Although John Hall Wheelock’s early verse has lively, romantic exuberance of expression, the more measured poems of his maturity became the ones to win him the most attention and critical approval. Quieter of tone and conscientiously structured, they gained him a reputation as a traditionalist. His frequent subjects were ones he shared with other lyric poets of the earlier century, including expressions of romantic love and lost love, meditations on the place of humankind in the universe, and reflections inspired by the sea. Despite his reputation for formal accomplishment and traditionalism, Wheelock’s works were not dry exercises in versification but rather poems that were as diverse in their approaches as they were in their subject matter. Many were quietly exploratory, in terms of rhythm and form, rather than experimental; and despite his thematic emphasis on love, his works remained robust and never mawkish. All were emotionally honest.
The Human Fantasy
“The Human Fantasy,” the title poem that takes up most of the pages of Wheelock’s first collection, is an expansive, adventuresome work based around a simple story of a romance. The story is sketched out in its entirety in a prose piece set early among the diverse, short offerings that make up the whole. Unlike many of Wheelock’s later poems, the verses making up “The Human Fantasy” employ recurring images evoking the vastness of the astronomical universe and contrast that vision with depictions of a vibrantly alive, modern city. The city proves to be as important a character in the long poem as are the two lovers.
Wheelock’s debut collection concludes with a miscellany of short poems, including “Sunday Evening in the Common,” a meditation on “The infinite stars that brood above us here,/ And the gray city in the soft June weather,” which seems directed toward Brooks, to whom it is dedicated in later reprintings. Others include the longer poems “The Mad-Man” and “Irma,” which offer darkly depressive counterpoint to the vision of the bustling and brilliant city presented in “The Human Fantasy.”
Dust and Light
(The entire section is 891 words.)