Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.
"The Puritan Sonnet": A Poem Worth a Second Look
Elinor Wylie 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.
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 the speaker’s Puritan heritage along with her disdain of that heritage. But the speaker offers a positive note, asserting that she loves how landscapes look with their "austere, immaculate" and "pearly monotones. Thus, 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: the sky when it boasts tone of "thin blue or snowy gray," and fields after harvest when they sport "meager sheaves." The speaker then runs straight through the seasons, pointing out the most important "puritan" feature without which that season would not be itself: spring which is so short that is may be likened to the breath of an "apple-blossom."
The speaker then describes summer as having so much beauty that is also remains a brief period of time. For this speaker, the fall season itself is like a "bonfire of leaves" that often dot the landscape during that period. She then notes that winter simply resembles the "sleep of death."
In this poem, the poet has created a speaker who crystallizes the notion of brevity, and she finds that in those brief periods of time great beauty is bestowed on all of these natural phenomena. Thus, while the speaker may hate and find discomfiting a certain level of richness in her heritage, she shows that she doesn’t not fail to appreciate the qualities that bestow beauty in her environs.
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.
William Rose Benét 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.
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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 and Edna St. Vincent Millay were good friends. Millay composed a long poem, "Song for a Lute," dedicated to Wylie, which Millay began writing in 1937 and did not complete until after Wylie’s death in 1938. The poem stands as a unique tribute from poet to another.
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. In his notebook, he had copied out lines from her poems that appealed to him.
Even though her poetry is out of fashion, it is actually more interesting and attractive than the sordid life she lived. Her poetry remains her best legacy, and her genius shines in her best verse.
All of her adult life, Wylie had suffered from high blood pressure and painfully severe migraine headaches. These maladies likely contributed to the stroke she suffered on December 16, 1928, after which she died. She is interred at Forty Fort Cemetery, Forty Fort, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
- Editors. "Elinor Wylie." Poetry Foundation. Accessed June 1, 2020.
- Grace Schulman. "Beautiful Poet." New York Times. February 11, 1979.
- Tim Appelo. "Desire to Burn." Poetry Foundation. Accessed June 6, 2021.
- Editors. "Wylie, Elinor (1885-1928)." Encyclopedia.com. Accessed June 6, 2021.
Reading of Wylie's "Pretty Words"
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes
Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 17, 2016:
Thank you, Stella, Lady with the Guitar! Wylie was a fascinating character, and clearly a fine craftsman.
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on December 17, 2016:
Wow, that was great!