- Try making a cut-up or collage of Wylie’s sonnet sequence, in the mode of Ted Berrigan. Print the poem out and cut up the individual lines. Do the same with other sonnet sequences, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese or George Meredith’s Modern Love. Then select and arrange individual lines to form new sonnets. Instead of thinking about narrative continuity, select and arrange lines based on sound, association, color, or other non-semantic elements. See Berrigan’s The Sonnetsfor examples of the kind of poem that might result.
- Wylie’s sequence imagines what “you say” about a hypothetical move to “the Eastern Shore.” The poem’s speaker speaks for the other half of the couple. Write a response, in the voice of the poem’s “you” answering the speaker’s concerns.
- What is the most arresting line of Wylie’s poem for you? Isolate that line and use it as the first line of your own poem. Try using Wylie’s vocabulary as a palate to create your new poem.
- The first three sections of Wylie’s sequence are overloaded with natural images and sensory detail. Circle or otherwise mark all the ways that color, weather, flora and fauna, and sensation are figured. How does Wylie create “brimming cornucopias” in this poem? Compare it to other poems of rich sensory and natural detail, including John Keats’s “To Autumn.”
- As Caitlin Kimball notes in her guide to this poem, the first three sections happen in a hypothetical mood “tinged with foreboding.” Where and how do you see foreboding happening in the poem? What is the relationship between foreboding and the final section?
- Wylie’s poem contains rhymes both conventional and outlandish (long/scuppernong); often she rhymes phrases (best of all/fur will fall) or multi-syllabic words (Eastern Shore/Baltimore). Locate both end rhymes and other kinds of internal rhyme or rhyming in the poem. How do rhymes knit the poem together and (perhaps) pull it apart?
- Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote a sonnet whose first line is, “I will put chaos into fourteen lines.” In what ways is Wylie’s sonnet “chaotic”? Review different kinds of sonnets with your class, and perhaps provide examples. What kinds of arguments, complaints, ideas, and emotional states do sonnets represent? Try having the class write a collaborative sonnet. Beginning with Millay’s line, have each student add a line until there are 14 lines total. Ask students to think about the different kinds of sonnets with their varying voltas, rhyme schemes, etc.
- Wylie’s lovers represent different and competing versions of, and locations in, America; her poem suggests connections between environment and temperament. Have your students trace the links between geography and speaker by visually representing each “place” the poem describes. Ask them to think about both the images the poem explicitly gives (such as squirrel hunting) as well as those it suggests (Odysseus and Circe in “lotus-eating ancestor”), and how all images get emotionally freighted. How do the places Wylie describes suggest the psychology of the couple? How might your students visually represent psychological states or attitudes? Students might choose to make a comic, collage, sketch, diagram, word cloud, or other form of visual representation of the poem’s geo-emotional landscapes.
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Elinor Wylie: “Wild Peaches”
A wild peach’s sweetness is easy to savor. It grows spontaneously; its discovery feels providential, a reward for one who strays from the path. But a peach essentially is a human creation, the product of years of rigorous cultivation. Wild peaches are wild because their farmer has abandoned them, or because a traveler has tossed one into a soil and climate favorable to it. Inheritance and errancy, abundance under control and then out of it again—from the start, Elinor Wylie’s poem provokes us to entertain these tensions. It’s a specifically American poem, conceived after an escape from America. It plainly professes New World roots while drawing on a European poetic inheritance. Its dramatized anxieties held at a mild ironic distance strike a modernist note, while its lyricism and traditional prosody would seem to date it well before those harrowed, unstable years between World War I and the experimental fertility of the Roaring Twenties.
The four Petrarchan sonnets that compose the poem are relentlessly musical, heaped with what critic Morton Dauwen Zabel called the “tray after tray of choice images” that distinguish Wylie’s work. They are delicious, and the cadences hypnotic, as in the poem’s first description of nature:
The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and scuppernong;
All seasons sweet, but autumn best of all.
The squirrels in their silver fur will fall
Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.
The local color is vivid and correct throughout this poem, from the coonskin cap of the speaker’s pioneer companion to the flora and fauna of the southeastern United States (scuppernong and chestnuts, speckled quail and canvasback).
But as richly imagined as the first three sections are, they are hypothetical, at the direction of the male companion (“You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore”), and tinged with foreboding. At the beginning of the poem, the two characters’ relocation from Baltimore to the wilds of coastal Maryland or Virginia is deliberate and presumably romantic:
When the world turns completely upside down
You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore
Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore;
We’ll live among wild peach trees, miles from town,
You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown
Homespun, dyed butternut’s dark gold color.
But then the scene takes an unsettling turn:
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor,
We’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown.
Here, in the same breath, Wylie alludes to Odysseus’s fate-battered but noble adventurers, and the exodus of the Israelites to the promised land as recounted in the Bible. This image of prosperity and sweet delirium is also one of self-annihilation, suggesting that some aspect of this adventure doesn’t sit well with the speaker. She addresses the verses to him and seems to keep his point of view foremost—“The squirrels . . . will fall . . . before your shot” and “By February you may find the skins / Of garter snakes . . .”—but it is this touch of dread at the start that reveals the reproach mixed with her devotion. After all, it is his “lotus-eating ancestor,” not hers, who leads them into the wilderness.
The upheaval that spurs the lover’s desire to flee is ambiguous. Is it private or public? Just when and why will the world turn “completely upside down”? The phrase echoes the title of a protest ballad from the English Civil War in the 17th century; legend has it that an English general sang it as he surrendered to the French and American forces in Virginia in 1781. Whether or not Wylie meant to allude to this turning point in American history, it does serve to further dislocate the poem in time. The couple’s arrival on a “river-boat from Baltimore” to live among once-cultivated peach trees indicates that the mid-Atlantic has already been well settled, and the scene occurs closer to Wylie’s time than the Colonial era; whoever they are, chronologically they are more gleaners than settlers.
This lack of temporal specificity tempts us to read the poem as an escape fantasy, brought on by romantic turmoil or global crisis—or both. Wylie’s own world certainly had turned upside down by the time she wrote “Wild Peaches” and the other poems that appeared in her first full volume in 1921. The privileged child of a high-ranking public servant, Elinor had lived in the Washington, D.C., area since she was young. She married a personally troubled local lawyer, whom she left for an older and more prominent attorney, Horace Wylie, in 1910. The following year, she and Horace fled the social persecution that followed their affair by boarding a boat to England, where Wylie began to read and write poetry seriously. By all accounts, they had planned to stay there for good, but when World War I broke out, Elinor and Horace feared their American passports would be scrutinized and their assumed names discovered. In 1916, they returned to America, married, and settled again in Virginia. The union didn’t last.
As the poem continues to spill its bounty of sunshine, fruit, and wild game, hints of death and violence color the pastoral daydream. The rhythms and sounds remain languid, however, as the “squirrels in their silver fur will fall / Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot,” and “we’ll trample bright persimmons, while you kill / Bronze partridge, speckled quail, and canvasback.” The endless harvest months yield “fruits red and purple, sombre-bloomed and black”; the snakes’ shed skins are “dwindled and harsh, dead-white and cloudy-clear.” Wylie envisions a sun that is brilliant but severe: it “burns from copper into brass.” It forestalls frost, never quite letting winter take hold; the puddles are only “roofed with glass” until noon, when the hot sun “makes the boys unfold / Their knitted mufflers.” In the second sonnet, Wylie reiterates that “peaches grow wild and pigs can live in clover,” and so we’re reminded that the speaker and her partner are not practiced farmers but hunter-gatherers amid this untended growth, where “strawberries go begging” and plums are ripe for plucking by blackbirds as well as humans. “We shall live well—we shall live very well,” goes the speaker’s blithe refrain, but her (or is it her partner’s?) assurance betrays their vulnerability to the vagaries of providence.
So the speaker is free but uneasy in this land of plenty—and she isn’t even there yet. Although she characterizes herself as a passive helpmeet in a homespun gown, she has visualized the flight into the wilderness acutely and completely. The scene is a synthesis of Wylie’s imagination and memory—the mid-Atlantic landscape as she experienced it during her youth in the late 19th century, and as a maturing poet hounded away—and forced back—to her homeland during a time of social change and personal instability. While Ezra Pound was exhorting American poets to “break the pentameter” and “make it new,” Wylie instead adopted traditional lyric forms and reached back to the Romantics and late-Victorian Aesthetes to find her poetic models. During a career that spanned only seven years, Wylie would ascend in a small but high-profile coterie of lyric poets that included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Louise Bogan. Though they decidedly were not associated with the modernist movement, they shared the modernists’ struggle to integrate increasingly complex cultural inheritances, and their openness to dramatizing conflicting interior states. In “Wild Peaches,” the speaker’s senses are exquisitely honed, but so is her skepticism.
Bogan praised this skill of Wylie’s for “fusing thought and passion into the most complex forms.” While the imagery of “Wild Peaches” is voluptuous, its prosody is genteel and well controlled, especially here in the middle two sonnets. Wylie carefully balances her ratio of poly- and monosyllabic words, as in these lines: “When strawberries go begging, and the sleek / Blue plums lie open to the blackbird’s beak,” and “Fat pockets dribble chestnuts as they pass.” She also has an ear for subtle repeated sounds within a line:
Peaches grow wild, and pigs can live in clover;
A barrel of salted herrings lasts a year;
The spring begins before the winter’s over.
By February you may find the skins
Of garter snakes and water moccasins
Dwindled and harsh, dead-white and cloudy-clear.
Irregular stresses energize the iambic pentameter, and end-stopped lines are balanced with enjambments:
The sun, which burns from copper into brass,
Melts these at noon, and makes the boys unfold
Their knitted mufflers; full as they can hold,
Fat pockets dribble chestnuts as they pass.
The last sonnet breaks through this well-wrought sensuousness, laying bare the speaker’s apprehensions:
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
Up until now, the poet has placed herself in the background, a mostly passive witness to her partner’s actions and the leisurely churn of the seasons, an observer of the world around her rather than of her own thoughts and feelings. Now the speaker’s declarations become terse and urgent, but she can’t clearly articulate her unease or hostility to her partner’s proposals. She couches her connection to her tradition in aesthetic, not spiritual terms (“I love the look, austere, immaculate, / Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones”), which points up her emotional and cultural distance from it. “There’s something in my very blood that owns / Bare hills,” she declares, exploiting what Wylie scholar Judith Farr calls her “johnnycake side” as she reaches to claim restraint as a birthright. As a further gesture of reserve, the sonnet’s octave is one line short. In stark but vague avowals (“something in this richness,” “something in my very blood”), Wylie has mounted a rejection of her partner’s overbearing escape plan. Now she takes out a finer brush and paints the New England landscape in clipped sibilants:
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Steering through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves. . . .
She then contrasts the Northern with the Southern landscape by collapsing the lush seasonal fantasia of the previous three sonnets to only four lines. The sibilance is softened by f’s and b’s and long vowels:
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
At once haughty and self-scrutinizing, the speaker’s confession dramatizes the anxiety of an aesthete as well as a lover. She mistrusts the easy sweetness of the lotus (or peach) and its power to turn the sensuous to senselessness. Her pious ancestors believed that worldly passions could pervert a passion for the world to come; Wylie seems to borrow their fundamentalism to understand her imagination’s lavish attention to the physical world and her urge to prune it back. Without spiritual conviction, her atavistic drive to pare surfaces to their essence leaves her vulnerable to natural law. Physical beauty, like passion, is contingent and impermanent; we can manipulate and revel in its bounty, but it is beyond our control and will one day overwhelm our efforts. “Wild Peaches” finds a lyric poet struggling to confront and transcend her inheritance in a rapidly changing landscape. It was a burden she shared with her modernist contemporaries.
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Extravagantly praised in her lifetime, the poet and novelist Elinor Wylie suffered a posthumous reversal in her reputation but has experienced something of a revival of interest among feminist critics since the 1980s.
Wylie was born in Somerville, New Jersey to a socially prominent family, and grew up in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. As the daughter of a lawyer who later became solicitor general of the United States, she was trained for the life of a debutante and a society wife, but she rebelled against that destiny and became notorious, in her time, for her multiple marriages and affairs. Her childhood was unhappy, according to Edward Kelly in the Dictionary of Literary Biography; her father had a mistress, her mother was a chronic hypochondriac, and at least one of her siblings, a brother, committed suicide. Another brother was rescued after jumping off a ship, and a sister died...
Poems By Elinor Wylie
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