Collected Poems of Elinor Wylie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.50.
Every book is in some sort a mask of its author, and the volume of Elinor Wylie’s collected poems presents a living one. She delighted to paint lyric portraits of the artist—there are at least half a dozen of them here—and they differ one from another even less than do the two photographic likenesses of her, one early and one late, which recall the arrogant head, the ironic mouth, and the half-sorrowful perceptive eyes. It is scarcely to be doubted that the “Proud Lady” whom she addressed in one of her first poems was one with whom she carried on daily dialogues in her own mirror, and it is curious to note how in the successive pictures she accentuated those lines which rendered the face proud. “Fanatical in pride,” she says of herself in one of her last pieces, and the magnificent “Birthday Sonnet” composed just before her death is in essence a testament to that fanaticism:
Take home Thy prodigal child, O Lord of Hosts! Protect the sacred from the secular danger; Advise her, that Thou never needst avenge her; Marry her mind neither to man’s nor ghost’s Nor holier domination’s, if the costs Of such commingling should transport or change her; Defend her from familiar and stranger And earth’s and air’s contagions and rusts.
Instruct her strictly to preserve Thy gift And alter not its grain in atom sort; Angels may wed her to their ultimate hurt And men embrace a spectre in a shift So that no drop of the pure spirit fall Into the dust: defend Thy prodigal.
One sees her turning toward death, which she never feared, as the benign savior of that which she chiefly valued: her own integrity. The same sentiment is expressed more plainly in a hitherto unpublished poetical epistle, also written shortly before her end: “And while I live,” she says, I’ll
”. . . scratch in earth: Integer Vitae; And: Dolce Mors upon the dust.”
This strong sense of what she owed herself is written all over these poems. As she owed it to her beauty to keep polished and fine the bronze of her hair, so she owed it to her art to keep lustrous and sharp the “smooth words,” the “bright words,” the “honied words . . . Gilded and sticky, with a little sting,” which were its instruments. Death was sweet, sleep was sweet, flight was essential—her first book of verse, “Nets to Catch the Wind,” is almost one uninterrupted cry to escape—but while she lived she must walk “like the wind,” poised and swift and strong.
Her gift found strangely tardy expression. She seems to have reached at a stride, as a mature woman, the fullness of her powers. She did not develop them, simply because she had at the outset a fine sensibility, a complete command of her medium, and a sufficiently various experience with which to work. The one unmatched achievement of her last years was the sequence of love sonnets contained in “Angels and Earthly Creatures.” But even these, while marking the highest point in her accomplishment, do not substantially differ from the poems which preceded them. An instructed sensuousness, a superb technical facility, a pleasure in the pursuits of the mind, are evident in all her work. In these sonnets there is a new sharp note of passion. But if the poet’s nature has altered, her means have not.
One is always beset, when a poet dies as Elinor Wylie did, in the full flower of her talent, by the question: Of what poems may this death have cheated the world? That world when she left it, though desperate enough, was yet not as much of a chaos as it is now, four years later. Indeed, “Doomsday,” a piece not before included in any collection, shows the poet playing Cassandra to our Troy, for the poem describes the sound she hears, feeling that “The end of everything approaches.” The clamor is
“Loud as the ultimate loud clarion Or the first murther.”
It is also, to her delicate fancy, “Loud as the wheels of painted coaches.” An earlier poem, one of her most memorable, reiterates: “Go stud)’ to disdain the frail, the over-fine. . . . Distrust the exquisite.” But if she sought a naive and savage strength, hers was too complex and refined a nature to achieve it, and one cannot believe that she would have faced a more palpable Doomsday with any greater adequacy than she faced the imagined one. Her “Birthday Sonnet” shows a weird wisdom. She cried out for refuge: from the world, and the flesh, yes, and from the dimly guessed fate which threatened the civilization she knew and loved. She cried out, in syllables of a silver purity, for defense, and in her death she found it.