Eighty-five years ago today, Elinor Wylie suffered a fatal stroke. She was only forty-three years old.
One of the early participants in the modern movement, Wylie helped to define and establish the new American poetry of the early twentieth century.
While her physical beauty and scandalous personal life may have overshadowed her reputation with the general public, the literary world praised her mastery of craft. Sharp insights, delicate ironies and extraordinary precision set her work apart.
Here are four of her exquisite––and subtly funny––poems:
Man, the egregious egoist
(In mystery the twig is bent)
Imagines, by some mental twist,
That he alone is sentient
Of the intolerable load
That on all living creatures lies,
Nor stoops to pity in the toad
The speechless sorrow of his eyes.
He asks no questions of the snake,
Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom
Where lidless fishes, broad awake,
Swim staring at a nightmare doom.
Stripping an almond tree in flower
The wise apothecary’s skill
A single drop of lethal power
From perfect sweetness can distill.
From bitterness in efflorescence,
With murderous poisons packed therein;
The poet draws pellucid essence
Pure as a drop of metheglin.
Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
I love smooth words, like gold-enamelled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish,
And tender ones, like downy-feathered birds:
Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
Or purring softly at a silver dish,
Blue Persian kittens fed on cream and curds.
I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.