Nets to Catch the Wind, 1921
Black Armour, 1923
Trivial Breath, 1928
Angels and Earthly Creatures, 1928
Last Poems, 1943
Jennifer Lorn: A Sedate Extravaganza, 1923
The Venetian Glass Nephew, 1925
The Orphan Angel, 1926
Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard, 1928
A woman of mercurial temperament and a dedicated artist in both poetry and prose, Elinor Wylie (WI-lee) emerged as one of the “new traditionalists” of American literature in the 1920’s. In a space of eight years, she wrote four books of poems and four novels in which her tragic vision of life is portrayed in fantasy and satire. Dead at forty-three, she had achieved recognition as an eloquent and picturesque writer whose work revealed the frustrations of a woman oppressed by society’s dictates.
Born Elinor Morton Hoyt in Somerville, New Jersey, on September 7, 1885, she was the oldest child of Henry Martyn and Anne (McMichael) Hoyt, both descended from old Pennsylvania families distinguished in society and public affairs. Her education was as fashionably correct as her family background. She attended private schools in Bryn Mawr and Washington, where her father, appointed to the post of assistant attorney general of the United States in 1897, became solicitor general in 1903. During her schooldays her interests were divided between art and poetry, the latter chiefly through her discovery of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Following her social debut and a brief, unhappy love affair, she married Philip Hichborn in 1905. For the next five years she lived the life of a fashionable young matron according to the standards of Philadelphia and Washington society. In 1910, to the surprise of family and friends, she abandoned her husband and small son and eloped with a married man, Horace Wylie, a cultivated scholarly man fifteen years her senior. Two years later Hichborn committed suicide. The elopement created a scandal kept alive by gossip and the press for years; it was even noted in the headline of her obituary.
When Horace Wylie found it impossible to obtain a divorce, the couple went to England and lived there under an assumed name. Incidental Numbers, Wylie’s first book of poems, was privately printed in London in 1912. Published anonymously, for presentation only, it holds only occasional promise of her mature powers as a poet. Unable to remain in England under wartime conditions, she and Wylie returned to Boston in 1916. His divorce having been granted, they were married the next year. After several years of restless travel from Maine to Georgia, Horace Wylie secured a minor government post, and they returned to Washington in 1919. Cut off from most of her former friends, Elinor Wylie became one of a literary group that included William Rose Benét and Sinclair Lewis, and with their encouragement she continued to write poetry. In 1921 she left Washington to make her home in New York.
She came late to the literary scene but with the manner of one whom no disastrous circumstance could subdue. The disillusionment Wylie felt when reality never quite measured up to her ideals resulted in poignant and often eccentric descriptive poetry. Nets to Catch the Wind, published in 1921, was awarded the Julia Ellsworth Ford Prize by the Poetry Society of America. To those who knew her best, she remained a person of contradictions. Although frequently overcome by life’s fragility, she never relinquished her quest for the ideal existence. She could be remote and proud (the “iced chalk” to which one critic compared her), but she was also mirthful and gracious, and her speech, like her writing, crackled with the wit and vigor of her mind. She had become a figure of literary legend when, having divorced Horace Wylie, she married William Rose Benét in 1923 and in the same year published both her second book of poems and a successful first novel.
Although Shelley was her lifelong passion, to the extent that she often identified herself with him, he was by no means the only influence on her work. In Nets to Catch the Wind and Black Armour there is evidence of the tradition of John Donne and William Blake, poets who found an approach to spiritual truth in a disembodied ecstasy of thought and emotion. Wylie’s erudition and wit are plain in the sharpened epithet, the aristocratic scorn, the language framing stark abstractions, a delight in subtleties of thought, and an imagery of symbolic birds and beasts. On the whole, the poems in these books are songs of experience, with much bitterness in the singing. Trivial Breath is a more uneven collection, divided as it is between lyrics of personal experience and payment of her literary debts. But there is little of the “overfine” in the elegiac moods which pervade Angels and Earthly Creatures. Most of these poems were written in England during the summer of 1928, when some presentiment of death seemed to have given Wylie a final certainty of vision and language. The desire for escape is less persistent, the note of resignation less profound. Instead, there is exultant affirmation of love and faith transcending all fears of death in the magnificent sonnet sequence, “One Person.” These poems, her most passionate revelation of the woman and the poet, are in the great tradition.
Her novels are like much of her poetry, exquisite and erudite. Jennifer Lorn, for example, is set against a droll background blending sophisticated elegance with simple manners. It is a satire on the twin themes of magnificence and folly, reflected in the ambitions of an eighteenth century empire builder and the attitude of a heroine unmoved by the bustle of all practical affairs until death frees her at last from a husband who bores her and a world that intrudes upon her romantic dreaming. The artifice of The Venetian Glass Nephew seems on the surface as brittle as its spun-glass hero, but it contains deeper meanings as life is defeated by art in the story of a heroine willing to be transformed into a cold, decorative porcelain figure just to please her glass husband.
The Orphan Angel is a picaresque romance in which Shelley is miraculously rescued off Viareggio and brought to the United States aboard a Yankee ship. Mr. Hodge and Mr. Hazard is a more personal fable, in many ways Wylie’s best. The disillusioned poet who returns to England in the twilight of the Romantic period is not Shelley, as many readers have supposed, but any artist who survives into a later period than his or her own. The summer idyll of the old poet ends in a fiasco of stale cream buns and an epigram; the whole is an ironic allegory of the poet’s tragedy and the world’s indifference.
Wylie was not to share her hero’s fate. In England, where she spent the summer of 1928, she fell while visiting a country house and suffered a painful but temporary back injury. In October a mild stroke left one side of her face partly paralyzed. She returned to New York early in December of that year. On December 16 she had arranged the poems in Angels and Earthly Creatures for the printer and was sitting reading in the Benét apartment when she had a second stroke and died before her husband could summon assistance.