The Ever-Enigmatic Ezra Pound: From Foreign Languages to Fascism

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Does anyone know how hard it is to get a hold of Ezra Pound’s Cantos? I mean, they don’t even have the damn thing on eBook and they have everything on eBook these days. Since I have boycotted Amazon for their unacceptable treatment of Hachette, the less popular titles I’m after have started to seem less attainable. (While Amazon is a nasty monopoly who is literally squeezing money out of the fragile publishing industry, they have an unparalleled selection.) But as a principled book buyer, I went to Strand, talked to a human, ordered the book, waited two days (agony), and picked it up. I sort of felt like Ezra Pound was playing hard to get.

I liked Ezra Pound ever since I read this quote: “Use either no ornament or good ornament.” I’m entirely guilty of the occasional mediocre ornament, but this simple, straightforward statement on writing made me feel an immediate kinship with him. Then I started reading his biography…

Ezra Pound was a fascist. He supported Hitler and Mussolini, wrote for fascist publications, and was prosecuted as a traitor of the United States of America. How could I possibly like a poet like that!?

But that raises the question, do you have approve of the artist to like the art?

The recent Wood Allen Controversy has made many avid fans answer this question. After his stepdaughter, Dylan Farrow came forward with an open letter accusing Allen of sexual abuse, fans and colleagues had to decide if this mattered. Are Allen’s films now ruined because he’s a bad person? People don’t argue if Allen’s films are good. Everyone knows they are. But does his personal life change the way we feel about them?

I decided I could live with Ezra Pound’s political past, separate the poems from the poet. The poems are good. Undeniably good, but they’re also pretentious and alienating. Pound alludes to obscure figures in classical mythology and switches without warning into Italian and Greek. The reader gets the feeling that he’s got something to prove. I wish my hard-to-get copy was footnoted, but even without fully understanding the content of Pound’s poems I am still drawn to them. I sit in my room, reading the poems aloud, feeling delight at the lines that are just perfect. Below is my favorite Canto thus far.

 

Canto V

Great bulk, huge mass, thesaurus;

Ecbatan, the clock ticks and fades out

The bride awaiting the god’s tough; Ecbatan

City of patterned streets; again the vision:

Down in the viae stradae, toga’d the crowd, and arme’d,

Rushing on the populous business,

And from parapet looked down

And North was Egypt

The celestial Nile, blue deep

Cutting low barren land,

Old men and camels

Working the water-wheels;

Iamblichus’ light,

The souls ascending

Sparks like a partridge covey,

Like the “ciocco”, brand struck in the game.

“Et omniformis”: Air, fire, the pale soft light.

Topaz I manage, and three sorts of blue;

But on the barb of time.

The fire? Always, and the vision always,

Ear dull, perhaps, with the vision, flitting

And fading at will.     Weaving with points of gold,

Gold-yellow, saffron…     The roman shoe, Aurunculeia’s

And come shuffling feet, and cries “Da nuces!

“Nuces!” praise, and Hymenaeus “brings the girl to her man”

Or “here Suxtus had seen her.”

Titter of sound about me, always

And from “Hesperus…”

Hush of the older song: “Fades light from sea-crest,

“And in Lydia walks with pair’d women

“Peerless among the pairs, that ones in Sardis

“In satieties…

Fades the light from the sea, and many things

“Are set abroad and brought to mind of thee”

And the vinestocks lie untended, new leaves come one the shoots,

North wind nips on the bough, and seas in heart

Toss up chill crests,

And the vine stocks lie untended

And many things are set abroad and brought to mind

Of thee, Atthis, unfruitful.

The talks ran long into the night.

And from Mauleon, fresh with a new earned grade,

In maze of approaching rain-steps, Poicebot—

The air was full of women,

And Savairic Mauleon

Gave him his land and knight’s fee, and he wed the woman.

Came lust of travel on him, of romerya;

And out of England a knight with slow-lifting eyelids

Lei fassa furar a del, put glamour upon her…

And left her an eight months gone

“Came lust of women upon him,”

Poicebot, now on north road from Spain

(Sea-change, a grey in the water)

And in small house by town’s edge

Found a woman, changed and familiar face;

Hard night, and parting at morning.

 

And Pieire won the singing, Pieire de Maensac,

Song or land on the throw, and was dreitz hom

And had De Tierci’s wife and with the war they made:

Troy in Auvergnat

While Menelaus piled up the curch at port

He kept Tyndarida.   Dauphin stood with de Maensac.

 

John Borgia is bathed at last.           (Clock-tick pierces the vision)

Tiber, dark with the cloak, wet cat gleaming in patches.

Click of the hooves, through garbage,

Clutching the greasy stone. “And the clock floated.”

Slander is up betimes.

But Varchi of Florence,

Steeped in a different year, and pondering Brutus,

Then Σιγα μαλ ανΘις σεντεραν!

“Dog-eye!!”” (to Alessandro)

“Whether for love of Florence,” Varchi leaves it,

Saying  “I saw the man, came up with him at Venice,

“I, one wanting the facts,

“And no means labor… Or for a privy spite?”

Our Benedetto leaves it,

O empia? For Lorenzaccio had thought of stroke in the open

But uncertain (for the Duke went never unguarded)

“And would have thrown him from the wall

“Yet feared this might not end him,” or lest Alessandro

Know not by whom death came, O se credesse

“If when the foot slipped, when death came upon him,

“Lest cousin Duke Alessandro think he had fallen alone,

“No friend to aid him falling.”

Caina attende.

The lake of ice there below me.

And all of this, runs Varchi, dreamed out beforehand

In Perugia, caught in the star-maze by Del Carmine,

Cast on a natal paper, set with an exegesis, told,

All told to Alessandro, told thrice over,

Who held his death for a doom.

In abuleia.      But Don Lorenzino

Whether for love of Florence…but

“O se morisse, credesse caduto da sé”

Σιγα σιγα

Schiavoni, caught on the wood-barge,

Gives out the afterbirth, Giovanni Borgia,

Trails out no more at nights, where Barabello

Prods the Pope’s elephant, and gets no crown, where Mozarello

Takes the Calabrian roadway, and for ending

Is smothered beneath a mule,

a poet’s ending,

Down a stale well-hole, oh a poet’s ending.           “Sanazarro

“Alone out of all the court was faithful to him”

For the gossip of Naples’ trouble drifts to North,

Fracastor (lightning was midwife) Cotta, and Ser D’Alviano,

Al poco giorno ed al gran cerchio d’ombra,

Talk the talks out with Navighero,

Burner of yearly Martials

(The slavelet is nourned in vain)

And the next comer says “Were nine wounds,

“Four men, white hourse. Held on the saddle before him…”

Hooves clink and slick on the cobbles.

Schiavoni…cloak… “Sink the damn thing!”

Splash wakes that chap on the wood-barge.

Tiber catching the nap, the moonlit velvet,

A wet cat gleaming in patches.

“Se pia,” Varchi,

“O empia, ma risoluto

“E terribile deliberazione.”

Both sayings rule in the wine,

Ma se morisse!

Edith Wharton: Seven Facts Outside Fiction

Interesting Literature

By Viola van de Sandt

Edith Wharton’s most famous novels – among them The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911), and The Age of Innocence (1920) – have earned her a steadfast place within the modern-day canon of American literature. Yet some of the most interesting and provocative instances of her writing are also to be found in her letters, notes, and memoirs.

1. Wharton noted down every witty statement that came to her mind in a book of epigrams, some of which eventually found their way into her novels or short stories. Among them are classic quotes such as ‘For always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman,’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Wetherall’s circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list.’

2. The House of Mirth caused a huge scandal at the time of its serial publication between…

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Personism: A Manifesto by (my boyfriend) Frank O’Hara (1961)

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Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make an elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”

That’s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose that you’re in love and someone’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, “Hey, you can’t treat me this way, I care!” you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang on to life, so you have to take your chances and avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.

But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means or it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked mean, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: If you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is “yearning”.

Abstraction in poetry, which Allen recently commented in in It is, it is intriguing. I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. Abstraction (in poetry, not in painting ) involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between the “nostalgia of the infinite” and the and “the nostalgia for the infinite” defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé). Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody know about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that is vermin on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poésie pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! but to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.  That’s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blonde). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only jus that poetry finish literature off. For a time people thought that Artaud was going to accomplish this, but actually, for all their magnificence, his polemical writings are not more outside literature than Bear Mountain is outside New York State. His relation is no more astounding than Debuffet’s to painting.

What can we expect of personism? (This is getting good isn’t it?) Everything, but we won’t get it. It is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything. But it, like Africa, is on the way. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.

Care Less, Love More: Edith Wharton’s Disconnected Perspective in “The Mission of Jane”

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Wharton and James both consistently employ the narrative perspective of a somewhat disconnected outsider, a character that acts as a loosely involved observer.  Characters like James’s Ralph Touchett and Frederick Winterbourne and Wharton’s Lawrence Selden all claim this role, remaining emotionally aloof while still observing the protagonists.  In Wharton’s “The Mission of Jane,” Mr. Lethbury undertakes this role, and thus the story is told from his point of view. Though the narration is in the third person, Lethbury’s thoughts, emotions and observations are communicated to the reader, making his point of view the one with which the reader is most closely aligned. This narrative technique furthers the eeriness of “The Mission of Jane,” because the reader is able to observe the peculiar Jane quite objectively, and allows the reader to see the gradual shift toward love in the Lethburys’ relationship.

The use of Lethbury’s point of view allows the story to be told objectively and reliably. Because Lethbury is emotionally detached from both his wife initially and his adopted daughter, he is able to observe them without emotional involvement, providing the reader with an unbiased account.  Lethbury did not have any desire for a child, while Mrs. Lethbury ached for one. Even after the child is adopted Lethbury had not accepted the fact that he was now the father of Jane. While Mrs. Lethbuty, “had gradually expanded her assumption of motherhood till it included his own share in the relation,” he remains surprised when, “he suddenly found himself as the father of Jane.” (421) If “The Mission of Jane” had been told from Mrs. Lethbury’s perspective, the story would be an entirely different one. Though Mrs. Lethbury is not Jane’s biological mother, there is still an unmistakable, almost physical connection between the two. Mrs. Lethbury is inextricably tied up within Jane, and would be entirely unable to judge her impartially. “She was no longer herself alone: she was herself and Jane.” (422) Lethbury’s physical and emotional detachment makes him the most objective and reliable narrator.

Because Lethbury is detached, the reader is able to view Jane without the sometimes-deceiving lens of parental love. This lack of rose-colored glasses shows Jane in an unnatural, almost robotic light. Even in her infancy Jane appears abnormal, “Jane contributed to them only a placid stare which might have served as a rebuke to the combatants.” (421) The use of the world rebuke paired with the agent of an infant is certainly abnormal and already warns the reader to be wary of Jane. This sentence is surely one of the “sign-posts” Wharton mentions in her piece, “Telling a Short Story” where she says, “One of the chief obligations, in a short story, is to give the reader an immediate sense of security. Every phrase should be a sign-post and never (unless intentionally) a misleading one: the reader must feel that he can trust to their guidance.” (37) Her oddity continues as a child. As Mr. Lethbury tries to educate Jane he is at first impressed by her intelligence. He soon realizes however that, “Her young mind remained a mere receptacle for facts: a kind of cold-storage from which anything which had been put there could be taken out at a moment’s notice, intact but congealed.” (424) The image of Jane’s mind as a sort of meat locker that congeals facts dehumanizes her further, making her seem lifeless yet functioning: an almost robotic character. She becomes more sinister as she flaunts her curdled scraps of information. “She was overhead to jeer at her nurse for not knowing when the Saxon Heptarchy had fallen, and she alternately dazzled and depressed Mrs. Lethbury by the wealth of her chronological allusions.” (424) Jane’s capacity for cruelty is observed and noted by Mr. Lethbury, though he is not a victim of her ridicule. It is perhaps this detachment that allows Lethbury to note the mocking tone of Jane’s boasting.

In Wharton’s section on ghost stories in “Telling A Short Story” she reveals her technique of telling a horror story:

When the reader’s confidence is gained the next rule of the game is to avoid distracting and splintering up his attention. Many a would-be tale of horror becomes very innocuous through the very multiplication and variety of its horrors…Once the preliminary horror posited, it is the harping on the same string—the same nerve—that does the trick. Quiet iteration is far more racking than diversified assaults; the expected is more frightful than the unforeseen. (40)

This illuminates why Jane is so eerie. She never develops or changes, but remains consistently impassive and unmoved. When she receives a marriage proposal from the worthy Mr. Budd, she tells her mother she needs time to think it over. Jane is incapable of an emotional response. After she is warned, “a young man of Mr. Budd’s impulsive temperament might—might be easily discouraged—” (429) she is undaunted and “she said that if she was worth winning she was worth waiting for.” (429) Jane is able to be this enduring, only because she would be indifferent if Mr. Budd abandoned her. The consistent repetition of Jane’s apathetic behavior is much creepier than her sprouting multiple heads or eating Mrs. Lethbury. Wharton’s theory proves accurate in relation to Jane. Her consistency is much eerier than an escalation of her behavior.

Interestingly, the use of Lethbury’s point of view only allows him and Mrs. Lethbury to speak throughout the story. Jane, who is in some ways the centerpiece of the story only has one line on the final page, “I can’t leave you!” (432) The rest of the story only includes dialogue between Lethbury and Mrs. Lethbury.  This reveals that Mrs. Lethbury is possibly the only voice that Mr. Lethbury hears, despite the perceived distance of their marriage in the beginning in the story.

The detached narrative style also allows the reader to see the gradual shift in the Lethbury’s marriage. At the beginning of the story they are two strangers who are incredibly accustomed to each other. He enjoys observing her, yet he really knows nothing of her desires. When she declares she wants a baby, he realizes how little he really knows her. “’You’ve been lonely, I suppose?’ he began. It was odd having suddenly to reckon with the stranger who gazed at him out of her trivial eyes.” (417) As the story progresses Lethbury’s attitude and tone seem to soften, not toward his adoptive daughter, but toward his wife. “For Mrs. Lethbury was undoubtedly happy for the first time in years; and the thought that he had tardily contributed to this end reconciled him to the irony of the means.” (421) As Jane begins to be cruel to his wife, Lethbury has to restrain himself from jumping to her defense. “He even began to feel a personal stake in the pursuit, not as it concerned Jane but as it affected his wife. He saw that the latter was the victim of Jane’s disappointment: that Jane was not above the crude satisfaction of ‘taking it out’ of her mother. Experience checked the impulse to come to his wife’s defense.” (426) He most resents Jane for the amount of suffering she inflicts on Mrs. Lethbury.  He even realizes with an indignant exclamation, “And yet it was his wife who had suffered most from Jane!” (431) Because Lethbury doesn’t seem to be aware of his own growing affection for his wife, the reader experiences Lethbury’s realization of his love for his wife at the end of the story. After Jane’s single death rattle of a line “I can’t leave you!” (432) the reader is filled with apprehension. Is she really gone? As Mr. Budd drags her away; the reader cannot help but sigh with relief that the Lethburys have finally ridded themselves of Jane. In the shocking deliverance from their adopted daughter, the couple finally notices each other again:

As he turned toward her, he noticed the tired look of heroism in her eyes, the deepened lines of her face…He went up to her, and an answering impulse made her lay a hand on his arm.

“Let us go off and have a jolly little dinner at a restaurant,” he proposed.

There had been a time when such a suggestion would have surprised her to the verge of disapproval; but now she agreed to it at once.

“Oh, that would be so nice,” she murmured with a great sign of relief and assuagement. (432)

The following line, “Jane had fulfilled her mission after all: she had drawn them together at last” (432) seems almost a “sign-post” in the middle of a straight road. It tells what has already been effectively shown in the story. Wharton perhaps underestimates the perceptiveness of her readers.

Ironically, it is Jane’s courtship that distracts the reader from the consistently growing bond between husband and wife. The traditional love story diverts the reader from the much more realistic one that is occurring in the meantime. This is perhaps one of Wharton’s intentionally misleading sign-posts. In “Telling a Short Story” Wharton says, “The chief technical difference between the short story and the novel may therefore be summed up by saying that the situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel.” (48) Though the characters are certainly not developed enough for a novel, the renewed love between the Lethburys by means of their bizarre adopted daughter is rendered beautifully. It is certainly the situation rather than the characters that drives “The Mission of Jane.”

The use of Mr. Lethbury’s point of view to narrate “The Mission of Jane” has several effects on the readers understanding of the story. The reader is able to see Jane objectively through the eyes of her emotionally detached adoptive father, making the reader aware of her oddity. In addition to the he objective rendering of Jane, the reader is also able to participate in Lethbury’s renewed love in his wife. His lack of awareness of his own developing feelings despite the subtle evidence to support that, combined with the skillful distractions and detours put in place by Wharton, put us in a position to be as surprised and natural as the Lethburys themselves.

Edith Wharton and the Marriage Plot

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Wharton was not lucky in love. Her parents had little confidence in her feminine wiles, thinking her too shy and intelligent, and thus undesirable for marriage. (Lee, 58)  Her engagement to Henry Leyden Stevens was announced in August of 1882 when she was twenty and publicly broken in October of that same year in the publication Town Topics. The piece said, “The only reason for the breaking of the engagement…is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride.” (Lee, 61-62) While there is little evidence to confirm or dismiss Edith’s romantic feelings for Stevens, it is obvious that the failed engagement was a source of mortification for both Edith and her family. The public exposure of the couple’s split coincides with the failure of her father’s health, and it can be inferred that embarrassment at least hastened his decline. This humiliation also partially explains Edith’s rushed marriage to Edward Wharton. (Lee, 63)

In the summer of 1883, Wharton met Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, for whom she cherished an intellectual love. She describes her first few weeks with him as, “a fleeting hint of what the communion of kindred intelligences might be.” (Lee, 64) Though the couple was never engaged, they maintained a close and loving friendship after Wharton’s marriage to Teddy Wharton, one that is somewhat tinged with regret. In a letter to Wharton from Berry, he intimates, “Well, my dear, I’ve never ‘wondered’ about anyone else, and there wouldn’t be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is yours, dear. W” (Lee, 65) It is perhaps this relationship that informs the impossible loves of some of her protagonists especially that of Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth.

Their budding romance was cut short, however, by the bewildering disappearance of Walter Berry that summer, which allowed Wharton’s future husband, Teddy to enter the scene. Teddy Wharton had none of the intellectual appeal of Walter Berry; however, he was attractive and from a decent family. Edith was certainly vulnerable after her failed romances with two men, and still stinging from the public humiliation of a broken engagement. It is therefore not surprising that Wharton accepted Teddy in all of his masculine, sporty glory. She was also twenty-four, nearing the age beyond which it would become increasingly difficult to be married. (Lewis, 52) It is not a stretch to compare Lily Bart’s consideration of Rosedale with Wharton’s acceptance of Teddy. Both women were older and in need of a husband, vulnerable from failed romances with men they loved.

Their marriage was not a particularly happy one, causing Edith to seek other relationships outside of her marriage. In addition to her intimate correspondence with Walter Berry, Wharton also began a passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, a friend of Henry James, in 1907. Wharton had limited sexual experience, thus this relationship was her awakening to her own sexual feelings. Though the affair was short lived, Wharton’s surviving letters to Fullerton reveal the fervent infatuation she felt for him, though it is unclear how Fullerton actually felt about her. After the disappointing conclusion to their relationship, Wharton’s disappointment and heartbreak is clear despite her obvious efforts to conceal it. In a letter after their split she writes:

My Dearest Love,

I am writing to this because, this afternoon, I passed by the dear old crooked church of Creil, where I spent such a happy hour with you a year & a half ago…

Before that, I had no personal life: since then you have given me all imaginable joy.

Nothing can take it from me now, or diminish it in my eyes, save the discovery that what has set my whole being free may gradually, in perceptively, have become a kind of irksome bondage to you. (Lewis and Lewis, 189)

Edith seems to have seen herself as a burden to Fullerton, as evidenced in her letter. It’s possible that Wharton’s affair is idealized in the tragic unconsummated love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence. There are similarities between the affairs, which suggest that her fictional account of an affair was at least affected by her own personal experience.

Wharton’s disappointing love life certainly is visible in her fiction. Unlike Henry James, whose relationships are somewhat forced and unrealistic, Wharton manages to capture the human essence of failed love. Her unfulfilled, yet idealized romance with Walter Barry draws effortless parallels with the consistent misunderstandings and wrong turns experienced by Selden and Lily in The House of Mirth. The idea of marriage as a necessary, yet not necessarily loving union appears in much of Wharton’s fiction, particularly The Age of Innocence in regard to Newland and May’s union. This negative notion of marriage also appears frequently in The House of Mirth, particularly in Lily’s search for the ‘right’ husband. Finally, Wharton’s extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton is idealized in The Age of Innocence using the adulterous relationship between the Countess Olenska and Newland Archer as a vehicle. While Wharton’s novels are not biographical, the picture of married love in comparison to unmarried and adulterous love is vastly different, married love acting as a passionless business transaction, while unmarried and adulterous love remains ironically pure.

The heartbreaking romance between Lily and Selden in Wharton’s The House of Mirth surpasses (in my opinion) or at least rivals the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This romance also has uncanny connections with the relationship between Walter Berry and Edith Wharton. Lily Bart, an unmarried twenty-nine year old socialite who suffers the affliction of being “horribly poor—and very expensive” (The House of Mirth, 10) seems to be physically dependent upon money, evidenced by scenes in which she has a physical reaction to wealth.

The glow of the stones warmed Lily’s veins like wine. More completely than any other expression of wealth they symbolized the life she longed to lead, the life of fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting in her own jewel like rareness. (The House of Mirth, 71-72)

While Lily seeks a marriage that will provide her the status and financial security she needs, she falls in love with Lawrence Selden, a middle class lawyer, like Berry, who can provide neither.

The love between Selden and Lily is similar to that described by Wharton and Berry. In one of the few surviving letters from Berry to Wharton, Berry writes to Wharton in 1923:

Dearest—The real dream—mine—was in the canoe and in the night, afterwards,—for I lay awake wondering and wondering,—and them, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered,—I, a $less lawyer (not even that, yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick’s [the big Bar Harbor hotel] bill—And then, later, in the little cottage at Newport, I wondered why I hadn’t—for it would have been good,—and then the slices of years slid by. (Lee, 63)

Hermione Lee in her biography of Wharton writes, “The lost dream; the missed chance, and the “long run” of disappointment and compromise that follows it; the by-passing of the one true intimacy, the stifled lifelong longing: these are Wharton’s subjects, and Walter may have inspired them.” (Lee, 63) Wharton, though significantly younger than Lily at age twenty-one, was also nearing the age where she would be regarded as unmarriageable. There is a sense of urgency for Lily to find a husband, just as Wharton’s family would have been pressuring her to find one. Though Wharton and Lily found a suitable companion in Berry and Selden, the timing simply seemed not to work out. Just as Selden misunderstood Lily’s fleeing from Gus Trenor’s house, Wharton could have misinterpreted Berry’s flight that summer. Perhaps if Wharton would have held out a little longer, she could have married Berry. But, the beauty in Whartonian love affairs is that they are, alas, impossible.

Selden and Lily are an example of a loving unmarried relationship. Their tragic love can be recapitulated in this scene:

“Do you want to marry me?” she asked.

He broke into a laugh. “No, I don’t want to—but perhaps I should if you did!”

“That’s what I told you—you’re so sure of me that you can amuse yourself with experiments.” She drew back the hand he had regained and sat looking down on him sadly.

“I am not making experiments,” he returned. “Or if I am, it is not on you but on myself. I don’t know what effect they are going to have on me—but if marrying you is one of them, I will take the risk.”

She smiled faintly. “It would be a great risk certainly—I have never concealed from you how great.”

“Ah, it’s you who are the coward!” he exclaimed.

She had risen, and he stood facing her with his eyes on hers. The soft isolation of the falling day enveloped them: they seemed lifted into a finer air. All the exquisite influences of the hour trembled in their veins and drew them to each other as the loosened leaves were drawn to the earth.

“It is you who are the coward,” he repeated, catching her hands in his.

She leaned on him for a moment, as if with a drop of tired wings, he felt as though her heart were beating rather with the stress of a long flight than the thrill of new distances. Then, drawing back with a little smile of warning—“I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes; but I can trim my own hats she declared.” (The House of Mirth, 58-59)

This scene reveals the tenuous and doomed love of the couple. Initially, Selden refuses to say he wants to marry Lily. He only says he would only want to if she did. This illustrates Selden’s continual lack of initiative in courting Lily. He then calls Lily a coward twice, even though it was he who was afraid to state his desires plainly initially. This is consistent with Selden’s constant misjudgment, misunderstanding, and criticism of Lily’s actions. He is always content to judge and blame without allowing her a chance for defense. The climax of the scene occurs between these two accusations with images of breath and veins, the sustenance of life. In this moment it seems that perhaps love can sustain Lily; she does not need jewels to “warm [her] veins.” (The House of Mirth, 71) Then Selden once again calls her a coward, taking the air out from under her metaphorical wings. The fact that her heart is beating from “the stress of a long flight” rather than “the thrill of new distances” suggests that they have not really gone anywhere; Selden has not trusted Lily to sacrifice her social status for love, and thus Lily falls. She then follows with the tragic line that she “can trim [her] own hats” an assertion that is to be proven false in Book II. This phrase is said, as she is “drawing back with a smile of warning.” Her reluctant body language combined with this phrase suggests that this is her romantic ideal, and not something that is possible in reality.

It is impossible to know the details of the romance between Wharton and Berry because Wharton destroyed nearly all of their letters. However the existing letters do give evidence of the regret of an impossible romance. (Lee, 65) Interestingly the destruction of letters also appears in The House of Mirth. Lily destroys Selden’s letters to Bertha Dorset in order to protect his reputation. “When she rose he fancied that he saw her draw something from her dress and drop it in to the fire but he hardly noticed the gesture at the time.” (The House of Mirth, 241) It’s possible that Wharton did the same, worried that their love letters would one day be published. (Lee, 65)

With the similarities between the Selden-Lily, and Berry-Wharton relationships, one notices similarities between Rosedale and Teddy Wharton.  Rosedale is by no means the love of Lily Bart’s life, but an escape route from ruin. He is vulgar and nouveau riche, however these shortcomings can be overlooked when regarding his pocketbook and protection from scandal.  While Lily does not actually marry Rosedale, she does seriously consider it, at one point even accepting his proposal. “I do believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale…and I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.” (The House of Mirth, 198) While Lily’s reputation was in shatters, leading to Rosedale’s tactful refusal of her acceptance, “My dear Miss Lily, I’m sorry if there’s been any little misapprehension between us—but you made me feel my suit was so hopeless that I had really no intention in renewing it,” (The House of Mirth, 198) Wharton still had a chance at marriage and retaining her standing. Though she had been shamed by her first engagement, she was still a Jones, and therefore remained a desirable match. (Lee, 61) Teddy Wharton’s family did not have nearly the amount of money that the Edith’s family did, however Edith’s age and previous scandal from her failed engagement combined with her vulnerability after losing Berry made her an attainable bride. (Coolidge, 57) Thus began the unhappy marriage of Edith and Teddy Wharton.

Teddy and Edith Wharton were “unmatched emotionally, physically, and intellectually,” (Price and McBride, 664) and shared few interests and commonalities. Teddy wanted to live in Newport; Edith did not. Edith was incredibly intellectually inclined, while Teddy was much more interested in sports. The two certainly did not dislike each other, yet as a couple they did not mesh. (Colidge, 57) The nature of her marriage to Teddy likely informed her pessimistic depiction of marriages in her novels and short stories. The marriage of May and Newland Archer in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence has some similarities with that of Edith and Teddy. While initially Edith believed herself to be in love with Teddy, she soon realized that he was a very dull man. While Archer seeks intellectual companionship, May is more interested in athletic activities, which hold little interest for Archer:

But in reality traveling interested her even less than he had expected. She regarded it (once her clothes were ordered) as merely an enlarged opportunity for walking, riding, swimming, and trying her hand at the fascinating new game of lawn tennis; and when they finally got back to London (where they were to spend a fortnight while he ordered his clothes) she no longer concealed the eagerness with which she looked forward to sailing.  (The Age of Innocence, 119)

Archer’s description of his marriage to May is also shockingly familiar when read with the Wharton’s marriage in mind. “He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of inescapable duty.” (The Age of Innocence, 126)

It is nearly impossible to find a happily married couple in Edith Wharton’s fiction. The business of marrying is discussed in terms of monetary and social value. There is little talk of love and matrimony. When Lily is trying to coax a proposal from Percy Gryce, a man whose greatest passion is his Americana rather than in women, Lily’s best friend, Judy Trenor says to her, “We could none of us imagine you putting up with him for a moment unless you meant to marry him.” (The House of Mirth, 60) It is in adulterous relationships and impossible courtships that Wharton finds passion rather than in married ones.

Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton provided the romantic fulfillment Wharton had craved her whole life. While they were sexually intimate, much of the passion between them stems from the painful impossibility of their being together. (Price and McBride, 663) For Fullerton, there may have been a safety in the fact that Wharton was married.  She was unavailable, thus he could remain uncommitted. (Erlich, 97) Wharton’s disapproving and concerned friends referred to Fullerton as, “an elegant seducer,” a “libertine,” and a “middle-aged mustached Lothario.” (Erlich, 98) Wharton was entirely taken under his spell, and though their affair was not permanent, Wharton was permanently sexually liberated. (Erlich, 98)

The only record we have of their affair is one sided. Wharton destroyed her Fullerton’s letters to her and begged him to do the same with hers. He refused; thus we have Wharton’s side of their correspondence. (Erlich, 98) When reading through these letters, it is impossible to deny the striking connections between their affair and that of the Countess Olenska and Newland Archer.

Near the beginning of their affair, Wharton writes a letter to Fullerton suggesting that they meet privately:

Do you want me to lunch with you tomorrow…I find myself put-off by Rosa…—so I can slip off beautifully—if you have time & are free…I should like it to be somewhere at the end of the earth…where there is bad food, & no chance of meeting acquaintances.—If you tell me where, I’ll come—or better, meet you at the Louvre at one o’c, in the shadow of Jean Gorgon’s Diana. (Lewis and Lewis, 134)

The fact of their meeting at a museum seems too coincidental when compared with the following scene from The Age of Innocence:

“Tomorrow I must see you—somewhere where we can be alone,” he said in a voice that sounded almost angry to his own ears.

She wavered and moved toward the carriage.

“But I shall be at Granny’s…”

“Somewhere where we can be alone,” he insisted…

“In New York? But there are no churches…no monuments.”

“There’s the Art Museum—in the Park.” (The Age of Innocence, 185)

The connections between these two scenes do not stop at the idea of meeting in public places to be alone, specifically art museums.  Wharton’s reference to Jean Gorgon’s Diana connects to Archer’s wife, May who is consistently compared to the virginal warrior goddess. The last name of the artist, Gorgon is also a female Greek mythological creature that turns figures into stone. (The Age of Innocence, 173) When Ellen Olenska and Archer are in the carriage discussing their affair, Newland says to Ellen, “The Gorgon has dried your tears.” (The Age of Innocence, 175) Though the significance of these allusions are unclear, it is possible that Wharton was quietly and subtly connecting her own meeting with Fullerton with her fictional representation of a love affair.

The end of the Wharton-Fullerton affair could not be more vastly different from the conclusion of the Olenska-Archer one. While Fullerton gradually lost interest in the affair, moving on to his next lover, Wharton could not help but feel a sense of anti-climax and betrayal. (Erlich, 98) Because they shared mutual friends, they still attended the same social events, at which they were forced to interact. It is these mundane exchanges, which seem to disappoint Wharton the most. Wharton writes this letter soon after their split:

Are you coming to dine tonight? And am I not wrong in asking you when I know how stupid, disappointing, altogether “impossible” you found me yesterday?—Alas the long isolation has made me inarticulate & yet I wasn’t meant to be!…

Think of me, Dear, in the old way, the only way in which I may be a little worth while–& don’t, above all, feel obliged to try to make me think what isn’t! Please! (Lewis and Lewis, 176)

Reading Wharton’s fiction, it is safe to assume that she would have preferred a fervent and tragic ending to her affair, instead of the casual ending she experienced. Perhaps Wharton’s way of coming to terms with the affair was to write the ending that she wished she had.

Then he tried to see the persons already in the room—for probably at that sociable hour there would be more than one—and among them a dark lady, pale an dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it…

“It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other. (The Age of Innocence, 217)

In creating the fictional romance of Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, perhaps Edith Wharton was providing the ending to her affair that she would have preferred. As the affair had ended on Fullerton’s terms, this could have been Edith’s means for gaining solace and closure.

Edith Wharton’s love life was full of heartbreaks and disappointments. While the men she loved, Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton were never truly attainable, she was forced to spend the majority of her life with a man with whom she had little in common. When compared to Henry James who had no sexual or romantic experience, it is clear that Wharton gained romantic wisdom through heartache. While Henry James writes about erotic love in a surreal slightly bizarre way that reveals both his sexual repression and inexperience, Wharton writes about it in a manner that is both realistic and remains literarily pleasing. Wharton’s own tragic love life gave her the experience that allowed her to create some of the most beautiful and tragic romances written. Though I so wish Edith had found love and companionship for her own sake, it is unlikely her stories about love would be as resonant or as true if she had lived in a content, conventional marriage. Fullerton’s prediction that Edith, “should write better for this experience of loving,” certainly seems to have come to fruition. (Price and McBride, 663)

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick

ImageVivian Gornick succeeds in writing a biographical account of Elizabeth Cady Stanton that captures her very essence as a woman and an activist. Gornick argues that Stanton’s radical position “among radicals” makes her the most forward thinking feminist thinker of the nineteenth century, one whose ideas gave birth to the present ideals of feminism. However the ambitiousness of her goals for women did not always lead to admiration by her peers. Indeed her decision to fight for suffrage in the late eighteen forties caused her fellow activist and friend Lucretia Mott to initially exclaim, “O Lizzie, thou wilt make us ridiculous.” (41) In her own time, Elizabeth was seen as erratic and impractical, sometimes even racist and insensitive. Gornick notes, “She hardly ever spoke before she thought, but she always spoke without consultation or strategic consideration.” (46) It is this lack of “strategic consideration” replaced with pure passion that led her to say things like, “for the negro can be raised to the dignity of a voter if he possess himself of $250; the lunatic can vote in his moments of sanity; and the idiot too, if he be a male one…” (51) Though her contemporaries judged her harshly, it was her unbridled enthusiasm for women’s rights and individualist spirit that make her such an essential figure for present-day American feminists. Indeed Gornick goes as far as to say, “We are beginning where she left off.” (16)

In her first chapter, “1840 to Begin With,” Gornick begins with Stanton’s stepping down from her position of president of the National Woman Suffrage Association with her “The Solitude of Self” speech. She explains that Stanton felt distant from her beloved cause because of the “kind of single issue, nuts-and-bolts politics she had come to deplore.” (4) For Stanton, pragmatism was less important than principle, thus she felt isolated in this practical, lifeless environment. The book begins with a perceived failure or surrender, yet then continues to Gornick’s own personal journey in feminism, recounting experiences of sexism, “I remembered my young husband and me talking for hours about what we would do with the future, both clearly taking it for granted that his life was to be our life.” (12) Gornick argues that contemporary American feminists share the ideals of the once perceived radical Stanton. “Reading Elizabeth Stanton,” Gornick remarks, “made me feel on my skin the shock of realizing how slowly (how grudgingly!) politics in the modern world has actually moved…” (16) Though Stanton was born nearly one hundred years before Gornick, their politics are incredibly similar.  The fact that some people today may even see Gornick as a radical in the twenty-first century, demonstrates how much of an extremist Stanton must have seemed to be.

In her chapter “Radical Among Radicals,” Gornick highlights how even in a movement seen as radical, Stanton’s goals were more ambitious than the rest. Ironically in one way Stanton was a “true woman.” She was a diligent mother of seven, and looked like a modest grandmother from a fairly early age. However she was certainly neither submissive nor pious. She detested religion as she felt it was the institution that most prevented women from advancing. She regarded religion as an “old and worn-out theology full of bigotry and prejudice.” (121) This was not true of some of her peers; Susan B. Anthony was a very pious Quaker. Stanton’s speaking out against Christianity in that period of time was to court public hatred. Stanton spoke openly in favor of divorce causing scandal for the National Woman Suffrage Association. The New York Observer wrote about Stanton, “no true woman could listen to what had been said without turning scarlet, yet words that would turn the world into one vast brothel had been read unblushingly by a person in woman’s attire, named in the programme as Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton.” (67) Though her radicalism may have been a perceived danger to her cause, she never agreed to compromise her own beliefs. Without this strength or stubbornness, it is unclear is modern feminist would be what it is today. Stanton pushed boundaries that no one else was willing to, and therefore remains incredibly pertinent and influential today.

The final chapter “From There to Here” focuses on the far-reaching consequences of Stanton’s politics for modern feminists and an explanation of why feminism is American. She argues the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance is a distinctly American phenomenon, “That famous American loneliness, with its fierce credo of self-reliance, has time and time again become a source of collective dissident strength. It allows us to stay the course of alienation when a protracted action is required to fulfill the (broken) promise of inclusiveness into which the country was born.” (131) Citizens of countries like Israel who are built on the bedrock of family are unable to see themselves as pure individuals the way Americans do.  In Stanton’s “The Solitude of Self Speech” she speaks of the isolation and loneliness that perhaps gave her the bravery to speak as openly as she did. Her ability to fight for her own beliefs without concern for the immediate consequences for the National Woman Suffrage Association make it clear that she perhaps had “the long view” in mind.  Stanton’s individualist tactics allowed her to become the most influential female activist for woman’s rights in the 19th century: a model and an inspiration.

Henry James and the Kiss of White Lightning

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Henry James’ The Portrait of A Lady is not a sensuous novel. James records the trials and tribulations of courtly love while rarely delving into the realm of the erotic. The reader enjoys 487 pages of Jamesian realism until the kiss between Caspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer arrests the reader like its own bolt of white lightning. Not only is this the first erotic moment in the novel, the rendering of the scene differs vastly from the description-rich, wordy James readers have come to expect. This scene is faltering and desperate, in both language and pacing, full of melodrama and ecstasy. James’ style is not longer ground in the firm reality of the rest of the novel, but has departed into the realm of the surreal. James’ sexuality has long aroused speculation. His perpetual bachelorhood has generated theories of homosexuality, celibacy, and asexuality.[1] While there is no definitive evidence to support either claim, the kiss at the end of The Portrait of a Lady can be read alongside both theories. While the language of revulsion and terror could be echoes of James’ own “preoccupation with homosexual secrets,”[2] the departure from reality in this scene could be evidence for James’ own lack of sexual experience.

The tension in The Portrait of a Lady stems from the protagonist, Isabel Archer’s incompatible desires for both goodness and freedom, as Tessa Hadley observes in her introduction to Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure: “She needs to be good, she needs to be free, and she can’t be both.”[3] The kiss at the end of the novel shows these two motives most clearly at odds. While she certainly desires Caspar, as he represents freedom and escape from her unhappy marriage, she cannot leave her marriage and remain a ‘good’ woman. The staccato nature of this scene shows Isabel’s internal battle with these struggles. While she desires to accept his help and promised freedom, “She had wanted help, and here was help; it had come in a rushing torrent. I know not whether she believed everything he said; but she believed just then that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to her dying,”[4] she also is terrified of losing her goodness, begging him to leave her alone, “‘Do me the greatest kindness of all,’ she panted. ‘I beseech you to go away!’…‘As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!’”[5] Interestingly, James chooses this moment to insert himself. His assertion, “I know not whether she believed everything she said,” could be evidence that he relates to the plight of Isabel Archer.  It’s possible that Isabel’s struggle between goodness and freedom could represent his own suppression of homosexuality. Hadley argues, “James’s own ambiguously gendered position places him in distinction from but attraction to both differentiated genders in their heterosexual circlings and strugglings and play.”[6] While James is physically male, he may identify with this specific plight of this female character. James cannot be free to express himself sexually and still remain a respectable man, just as Isabel cannot free herself from a loveless marriage and still remain a lady.

James and Isabel are further connected by their complex relationship with father figures. While Mr. Archer is dead before the novel begins, his presence still remains, both in Isabel’s continued adoration of him, and in her search for a father in Gilbert Osmond. Alfred Habegger in his chapter, “The Fatherless Heroine and the Filial Son: Deep Background for The Portrait of a Lady” notes that Isabel is still wearing black at Gardencourt “more than a year after Mr. Archer’s death.” This period can be compared with that after the death of her child;:“she discards her mourning within six months.”[7] Habegger suggests that Isabel’s freedom began be a burden, making her wish for a domineering master or father. “[James] let her sense of freedom weigh on her so heavily that she [began] to dream of confinement, of daughterly surrender.”[8] Perhaps Isabel’s paternal attraction to Osmond is not actually at odds with her love of freedom, but an escape from that burden. James and his siblings were raised by a “narcissistic and domineering father who…used empathy to defend his interpretations of their experience and to justify his advice.”[9] This behavior led to the James children feeling alienated and misunderstood, and also to struggle with intimate relationships. Perhaps it is this emotional abandonment and James’ perverted idea of fatherhood that explains his choice for Isabel to return to Rome, to a domineering father figure. “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.”[10] This straight path is explained the next morning when Henrietta reveals Isabel has returned to Rome. While Isabel is struggling with her simultaneous desire and repulsion for Goodwood, she feels a desire to be caught and protected, “This belief, for a moment, was a kind of rapture, in which she felt herself sink and sink. In the movement she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself, to feel something to rest on.”[11] It is this moment, when she looks for something solid that her attitude toward Caspar shifts. While she a moment ago had seen him as a savior, this line that signals a shift where Isabel wishes him to leave her alone. Perhaps this “something to rest on” is Osmond, a father who will strip her of freedom. Possibly it is James’ experience with paternal love that drives him to cause Isabel to make her ultimate choice.

James’ brother, William similarly struggled with intimacy, advocating the mental-hygiene ethos of celibacy to conserve nervous sexual energy and to channel it into art. Henry James was certainly aware of it, though there is not tangible evidence to suggest that he was certainly using it.[12] This would, however, account for his permanent bachelorhood. If that is the case, the creation of the kiss in The Portrait of a Lady could be akin to a physical sexual act for James. The kiss has overt allusions to intercourse, suggesting this passage perhaps has more sexual connotations for James himself:

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinary as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made on with this act of possession.[13]

The spreading “white lightning” alludes to orgasm, while Goodwood’s “hard manhood” is the phallus. The use of the verb “took” referring to Isabel’s reception of the kiss has sexual undertones as well. Some have argued that James was celibate because he is “prudishly repressed, [fleeing] in horror from the open expression of sexual desire.”[14] The overt sexuality of this passage seems to squash that particular theory. If James was indeed celibate, it is more likely he reserved his sexual energy for his art.

One of the most notable things about this passage is its sudden departure from the realism for which Henry James is known. James suddenly enters a realm of sensation and sound. “‘Ah, be mine as I’m yours!’ she heard her companion cry. He had suddenly given up argument, and his voice seemed to come, harsh and terrible through a confusion of vaguer sounds.”[15] Isabel oddly remains the agent, “she heard her companion cry,” Goodwood didn’t cry himself. This has an odd effect on the passage, making it seem as though Caspar may not actually be there. There is also no explanation for these “vaguer sounds” which add a further surreal effect. The kiss itself, in addition to its overt sexuality, is so unrealistic compared with other interactions between characters in the novel. James usually stresses the subtle and the delicate while this scene is a crescendo of the melodramatic. The scene ends abruptly without page break or warning. “Two days afterwards Caspar Goodwood knocked at the door of the house in Wimpole Street in which Henrietta Stackpole occupied furnished lodgings.”[16] Not only does this paragraph open formally by referring to a character mentioned on the previous page by his first and last name, the house is given the sterile description of “furnished lodgings” causing the reader to turn back a page and ask, “Did I just read that?” The extreme sensuousness of the kiss combined with the stark realism of the next page further emphasizes the uniqueness of the kiss scene. It is possible James adopted a surreal tone because he had no sexual experience of his own, thus he feared he will be unable to portray the scene accurately. Most of James’ renderings of humanity are so realistic; they are true renderings of life. This kiss is certainly not that.

While Henry James’ sexuality remains enigmatic, the kiss in The Portrait of a Lady provides support for several theories on the subject. Echoes of James’ potential struggle with homosexuality can be seen in Isabel Archer’s contradictory desires between freedom and respectability, and her desire for a father figure. If James was celibate, the overt sexuality suggests that the passage itself may serve as a sex act for the author. The uncommon surrealism could be accounted for by James’ own lack of sexual experience. The Portrait of a Lady, while it largely remains a novel concerned with propriety and social custom, ends on a note of overt eroticism that leads the reader dazed. The reader’s bewilderment likely echoes that of Isabel Archer herself in the midst of the overpowering kiss “like white lightning.” Just as the reader returns to reality, so does our tragic, noble heroine.


[1] Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid, 2.

[4] Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995) , 489

[5] ibid

[6] Hadley, 13.

[7] Alfred Habegger, Henry James and the “Woman Business” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989),150.

[8] Ibid, 156.

[9] Linda Simon, “Art and the Risks of Intimacy,” The New England Quarterly, Volume 72. Number 4. (1999): 618.

[10] James, 490.

[11] James, 489.

[12] Dana Luciano, “Henry James’ Thwarted Love (review)” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 47.

Number 2. (2001): 482.

[13] James, 489.

[14] Luciano, 482.

[15] James, 489.

[16] James, 490.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Letter to Miss Pierson

A few words on poetry from a wonderful Worcester native:

bishopyoung1

I am answering you because (1) You enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. (This happens very rarely.) (2) You think that poetry discussion groups are ‘a bloody bore’ –and although there are exceptions, in general I agree with you completely.

I think you have set up difficulties for yourself that perhaps don’t really exist at all. I don’t know what ‘poetic tools & structures’ are, unless you mean transitional forms. Which one can use or not, as one sees fit. If you feel you are ‘moralizing’ too much–just cut the morals off–or out. (Quite enough young poets tend to try to tie everything up neatly in 2 or 3 beautiful last lines, and it is quite surprising  how the poems are improved if the poet can bear to sacrifice those last, pat, beautiful lines.) Your third problem–why shouldn’t the poet appear in the poem? There are several tricks–‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or even ‘one’–or somebody’s name. Someone is talking, after all–but of course the idea is to prevent that particular tone of voice from growing monotonous.

From what you say, I think perhaps you are actually trying too hard–or reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry. Prosody–metrics–etc are fascinating–but they all come   afterwards, obviously. And I always ask my writing class NOT to read criticism.

Read a lot of poetry–all the time–and not 20th century poetry. Read Campion, Herbert, Pope, Tennyson, Coleridge–anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past–until you find out what you really like, by yourself. Even if you try to imitate it exactly–it will come out quite different. Then the great poets of our own century–Marianne Moore, Auden, Wallace Stevens–and not just 2 of 3 poems each, in anthologies–read ALL of somebody. Then  read his or her life, and letters, and so on. (And by all means read Keat’s Letters.) Then see what happens.

That’s really all I can say. It can’t be done, apparently, but by willpower and study alone–or by being “with it”–but I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery & a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.

Not Like That by Adrienne Rich

It’s so pure in the cemetery.

The children love to play up here.

It’s a little town, a game of blocks,

a village packed in a box,

a pre-war German toy.

The turf is a bedroom carpet:

heal-all, strawberry flower

and hillocks of moss.

To come and sit here forever,

a cup of tea on one’s lap

and one’s eyes closed lightly, lightly,

perfectly still

in a nineteenth-century sleep!

it seems so normal to die.

Nobody sleeps here, children.

The little beds of white wrought iron

and the tall, kind, faceless nurse

are somewhere else, in a hospital

or the dreams of prisoners of war.

The drawers of this trunk are empty,

not even a snapshot

curls in a corner.

In Pullmans of childhood we lay

enthralled behind dark-green curtains,

and a little lamp burned blue

all night, for us. The day

was a dream too, even the oatmeal

under its silver lid, dream-cereal

spooned out in forests of spruce

skirting the green-black gorges,

thick woods of sleep, half prickle,

half lakes of fern.

To stay here forever

is not like that, nor even

simply to lie quite still,

the warm trickle of dream

staining the thick quiet

The drawers of this trunk are empty.

They are all out of sleep up here.