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."
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.
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.
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.