We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Women's Poetry: Edith Wharton · 7 September 05

My dear Miss Vane,

I learn so much from our poetry day on WWTTA. I had no idea Edith Wharton wrote poetry, much less that she wrote moving, beautiful—great poetry. I knew she was a good travel writer, wrote about gardens, art, and produced perceptive criticism. And her novels are poetic at heart.

So why not verse?

I also had not opened the two-volume book of American Poetry edited by John Hollander for the Library of America, which Mr Drake has several times recommended that I "go through." He has. Yesterday morning searching in these (reading them) for the first time in an effort to find an appropriate (another meaning of this word) poem to go with Ottilie Assing’s exploration and reports on her time in America (and possible liaison with Frederick Douglass), I discovered a treasure trove of unknown fine poetry by women—and men too. This includes four pages of poetry by Edith Wharton.

I’ve put the double Hollander volume my desk for next week’s poetry day on WWTTA, and here put two of the Wharton poems on our blog.


Like Crusoe with the bootless gold we stand
Upon the verge of death, and say:
‘What shall avail the woes of yesterday
To buy to-morrow’s wisdom, in the land
Whose currency is strange unto our hand
In life’s small marker they had served to pay
Some late-found rapture, could we but delay
Till Time hath matched our means to our demand.’

But otherwise Fate wills it, for, behold,
Our gathered strength of individual pain,
When Time’s long alchemy hath made it gold,
Dies with us—hoarded all these years in vain,
Since those that might be heir to it the mould
Renew, and coin themselves new griefs again.

"An Autumn Sunset"


Leaguered in fire
The wild black promontories of the coast extend
Their savage silhouettes;
The sun in universal carnage sets,
And, halting higher,
The motionless storm-clouds mass their sullen threats,
Like an advancing mob in sword-points penned,
That, balked, yet stands at bay.
Mid-zenith hangs the fascinated day
In wind-lustrated hollows crystalline,
A wan Vallyrie whose wide pinions shine
Across the ensanguined ruins of the fray,
And in her hand swings high o’erhead,
Above the waste of war,
The silver torch-light of the evening star
Wherewith to search the faces of the dead.


Lagooned in gold,
Seem not those jetty promontories rather
The outposts of some ancient land forlorn,
Uncomforted of morn,
Where old oblivions gather,
The melancholy unconsoling fold
Of all things that go utterly to death
And mix no more, no more
With life’s perpetually awakening breath?
Shall Time not ferry me to such a shorte,
Over sailless seas,
To walk with hope’s slain importunities
In miserable marriage? Nay, shall not
All things be there forgot,
Save the sea’s golden barrier and the black
Close-crouching promontories?
Dead to all shames, forgotten of all glories,
Shall I not wander there, a shadow’s sahde,
A spectre half-destroyed,
So purged of all remembrance and sucked back
Into the primal void,
That should we on that shore phantasmal meet
I should not know the coming of your feet.


The above remind me of how constraining is the novel form. Wharton could not put anything like the first poem in a novel directly. The second is just magnificent as women’s love poetry.

And coming down a bit, FYI, Harriet: Edith Wharton’s poems in Hollander’s collections are meditations on books and literary figures, on landscapes and places in France and pictures and tombs and histories in Italy. She spent much time in Europe, eventually settling in France (she’s buried there next to a long-time lover and companion). She found a world she could be comfortable in in Europe.


Posted by: Ellen

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