Elinor Wylie’s poetry was sometimes criticized for being derivative, too close in style and form to those writers she loved best, such as William Butler Yeats, John Donne, William Shakespeare, Thomas Gray, T. S. Eliot, William Wordsworth, A. E. Housman, and Shelley. However, even the harshest critics agreed that she enriched the works by giving them her own signature. Her adoration of Shelley, thought unnatural by some, just a little bizarre by others, led her to incorporate some of his poetic structures into her own work, and he certainly affected her worldview. There was some thought that her imaginings might have had her envisioning and talking to him.
Whatever her influences, Wylie was most comfortable with the traditional sonnet form and was meticulous about the sound and look of her words even at the occasional expense of meaning. There were no wasted words. Every word was carefully chosen and used in precisely the correct form. She composed her poetry in her head before committing anything to paper and seldom changed a word.
In writing about her general themes—love, betrayal, and death—she favored certain words and images. She was fascinated with birds, wings, and feathers; with snow and wintry landscapes; with small ceramic figurines; with gemstones, particularly amber and onyx; with balsam and juniper trees; with silver; with sparkling, cold, hard diamonds; with the colors white and gold; with velvet; and with sleep and death.
Wylie’s four published collections chronicle four distinct phases of her life and reflect changes in her thinking about the most effective ways of creating works of value. Her first publication met with immediate success.
Nets to Catch the Wind
Nets to Catch the Wind, a collection of thirty-three sonnets, contained a handful of remarkable works alongside some easily forgettable offerings. She used what she liked to refer to as her “small, clean technique” with short lines in short stanzas and great clarity. One often-read poem, “The Eagle and the Mole,” advised the reader to “Avoid the reeking herd,/ Shun the polluted flock,/ Live like that stoic bird,/ The eagle of the rock” but suggested that those who needed further removal from horrible reality might...
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