Lizette Woodworth Reese Reese, Lizette Woodworth - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Lizette Woodworth Reese 1856–-1935

American poet, prose writer, and short story writer.

Although relatively unknown today, Reese was a popular American poet during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Praised for her concise style, her emotional yet never sentimental voice, and her nostalgic subjects, Reese earned a devoted following among critics and the public throughout her life. However, with the advent of modern poetic styles and her death, Reese faded into relative obscurity. Today she is known primarily as a transitional writer, bridging the gap between the Victorian and modern poets. In addition to her poetry, Reese published three books of recollections of late nineteenth-century small town life.

Biographical Information

Reese was born in the small Maryland town of Waverly, then known as Huntingdon, on January 9, 1856. One of four sisters, Reese remained in the Baltimore area throughout her lifetime. After attending public schools, which Reese supplemented with a voracious appetite for classic English literature, she secured a position as a teacher at Saint John's Parish School in 1873. In June 1874, she published her first poem “The Deserted House,” in Southern Magazine. Although the poem lacked the skill of her later work, Reese established the themes and style for which she would be known: a solemn tone, the theme of eternal nature juxtaposed against the decay of society, the personification of nature, the simple and efficient use of language, and a brevity of description. During the next thirteen years Reese continued to write and publish in magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Monthly and Scribner's. In 1887 Reese used her own funds to publish her first collection of poems, A Branch of May. She sent copies of the work to such noted critics as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Dean Howells, and Edmund Clarence Stedman, who would become an influential figure in her career. Critics responded enthusiastically to her short, straightforward poetry which differed from the heavy, grandiose verse of the Victorians. Reese was able to publish her second volume of poetry with Houghton Mifflin in 1891. Upon the publication of her third collection in 1896, Reese had established herself as a noteworthy poet in America and England. After teaching in the Baltimore public schools for forty-five years while concurrently pursuing a writing career, Reese retired in 1921 and devoted more of her time to writing. Before her death in 1935 she published five more collections of poetry and wrote two works of childhood recollections. After her death a final volume of poetry, The Old House in the Country, was published in 1936.

Major Works

Reese published eleven works of poetry, spanning from her first self-published collection A Branch of May in 1887 to her posthumously published The Old House in the Country in 1936. Although she acquired greater skill throughout her career and experimented somewhat with form, her work is generally uniform in style, voice, tone, and content. Reese rejected social commentary and observations on modernity and industrialization, instead focusing on aspects of nature and life which she had witnessed in her quiet rural surroundings in Waverly. She chose such subjects as death, religion, and pastoral scenes. In 1909 she published A Wayside Lute, which contained her best known and most highly regarded poem, the sonnet “Tears.” Reese primarily wrote short, rhymed, metered verse, often employing the sonnet form. She was known and admired for her concise voice and unsentimental tone which differed from the earlier Victorian poets and gave her poetry a distinctly modern air. In 1927 she published Little Henrietta, a collection of thirty-nine short poems that narrate the story of her cousin Henrietta Matilda. This work constitutes her only unrhymed poetry.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime Reese enjoyed popularity from critics and the public alike, encountering little difficulty publishing her poetry. Although critics agreed that she was among the minor poets of her age, the publication of each of her volumes was met with favorable reviews. However, Reese's popularity did not sustain past her death. Although her works are still included in anthologies and scholars, have conceded her role as a transitional figure in American poetry, little new critical scholarship has been written about Reese in the second half of the twentieth century. During her lifetime such reviewers as Genevieve Taggard, Louis Untermeyer, and Carlin T. Kindilien compared Reese's writing to Emily Dickinson's poetry, although each noted that Reese failed to achieve the sharpness and skill of Dickinson. Kindilien observed, “Like Emily Dickinson, Lizette Reese turned from the American scene and wrote a personal poetry that analyzed universals, but, unlike the Amherst poet, she was not to receive the critical attention that would have made known her achievement.” Other critics have compared her writing with that of Robert Herrick and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Reviewers have praised her brevity, concision, phrasing, and restraint. Though her tone was nostalgic and her subject matter often somber, commentators have noted that through her sincerity and simplicity Reese's poetry never sounded sentimental. However, Mark Van Doren has argued that her poetry “lack[ed] original salt” and Louise Bogan has despaired the absence of intellectuality and range in Reese's work.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

A Branch of May: Poems 1887

A Handful of Lavender 1891

A Quiet Road 1896

A Wayside Lute 1909

Spicewood 1920

Wild Cherry 1923

The Selected Poems 1926

Little Henrietta 1927

White April, and Other Poems 1930

Pastures and Other Poems 1933

The Old House in the Country 1936

A Victorian Village: Reminiscences of Other Days (reminiscences) 1929

The York Road (reminiscences and short stories) 1931

Worleys (fiction) 1936

The Nation (review date 1896)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of A Quiet Road, in The Nation (New York), Vol. 63, No. 1641, December 10, 1896, p. 443.

[In the review below, the critic praises Reese's voice as calm.]

A Quiet Road, by Lizette Woodworth Reese, has that calm, lily-scented atmosphere which always belongs to this lady's poems; she knows how to make the most of what we have that is colonial and picturesque; and this is done without straining or affectation. She even takes pains to explain in a footnote that the “Dorset levels” in the poem which follows are not transatlantic, but are only on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and that she has therefore a full right to dwell on them and theirs (p. 57):

                              “The Lavender
Woman—A Market Song.”
Crooked, like the bough the March wind bends wallward across the sleet.
Stands she at her blackened stall in the loud market street;
All about her in the sun, full-topped, exceeding sweet,
Lie bundles of gray lavender, a-shrivel in the heat.
What the Vision that is mine, coming over and o’er?
’Tis the Dorset levels, aye, behind me and before:
Creeks that slip without a sound from flaggy shore to shore:
Orchards gnarled with springtimes and as gust-bound as of yore.
Oh, the panes at sunset burning rich-red as the rose!
Oh, colonial chimneys that the punctual swallow knows!
Land where like a memory the salt scent stays or goes,
Where wealthy is the reaper and right glad is he that sows
Drips and drips the last June rain, but toward the even-fall
Copper gleam the little pools behind the pear-trees tall:
In a whirl of violet, and the fairest thing of all,
The lavender, the lavender sways by the sagging wall.
Oh, my heart, why should you break at any thoughts like these?
So sooth are they of the old time that they should bring you ease;
Of Hester in the lavender and out among the bees,
Clipping the long stalks one by one under the Dorset trees.

Mark Van Doren (review date 1921)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fashions,” in The Nation (New York), Vol. 112, No. 2914, May 11, 1921, p. 693.

[In the following review of Spicewood, Van Doren finds Reese's work too ordered and lacking in force.]

When Jessie B. Rittenhouse in 1904 wrote sketches of eighteen “Younger American Poets” she put Miss Reese in the second place as one who was mistress of a certain poignant primness, as one who was a feminine Robert Herrick. The quality implied in the comparison was debatable then and is more debatable now. Miss Reese's sonnets and quatrain-songs are impeccable in meter and phrasing, are irreproachable in sentiment; but they lack original salt. Their edges are frilled and lavendered, while their central designs are woven of gentle archaisms—“nowhit,” “of a surety,” “this many a year,” “hushes where the lonely are,” “all palely sweet,” “candlelight,” “wayfarer,” “deem”—which Herrick did not or would not now employ. A little conscious archness in rhyme-words and endinglines will not make up for a great monotony of neatness. Any poetical idea is new to the poet who makes it so; Miss Reese's are laced and ivoried over with unvarying, respectable age. Her book is not without charm, but it is without force. …

Louis Untermeyer (essay date 1923)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lizette Woodworth Reese,” in American Poetry Since 1900, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 300-02.

[In the following excerpt, Untermeyer views Reese's poetry as lucid, surprising, and well-crafted.]

Philosophies, fashions, innovations, movements, concern [Lizette Woodworth Reese] not at all; her poetry is bare of social interpretations, problems, almost of ideas. Song, unabashed, actually antiquated song is what she delights in. And out of tunes with little novelty or nuance, she evokes a personal grace that is as fragrant as an old-fashioned flower garden. Miss Reese's realization of this quality finds its fullest expression in the volumes which...

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Harriet Monroe (review date 1924)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Faint Perfume,” in Poetry, Vol. 23, No. VI, March, 1924, pp. 341-42.

[In the following review of Wild Cherry, Monroe argues that while Reese's poems are effective, she too often relies on Victorian mannerisms.]

Soft scented poems are these, delicately frail and fine, sprung from a shy and isolated soul; an expression of wistfulness, of the ache of smothered emotions. They are carefully studied, they don’t try to say or do anything original; but they sing, with musical taste and precision, a clear pure little minor tune all in the same key.

Mostly they are simply written, and in modern diction, but Miss Reese should discard of yore from her vocabulary—a convenient rhyme, in five places at least, for door or floor, but worn to shreds long since, and moreover inexactly used in such a present-tense line as

As one who comes back to a house of yore.

In a few other details also one finds this poet yielding to Victorian temptations.

Some of the portraits are delicately sketched. “A Puritan Lady,” for example, after the first two ineffectual stanzas, gives a real picture:

Humble and high in one,
          Cool, certain, different,
She lasts; scarce saint, yet half a child,
          As hard, as innocent.
What grave long afternoons,
          What caged airs round her blown,
Stripped her of humor, left her bare
          As cloud, or wayside stone?—
Made her as clear a thing,
          In this slack world as plain,
As a white flower on a grave
          Or sharp sleet at a pane?

“Spring Ecstasy”, “To Love”, “Before the Look of You”—these and other poems are faint whiffs of faded perfume—a bit trite, perhaps, like pressed flowers. Here is To Love:

Take me and break me, Love;
          Make me into a thing
More memorable than a star,
          Or a tall flower in spring.
If this you will not do,
          Down to oblivion thrust;
Into a sleek forgotten grave
          Crumble me to dust!

David Morton (review date 1924)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of Wild Cherry, in The Outlook, Vol. 136, No. 11, March 12, 1924, pp. 439-40.

[In the review below, Morton praises the quality of Reese's work and laments that she has failed to garner critical attention.]

Of late our ears have been filled with the noise of new names—to the extent of drowning out altogether the thin sound of names that are not noisy and that are no longer new. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that a new book of poems by Lizette Woodworth Reese should issue from the press and take its place upon the shelves with no loud heralding or hoarse huzzas. Miss Reese and her readers would not have it otherwise; yet from such a...

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Genevieve Taggard (review date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Horns of the Morning,” in The New York Herald Tribune, July 11, 1926, p. 5.

[In the following review of The Selected Poems of Lizette Woodworth Reese, Taggard states that the poems possess “deep feeling” and compares Reese's writing to that of Edna Millay and Emily Dickinson.]

Miss reese has a slow and fragile gift, by means of which she has accomplished very high things. She has refused to be many things her gift might imply, and she has written the sonnet “Tears,” with its Miltonic beginning, which consoles us in the end for its lack of Miltonic grandeur and stern-ness by being the purest and tenderest of poems.

When I...

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Padraic Colum (review date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Line of Herrick,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, No. 1, July 31, 1926, p. 7.

[In the following review of The Selected Poems of Lizette Woodworth Reese, Colum praises Reese as innovative and remarks on her handling of traditional poetic forms, particularly the sonnet.]

Frank Harris, as he has recorded, judged H. L. Mencken to be a whimsical critic of poetry because of his praise of Lizette Woodworth Reese's poems. “She has written more sound poetry, more genuinely eloquent and beautiful poetry, than all the new poets put together.” Mencken certainly underrated the work of the new poets. Frank Harris, on the other hand, was...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

Lawrence S. Morris (review date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Some Flowers Down a Lane,” in The New Republic: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 48, No. 612, August 25, 1926, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review of Selected Poems, Morris comments on Reese's tone and sense of nostalgia.]

Miss Reese has been singing quietly for many years. Now, with a sense that the day is waning, she has just as quietly issued her Selected Poems. We can read over in these few pages what she hopes we will keep of her gentle song, spun in an old-time garden by a firm heart heavy with nostalgia. Some of these poems are already familiar. The new ones have the same simplicity of speech and the same motifs: separation, loneliness,...

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Virginia R. McCormick (review date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of The Selected Poems of Lizette Woodworth Reese, in Catholic World, Vol. 124, No. 739, October, 1926, pp. 133-34.

[In the review below, McCormick commends Reese's poetry for its tone and restraint.]

Here is a volume reflecting credit upon both publisher and poet; the binding is dignified and durable, a combination rare in these days. The paper is of a rich and creamy loveliness and the print clear and definite, free from all typographical errors. So much for the mechanical technique!

The spirit of the book is the poetry between the covers, and since the spirit is Miss Reese it is triumphant, fearless, and sometimes militant!...

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William Rose Benet (review date 1927)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poets in Collected Editions,” in The Yale Review, Vol. XVII, No. 1, October, 1927, pp. 367-74.

[In the following review of Selected Poems, Benet states that although Reese is limited in her subjects, she writes her style of poetry well.]

Over twenty years ago a critic of poetry said of Miss Lizette Woodworth Reese, “To be rare and quaint without being fantastic, to have swift-conceiving fancy that turns into poetry the near-by thing that many overlook—this is Miss Reese's gift.” That remains true. Her Selected Poems are gathered together from small former volumes the titles of which are so indicative that I shall quote them, A Branch...

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Jean Starr Untermeyer (review date 1930)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lyric Veteran,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VII, No. 15, November 1, 1930, pp. 283-84.

[In the following review of White April, Untermeyer argues that the collection as a whole fails to indicate the importance and skill of Reese as a poet, although her stature is more apparent in select individual poems.]

It would be an ill thing for Lizette Woodworth Reese as well as for themselves if most of her readers should know her only by her latest book of poems, White April, embodying though it does many of her excellencies. Reading this book as a purely contemporaneous work, one could see at a glance its perfections and its...

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Eda Lou Walton (review date 1933)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Stripped but Permanent Few,” in The Nation (New York), Vol. 137, November 15, 1933, p. 571.

[In the following review of Pastures and Other Poems, Walton argues that while Reese's voice is not modern, her writing has such genius that she will appeal to the modern reader.]

Miss Reese is a “stripped” romantic, I suppose, if we must define her philosophy. But she is very like this, her own stanza:

A rich fragility was theirs,
Warm poverty of hue,
The little that is more than much,
The stripped, but permanent few.

Pastures and Other Poems is going to throw its modern readers into a deep nostalgia for the...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Louise Bogan (review date 1936)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Out of Memory,” in Poetry, Vol. XLIX, No. II, November, 1936, pp. 97-8.

[In the following review of The Old House in the Country, Bogan argues that despite the limited and repetitive subject matter, Reese's poetry is appealing because of its simplicity and poignance.]

Lizette Woodworth Reese's first book of poems, A Branch of May, was printed privately and parochially in Baltimore in 1887. Her beautiful long poem, Little Henrietta, appeared forty years later, in 1927. The Old House in the Country was written in 1913, and is given to us, according to Hervey Allen who writes a preface for it, in a more or less unrevised form. Miss...

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American Literature (review date 1937)

(Poetry Criticism)

American Literature (review date 1937)

SOURCE: Review of The Old House in the Country, in American Literature, Vol. 8, January, 1937, pp. 350-51.

[In the review below, the critic praises The Old House in the Country as among Reese's best writing.]

Unfinished though they are, these two posthumous works of Miss Reese, who died last December, are two of the best things she ever wrote. The Old House in the Country is a group of fifty-two poems written in a ten-line stanza resembling the sonnet. Written apparently in 1913, they contain vivid memories of Miss Reese's early life. For the most part, the poems read like finished...

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Carlin T. Kindilien (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Village World of Lizette Woodworth Reese,” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LVI, 1957, pp. 91-104.

[In the following essay, Kindilien provides in-depth analysis of Reese's literary devices and important themes in her poetry.]

The first volume of poetry written by Lizette Woodworth Reese appeared unheralded and without explanation in 1887, the year following the death of Emily Dickinson. Cutting through the ruling pattern in the direction selected by a later school of lyrists, she entered a literary scene in which she was to have a secure and merited place for the next half century. Paul Hamilton Hayne, Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth...

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Robert J. Jones (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in In Praise of Common Things: Lizette Woodworth Reese Revisited, edited by Robert J. Jones, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Jones provides an overview of Reese's life and career.]

In 1921, Lizette Woodworth Reese sent to the Saturday Review of Literature, along with Spicewood her small volume of poems, a short note. In it she wrote, “I am small, fair, grey, and good-humored. Also quick tempered. I love Life, and Beauty, and People.”1 It was a succinct summary of her personality, but did little to indicate her powers of observation and recall, her sensitivity, or the exquisite simplicity...

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Robert J. Jones (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: In Praise of Common Things: Lizette Woodworth Reese Revisited, edited by Robert J. Jones, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 184.

[In the following excerpt, Jones provides in-depth analysis of Reese's critical reception, use of language, and subject matter.]

It is easy to love spring, difficult to find someone who dislikes it. Spring was Lizette Reese's lifelong passion; April was its focal point of ecstasy and hope. It was an extravagant but understandable use of her poetic license which permitted her to write in the title sonnet of White April, “The orchard is a pool, wherein I drown”, whence “Dripping with April, April to the heart, / I run...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)

Wirth, Alexander C. “Introduction.” In Complete Bibliography of Lizette Woodworth Reese, pp. 5-6. Baltimore: The Proof Press, 1937.

Praises Reese's writing and predicts the future popularity of her poems.

Additional coverage of Reese's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group:Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 54.

(The entire section is 51 words.)