Several critics have identified Lizette Woodworth Reese’s major thematic concern, which she herself specifies in the imperative opening of her poem “To a Town Poet”: “Snatch the departing mood;/ Make yours its emptying reed, and pipe us still/ Faith in the time. . . .” Reese follows her own advice as she explores in poem after poem the “departing mood,” ranging from bittersweet recollections to the intense memory that redeems some part of an otherwise irrecoverable past. “To a Town Poet,” Reese’s manifesto for a native lyricism proclaims “faith in our common blood” and directs the poet’s attention toward the “huddled trees,” the “smoky ways,” the “vendor, swart but free” and away from the period’s sentimental, genteel verse with its stilted diction, classical allusions, and didactic guidance. Reese did not, however, mean a lyricism like Walt Whitman’s free verse; she meant a lyricism in the traditional forms from which she herself rarely departed and to which some poets, such as Millay and Frost, turned during the modern lyric renaissance.
A fascination with mood—with the fine gradations of multiple sensations—certainly goes back to Reese’s girlhood. Growing up with the terror of war, the young Lizette enjoyed the contentment that she found in the natural setting of her grandfather’s farm, stories that she delightfully retells in A Victorian Village. She took additional comfort in the Victorian literature that she eagerly read—particularly Charles Dickens and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, her masters in the school of literary mood.
Considering her work in its historical and social milieu, one finds a poetry oblivious to the Gilded Age and its associated social problems. Reese was not indifferent to the issues of her time, but she did not consider her lyrics as a forum for any causes except those of emotion and beauty. Her subjects may vary from love to death to nature, but the theme almost always comes back to the belief that an appreciation of experience depends on isolating the “mood” associated with it and then crystallizing it through sensory appeals, especially the tactile, auditory, and olfactory imagery that further distinguishes her poetic voice.
The key to a formal appreciation of Reese’s work lies in the recognition of her poetic voice. This voice, heard throughout her eleven books of poetry, makes a unique contribution to the American impulse toward a modern lyric verse. Examining her prosody, diction, rhythms, and syntax, one soon discovers a repetitively expressive pattern, with artistic variations, that constitutes a talented poetic voice. An outstanding feature of this voice is her penchant for the Anglo-Saxon monosyllable. She wanted to write a lyric that was native both in locale and tongue, and accordingly, she wanted to avoid the Latinate, polysyllabic words of which her genteel contemporaries were much too fond. In “Betrayed,” the first poem in her first book, the word “perfect” is the only polysyllabic word, and she continued to favor spare and economical diction. This preference for the simple, native words permitted her to achieve a “classical” American idiom, an idiom less showy than Whitman’s, less intense than Emily Dickinson’s, yet vivid and evocative in its own quiet manner.
One metrical trait of Reese’s voice is the substitution of a trochaic foot in the prevailing iambic meter, especially in the initial position where the trochee and the following iamb actually constitute a choriambus. The choriambus, such as “Blówn lĭke ă fláme” and “Heáped in̆ thĕ róads,” then becomes a “long foot” that frames or freezes an image, particularly with an active verb in the dynamic stress position where it militates against the rhythmical stasis of imagery locked into what Paul Fussell, in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965), calls “the pleasantly predictable, manageable world of the iambic.”
All the characteristic traits and tricks of Reese’s poetic voice are exemplified in the first stage of her long literary career. Her thematic concern with the “departing mood”—to an extent that theme and tone become one—consistently typifies the poems of the early period. Reese is not, however, merely a poet of mood like the poetasters who contributed sentimental verse to the ladies’ magazines. She is, rather, a poet who locates the gentle irony where the woof of a pleasant image interlaces, and thus partly obscures and softens, the warp of hard reality. The bittersweet, the wistful, and the poignant form the emotional province of Reese’s voice, but these emotions come from an artistic distance, from an awareness by the lyric persona that mood is not only crystallized feeling but also recaptured thought. Mood is then, for Reese’s lyric speaker, a complex response to the sensory appeal of imagery, and the mood itself becomes the healthy equilibrium between the venting of emotion on one hand and the containing of emotion on the other.
“In Time of Grief”
“In Time of Grief,” from A Quiet Road, illustrates the essential method of Reese’s early lyricism. The poem combines an array of images within its tight structure of three ballad-stanza quatrains. Noteworthy is the emphasis on olfactory imagery, for Reese knows that the sense of smell, as effectively as sight or sound,...
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