Louise Bogan Bogan, Louise (Vol. 93) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Louise Bogan 1897–1970

American poet, critic, editor, and translator.

The following entry provides an overview of Bogan's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 39, and 46.

A major American lyric poet whose darkly romantic verse is characterized by traditional poetic structures, concise language, and vivid description, Bogan is known particularly for her honest and austere rendering of emotion. Douglas L. Peterson noted that she wrote "mainly of highly personal and painful experience—of personal losses suffered through death and the betrayal of intimate and deeply valued personal relationships, of time passing and of her acute awareness of the fragility of all things caught in time." Bogan's work is often compared with the short lyrics of such seventeenth-century poets as Thomas Campion, John Dryden, and Ben Jonson, and she shares with these writers an emphasis on musicality and craftsmanship as well as a subdued sense of grief and despair. Also a distinguished critic who served as a poetry editor for the New Yorker from 1931 to 1970 and authored numerous works of literary criticism, Bogan is known for her exacting standards and her penetrating analyses of many of the major poets of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Born in Livermore Falls, Maine, Bogan's early life was marked by turbulence and instability. Her mother was prone to unpredictable and often violent behavior and would periodically abandon her family, sometimes to engage in extramarital affairs. By age eight Bogan had become what she once described as "the semblance of a girl, in which some desires and illusions had been early assassinated: shot dead." Bogan's father eventually moved the family to Boston, where she attended Girls' Latin School and was trained in Greek, Latin, and classical verse. She went on to attend Boston University, but left in 1916, after only one year, to marry a young soldier. Bogan entered this marriage in part to escape her unstable home life, but the relationship ended shortly after the birth of a daughter, Mathilde, in 1917; a 1925 marriage to Raymond Holden, managing editor of the New Yorker, also failed. Bogan went to New York City in 1919, where she became friends with such writers as William Carlos Williams, Margaret Mead, and Edmund Wilson. Her poems were first published in Poetry in 1921, and in 1923 her first collection, Body of This Death, was released. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Bogan experienced severe depression, for which she underwent psychoanalysis and was voluntarily institutionalized more than once. During this time she also began to experiment with prose, producing an autobi-ographical trilogy and writing stories and reviews for the New Yorker. Bogan won numerous awards during her lifetime, including a Guggenheim Foundation grant in 1933, the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1955, and the Creative Award from Brandeis University in 1962. She died in 1970. Extolling the significance of Bogan's verse at a memorial tribute, W. H. Auden stated: "What, aside from their technical excellence, is most impressive about her poems is the unflinching courage with which she faced her problems, her determination never to surrender to self-pity, but to wrest beauty and joy out of dark places."

Major Works

Bogan's first poetry collection, Body of This Death, concerns such themes as family, betrayal, the limitations of time and beauty, and the psychology of sexual conflict. In "Medusa," for example, Bogan describes the emotional and psychological impact of a traumatic childhood incident: "This is a dead scene forever now. / Nothing will ever stir. / The end will never brighten it more than this, / Nor the rain blur." Dark Summer (1929) gathers the most significant poems from Bogan's first book as well as several new poems. Progressing toward a more purely lyrical mode, the new pieces expand upon her concerns with love, betrayal, passion, and wisdom. Included among the new poems are "The Mark," "Come Break with Time," and "Seasonal Autumnal," works which Yvor Winters once stated would "demand … comparison with the best songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." The collection The Sleeping Fury (1937), Bogan's last whole book of original verse, contains some of her most highly regarded and frequently anthologized poems, including "Italian Morning," "Roman Fountain," and "Kept." Cheryl Walker has noted that The Sleeping Fury is "a volume in which [Bogan's] several conceptions of mind—as psyche, as intellect, and intuition—come together." Poems and New Poems (1941) comprises works gathered from Bogan's three previous books and a selection of sixteen new pieces in which she occasionally experiments with meter and rhyme. Bogan's most successful writing from her previous volumes appears with several new poems in Collected Poems, 1923–1953 (1954). The last volume of poetry Bogan published during her lifetime, The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923–1968 (1968), adds twelve pieces to Collected Poems. In addition to her poetry, Bogan published numerous volumes of literary criticism, including Achievement in American Poetry (1951), Selected Criticism (1955), and A Poet's Alphabet (1970); a collection of letters, What the Woman Lived (1973); and an autobiography, Journey around My Room (1980).

Critical Reception

Early in her career, Bogan received attention primarily for the technical expertise of her verse. In 1937 Allen Tate stated: "In addition to distinguished diction and a fine ear for the phrase-rhythm she has mastered a prosody that permits her to get the greatest effect out of the slightest variation of stress." Most critics have observed that later in her career Bogan expressed an increased concern with weighty psychological and emotional issues, particularly in an attempt to confront difficult personal themes relating to inner conflict. Bogan's verse is not identified with any particular poetic school or movement, and for this reason some commentators have asserted that she has received less extensive critical appraisal than she would have otherwise. Recent criticism has tended to focus on Bogan's poetic voice, her contributions to the development of feminine verse, and the complexity of her themes. Cheryl Walker has stated that "all we can state with certainty is that Louise Bogan succeeded in creating some superb lyrics. She never prostituted her talent and what she has left us has a granitic edge. If her opus is small, it is also durable." Reaction to Bogan's critical works has been favorable, with reviewers praising her knowledge, clarity, and comprehensiveness. One review of Achievement in American Poetry stated that "like all Miss Bogan's criticism, this book is full of acute, spirited, and authoritative judgments of writers and works, expressed with grace and wit." Bogan's collection of letters and autobiography, although posthumously published, were also well received, with critics noting they provide invaluable insights into Bogan's life and writings. Writing about Journey around My Room, William Pritchard has stated: "Louise Bogan wanted her poetry to stand alone, free from the facts of her biography though deeply informed by them. But this mosaic, in some of its juxtapositions of prose and poems, helped me to a sharper sense of how good a poet she could be."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Body of This Death (poetry) 1923
Dark Summer (poetry) 1929
The Sleeping Fury (poetry) 1937
Poems and New Poems (poetry) 1941
Achievement in American Poetry, 1900–1950 (criticism) 1951
Collected Poems, 1923–1953 (poetry) 1954
Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry (criticism) 1955
The Golden Journey: Poems for Young People [editor with William Jay Smith] (poetry) 1965
The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923–68 (poetry) 1968
A Poet's Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation (essays) 1970
What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan (letters) 1973
Journey around My Room: The Autobiography of Bogan, a Mosaic (autobiography) 1980

Allen Tate (review date Summer 1937)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Sleeping Fury, in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. 3, No. 1, Summer, 1937, pp. 190-92.

[Tate was an influential American critic who was closely associated with two critical movements, the Agrarians and the New Critics. In the following excerpt, he remarks favorably on The Sleeping Fury, commenting in particular on Bogan's poetic control and craftsmanship.]

Miss Louise Bogan has published three books, and with each book she has been getting a little better, until now, in the three or four best poems of The Sleeping Fury, she has no superior within her purpose and range: among the women poets of our time...

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Louise Bogan with Ruth Limmer (interview date Fall 1939)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Situation in American Writing: Seven Questions," in Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, edited by Martha Collins, G. K. Hall & Co., 1984, pp. 49-53.

[Limmer is an editor who compiled Bogan's A Poet's Alphabet and What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920–1970. The following is Bogan's response to a questionnaire that was submitted to a number of American writers; it was originally published in the Partisan Review in Fall 1939. Bogan comments on her writing, literary criticism, and American society.]

[Limmer]: Are you conscious, in your own writing, of the existence of a "usable past"? Is this mostly American?...

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Robert E. Spiller (review date March 1953)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Achievement in American Poetry, 1900–1950, in American Literature, Vol. XXV, No. 1, March, 1953, pp. 117-18.

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Richard Eberhart (review date 30 May 1954)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Common Charms from Deep Sources," in The New York Times Book Review, May 30, 1954, p. 6.

[Eberhart was an American poet, playwright, and educator. In the following review of Collected Poems, 1923–53, he praises the depth and forceful emotion of Bogan's work.]

Louise Bogan's poems adhere to the center of English with a dark lyrical force. What she has to say is important. How she says it is pleasing. She is a compulsive poet first, a stylist second. When compulsion and style meet we have a strong, inimitable Bogan poem.

There is relatively little technical innovation in her poems. She writes mainly in traditional verse forms, handled...

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Jean Starr Untermeyer (review date 24 December 1955)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Seasoning of Wit," in The Saturday Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 52, December 24, 1955, p. 24.

[Untermeyer was an American poet. In the review below, she lauds Selected Criticism.]

When one has read through Louise Bogan's Selected Criticism, seventy essays written over a period of twenty-five years and ranging through the whole of the contemporary literary terrain, with an occasional salute to the past (as in the case of Goethe's 200th birthday celebration), one feels this author possessed not so much of a point of view as a point of vantage—at the living center of the culture she has inherited and cherished and to which she has contributed. Secure,...

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Paul Ramsey (essay date Summer 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louise Bogan," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 116-24.

[Ramsey is an American educator, poet, critic, and novelist. In the following essay, he lauds Bogan's achievements as a lyric poet, stating "to say that some of her lyrics will last as long as English is spoken is to say too little."]

Louise Bogan is a great lyric poet.

Greatness in poetry is hard to discuss, especially in the lyric. It is comparatively easy to show that Bogan is a very good poet: powerful in feeling, surprising and chaste in diction, strong in structure, masterly in imagery and rhythm, important in themes; but greatness in the lyric is impact and...

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Thomas Lask (review date 31 October 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet as Critical Reader," in The New York Times, October 31, 1970, p. 27.

[In the review below, Lask praises A Poet's Alphabet, stating that "for a book of criticism, [Bogan's] volume is unusual in the amount of sheer reading pleasure it provides."]

Louise Bogan's critical pieces [in A Poet's Alphabet] come to us almost as from another age. Not that her subjects are dated. The list of poets reviewed could not be more contemporary. But her tone of civilized inquiry, her judgment that was both detached and involved, the complete absence of trivia and small talk and her desire only to engage the work at hand make her appear a sport in these days...

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Harry Morris (review date Autumn 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Poet's Alphabet, in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXX, No. 4, Autumn, 1972, pp. 627-29.

[In the following positive review of A Poet's Alphabet, Morris states that in this critical work Bogan "finds the strengths of her writers and emphasizes these in deft, bright, compact, and perceptive analyses."]

Louise Bogan is a poet who generates affectionate approval. Somewhat the same as for Caroline Gordon among the novelists, the feeling pervades that Miss Bogan never received the recognition due her work; and those who write about her verse go extra weight to correct the imbalance. I think especially of Paul Ramsey's loving essay which begins,...

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Katie Louchheim (review date February 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A True Inheritor," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 233, No. 2, February, 1974, pp. 90-2.

[Louchheim was an American poet, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following positive review of What the Woman Lived, she comments on Bogan's life and works.]

In a letter dated 1939, Louise Bogan expands an argument about Boswell and Johnson into a few epithets on life: "Aloneness is peculiar-making, to some extent, but not any more so … than lots of Togetherness I've seen."

Miss Bogan's aloneness was never peculiar, and always deliberate. A good deal of her seclusion was spent in carrying out one of her own dicta: "The least we can do, is to...

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William Maxwell (review date 29 November 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Life of Poetry and Suffering," in The New Republic, Vol. 183, No. 22, November 29, 1980, pp. 38-40.

[Maxwell was an American novelist, short story writer, and editor. In the following review of Journey around My Room, a volume edited by Ruth Limmer, he calls Limmer's work "a labor of love" and comments on Bogan's life and career.]

At two different periods in her life Louise Bogan kept a journal, most of which was published in the New Yorker, in the issue of January 30, 1980. Drawing on this, and on her letters, poems, stories, literary criticism, and conversation, Ruth Limmer has made a narrative mosaic that she calls the autobiography of...

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Robert B. Shaw (review date 27 December 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Life-Saving Process,'" in The Nation, New York, Vol. 231, No. 22, December 27, 1980, pp. 710-12.

[Shaw is an American poet, educator, and editor whose works include The Wonder of Seeing Double (1988). Below, he provides an overview of Journey around My Room, discussing in particular Bogan's difficult life.]

Every part of the subtitle of this book [Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan, A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer] deserves comment. Louise Bogan, the well-known poet and critic who died at age 72 in 1970, never completed what in conventional terms could be called an autobiography. "Mosaic" is an apt word for this...

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William Pritchard (review date 4 January 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pieces of Private Feeling," in The New York Times Book Review, January 4, 1981, pp. 4, 24.

[Pritchard is an American critic, educator, and editor. In the following positive review of Journey around My Room, he states that "this mosaic … helped me to a sharper sense of how good a poet [Bogan] could be."]

For years the name Louise Bogan meant for me an accomplished minor poet who did lots of reviewing for The New Yorker; then in 1973, three years after her death, her literary executor and friend, Ruth Limmer, brought out a volume of her letters, [Journey Around My Room] sensitively edited and introduced. No one could read these through...

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Carol Moldaw (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Form, Feeling, and Nature: Aspects of Harmony in the Poetry of Louise Bogan," in Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, edited by Martha Collins, G.K. Hall & Co., 1984, pp. 180-94.

[In the following essay, Moldaw examines Bogan's aesthetic principles and style.]

Like T. S. Eliot, and unlike William Carlos Williams, in answer to whom she wrote the essay "On the Pleasures of Formal Poetry," Louise Bogan believed that verse is never free. For her, the music and meaning of a poem are indissoluble, and the experience which inspires a poem must be transformed in order to become a work of art:

"unadulterated life" must be...

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Donna Dorian (review date Spring-Summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Knowledge Puffeth Up," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1985, pp. 144-59.

[In the following review of The Blue Estuaries, Dorian discusses themes of anger, fear, and womanhood in Bogan's poetry, arguing that "Bogan chose an archetypal perspective which enabled her to circumscribe the demands of narrative, to avoid the culturally accepted gestures of female identity."]

For Louise Bogan, writing wove a lifeline, a silver cord between heaven and hell. No longer plucking self-knowledge from the tree, she reached for the branches of song. How difficult that aspiration when one considers how long women have been punished for the...

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Elizabeth Frank (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Leaf-Caught World," in Louise Bogan: A Portrait, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, pp. 108-30.

[In the following excerpt, Frank analyzes the poems collected in Dark Summer.]

The poems in Dark Summer are arranged in a loosely chronological sequence. The first section contains poems published for the most part between 1924 and 1927, and is followed by a section devoted to "The Flume," the long poem written in the summer of 1924. The third section consists of a selection of poems from Body of This Death, and is followed by a group of poems "in a later mood." The final section is again devoted to a single long poem, "Summer Wish," which Bogan finished just...

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Gloria Bowles (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Authority of Male Tradition," in Louise Bogan's Aesthetic of Limitation, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 19-33.

[In the following excerpt, Bowles examines the influence of the Symbolists, the Metaphysicals, W. B. Yeats, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on Bogan's artistic development.]

[T]he historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

—T. S. Eliot, "Tradition...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Knox, Claire E. Louise Bogan: A Reference Source. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1990, 315 p.

Annotated guide to works by and about Bogan.


Bowles, Gloria. "Louise Bogan: To Be (or Not To Be?) Woman Poet." Women's Studies 5 (1977): 131-35.

Argues that Bogan's criticism, letters, and poetry evince an ambivalent and contradictory attitude toward womanhood.

Ciardi, John. "Two Nuns and a Strolling Player." The Nation, New York, 178, No. 21 (22 May 1954): 445-46.


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