Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Foremother poet: Winifred Welles 1893 – 1939

Written for the "Foremother poet" series on the Women's Poetry listserv: all poems here are by Winifred Welles.


My shoes fall on the house-top that is so far beneath me.
I have hung my hat forever on the sharp church spire,
Now what shall seem the hill but a moment of surmounting,
The height but a place to dream of something higher!

Wings? Oh not for me, I need no other pinions
Than the beating of my heart within my breast;
Wings are for the dreamer with a bird-like longing,
Whose dreams come home at eventide to nest.

The timid folk beseech me, the wise ones warn me,
They say that I shall never grow to stand so high;
But I climb among the hills of cloud and follow vanished lightning,
I shall stand knee-deep in thunder with my head against the sky.

Tiptoe, at last, upon a pinnacle of sunset,
I shall greet the death-like evening with laughter from afar,
Nor tremble in the darkness nor shun the windy midnight,
For by evening I shall be a star.

From her first book, _The Hesitant Heart_ (1919): the phrase “knee-deep in thunder” was the title of a novel by Sheila Moon, what we would now call a YA novel, which I read when I was very young and which is the thread that led me eventually to Welles.

I can find very little biographical information about Winifred Welles. Her last book, _The Shape of Memory_ (1944), published posthumously, includes both a foreword by William Benet and an introduction by friend and fellow poet Louise Townsend Nicholl. From these, we learn that Welles was born in Norwich Town, Connecticut; throughout her life, her poetry would reflect New England country or small-town life and landscapes. She married Harold Shearer (I can't find the year) and lived with him until his death about a year before hers; she continued to use her birth name, at least in her writing. No children are mentioned.

Among other things, Welles wrote part of a novel about Emily Dickinson, which was finished after her death by Laura Benet and was published under the title _Come Slowly, Eden_. She was a friend of Kenneth Slade Alling and she and her husband shared a house with Elinor Wylie. Welles' life must have been permeated with poetry at almost every turn.

Four People Reading

This is a quiet, beautiful event,
Four people reading poetry together,
Two men, two women, each in turn intent
On one old volume bound in sober leather;
Fixed in one trance four minds all different,
Like various landscapes in one lovely weather.

Not with stern drumbeats in one rhythm bound,
On some incredible, brave march proceeding,
Nor in a dance, carefree, with scarves enwound,
Could they seem closer, happier, more unheeding,
Than in the spell of this one poem's sound,
Spoken by their four voices gravely reading.

From her fourth book, _Blossoming Antlers_(1933). Nicholl states that the poem being read on this occasion was “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

Welles wrote extensively about nature, but some of her most interesting poetry takes the form of character sketches. Her fifth book, _A Spectacle for Scholars_(1935), consists of four longish narratives, each about a different person; _The Shape of Memory_ has an entire section made up of character poems:

Mrs. Peabody on the Hilltop

The white road had one shady place, pine-wooded.
Drawn up beneath that scented, glinting green,
The carriage waited and the coachman nodded.
The horses' haunches glistened with a sheen
As glossy as black cherries; heads together,
They drooped, or drowsed, or snorted softly to each other.

Meanwhile old Mrs. Peabody would be going--
Her black silk rustling and agleam with jet--
Up on the hill where wind was always blowing.
Her bonnet snugly tied, its grim aigrette
Prodded the cloud, indignant and impressive.
Slowly she climbed and breathed, calm, purposeful, and massive.

High on the path, where the blown weeds were bending,
She faced dim-veiled valley, hill on hill
In far blue-folded distance never-ending.
She stood alone in solitude, so still
She might have been abashed by beauty, dreaming--
Instead she gathered strength before she started screaming.

Old Mrs. Peabody for some strong hunger
Served as uneasy prison. Never assuaged,
She knew some violence paced in her, some anger
Swung its striped head and glared, too closely caged.
It watched, she guarded. Even at night it fastened
Its molten eyes upon her. Even in sleep she listened.

So to the hilltop, when she felt the lashing
Of the gaunt, primal tail too harsh to bear.
So she would scream, and screaming found refreshing.
And none came through the field to know or care
That Mrs. Peabody was exercising
Her private wildcat, though they made a pair
That almost anyone would find surprising.

Welles challenged conventional morality in this poem and others: “The Love-Child” and “Miss Fitch's Husband”, both also from _The Shape of Memory_, describe respectively a woman who is cast out by her town for the sin of being born out of wedlock, and a married woman who nonetheless lives alone-- “reclaimed/Virginity, stout and intact”-- though her husband regularly comes to visit her. The last poem in _Blossoming Antlers_, “Miss Calkins and the Centaur”, tells of a woman picking blackberries, who is attacked by a centaur and kills it with garden shears.


Far off, in that high, lonesome place,
Miss Calkins walked along unhurt,
Put on her hat, and wiped her face,
And frowned to see her darkened skirt.
She knelt and drank. She scoured her stains
With sand as fine and clear as glass.
She scraped her shears on those gold grains,
And dried them on the tender grass.

So calmed and cooled, she homeward strolled,
And through the town at forenoon went,
And many met but nothing told,
Being both proud and reticent.
Miss Calkins kept her secret well--
Stately, discreet, fastidious,
She never felt her hour in Hell
A subject that she need discuss.

Only her shelves were not the same.
Where jellies glistened, glassed and clear,
With apple-gold and currant-flame
No somber blackberry gleamed that year.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

1 comment:

Dan Gambiera said...

"Climb" just hasn't been the same since a certain issue of Batman