maintain the status of exceptional literature over time.]

Miss Elinor Wylie has been favoured with a good "press" and she has often been spoken of as one of America's great women poets…. [Although] I can admire some fifteen of her poems, I do not think Time will continue to do what her late husband and his and her friends with ready access to the public's ear were so able to do for her. The poems on...

(The entire section is 784 words.)

Babette Deutsch (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "The Ghostly Member," in Poetry in Our Time, Columbia University Press, 1956, pp. 220-53.

[In the following excerpt from her collection of critical essays, Deutsch discusses Wylie's metaphysical style in comparison to traditional metaphysical poets.]

Working closely within the tradition, Mrs. Wylie had the craftsman's concern for phrasing, and for the particular qualities of words. Her poem, "Bronze Trumpets and Sea Water—On Turning Latin into English," is eloquent of this. She never indulged in the verbal sport of Edith Sitwell and Wallace Stevens, nor rose to their imaginative power. She cherished her nouns and adjectives as she did such ornaments of life...

(The entire section is 1185 words.)

Thomas A. Gray (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie: The Puritan Marrow and the Silver Filigree," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1963, pp. 343-57.

[In the following, Gray analyzes Wylie's ability to combine Imagistic techniques and Romantic themes.]

It should be obvious that quite as much banality, raw emotion, crudity of image, and bathos can be produced by Imagists as by anyone else. While often avoiding the vices of the color-mongers and jade-purveyors, [John Gould] Fletcher and [Amy] Lowell fall into equally nauseating practices. But this is not surprising where the poet's emphasis is on the purely physical, where he scrupulously divests his poetry of idea to present "things in...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Celeste Turner Wright (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie: The Glass Chimera and the Minotaur," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, April, 1966, pp. 15-26.

[In the following excerpt Wright groups Wylie's poems by their imagery and links the images to Wylie's personality.]

The poet-novelist Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) shows a marked preference for certain imagery: she loves figurines and other beautiful objects made from gems, porcelain, ivory, Venetian glass, and especially crystal, her symbol of purity. Her fondness for these treasures has affected—perhaps distorted—not only her literary reputation, but the world's image of her personality.

The essay "Jewelled Bindings"...

(The entire section is 3602 words.)

Emily Stipes Watts (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "1900-1945: A Rose Is a Rose with Thorns," in The Poetry Of American Women from 1632 to 1945, University of Texas Press, 1977, pp. 149-76.

[In the following excerpt from her book of feminist criticism, Watts compares Wylie to other female poets, including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.]

Millay and Wylie were good friends, and their poetry is often considered together as "female Lyrist," apparently a new twentieth-century category of poetry which has been conceived especially for women poets such as Millay, Wylie, [Sara] Teasdale, [Lizette] Reese, and others…. Actually, the term Lyrist itself is a catchall and condescending...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Stanley Olson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart, a Biography, Dial Press, 1979,376 p.

[Olson is a biographer whose work includes studies of John Singer Sargent. In the following excerpt from his biography of Wylie, Olson provides information about Wylie's life as it informs the themes of her major books of poetry.]

Unlike Lord Byron and Lytton Strachey, Elinor did not wake up one October morning in 1921 to find herself famous. The recognition she received for Nets to Catch the Wind was of a more somber variety, and very long in coming…. When critics opened [the book], they found a great deal to arrest them. The most captivating things were the certainty and the angular...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Judith Farr (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Debut as Aesthete," in The Life and Art of Elinor Wylie, Louisiana State University Press, 1983, pp. 58-83.

[In the following excerpt from her full-length critical study of Wylie's poetry and prose, Farr analyzes poems from Incidental Numbers and Nets to Catch the Wind.]

Incidental Numbers, a small collection of verses composed between 1902 and 1911, was Elinor Wylie's first book of poems. Privately printed in England, in an edition of only about sixty copies, the book's pale blue binding and navy lettering imitated an edition of Blake's Songs of Innocence. Copies were presented as gifts to Elinor's family and acquaintances. Her mother...

(The entire section is 7722 words.)

Hyatt H. Waggoner (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Elinor Wylie," in American Poets, Louisiana State University Press, 1984, pp. 459-64.

[Waggoner is a scholar noted for his studies of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the following excerpt he discusses Emersonian aspects of Wylie's poetry.]

Expressing very similar attitudes, developing often the same themes, in a style derived, like Teasdale's, from the English Romantics, particularly from Shelley, Elinor Wylie created more poems that are still good to read. The several best of them, especially "Wild Peaches" and "Innocent Landscape," are very good. Wylie's spirit was tougher than [Sara] Teasdale's had been before Strange Victory, and her...

(The entire section is 1692 words.)