Meet Edith Wharton, the poet

New poems unearthed in book that shines light on late author's career in verse

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LENOX — If you only know Edith Wharton as the novelist of "The Age of Innocence," "The House of Mirth" and "Ethan Frome," you're only reading but a few chapters of the late author's writing output.

In addition to her works on design and architecture, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was also a prolific poet, publishing about 100 poems during her lifetime and writing roughly 100 more. In her memoir, "A Backward Glance," Wharton described poetry as "my chiefest passion and my greatest joy."

"Her fiction allowed her to explore relations among people in a realistic social world, usually with irony and humor. But the land of her poems is deeper, more heartfelt, and quite different from the land of her stories. It is a romantic place, sublime, mythic, and often painful," longtime Wharton scholar Irene Goldman-Price writes in the introduction to "Selected Poems of Edith Wharton" (Scribner; $18), a new collection of 134 works that is edited by Goldman-Price. Due out Tuesday, the book includes 50 previously unpublished poems, most of which were jotted down in a notebook housed at Indiana University's The Lilly Library.

"It's been there for a very long time, but people have kind of ignored it or picked and chosen a couple of poems here or there to publish," Goldman-Price told The Eagle in advance of a book launch event at The Mount on Sunday, July 14.

The Great Barrington resident also noted that Wharton often enclosed poems in books and letters sent to friends. Many of them now live in academic archives, such as Yale University's, that Goldman-Price visited during her research.

"There may be a couple that I haven't found," Goldman-Price said of Wharton's lifetime poetic output.

Though Wharton's fiction has been a source of critical and commercial fascination for decades, her poetry has been overlooked.

"There have been, at most, five, maybe, academic articles about it, and there are thousands about everything else," said Goldman-Price, who has taught at Boston University, Penn State University and Ball State University during her academic career and edited "My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann."

Poetry appealed to Wharton during her youth. By 16, she had produced enough poems for her parents to privately publish a volume called "Verses." Rhythm was important to Wharton.

"She preferred American poet Sidney Lanier's method of scansion using notes and rests, as if the line of poetry were a line of music, rather than the traditional stress and unstress markings that were derived from scanning Greek and Latin," Goldman-Price writes in the book's introduction.

Still, well into her life, Wharton was anxious about her poetry, perhaps because she was so widely read.

"I think it stems from her brilliant critical ability, that she knows the accomplishments of [William] Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold and [John] Keats and [Robert] Browning and Dante [Alighieri], she knows what they've done," Goldman-Price said. "She reads Dante in the original Italian and translates about half of it. I think she felt that she could never live up to that."

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It didn't stop magazines from publishing her poems and, by the end of her life, she had released two volumes: "Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse" (1909) and "Twelve Poems" (1926). In "Selected Poems," which follows the Louis Auchincloss-edited "Edith Wharton: Selected Poems" (2005), Goldman-Price draws from across Wharton's catalog, indicating (or approximating) years of composition, providing background information about the poems' creation and organizing the works by themes, such as "Nature's Lure" and "Arresting Characters."

"I think you have to dig into the poems to appreciate them," Goldman-Price said. "They're in an older style. They're more Victorian than they are 20th-century, even some of the ones written in the 20th century."

Goldman-Price is particularly fond of the poems in the first section, "Landscapes of the Imagination."

"I think poetry is a place where she lets her imagination run in a way that she never can in fiction or nonfiction," she said.

She cited "Les Salettes" and "Beaulieu Wood" as two of her favorites in the section. The latter was unearthed from The Lilly Library and describes a Mediterranean Sea-gazing scene, reflecting on the area's history. The editor's favorite new poem in the collection, however, is an untitled 1913 work that begins, "I have had your love."

"And now I see my face in every door / And hear, o'er head, my pain that walks the floor," Wharton writes at one point.

"By the time she writes it, she's a mistress of form. She uses Spanish quintain, and she fuses sound and form," Goldman-Price said of the work. "It's just a heartbreaking poem about having been loved and left."

More heartbreak arrives when considering the inclusion of a different untitled work that opens, "As birds from some green tropic bloom." It's the only poem in the collection that is published courtesy of The Mount, Wharton's old Lenox home. Wharton had written the poem inside a copy of "Artemis to Actaeon" that she gave to journalist Morton Fullerton, a man with whom she famously had an affair. The Mount now owns the book.

"The poem is about how she'd written poetry all her life, and all of these feelings had come out," Goldman-Price said," and like birds flying in the air thousands of miles for migration, she never knew where those poems would go."

At the poem's end, Wharton concludes that they'll land "[o]ne wondering moment in your breast," meaning Fullerton's. But Goldman-Price doesn't believe that the man ever read his lover's book, let alone this particular poem. Like so many, he may have missed an opportunity to learn more about Wharton through her verse.

"The only poem that was open was the one that he knew was about him. All the rest of the book was tightly closed," Goldman-Price said. "You can tell that if he read it, he sure didn't study it or pore over it."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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