Elinor Wylie: A Sordid Life
A Private Madness: The Genius of Elinor Wylie
A useful biography of this unique poet.
Brief Biographical Sketch
Born on September 7, 1885, in New Jersey, Elinor Hoyt later disparaged her home state, but she felt vindicated that her family was originally from Pennsylvania. Her family relocated to Washington, D.C. when Elinor was twelve years old. Her father was appointed Solicitor General of the United States by President Theodore Roosevelt.
In Washington, D.C., she attended private schools; she graduated from high school in 1904. Two years after high school, Elinor married Philip Hichborn, who was an abusive man. Her mother did not approve of divorce, so Elinor stayed with Hichborn much longer than she should have. After the untimely death of her father, she finally decided to end her marriage to Hichborn. She and Hichborn had one son.
Instead of divorcing Hichborn, however, she simply abandoned both him and her child and left with Horace Wylie. Wylie, who was a lawyer, was seventeen years her senior, married with three children. Wylie had the peculiar habit of following Elinor when she shopped or was just out walking. They left Washington together and went to England, where they lived until World War I began.
Benet Encourages Her Literary Career
After their return to the United States, Elinor grew dissatisfied with Horace Wylie, and when she met William Rose Benet, she was again enamored, especially because of his literary connections. He encouraged her writing.
With Benet's help, Elinor relocated to New York City and published her book of poems, Nets to Catch the Wind. She then secured a position as literary editor of Vanity Fair. In 1923, she published a novel titled Jennifer Lorn.
She continued to publish poetry collections and novels. She had a wide following that Thomas Wolfe called cultish. Such disparagement, however, could detract from the celebrity she enjoyed during the 1920s. She published widely, her poems appearing the important literary journals in America and England; New Yorker, The Century, The New Republic, and The Saturday Review—all published her poems regularly. Elinor Wylie died of a stroke on December 16, 1928.
Poetry Worth a Second Look
Elinor and Edna St. Vincent Millay were good friends. The late Kurt Cobain supposedly had placed some of Elinor's line in his journal. He was, no doubt, attracted by her more gloomy verses. Even though her poetry is out of fashion, it is actually more interesting and attractive than the sordid life she lived.
"The Puritan Sonnet"
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There's something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There's something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves;
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom's breath,
Summer, so much too beautiful to stay;
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
A Petrarchan Sonnet
Wylie's "The Puritan Sonnet" is a Petrarchan sonnet and offers a finely crafted worthwhile experience. The octave's first two lines bravely and brazenly declare, "Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones / There's something in this richness that I hate." Then she claims, "I love the look, austere, immaculate, / Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones."
After declaring a hatred of richness, she lovingly and masterfully delineates the "sparseness" of things that she loves.
The sestet continues portraying those things she loves: "skies, thin blue or snowy gray," "fields, sparse planted, rendering meager sheaves," and then she runs straight through the seasons, pointing out the most important "puritan" feature without which that season would not be itself: spring: "briefer than the apple-blossom's breath"; summer: "so much too beautiful to stay"; autumn: "like a bonfire of leaves"; and winter: "like the sleep of death." She crystallizes the brevity that bestows beauty on all of these natural phenomena.
Reading of Wylie's "Pretty Words"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes