Wheelock, John Hall 1886–1978
Wheelock was an American poet, editor, critic, and translator. Wheelock's poetry, traditional in form, expresses delight in natural beauty. His first published poetry appeared in 1905 in Verses of Two Undergraduates, a collaborative effort of Wheelock and his friend and Harvard classmate, Van Wyck Brooks. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 77-80.)
Wheelock's development has been slow and sometimes painful; in his determination not to succumb to the whims of fashion, he has sometimes seemed to move backward instead of forward. But in his later years he finally wrote a number of poems which are worth all the trouble, and which are not diminished by the lesser poems [By Daylight and In Dream: New and Selected Poems]….
[This volume] contains, in roughly chronological order, all the poems which Wheelock wishes to preserve. The collection is weighted in favor of relatively recent work…. (p. 460)
But even though vast numbers of early poems have been left behind, those which remain are enough to suggest the difficulties which plagued the young poet. He wrote, for one thing, with incredible haste—he published sizeable collections in 1911, 1912, 1913, 1919, 1922, 1927, and 1936—and so must often have failed to see how little of this verse was his own, and how much of it was a pastiche of early favorites such as Henley, Whitman, and Wordsworth. There are whole poems here which seem to have been written by the ghost of an anonymous nineteenth-century voice…. (pp. 460-61)
But even as Wheelock continued to pour out volumes of this kind of work, he gradually increased his command over formal and structural elements, so that even bad poems began to reveal arresting musical and rhythmical details, as in this final stanza from "Translation":
Now, as you read these verses—from afar,
This very moment, from this printed rhyme,
I cry to you out of the wheels of Time,
I call to you across the morning-star.
(The entire section is 726 words.)
For fifty years [John Hall Wheelock] has been regularly listed among the living American poets, but far too many critics have been content with merely labeling him as "traditional," "conservative," and sometimes even "reactionary." He was not among the poets whose reputations owed so much to the backing of Louis Untermeyer, Amy Lowell, and Ezra Pound; and he is not the favorite of those literary journalists in our time who are more interested in a poet's political and social opinions than in the quality of his poetry. Wheelock is no propagandist, and he is not a literary rebel or an alienated American artist. He is more deeply concerned about the quality of his poetry than about his reputation. He is as intelligent, as well-informed, and in the best sense as "sophisticated" as any of his critics or any living poet. (pp. 295-96)
Wheelock sees himself, in his own words, not as an "end" or a "beginning," but as a "link in the long chain of tradition, each link of which is different from any other." He is, as I see him, in the mainstream of the Anglo-American literary tradition, which in large part derives from the literatures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Palestine. He has studied the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, Faust, and other supreme masterpieces, and he has seen that they survive "because of a special vitality inherent in them"; and he believes that they in turn "will generate, throughout time, by their creative energy and influence, the succession of works that constitute the continuing body of...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
[Wheelock] was a classicist, and his poems came from the conviction that poetry releases human emotion when it is most compressed by the medium of form. One of his best poems, dedicated to his father and titled "The Gardener," passionately and quietly emphasizes that his father took the way of the artist and laid his gardens out according to strict order, so that the beauty of vegetable foliage would be related to the human mind:
Truly, your labors have not been in vain;
These woods, these walks, these gardens—everywhere
I look, the glories of your love remain.
Therefore, for you, now beyond praise or prayer,
Before the night falls that shall make us one,
In which neither of us will know or care,
This kiss, father, from him who was your son.
It is a wonderful poem, written in terza rima, the great rhythm of Dante, and is an inspired example of the relationship that John Hall Wheelock held between himself, his craft, his world and his father. (pp. 14, 56)
[Wheelock] began with his large, innocent heart as a rather shameless sentimentalist. The early work is good, the kind of thing that one can accede to after a couple of beers. The rhythms are somewhat in the manner of Swinburne, and there is a heavy cast of the fin de siècle over these early poems…. In these lush and almost mawkish verses, an unerring sense of timing is evident, which is, even though employed in such sentimental and period-ridden themes, unusual and interesting…. Wheelock, though his lyricism deepened over the years, became increasingly moving, in the manner of a man no longer interested in Swinburnian Romanticism but involved far more profoundly in the meaning of his own existence: his past, his family, the landscapes that had surrounded him over the years of his long life, and a very noble coming-to-terms with the intolerable burden of memory….
Anyone who cares for the human imagination should read the beautifully cadenced poems of this compassionate, talented and peacefully creative man. We should be privileged to join him, in his own words, "in the wilderness of heaven." (p. 56)
James Dickey, "Compassionate Classicist," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 10, 1978, pp. 14, 56.
The present world seems far removed from the poetry of John Hall Wheelock. His posthumous book [This Blessèd Earth, New and Selected Poems, 1927–1977] contains his last and selected poems, a short but important summing-up. The nineteenth-century air things wear in these poems seems appropriate and true in old age, and the advice in "Self-Counsel in Age" suitable to any poet: "Sing for your own delight—though there be none / To hear you out." Wheelock, like Whitman, remembers a thrush singing to young lovers and he describes the suffering existence itself knows within us. Wisdom and thanksgiving shine through his lines, and his old-fashioned fervor makes "Address to Existence" and "Affirmation" lyrical in their didacticism. Similar themes occur in the selected poems: philosophical acceptance in "The Holy Earth," love of nature in "The Fish-Hawk," and oneness with the dead in "Dear Men and Women." Admiration is the only response for a poet so solicitous of his audience. (pp. 121-22)
James Finn Cotter, "Familiar Poetry," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 109-22.∗
Wheelock published his first poem in 1900, and his longevity, coupled with what James Dickey called "his large, innocent heart" [see excerpt above] and his career as an editor, are almost enough to melt the point of a critic's pen. But to praise Wheelock is to confuse the end of literature with sentiments. His poems [collected in This Blessèd Earth] go on and on being moved…. His softened melancholy and his gratitude for existence vie for control of his tone. Laid on thick and thick, the honey sickens. (p. 296)
To praise Wheelock is also to praise pastiche, mostly of Wordsworth. It's to rout the moderns from Yeats to Lowell, who distrusted the consolations not only of sentiment but of a time-slickened style. To be high-soundingly high-souled, as Wheelock is, to use "lonely" as he does in "Now the high lonely stars of night come on" or write any part of "the tender / High fortitude of the spirit shining through," is to murmur unconsciously from the Sleeper's Den, outside modernity and outside what Eliot called the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings. (p. 297)
Calvin Bedient, "Poetry Comfortable and Uncomfortable," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 296-304.∗