Elinor Wylie was an American poet and novelist popular in the 1920s and 1930s. "She was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry."
Family and Childhood
Elinor Wylie was born Elinor Morton Hoyt in Somerville, New Jersey, into a socially prominent family. Her grandfather, Henry M. Hoyt, was a governor of Pennsylvania. Her aunt was Helen Hoyt, a minor poet. Her parents were Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr., who would be United States Solicitor General from 1903 to 1909; and Anne Morton McMichael (born July 31, 1861 in Pa.). Their other children were:
Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887 in Pa. – 1920 in New York City) who married
Alice Gordon Parker (1885–1951)
Constance A. Hoyt (May 20, 1889 in Pa. – 1923 in Bavaria, Germany) who married Ferdinand von Stumm-Halberg on March 30, 1910 in Washington, D.C.
Morton McMichael Hoyt (born April 4, 1899 in Washington, D.C.), three times married and divorced Eugenia Bankhead, known as "Sister" and sister of Tallulah Bankhead
Nancy McMichael Hoyt (born October 1, 1902 in Washington, D.C) romance novelist who wrote Elinor Wylie: The Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1935). She married Edward Davison Curtis; they divorced in 1932.
Elinor was educated at Miss Baldwin's School (1893–97), Mrs. Flint's School (1897–1901), and finally Holton-Arms School (1901–04). She was "trained for the life of a debutante and a society wife".
"As a girl she was already bookish—not in the languid or inactive sense but girded, embraced by books, between whose covers lay the word-perfect world she sought. She grew into a tall, dark beauty in the classic 1920s style. Some who knew her claimed she was the most striking woman they ever met."
Marriages and Scandal
The future Elinor Wylie "became notorious, in her time, for her multiple marriages and affairs". On the rebound from an earlier romance she met her first husband, Harvard graduate Philip Simmons Hichborn (1882–1912), the son of a rear-admiral. She eloped with him and they were married on December 13, 1906. She had a son by him, Philip Simmons Hichborn, Jr., born September 22, 1907 in Washington, D.C. However, "Hichborn, a would-be poet, was emotionally unstable", and Elinor found herself in an unhappy marriage.
She also found herself being stalked by Horace Wylie, "a Washington lawyer with a wife and three children", who "was 17 years older than Elinor. He stalked her for years, appearing wherever she was."
Following the death in November 1910 of Elinor's father, she left her husband and son, and began living with Wylie. "After being ostracized by their families and friends and mistreated in the press, the couple moved to England" where they lived "under the assumed name of Waring; this event caused a scandal in the Washington, D.C., social circles Elinor Wylie had frequented". Philip Simmons Hitchborn Sr. committed suicide in 1912.
With Horace Wylie's encouragement, in 1912 Elinor anonymously published Incidental Number, a small book of poems she had written in the previous decade.
Between 1914 and 1916, Elinor tried to have a second child, but "suffered several miscarriages ... as well as a stillbirth and ... a premature child who died after one week."
After Wylie's wife agreed to a divorce, the couple returned to the United States. Elinor and Horace Wylie married in 1916; "By that time, however, the couple were drawing apart."
Elinor began spending time in literary circles in New York City—"her friends there numbered John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Van Vechten, and ... William Rose Benét."
Her last marriage (in 1923) was to William Rose Benét (February 2, 1886 – May 4, 1950), who was part of her literary circle and brother of Stephen Vincent Benét. By the time of Wylie's third book of poetry, Trivial Breath in 1928, her marriage with Benét was also in trouble, and they had agreed to live apart. She moved to England and fell in love with the husband of a friend, Henry de Clifford Woodhouse, to whom she wrote a series of 19 sonnets which she published privately in 1928 as Angels and Earthly Creatures (also included in her 1929 book of the same name).
Elinor Wylie's literary friends encouraged her to submit her verse to Poetry magazine. Poetry published four of her poems, including what became "her most widely anthologized poem, 'Velvet Shoes'", in May 1920. With Benét now acting as her informal literary agent, "Wylie left her second husband and moved to New York in 1921". The Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) says: "She captivated the literary world with her slender, tawny-haired beauty, personal elegance, acid wit, and technical virtuosity."
In 1921, Wylie's first commercial book of poetry, Nets to Catch the Wind, was published. The book, "which many critics still consider to contain her best poems," was an immediate success. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Louis Untermeyer praised the work. The Poetry Society awarded her its Julia Ellsworth Ford Prize.
In 1923 she published Black Armor, which was "another successful volume of verse". The New York Times enthused: "There is not a misplaced word or cadence in it. There is not an extra syllable."
1923 also saw the publication of Wylie's first novel, Jennifer Lorn, to considerable fanfare. Van Vechten "organized a torchlight parade through Manhattan to celebrate its publication". She would write "four historical novels widely admired when first published, although interest in them diminished in the masculine era of the 1940s and 50s".
She worked as the poetry editor of Vanity Fair magazine between 1923 and 1925. She was an editor of Literary Guild, and a contributing editor of The New Republic, from 1926 through 1928.
Wylie was an "admirer of the British Romantic poets, and particularly of Shelley, to a degree that some critics have seen as abnormal". "A friend claimed she was 'positively dotty' about Shelley, not just making him her model in art and life but on occasion actually 'seeing' the dead poet." She wrote a 1926 novel, The Orphan Angel, in which "the great young poet is rescued from drowning off an Italian cape and travels to America, where he encounters the dangers of the frontier."
By the time of Wylie's third book of poetry, Trivial Breath in 1928, her marriage with Benét was also in trouble, and they had agreed to live apart. She moved to England and fell in love with the husband of a friend, Henry de Clifford Woodhouse, to whom she wrote a series of 19 sonnets which she published privately in 1928 as Angels and Earthly Creatures (also included in her 1929 book of the same name).
Elinor Wylie died of a stroke at Benét's New York apartment, while working with him preparing the 1929 Angels and Earthly Creatures for publication.
Wylie's "highly polished, articulate, and deeply emotional verse shows the influence of the metaphysical poets," such as John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell. If her poetry is derivative of anyone, though, that would be "of the British Romantic poets, and particularly of Shelley," whom she admired "to a degree that some critics have seen as abnormal."
In her first book, Nets to Catch the Wind, "Stanzas and lines were quite short, and the effect of her images was of a highly detailed, polished surface. Often, her poems expressed a dissatisfaction with the realities of life on the part of a speaker who aspired to a more gratifying world of art and beauty." Louis Untermeyer wrote that the book "impresses immediately because of its brilliance ... which, at first, seems to sparkle without burning.... It is the brilliance of moon-light corruscating on a plain of ice. But if Mis. Wylie seldom allows her verses to grow agitated, she never permits them to remain dull.... in 'August' the sense of heat is conveyed by tropic luxuriance and contrast; in 'The Eagle and the Mole' she lifts didacticism to a proud level ... never has snow-silence been more unerringly communicated than in 'Velvet Shoes.' Other notable poems include "Wild Peaches," "A Proud Lady," "Sanctuary," "Winter Sleep," "Madman's Song," "The Church-Bell," and "A Crowded Trolley Car."
In Black Armor (1923), "the intellect has grown more fiery, the mood has grown warmer, and the craftsmanship is more dazzling than ever.... she varies the perfect modulation with rhymes that are delightfully acrid and unique departures which never fail of success ... from the nimble dexterity of a rondo like 'Peregrine' to the introspective poignance of 'Self Portrait,' from the fanciful 'Escape' to the grave mockery of 'Let No Charitable Hope.'
Trivial Breath (1928) "is the work of a poet in transition. At times the craftsman is uppermost; at times the creative genius."
Wylie's biographer Stanley Olson called the sonnets that begin 1929's Angels and Earthly Creatures "perhaps, her finest achievement.... The love in these lyrics is not a private love, not a variety of confession, but an abstracted one.... The nineteen sonnets are paced with strength, energy and undeniable feeling, sustained as a group by shifting through the complexities and vicissitudes of love." Untermeyer also praised the sonnets, but added: "The other poems share this intensity. 'This Corruptible' is both visionary and philosophic; 'O Virtuous Light' deals with that piercing clarity, the intuition ... The other poems are scarcely less uplifted, finding their summit in 'Hymn to Earth, which is one of her deeper poems and one which is certain to endure."
Wylie's four novels "are delicately wrought and filled with ironic fancy." They were "widely admired when first published, although interest in them diminished in the masculine era of the 1940s and 50s."