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 arrangement of stresses and vowel-sounds is more artfully controlled here, and arouses some pleasure, still too slight to overcome the sentimental and derivative phrases; but the control and the pleasure are there, and are the foundation for the good poems Wheelock came to write in his late sixties. (p. 461)
Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that Wheelock's later work is a great improvement over the earlier; the improvement is especially remarkable when we realize that no radical shift occurred in thematic or formal preoccupations. The later poems grow naturally out of the earlier ones, pursuing the same themes of love, death, and the tragic nature of life; they move in the same traditional forms. But their voice is distinctively Wheelock's own. (pp. 461-62)
The profound change in Wheelock's poetry has been wrought by comparatively slight adjustments in the earlier style. Some phrases here still border on triteness, but they have been absorbed into a distinctive, controlled, and dateless voice. Old ideas restated with a minimum of idiosyncrasy are hard to work into poems, but Wheelock manages to do so regularly and memorably….
Among the best of [the poems presented is] the title poem of this collection ["By Daylight and In Dream"]…. In three long sections of blank verse, the speaker confronts his impending death, made more poignant by the remnants of his past, which lie all around him. Wheelock has wisely avoided trying to resolve the vast questions which suggest themselves in the course of his meditation. At certain moments, he looks toward the possibility of eternal life, and at other moments he accepts the finality of death, celebrating the holiness...
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of earth, "the graveyard of the self-effacing dead". The poem concludes with a dream in which various voices offer various answers to the question of what follows death; but the speaker is still living at the end of the poem, and there is a strong suggestion that the importance of the future still lies this side of the grave. A small formal detail underscores this notion; the blank-verse line is broken between the end of one section and the beginning of another, and the third section ends with a short line. It has not been filled out, which hints that there is more to come, not of this poem, but of the stuff of which it is made.
Wheelock has at last written his share of fine poems, and they are all here; and there is extra pleasure to be gained from respect for [his] perseverance … and from the realization that Wheelock, at eighty-five, continues to contemplate his future work. (p. 463)
Henry Taylor, "The Collected Poems of John Hall Wheelock," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1971 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 460-63.
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 literature." Like a symphony of Beethoven or a painting by Rembrandt, a great poem serves to remind us of our common humanity; and it links the past with the present and the future.
Wheelock would no doubt acknowledge his kinship with our older American writers. Like Emerson and Whitman, he is always conscious of the unity of all life. Like Melville and Hawthorne, he sees that from the human point of view the nature of things is tragic. Like Poe, he is a musician forever searching for the magical words which will bring us, in Allen Tate's memorable phrase, "knowledge carried to the heart." (pp. 296-97)
Wheelock has a keen sense of humor, which is best seen in a group of poems entitled "Scherzo." They vary from fun and nonsense to satire and burlesque. "The Plumber as the Missing Letter" parodies the style of Wallace Stevens. "Please Turn Off the Moonlight" satirizes poems that are visual, analytic, obscure, or devoid of emotion. (p. 306)
Wheelock's attitude toward his reputation is like that of Herman Melville, who in old age remarked to Titus Munson Coan: "My books will speak for themselves, and all the better if I avoid the rattling egotism by which so many win a certain vogue for a certain time." "The final arbiter" of fame, as Wheelock wrote in What Is Poetry?, "will not be the audience in space, the mass audience at any given moment, but the audience in time, the qualified reader throughout the ages." (p. 307)
Wheelock's place in our literature is secure. He is, in the words of Allen Tate, "one of the best poets in English." What he has to say lacks a certain fashionable novelty, but it will ring as true in the year 2000 as it does today. What he has done—and he has done it better than most of his English and American contemporaries—is to make us feel anew the wonder, the mystery, the sadness, the joy, and the unity of life. Wheelock is a major American poet. (p. 310)
Jay B. Hubbell, "A Major American Poet: John Hall Wheelock," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1973 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 72, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 295-310.
[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.∗