Coinciding with the Victorian Period, two additional literary movements grew in strength. Closely related, Realism (1820-1920) and Naturalism (1870-1920) shared an attention to detail, placing the reader into the moment with objectivity and a sense of factual loyalty. Naturalism went into more psychological depth in endeavoring to identify the underlying causes of actions or beliefs. Naturalists believed that social conditions and heredity played a huge role in determining the actions of a person more so than free will.
Literature of choice during these periods was strongly skewed toward the novel. Authors developed characters and atmosphere to a high degree of detail. Realists felt it was their duty to “report” on whatever scene they were writing whereas Naturalists dug into the psyche and led the reader to understand how external influences affected events to lead to whatever situation was at hand.
Many authors during this time frame are described as both Realism and Naturalism authors. Some of these authors wrote both novels and poetry. Very few people are aware that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), the American pioneer for Realism, wrote poetry as well as his renowned fiction. I considered featuring his work here but to be honest, when I read his poetry, I appreciated his novels much more. I believe that my love for his novels made it difficult for me to assess his skills as a poet. Instead, I’m turning the spotlight on Edith Wharton, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, designer and poet.
Edith Wharton was born into a prominent family in 1862 in New York City. Her parents, George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, were both of prestigious heritage. The saying “keeping up with the Joneses” is said to have originated with her father’s family.
Edith married Edward (Teddy) Wharton in 1885 when she was 23 years old. Unfortunately, a few years into their marriage, Edward suffered acute depression and in 1902, his mental state deteriorated into a more serious disorder that was determined to be incurable. They were divorced in 1913 after 30 years of marriage.
The following years were filled with unique, high-profile, empowering experiences that were only afforded to an elite few of that age. Her life, commitment and dedication would fill many hours of discussion. She led an intellectually, creatively and socially robust life, one that would take pages to chronicle. In this article, I’ll highlight her achievements as a prominent novelist and introduce you to one of her poems.
Her first novel, Fast and Loose, was written in 1876-1877 but was not published until 1938. She also wrote The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country and her best known novel, The Age of Innocence, for which she was the first woman ever to receive The Pulitzer Prize. She published twenty-two novels and edited The Book of the Homeless, a publication created to raise money for the The Children of Flanders Relief Committee and The American Hostels for Refugees, her charitable focus for the innocent victims of war. Wharton was recipient of the French Legion of Honor for her philanthropic work during World War I.She also authored fourteen short stories, nine non-fiction books and three poetry collections. In 1923 she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. She was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I selected one of Edith Wharton’s poems, The Parting Day, to share with you. In my opinion, the use of rhythm and rhyme give this sorrowed poem an eerie cast as if the message of the poem is “don’t toy with my emotions.”
The Parting Day Atlantic Monthly 45 (Feb. 1880): 194
SOME busy hands have brought to light,
And laid beneath my eye,
The dress I wore that afternoon
You came to say good-by.
About it still there seems to cling
Some fragrance unexpressed,
The ghostly odor of the rose
I wore upon my breast;
And, subtler than all flower-scent,
The sacred garment holds
The memory of that parting day
Close hidden in its folds.
The rose is dead, and you are gone,
But to the dress I wore
The rose’s smell, the thought of you,
Are wed forevermore.
That day you came to say good-by
(A month ago! It seems a year!)
How calm I was! I met your eye,
And in my own you saw no tear.
You heard me laugh and talk and jest,
And lightly grieve that you should go;
You saw the rose upon my breast,
But not the breaking heart below.
And when you came and took my hand,
It scarcely fluttered in your hold.
Alas, you did not understand!
For you were blind, and I was cold.
And now you cannot see my tears,
And now you cannot hear my cry.
A month ago? Nay, years and years
Have aged my heart since that good-by.
This poem is a excellent example of Whartan’s understanding of poetic device. She used repetition skillfully on multiple levels. Her caesura adds intensity to an emotionally complex poem and figurative language introduces tenderness. Throughout her work, her use of dramatic irony is both stealthy and skillful. The last two lines draw everything together into a perfect closing.
After living a long, diverse and rich life, Edith Wharton died of a stroke in 1937.
Thank you for joining me for this installment of Pretzels & Bullfights. As always, I hope this article prods your curiosity into researching more about the era and poet.
Until next month…