Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Elinor Wylie lived in those regions of the spirit where only poets and saints are allowed to enter, saw life as a harsh riddle, and withdrew from a material world to concentrate on the intense, personal drama inside herself. Within the diminished mirror of her own mind she viewed men and landscapes, weaving in her small tapestries the record of man’s doom. Her exile guarded her from the inhumanity of life. She sketched ardent and somber portraits with firm lines.

Elinor Wylie appeared late upon the literary scene, for she was thirty-five when her first book of poems was published. She had written poetry before, but these were collected in a limited edition which was sent only to her intimates and family friends. Meanwhile she was publishing poems in various magazines and early in 1921, at the request of a publishing company, she assembled her first book of poetry, which was published later that year as NETS TO CATCH THE WIND. But publishing poetry is not a lucrative business and she began writing magazine sketches.

Her personality was contradictory, her moods fleeting and intense. One critic compared her to iced chalk, for she could be high-handed and aloof. But she could also be friendly and generous, almost childish in her delight in simple things. Like her writing, her speech revealed the wit and vigor of her mind. She had become a figure of literary legend when in 1923 she married William Rose Benet. That same year she published her second book of poems, BLACK ARMOUR, and her first novel, JENNIFER LORN.

Seventeenth century writers were the source of Elinor Wylie’s wit. She loved and admired a mind partly critical, partly imaginative, wholly subtle and ironic in its perceptions of life. Her wit is evidenced by her use of subtle thought, aristocratic scorn, the sharpened epithets, and an imagery of symbolic birds and beasts, jeweled metals, rare, exotic things of this world. These are also the lyric gifts which add sharp, dry precision to the poetry of John Donne. Like him and other metaphysical poets, she inhabited countries of the imagination. The grave was her answer to the problem of desire. She received from Donne the pride and courage of a lively mind, an instrument to use against the world’s inhumanity and man’s desire of the flesh. Thus, even if diaster strikes, the brave spirit may still preserve its own integrity.

Dante was a great metaphysical poet, as were Donne, Webster, Blake, and Emily Dickinson. To analyze or define metaphysical verse is difficult, for its aesthetic principles are based upon a system which exhibits all the precision of logic while being contained in its own imaginative wildness. This type of poetry is a literary culture which has appeared in every age in slightly different form and is based on passion and intelligence. God and the universe and the human soul lie beyond the physical world and it is in this area that metaphysical poetry attempts to express meaning in symbols of the poet’s imagination and to relate all human experience to the one great cycle of life, death, and immortality. For that reason life becomes a pattern which the poet uses to create the solid and essential fact. An image which becomes the exact likeness of both thought and feeling is one of the most characteristic devices of metaphysical poetry. By use of this image the poet’s experience becomes objective so that thought and emotion assume a new vitality of imaginative concentration. The element of surprise is another device provided by the association of apparently unrelated objects to suggest a wider range of experience than these objects commonly reveal in real life. Thus Elinor Wylie belongs to the tradition of older writers she admired, poets who used abstract ecstasy of thought and emotion as an approach to essential truths of the spirit. Her work, although original, is not free from the succession of literature.

She was extremely sensitive to the powers contained in language. The quality of her prose reflected the quality of her poetry, for actually her prose was poetic in its style and effects. She...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)