Periodic Poetry: Millay (Part I)

The Spectra of Mr. Ficke

“Poet’s poet” is an epitaph usually conferred with kindness, as an excuse for a friend. It means the poet was soon forgotten after a brief spell of minor celebrity. Even his remaining peers’ can’t explain why things did not turn out differently. It’s Fame’s consolation prize. Arthur Davison Ficke was a poet’s poet.

That he is unknown today was not the conscious fault of his father, Charles A. Ficke, an ambitious and relentless self-made man who willed that Arthur go to Harvard and then return to Davenport to be a lawyer. That was to be the foundation for an intellectual figure of consequence. It was not prudent to rely on poetry alone to maintain one’s status in society. And status was something that took Charles so much effort to achieve.

Charles A. Ficke was born in Germany (actually the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) in 1850. Two years later the family had settled in Scott County on a farm they bought near Long Grove, Iowa. Although his father was a well-to-do merchant, the family left to avoid the reactionary backlash to the unsuccessful democratic revolutions of 1848. Eastern Iowa was a haven for German refugees at the time; in fact, the location was recommended by another emigree to whom Charles’s father had loaned the money for his settlement. The Ficke farm nearly failed in those early years, as a result of the combination of lack of know-how, poor livestock purchases, crop failure and overly generous lending to neighbors, who, when their own crops failed, were unable to repay the elder Ficke. The Fickes were not ones to surrender, so through relentless determination they willed the farm to produce. Sacrifices, however, had to be made. Charles did not attend secondary school; instead, at the age of 12 he became an apprentice clerk at the general store of his sister and her husband in Cedar County. After three years, Charles enrolled in a commercial college then took jobs as an insurance clerk, then bank clerk, all the while trying to read law. When the cashier job he was waiting for was given to another, he decided to attend law school. He knew a lawyer who studied at Albany Law School, so he headed to upstate New York for his legal education. He visited Germany and other parts of Europe before he returned to Davenport to open a law office.

The Ficke home in Davenport, acquired by Charles in 1893. This 4 floor house capped by a belvedere contained 38 rooms. It is now a frat house. (Photo by David Sebben ©2009; used with permission.)

Back in Iowa, he became active in Republican Party politics, especially among the Germans of eastern Iowa. (German Forty-Eighters were by disposition anti-slavery and therefore naturally Republican.) As the Civil War receded from memory, the German immigants’ attachment to the Party of Lincoln frayed over the issue of prohibition. Since its early settlement, Iowa had anti-liquor sentiments. By 1882 an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting all alcohol, passed by the Republican legislature, won approval in a state-wide vote against strong opposition in German areas including Scott County. Charles switched parties and to his surprise was elected county attorney as a Democrat in 1886. In 1890 he was elected to the first of two terms as Mayor of Davenport.

Charles was a man on the move professionally as well. In addition to his law office he opened a farm mortgage company which made secured loans for improvements during a period of a great land rush in Iowa. The business flourished and expanded to surrounding states. He used the knowledge he gained to invest in large real estate holdings. By 1882 his prospects were such that he was able to marry a daughter of the lawyer for the very bank he once clerked in. Frances Davison would team up with Charles to become pillars of the community. She would searve as trustee of the Davenport library for over 30 years. In 1892 Frances was an original member of the Tuesday Club, an exclusive club for “intellectual improvement” for younger women. In 1896 Charles joined the new Contemporary Club—a by-invitation-only group (who called themselves “the Immortals”) who in rotation researched and delivered an address on a current issue, followed by opportunity for debate. Charles and Frances would have one son and two daughters. They invested in Arthur their hopes for a cultured, erudite and refined member of the Davenport elite.

Arthur was given the kind of upbringing that is usually enjoyed only by old monied families. Raised Unitarian like his mother’s family, he acquired refined manners, enjoyed international travel and acquired a taste for literature and art. (As he became wealthy, Charles himself began buying more and more objects of fine art, much of which now resides in Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.) Arthur was encouraged to write—his high school newspaper published poems, essays and short stories by him. He was thus exactly the kind of student Harvard was looking for. Son of a wealthy, midwestern pillar of the community, with a practical orientation and yet with a literary bent, Arthur Ficke became another of President Eliot’s means to refurbish Harvard from a school that taught gentleman the classics to one that took sons of wealthy pillars of the community in order to transformed them into wealthy pillars of the community themselves.

At Harvard Ficke took classes with William James, Kuno Franke and George Santayana. More importantly became friends with Witter (“Hal”) Bynner, an upperclassman who was involved in all literary activities on campus. Ficke and Bynner would remain friends for life. Of the two of them, Bynner was more ambitious for Literature. He tracked the new voices, sought out up-and-comers and ingratiated himself with the established. It was Bynner who arranged for Pound’s publication in the United States, and he championed and published A.E. Housman in McClure’s, also the first time in America. Bynner befriended D.H. Lawrence (he became a minor, and unsympathetic, character in The Plumed Serpent), Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, Carl Van Vechten, Henry James, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Kenneth Rexroth — in short everyone.

Ficke was less adventurous in literature and more conventional in lifestyle. Nevertheless, he immersed himself in campus literary pursuits and spent free time writing poetry. He wrote for and became president of the literary magazine Advocate. He was so respected (or at least well known) for his poetry that he was elected class poet, a class day office just below class orator. Before he was graduated, he had poems in The Smart Set (“The Meadow,” September 1904; “The Siren,” November 1904) and Scribner’s Magazine (“The Shadow of Beauty,” December 1904; “The Hill of Stars,” April 1905). The July 1905 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, published just after graduation, had his “Raleigh’s Song.”

Arthur Davison Ficke could not be contained by Davenport.

After graduation Ficke took a 10-month trip around the world with his parents. (Bynner was required to immediately go into journalism.) In Bombay he met Maurice Browne, an English schoolteacher and aspiring poet, who would found Samurai Press when he returned to Surrey. Browne also became Ficke’s life-long friend when he moved to Chicago in 1910. There Browne founded the experimental theater, The Chicago Little Theater.

When Ficke returned to Davenport he continued writing poetry. His “Song in a Garden” appeared in the June 1906 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine and “Brahma” in the October issue. Poems inspired by his trip also appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and Smart Set. These and others he sent off to Maurice Browne who published Ficke’s first book, From the Isles: A Series of Songs Out of Greece (Norwich: Samurai Press: 1907). “Brahma” and others were collected the same year in The Happy Princess and Other Poems (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co: 1907). The New York Times said that The Happy Princess was one of the few “volumes of distinction” from that summer. The reviewer even called Ficke’s title poem a “beautiful phantasy” inspired by the “modern” (!) William Morris.

Meanwhile, he enrolled in law school in Davenport. He taught English for a while at the University of Iowa. (He lectured on the history of Arthurian Legends.) In October 1907 he married Evelyn B. Blunt in Springfield, Massachusetts, a wedding described by locals as a “brilliant Episcopalian nuptial event.” He eventually joined his father’s law firm and was on track to becoming a local pillar. But it was all stultifying. Fortunately his practice required him to take frequent trips to Chicago where he found Floyd Davis (who had lived briefly in Davenport as a socialist journalist until he left in 1907) and soon became part of Chicago literary circles which included Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. His trips became escapes from what he called in his diary “that loathsome atmosphere of small-town business and domestic infelicity.”

Ficke was handsome, dapper and sophisticated. He had the William Powell manner two decades before William Powell had it. (His 1913 verse drama Mr. Faust begins with three men in a library with a fireplace, “a large handsome room panelled in dark oak and lined with rows of books in open book-shelves.” The men are in evening dress. “All three are smoking, and tall highball glasses stand within their reach.” For men like Ficke, the Gilded Age hadn’t ended.) He enjoyed the Bohemian intemperance of the Chicago literati, although he himself was not particularly decadent. Impoverished journalists and artists would in turn be grateful for his expensive tastes and ability to pay for them. His friend, journalist and poet Eunice Tietjens reminisced that “when he came we had lunches and dinners at the choicest restaurants, ordered with a nicety of understanding of the graces of the table and of fine wines.” Writers liked him for his impeccable manners and literary outlook. Theodore Dreiser remarked on his “seemingly changeless poetic response to life, — lovely through sombre or gay moods or emotions that appear to me to bubble or sweep upwards to expression — as water rises over grass and moss in a dell or over the hard rocks and hot sands of a desert . . .”

Cover of the first issue of Monroe’s Poetry

Ficke began to be published in the literary journals in addition to the popular magazines. When Harriet Monroe published the first issue of Poetry in October 1912 it was Ficke’s “Poetry” that was the very first poem. (Ezra Pound came later in the issue.) His verse also appeared in the first issue of Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, and in the first volume of Midland and, later, the Saturday Review of Literature. Ficke’s poetic tribute to Rupert Brooke shared the June 1915 issue of Poetry with (and preceded) T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In 1913 Edwin Björkman began his series “Modern Drama” with Ficke’s blank verse drama Mr. Faust (New York: Mitchell Kennelley: 1913), even though it was only Ficke’s second play. (The New York Times advised Ficke to drop the blank verse and develop the characters; nevertheless it concluded that the work was “masterful” and represented “significant thought.”)

A century later his poetry at the time seems oddly tame, with traditional forms and conventional subjects, as a section from his paean to “Poetry” in the first issue of Poetry shows. It also shows that Ficke had a Romantic view of the art — a view that would shortly be assaulted by the Modernists. (The “it” in the following stanza refers to “poetry.”):

It is a refuge from the stormy days,
Breathing the peace of a remoter world
Where beauty, like the musing dusk of even,
Enfolds the spirit in its silver haze;
While far away, with glittering banners furled,
The west lights fade, and stars come out in heaven.

But 1912 was not 1915, when the Chicago Renaissance finally spread to poetry with Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (the following year would appear Sandburg’s Chicago Poems) and when an even greater upheaval was beginning in England with Pound and Eliot. Even in 1915, however, Ficke’s kind of traditionalism was still preferable to knowledgeable, established critics. William Dean Howells in the September 1915 issue of Harper’s, for example, demeaned what he called the “shredded prose” of Amy Lowell’s free verse in Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co: c1914). By contrast, Howells praised the following sonnet by Ficke for being “delicately and truthfully studied”:

Sonnet LIII
from Sonnets from a Portrait-Painter (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1915)
by Arthur Davison Ficke

There are strange shadows fostered of the moon,
More numerous than the clear-cut shade of day. . . .
Go forth, when all the leaves whisper of June,
Into the dusk of swooping bats at play,—
Or go into that late November dusk
When hills take on the noble lines of death,
And on the air the faint astringent musk
Of rotting leaves pours vaguely troubling breath.
Then shall you see shadows whereof the sun
Knows nothing,—aye, a thousand shadows there
Shall leap and flicker and stir and stay and run,
Like petrels of the changing foul or fair,—
Like ghosts of twilight, of the moon, of him
Whose homeland lies past each horizon’s rim.

Ficke himself was not a reactionary. He defended both T.S. Eliot and Vachel Lindsay after bad reviews and later endorsed the Imagists Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. Through Monroe and Bynner he kept abreast of the new schools, and he never disparaged experimental or avant-garde poets. But Bynner, quite on his own in this, developed an intense dislike for Amy Lowell and the Imagists in general and especially their theorizing. In the latter regard they were no worse than the adherents or practitioners of Vorticism, Surrealism or Dadaism. But Bynner (as he tells it) was baited by a friend, who told him that it was at least something to found a school. Bynner said it was nothing and set out to prove it. So in 1916 Bynner contacted Ficke to entice him to help devise a “school” of poetry called Spectrism. Bynner tempted him with their mutual dislike of Wallace Stevens, who graduated Harvard a year before Bynner. Fiske agreed. (Originally the book that resulted from the collaboration had a pointed reference to Stevens, but it was deleted in the final version.) They fabricated its two practitioners, Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (Bynner and Ficke, respectively) and their respective poetic styles. They spent 10 days in February 1916 writing all the poems which comprised Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1916).

Before the book came out in the fall, Bynner set out dropping hints about the school in lectures and conversations with poets and critics. He even sent the draft of an article (which contained a reference to the Spectrists) to Amy Lowell. She disapproved of his views on modern poetry, she wrote him, but had never heard of the Spectrists. Ficke wrote a piece, under the name Anne Knish, which Forum published that summer with sample poems. William Marion Reedy’s Mirror reprinted the article. (This despite that Reedy had not long before had a discussion with Bynner in which he agreed with Bynner about absurdity of modern schools.) The New Republic (only two years old) was panting for the publication and requested Bynner himself to review the book. Bynner had engineered the biggest rollout possible for a new school of poetry.

In the book, Morgan addressed the dedication:

TO REMY DE GOURMONT

Poet, a wreath!—
No matter how we had combined our flowers,
You would have worn them — being ours. . . .
On you, on them, the showers—
O roots beneath!
Emanuel Morgan.

Anne Knish prefaced the poems with an overview of Spectric theory:

An explanation of the term “Spectric” will indicate something of the nature of the technique which it describes. “Spectric” has, in this connection, three separate but closely related meanings. In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet’s initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world,—those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth. These spectres are the manifold spell and true essence of objects,—like the magic that would inevitably encircle a mirror from the hand of Helen of Troy.

William Carlos Williams said that he admired the poems as a whole quite sincerely. Edgar Lee Masters wrote Emanuel Morgan: “You have an idea in the sense that places do have an essence, everything has a noumena back of its appearance and it is this that poetry should discover. … Spectrism if you must name it is at the core of things.” The January 1917 issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse was handed over to the Spectrists. Harriet Moore accepted poems by Morgan, but the hoax was exposed before she had to print them. Otherwise, Poetry would have endorsed Morgan. (It perhaps proves a point of the Spectrists if Moore thought the poems good when she thought them seriously written but rejected them when other circumstances were known. The worth of modern poetry must depend on who wrote it and what the intentions were, not simply the poem itself.)

A year after the book came out, Lloyd R. Morris published The Young Idea: An Anthology of Opinion Concerning the Spirit and Aims of Contemporary American Literature (New York: Duffield & Co: 1917). It contained edited letters from poets describing their view of the state of poetry of the day. The book contained the views of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Fiske (they were in the group called “Empiricits”) as well as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (they were in the group called “Romanticists”)—the section on Knish followed directly after the section on Amy Lowell. The reasonable Ficke placed the new schools in historical perspective:

In [the field of poetry] there has been of late so striking an awakening of interest that important new work may be expected. The manifest eccentricities and absurdities of the “new schools” are certainly no worse than the banalities and sentimentalities of the old ones; in fact, the vigorous shock which some of these aberrations have administered to the moribund body of poetry is distinctly galvanizing. Goethe’s words, used to describe the ultra-romantic excesses of French literature in his own day, apply accurately to our present situation: “The extremes and excrescences will gradually disappear; but at last this great advantage will remain— besides a freer form, richer and more diversified subjects will have been attained, and no object of the broadest world and the most manifold life will be any longer excluded as unpoetical.” We are today experiencing, in poetry almost as markedly as in painting, one of those periodic outbursts of unbridled life by which alone can an art be kept from hardening into a fossil.

The Eastern European Jew Anne Knish wrote dismissively of the other American schools:

Your new movement in poetry seems to me too closely derived from a French movement that is already ancient history to Continental Europe. Young people without genius slip into this stale current and have much fun; but many of their tragic poems are of humorous effect, I think, and when they would be funny I sometimes weep. It is like a piece of cheese left over at breakfast. So little is basically grounded on a theory of æsthetic that is of new import; and these young people fear the classic æsthetic as they would poison. They need not; though we seek new drinks to become drunken with, the doctrine of Aristoteles [sic] remains the staff of life, the bread.

We who are of the Spectric School of poets have tried, contradicting no ancient truth, to give fresh interpretation to classic gospels. If our æsthetic dogma be sound, the other poets will before long become aware. But these are in American poetry days only of beginning; and I think these people know nothing of European literary history who speak so much of “new, new, new!”

It was just outrageous enough not to be doubted. Neither her name (Slav-Yiddish for “bun,” it referred to the fried pastry-wrapped meat snacks that had been introduced into New York only a decade before) nor her supposed background (she claimed to have published in Russian) nor her flamboyant provocations proved that anything was amiss. Her poetry was overstrung, but Knish often probed her barely excavated Freudian desires, mixing them with memories.

ANNE KNISH
Opus 750
[From Spectra (1916)]

SOUNDS, pure sounds—
Nothing—
Vibrancies of the air—
And yet—

This summer night
There are crickets shrilling
Beyond the deep bassoon of frogs.
They cease for a moment
As the rattling clangor
Of the trolley
Bumps by.
I hear footsteps
Hollow on the pavement
Now deserted
And blank of sound.
They die.
The crickets now are sleeping;
Even the leaves
Grow still.

And slowly
Out of the blankness, out of the silence,
Emerges on soundless wings
The long sweet-sloping
Rise and fall of far viol notes,—
The mad Nirvana,
The faint and spectral
Dream-music
Of my heart’s desire.

The Spectric hoax lasted almost two years until The Dial (April 25, 1918) outed Ficke: “the interruption of the war . . . gave ‘Miss Knish’ a commission as Captain Arthur Davison Ficke.” With Ficke in France, Bynner told the whole story to New York Times Magazine. They drew different conclusions:

“And the worst of it is … is that I can’t get rid of Emanuel Morgan! I find now that I write like him without the slightest effort — I don’t know where he leaves off and I begin. He’s a boomerang! Why, Ficke and I never attracted half the attention with our serious, bona fide work that we did with this piece of fooling. Just as he was leaving for France Ficke said to me — and there was a distinct note of grief in his voice:

“‘Do you know, some of my best work is in “Spectra!”’”

Perhaps it’s true, who’s to say? Here is one of Anne Knish’s poems from Others, January 1917, that helps that case.

ANNE KNISH
Opus 380
[from Others (January 1917)]

I had the moon for a reason.
Was it not enough?
You were unreasonable
You wanted love.
But oh the moon was my reason!
Sigh like a dove
And you shall never do better.
I had the moon.

Mr. Earle and his Affinities

Ficke’s connection to this week’s poem, however, began before the War and before the Spectrism hoax; in fact, during the year that Poetry first began publishing.

In 1911, Ferdinand Earle (at other times known as Ferdinand Pinney Earle, like his father), advertised that he was putting up $1,000 for the best three poems to be published in his anthology Lyric Year (which would also published the 100 best poems submitted). The anthology was to be published by Mitchell Kennerley, the New York publisher who brought out the collections of many of the new poets. In some announcements there was confusion whether he was to be the editor.

Earle was an odd character who fascinated the press endlessly.* Earle’s father, a brigadier general in the New York National Guard (having entered the silk stocking Seventh Regiment in 1862), was a hotelier like his own father and three brothers. The General was grandson of Connecticut Judge Benjamin Pinney, a man so blue-blooded that he claimed title to land in Ellington from an Indian deed to an ancesstor in the 1670s. General Earle at one time operated four of the toniest New York hotels, including the New Nederland (built by William Waldorf Astor) and bought (and died in) the Jumel Mansion, Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of New York and later the home of Aaron Burr. (Madame Eliza Jumel, who’s career spanned prostitution to polite society was supposedly General Earle’s ancesstor.) Needless to say the general and his wife were prominent socialites. The press dutifully recorded what balls they were invited to; the squabbles and reconcilations of the members of the Seventh Regiment Veterans’ Club; his political participation (he was elected one of the vice-presidents of the national Democratic convention sponsored by the  delegates of the Business Men’s Democratic Association in 1891); his business disputes with Astor; and so forth.

Ferdinand was not inclined toward the hotel business so his parents sent him to Paris to study painting. He studied under Whistler and Bouguereau (so he claimed). He wrote verse on the Left Bank and took classes in poetry at Oxford. Back in the U.S. he published his Sonnets, first privately in an edition of 25, then Kennerley picked it up (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1910). He told the New York Times: “I have endeavored to introduce a new sonnet-form, which seems to Mr. George Sylvester Viereck to be needed in English. The simile and metaphor are treated as leitmotifs in several of the sonnets.” The chief feature of this “new” form of sonnet, neither Shakespearean nor Petrarchan, was the re-arrangement of the rhymes, so it had two sets of three rhymed lines. Here is one of them (He told his friends that he was attempting to live down his past, which this poem, thought The Times, might be a reference):

And Man is Flesh and Mind and Spirit 
by Ferdinand Earle.

I dread to look upon my many selves,
The different natures dwelling in my soul:
The ugly reptile reeking in his hole,
The chained tiger chafing at control.
And oh, the madcap band of cruel elves
Mocking the lonely poet as he delves
Amongst life’s volumes, seeking on the shelves
Of memory his heart’s tear-written scroll.

A golden glory trembles on the air,
The gleam of spirit-wings is over me,
And to my ear a wondrous melody
Whispers its benediction. May I dare
To love my Seraph Self until I share
His god-like power, his deep serenity.

Ferdinand P. Earle in Hollywood after he lost his “full brown beard,” his expression “which … he believes to come from the artistic temperment” and his affinities.

Another of his self-reformation sonnets was entitled “Be Thou Ever Wistful” (“… if passionate desires / Wake like a wind and amorous thunders wed, / Then be thou ever wistful, for above / Thy midnight madness frown the starry fires / Of fate: lest love’s own lightnings strike ye dead.”)

His book also had a sonnet of a dream Judas had on the night of the crucifixion, and one on God’s feelings at the Last Judgment. The Times found a “peculiar interest” in light of his past in his “tribute” to Woman (“Yet Woeman winks / At Woeman, looking wondrous wise, and thinks / A blushing truth, and answers: I made man.”) The Independent (June 22, 1911) said of the book: “While we cannot say they are ‘alas! too few,’ some of them have the merit, not to be despised, of attempting a new arrangement of the octet. … Many of the sonnets are descriptive, and they are more fanciful than imaginative, and show a fair mastery of the art of versification, without any very high sense of the ‘high honor’ of the sonnet.”

The past that Earle claimed he was putting behind him — his “ugly reptilian” nature (as The Times surmised) — was his spoiled, self-centered indifference to others (particularly wives), a character trait that got him noticed. William Marion Reedy, a mainstream publisher, normally a champion of poets (although often ascerbic and conventional), considered that this trait rendered him a “vain and eccentric ass.” Reedy missed “unctuous.”

Earle’s first wife was from his Paris student days. Earle told The Times that about a year after marrying her and building a house in Monroe, New York, they began, as he put it, “to notice, that — how shall I say it? — that we were not tuned together. … It is not that we are incompatible; that is not quite the word. We were like two musical notes that do not go together. … We saw that we were not made for each other — not affinitive at all.” Separation was complicated by the birth of a son, which Earle said he was quite fond of. Eventually, however, he did what he felt had to be done and on June 10, 1907, he left for France to visit his sick brother. While there, he “fell in” with a woman, who he had known before from the Socialist circle this rich heir to a fortune travelled in, and they became attached. He told The Times “We came to know that our marriage had been foreordained before our birth, and would continue forever.” Since his wife’s father was in France, he took the opportunity of visiting him, without the knowledge of his wife who stayed behind, laid the situation out and they agreed to consult a French lawyer and arrange a divorce. “When I returned I told her of the step I had taken, and after a while she was persuaded that it was for the best.” A Times reporter visited Monroe September 4, 1907, the day that Earle’s wife was to sail with their 2-year old son, Harold Erwin Earle, to France to procure the divorce. The previous night she had returned from the city where she made the arrangements. On her return

“a goodly representation of Monroe’s 1,000 villagers was at the station watching for her return.

“‘Ah, there comes the pore [sic] thing back,’ they whispered sympathetically. ‘Maybe he’s changed his mind an’ taken her back. Maybe it’ll be all right yet.'”

But it wasn’t. At home was the new woman, Earle’s “affinity” (he would regret using what would become a term of ridicule that followed him everywhere). She was a German woman of about 30. “Her hair is a bit curly. She is below the medium height, and inclined to stoutness. She wears spectacles.” She refused to give her name. Earle pointed out he was not divorced yet, as an excuse for her anonimity. “You see, I care a little something for the conventions.” The experience was grist for his aethetics, for he was working on a poem of seven connected sonnets “explaining my views on marriage. I believe that we are married before we are born through heaven directed affinities and that marriage continues after our death. Believing this, I came to see that my wife was not my affinity.” At the beginning of the twentieth century the sonnet was made to service all manner of indignities.

Earle’s plan went almost as expected, except for two things. First, he failed to account for how much others might also “care a little something for the conventions.” When he left his house to take his wife to the city for her steamer to France, he was hooted by his neighbors. It didn’t help that in the papers of the afternoon before, he was quoted as calling the town folk hypocrites and Monroe more immoral than its neighbors. “‘He’s got a fine right to talk about us,’ the villagers said. ‘What is he? And that other woman had better look out.'” On his return that evening, he planned to be picked up at an out of the way station, but 500 villagers were waiting for him in the driving rain for half an hour. He first tried to avoid the reporters while the crowd was shouting for rope and tar and feathers, but ever the insufferable egoist he agreed to pose for a photo. The rain prevented the powder from flashing, so he posed again and again until he saw the fury on the face of the crowd, jumped into his carriage and wildly struck the horses with his whip. The whip slashed the face of one of the crowd, which further inflamed it. The mob chased the carriage, which knocked down five people. They stopped the horse, untied the swing and knocked the buggy over.  When Earle got up a semicircle surrounded him. Eventually five of them attacked him, while he punched and cracked the whip, but they disarmed him. The original victim returned the favor, slashing Earle’s face with the whip. A small scuffle later, and Earle was on his feet announcing that he would explain his position to the crowd. And the crowd told him to go ahead! The two police officers who had tried to stop the riot thought it better if he left, and they forced him into the carriage and had it slowly depart. The crowd broke up into small groups who lingered talking and laughing.

Earle’s mother told the press that her son was a fool to talk so much and that was the main cause of the problem. Nevertheless, Earle kept talking. He once said that the press coverage was greatly helping the sale of his art. But his narcissism conjured his belief that if only others just understood his motives they would certainly condone his conduct, and he said this over and over to the press. But his talking only kept the issue alive and crowds every day waited at the train station and at his home to greet him with eggs and rotten fruit. He took it calmly, however, staying away, hoping that it would blow over, hoping that his explanations would be heard. It hurt his case that when Mrs. Earle arrived in Boulogne a New York Times correspondent cabled her revelation that Earle had occasionally beaten her when he was irritable. In all the uproar, the only paper that came to Earle’s defense was the Warheit, a Yiddish socialist paper published in New York. The Warheit compared Earle’s plight to that of Maxim Gorky, who came to New York with a woman not his wife and was denied hotel accomodation:

“The unfortunate American artist is also a radical, but a radical of the land of Columbus. And his heart and his head have brought him to the realization that it is neither proper nor wise to live with a woman when one is in love with another. But he is also an American. He believes that marriages are made in Heaven and contracted on earth. He believes that even when one loves some one else he is still unable to love this other woman until the seal of the law is added to that of his own seal; in brief, Earle believes in legal marriage and legal divorce, and he has decided not to unite with his affinity until he is permitted to do so by the law.”

Earle continued to receive abuse and harassment in Monroe so he left for Europe. His plan seemed to come to fruition when the French divorce became effective and he was able to marry Julia Kuttner (the affinity) in Italy. Two weeks later they returned to an unsuspecting Monroe in the morning of April 9, 1908. The town soon rallied and the local fife and drum corps readied itself to harass the Earles with an unpleasant serenade. They began their march from town at 7, but when they arrived Earle threw open the doors and invited them in. He introduced them to his new wife, gave them refreshments and even paid for their music. This generosity and good will completely disarmed the town folk. And except for curiosity seekers (which problem was solved by the acquisition of five great danes as guard dogs), Earle’s plan seemed to have succeeded.

Then came the second hitch. It turned out that Ms. Kuttner was not in fact his Affinity. The first hint of this came on August 25, shortly after the birth of his second son (August 5), when he was arrested for assaulting his new wife. The nurse hired for his wife provided the affidavit for the arrest warrant. When the sheriff and two deputies arrived, Mrs. Earle’s eyes were badly bruised. At the arraignment he “seemed to be posing as a martyr,” and refused both counsel and bail. When taken to jail, however, he joked. Told that reporters were outside, he said: “Tell them I’m not in,” and laughed uproariously. The town folk again became riled, especially after hearing that Earle had sicked one of the great danes on his sister-in-law. When Earle was bailed by his brother on August 27, he left behind a written statement claiming “he is confident that as soon as he sees his wife all apparent misunderstanding with her will be dissipated.” The District Attorney reacted: “he will not get off by patching things up with his wife. The October Grand Jury will get a fair chance at this ‘affinity’ business if I can serve the nurse who makes the charges with a subpoena.”

But to everyone’s surprise, by October he was again living with his wife and the grand jury failed to indict him. The matter by then had become so notorious that even G.K. Chesterton was using it in his London column to show how wrong-headed America in general could be and a rich Socialist poet in particular.

The stress must have been great on Earle. He spent some undisclosed time in a western sanitarium. On his return the sheriff served him with a summons in an annulment proceeding. Julia Kuttner Earle alleged that Earle was a lunatic when they married and remained one and that he was not divorced at the time of their marriage.  He wondered the halls of the mansion in a melancholic frame of mind, and his friends said that his philosophy led him not to contest the proceeding, although he would contest a demand for a large sum of money.

In April he disappeared. The neighbors thought he went to France. His first wife’s father said he would not let Earle see her, if he came. When he did arrive in Paris, he was allowed to see his son. His friends there said he refused to talk of his first wife. He returned to America in May but refused to talk to reporters. He was more reflective now. Some had said that the trouble with the affinity began when his first wife sent a portrait of his first son.

Whatever the cause, Earle was not one to remain secluded for long. So while his Socialist second wife nursed their son away from him, he inserted himself into the latest Anarchism crisis. Emma Goldman had been touring the country, largely to raise funds to support her new Mother Earth. But now that her tour had returned East, the police—ignorant and unprincipled, who viewed their role as that of tool of the reactionary order of things—conceived it their duty to muzzle her. In New Haven, she was allowed to enter the lecture hall she rented, but the public was barred by the police. In New York she lectured on the radical potential of modern drama. A comically uneducated policeman, Central Office Detective Rafsky, tried to halt the lecture when she mentioned Ibsen, who he believed was an anarchist. When she refused, he brought a platoon to clear out the hall. Now she proposed to give the same lecture in East Orange, New Jersey, where the city council had already announced they would prevent her.† When she was forced to speak at a nearby barn, it was Ferdinand Earle’s name, even before Alexander Berkman’s, that was first among her “distinguished adherents” and those accompanying her. Was it Earle’s presence that dissuaded the police from halting the lecture?

From here on the scandals surrounding Earle took on a more routine nature. In August he sailed to Europe in the company of Miss Gertrude Buell Dunn. Dunn, according to the Elkhart Daily Truth, was a “an aspiring literary genius, an ardent socialist and settlement worker and a relative of Jacob P. Dunn, head of the public library commission of Indiana.” Earle’s neighbors did not expect him to return. “Earle announced that should his second wife secure a divorce he would not wed again as he and Miss Dunn are merely ‘soul-mates’ and that Plato, rather than Cupid, is their god.” But it didn’t even last until the beginning of Fall. Miss Dunn returned incognito (but discovered nevertheless) and pleaded “Please do not talk anymore about that affair.” Earle returned two weeks later, not having seen his wife or first son, but promising better relations with his neighbors, even a clam bake. By February he was  back in Paris in a studio working with a view to a spring salon. The Times was unable to state whether he brought his “feminine companion.”

In July he returned to America with his mother. The annulment proceeding was still in the courts. He again headed for Paris. His friend, Alexander Harvey, an associate editor of Current Literature, disclosed that Earle confided in him that his real reason for returning to Paris was to win back his first wife. Harvey boasted that he persuaded Earle to recant his “affinity” doctrine: “But he may not be able to reform. I think if his first wife comes back to him he will stick; if she doesn’t he’ll presently be scouring the country again for another soul sister.” But he failed again, and this time (October) he returned ill.

On December 30, 1910, the annulment was ordered. (It seems that the first Mrs. Earle had waited until two months after the second marriage to have the interim order for divorce made final.) So Earle could begin 1911 afresh. And he did. In January came out his new-form Sonnets. He avoided scandals altogether. That he married once again was mentioned only incidentally in an article explaining why he commenced an eviction action against tenants in the Monroe house while he was abroad. The new bride, Helena Theodora “Dora” Sidford (The Times got it wrong, calling her “Dorothea Elbert Steward”), “an English girl,” was labelled an “affinity,” showing the joke had not grown old. She was the daughter of an architect at Wokingham, Berkshire. They married on June 16, 1911 in Oxford, and they would now live at the mansion on Affinity Hill. For nearly two years Earle would stay out of the papers except for his project The Lyric Year. But that didn’t mean he was not betraying his third wife.

In 1911 Peter Herman, a wealthy German-American printer located in Rutherford, New Jersey, decided to purchase a second home in Monroe, where his family had taken a summer vacation before. Herman had two daughters and a son. It was his oldest child, Charlotte, who attracted all the attention. Beautiful, independent, and sophisticated, she  was an adept pianist who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years. Her mother wanted her to become a professional singer. Two years before in Rutherford she captured the attention of a young doctor and aspiring poet, William Carlos Williams. He became seriously fixated on her, forming a chamber group so he could play violin with her, reading his writing to her, taking her on canoe trips. She found him self-centered. Charlotte preferred his brother, a recent MIT graduate with a fellowship to Rome. When she made the choice Williams was devastated. “It was,” he would write of himself four decades later in the thinly veiled fiction of The Build-Up, “a deeper wound than he should ever thereafter in his life be able to sound. It was bottomless.” After secluding himself for three days, he went to the Herman house and secretly became engaged to Charlotte’s sister Florence. His brother would spend his two years in Rome under his Prix de Rome. William shortly also began a year abroad, studying in Germany and then traveling the continent.

For summer vacations Peter Herman bought the house next to Earle’s mansion on Affinity Hill.  Williams visited them the summer of 1911 and learned that Charlotte had broken off her engagement with his brother, who was still studying in Rome. Earle himself was still in Europe that summer, so Williams didn’t get to meet him until the follwing summer.

In the summer of 1912 The Lyric Year project was in full swing. Williams came to Monroe in July again. He immediately spotted Earle’s attention towards Charlotte. Among other things, Earle offered to paint a portrait of Paul, the 12 year old brother of Charlotte and Florence, which allowed him daily access to the Hermans. Williams resented the actions of the married Earle, but Earle also was editor of The Lyric Year, and Earle was a practiced seducer. On July 19 Williams wrote his brother:

“At Monroe as you are aware lives Ferdinand Earle of history: ‘Affinity Earle.’ He is I found—for he made it possible for us to all meet him by first writing then calling—a most accomplished and a very young man.

“To pass over his delightfully conceived and finished home and his simple, charming, girlish English wife—The Third—he is now more poet-critic-publisher than painter.

“Quite in secret, for the art world is very small, he is also one of the editors of a book soon to be published—The ‘Lyric Year’ which will contain 100 of the best short poems—one each from 100 different authors all of which having been either published in some magazine or at least brought forth for the first time this year. There is $10,000 to be divided in prizes among the 100 successful poets.‡

“I had heard of the contest and forgotten it, but, Mrs. Herman having put him wise beforehand, he asked me to send something in a hurry as the time was almost up and he was having a terrible time to find 100 poems by 100 different authors that were worth printing!

“The genius is rare, Bo, very rare.

“At any rate Earl [sic] is pleased with some of my work and may—with the consult of other judges—give me a place. I have not as yet heard.”

In the event, no poem of Williams was selected. Earle blamed the other judges. But Earle was constantly promising things he couldn’t deliver, and sometimes things he didn’t want to deliver. Williams put up a brave face but was bitterly disappointed. Earle had once again defanged a potentially troubling situation with his blandishments. He was now moving in on Charlotte.

William Carlos Williams and Florence Herman married in the Presbyterian Church in Rutherford on December 12, 1912. Charlotte’s escort was Ferdinand Pinney Earle. Mrs. Earle did not attend.

Charlotte was beginning to have minor success with her music. In January 1913 she was illustrating musical lectures at Teacher College. Her program illustrated Grieg. In October she was performing the same program for public school children. This was apparently enough for her. She persuaded her father to send her to study at a German conservatory. Earle was again in Paris; his third wife, with two children now, had commenced a divorce action in New York, alleging misconduct by Earle “with women whose names are unknown.” Earle wired his lawyer: “Accept service and appear for me in suit brought by Dora.” His Paris plan was more pressing.

When Charlotte arrived in Hamburg, Earle was there to meet her, and he took her to Paris (where she would join him in his most spectacular outrage). The reunion was news that couldn’t be hidden from the press. According to Williams in The Build-Up, her father was shocked. He had looked into Earle’s background long before and found him to be a blackguard, Ein Schwein. He let his wife know, and they were supposed to be on guard. When Charlotte left to board the steamer, she assured her father that she was not going to see Earle. But now he couldn’t keep it out of the papers. So he told all who would listen that she wasn’t his daughter, she was adopted and now she was cut off. The next account was far worse.

In late November 1913 the news was that Earle had kidnapped his eight-year-old son by his first wife, Harold Erwin Earle, from the school he was attending in Paris, and Earle was returning to New York with Charlotte Herman. It turned out they weren’t on the vessel named and couldn’t be found in others. It wasn’t until January 1914 that they were discovered in Norway with the child. It was revealed that Charlotte, passing herself off as a Canadian Mrs. Evans was the one who actually snatched Harold from the school on November 5. She had been lodging there under the pretext of learning French. When she took the child she claimed she was taking him to his mother.  They were arrested in Norway on December 30—the French detectives followed Earle’s luggage.

The hypnotic Mr. Earle

From the jail in Christiania Earle began his latest verbal campaign: he said he would submit to arbitration. “I am still hoping that she will be disposed to co-operate in a an amicable arrangement …” Earle’s cheek was still breathtaking.

Despite his anger Peter Herman vowed to the press that he would send the best representation possible for his “foster daughter.” “I am sure that Chrlotte is under Earle’s hypnotic influence,” he said. On January 9, 1913 her mother sailed for Norway to be with her. On February 27, the jailer in Romorantin, France, allowed a reporter for The New York Times to interview Earle. Earle claimed that his wife had agreed to give him access to his son when they first divorced. But something happened, and she obtained a decree giving her sole guardianship in a proceeding unknown to Earle. Her father told him he would never see his son alone until he was 21. So Earle decided to act, since his son was at a boarding school among strangers. He planned to take him to America so he could be “with people who loved him, especially his father.” Earle claimed he was completely penniless now. And his life had been devastated by the “affinity” coverage; he claimed that the term was made up by a reporter.

“It seems we all suffered sufficiently for the ‘affinity’ publicity. Miss Kuttner had dead cats thrown at her in the back yard. She broke off with me immediately her child was born. My footsteps were dogged everywhere. A magazine editor told me to meet him at his club instead of his office, as my presence brought his magazine into disrepute. In fact, I have been charged with every moral crime in the calendar, but I believe I am still capable of conduct worthy of a father. That is why I stole my son.”

His remembrance of the ending of his second marriage differed substantially from the facts, but because he could always convincingly put himself in the right, he always believed he could persuade others. And he now believed that he could persuade his first wife of his version: “I am confident that if I could see her now for an hour I would be able to fix things up.”

They had spent nearly 10 weeks in various jails by the time the trial began on March 6. In France the conditions were less than penal. Earle spent his time reading, writing poetry and playing the violin. He was therefore in top form at the trial. Hundreds of spectators arrived owing to French press coverage of Earle’s past. The judge added rows of chairs behind the bench to accommodate the overflow. Earle was attired in a morning coat and tan spats and sported a white carnation in his buttonhole. He seemed to enjoy the attention. Charlotte wore black and kept her eyes on the floor. Both the first wife and Earle’s current wife testified about beatings by him. The reporter said that Earle maintained a “calm and indifferent air” throughout. The first wife’s brother testified: “Earle’s a liar. For three years he never asked about the child, and only came to see him when he had no love affair. He is a consummate comedian, but no gentleman.” The trial adjourned for the evening when the prosecutor’s voice gave out while reading form a mound of documents, among which, was a note Earle wrote after the annulment of his second marriage: “The eyes of my soul are now opened. Harold shall be my heir.”

The next day the prosecutor read from documents, letters from and about Earle, but it was no use. The judge allowed Earle to explain away everything (sometimes with the most absurd explanations) and even chatted with him. The crowd was clearly on Earle’s side. Earle’s defense came down to character references by friends and the observation by his lawyer: “Earle is childish. America is a childish nation; it is so young.” The defendants were found guilty. Earle was sentenced to two months in jail and a $5 fine; Charlotte 1 month and a $3 fine, but the court gave them credit for time served. They were therefore free to go. A judgment of $1,400 was entered against Earle on the wife’s civil action, but Earle had no property in France. The crowds inside and out of the courthouse cheered when Earle walked free.

Ferdinand Earle in his studio in 1921 surrounded by the mattes for his film of the Rubaiyat.

Within a month Earle’s mother sold the house in Monroe (it was hers) in exchange for commercial property in lower Manhattan. Aside from the divorce proceedings from his third wife (with the usual allegations that Earle committed perjury), Earle dropped out of the limelight. He married Charlotte Herman. They moved west, and he became involved in the young film industry. He produced a film based on the FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, and planned to make one based on the Nibelungen cycle and Goethe’s Faust. Earle claimed an innovative approach to double exposing film, but others claimed infingement and his work was held up for years. He gave up producing (he lost the infringement claim) and took on jobs in the art department of films, most notably (although without credit) in Ben Hur. His marriage to Charlotte lasted about a decade. Their first child died young of polio. The second son, Eyvind, would become an artist and graphic designer, eventually for Disney. On their divorce, Earle took the son. After his father’s death many years later Eyvind wrote of the beatings he received from his father and hearing his mother’s cries when Earle beat her. But this is beyond where we need to go for the moment.

The Lyric Year

Years later Floyd Dell would remember 1912 as “extraordinary year, in America as well as in Europe.”

“It was the year of the election of Wilson, a symptom of immense political discontent. It was a year of intense woman-suffragist activity. In the arts it marked a new era. Color was everywhere—even in neckties. The Lyric Year, published in New York, contained Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Renascence.’ In Chicago, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry. Vachel Lindsay suddenly came into his own with ‘General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,’ and commenced to give back to his land in magnificent chanted poetry its own barbaric music. ‘Hindle Wakes’ startled New York, as it was later to startle Chicago. The Irish Players came to America. It was then that plans were made for the Post-Impressionist Show, which revolutionized American ideas of art. In Chicago, Maurice Browne started the Little Theatre. One could go on with the evidence of a New Spirit come suddenly to birth in America.”

Millay in Camden in 1912. (Library of Congress)

In Camden, Maine, Edna St. Vincent Millay could hardly have experienced any of the New Spirit. Yes, Maine voted for Wilson. (But then Taft had lost every state except Utah and Vermont.) Millay, however, was not particularly interested in world affairs then and was never really interested in partisan politics. Although she was 20 on February 22 that year, she had rarely been outside of Knox County on the southern coast of Maine. She grew up without a father (her father having been driven out by her mother Cora when she was eight), and largely without any adult care (her mother spent long periods of time away from home as a practical nurse). Almost her whole life consisted of caring for and supervising her two sisters and correspondence with her mother. Her social life, aside from Sunday School, was mostly confined to diaries addressed to fictitious characters. (Other children noticed they were too poor to entertain like other families.) Notwithstanding the economic straits, however, Millay was never bowed by her poverty or at least she was not humiliated by it. Her mother early instilled in her the belief that she was exceptional. She introducted Vincent (the name she preferred to Edna) to poetry and shared it with her as Vincent grew up. Like T.S. Eliot’s mother, Cora had poetic aspirations. Unlike Charlotte Stearns Eliot, however, Cora was far from devout.

Cora not only read the romantics to Vincent (who memorized Whittier’s Snowbound from her mother’s repeated night-time readings), she indulged Vincent, despite scarce money, with a subscription to the children’s magazine of verse and stories, St. Nicholas. Millay immediately began submitting her writing to the St. Nicholas League. Her prose was selected for Honor Roll No. I in the November 1905 issue, which meant the “work would have been used had space permitted.” Her poem “The Land of Romance” received the Gold Badge in the March 1907 issue. The page on which her poem appeared gave a helpful lesson to future contestants on the subject of marketability: “Very sad, very tragic, very romantic and very abstruse work cannot often be used, no matter how good it may be from the literary point of view, and while the League editor certainly does not advocate the sacrifice of artistic impulse to market suitability, he does advocate as a part of every literary education the study of the market’s needs whereby one may learn to offer this or that particular manuscript to just the periodical most likely to give it welcome.” Millay had already internalized the rules that would win her contests, the Pulitzer Prize, a large reading public who would buy her books of verse and sold out halls for her readings around the country. “The Land of Romance” was reprinted that year in the April issue of Current Literature (pp 457-58). The editor, Edward J. Wheeler, President of the Poetry Society of America (or whatever associate editor was responsible for that section), called the poem “phenomenal,” noting its author was only 14. Millay would continue to be published in St. Nicholas until she was not longer eligible at 18. The last poem she submitted, “Friends,” earned the cash prize, $5, a reward so signal that the local paper, The New Bedford Evening Standard, devoted two-thirds of a column describing the poem and the award. The magazine itself highlighted how clever the poem was. Millay submitted the poem years later as an assignment in a writing course at Barnard. Professor William Tenney Brewster wrote “Browningesque” on it and gave her a B. He probably would never learn that she had used her $5 prize money to buy a copy of Browning.

Millay’s childhood play consisted of piano lessons and practice, with occasional recitals, poetry, stories and playacting. They proved far more enduring than ordinary childhood vocations and would become her lifework. Even at the time, she took them seriously. Despite her depravations, her father’s departure (and failure to visit or send support), her mother’s absence, and especially the grinding poverty, the only thing that really sent Vincent into a tearful rage was the vote to deprive her of her rightful title of high school class poet (rigged by the boys, who resented that she failed to hide her intelligence, like girls were supposed to).

By 1912 she was nearly three years out of school, but she had no job or direction; she continued taking care of the house and her sisters, and there wasn’t a thought of college. 1911 had been taxing enough. Cora was away almost all the time nursing three dying patients. There was little money, and Vincent had to fend off the creditors. Cora would send money with specific directions of who should be paid, and her letters bluntly reminded Vincent of the sacrifices she endured to provide even the smallest indulgences to her children. Vincent never blamed her mother for neglect or privation and always put up a good front in her letters to her. But privately it was too much, and she told of her fears and anguish to her secret lover, a fictional one, to whom she wrote in a journal.

The pages go on and on. The moods she portrays go from gay to melancholic. She offers herself up to him in sweeping, overly dramatic poses. Other times she writes of her own sense of worthlessness. Is any of it her real feelings? Was she trying out voices? Was it all childish fantasy? It’s impossible to say. But her willingness to allow others, through her writing, to act as voyeurs into her soul would become the central element of her later popularity. And perhaps occasionally, as with her later public writing, there are literal truths, but it’s impossible to tell what they are. Some of her cries, however, seem too heart-felt to be feigned, like her entry on August 3, 1911:

“It is hard work being brave when you’re lonesome. I’ve tried to be brave and I’ve done pretty well, but I’ve had to cry just a little tonight. . . . God would not have made a heart like mine and not have made its mate. It would be too cruel. O, I know you are not very far away.”

But Camden had no Prince Charmings. It had only toil; not just for her, everyone there did mindless, repetitious, dispiriting drugery.

“Tired men and tired horses, everybody tired, and no one with a minute to call his own. No time to lift you eyes to the hills. Go in and get to work. Get into the house and scrub the dirty clothes till you rub the skin off your fingers. Sweep the floor and sweep it again tomorrow and the day after that . . . every day of your life—if not that floor, why then—some other floor.” (October 10, 1911.)

She was destined, at best, to be a character in a Theodore Dreiser story.

But all of this changed in a rather odd way. On February 29, 1912, a week after her twentieth birthday, Vincent received a long distance call from a woman in Kingman, Maine, announcing that her father was dying. She was so stunned that all she could do was promise a telegram. She immediately called her mother. They agreed; she should set off the next day. Kingman was only 140 miles away, but trains were not frequent, and it took her most of the next day and the following, taking boat, then two trains. She was met at the train station by the doctor’s daughter, 24 year old Ella Somerville who took her to her father’s boarding house. When she arrived, a nurse prepared her for the worst. But she was numb (she wrote in her diary), bravely sat next to a man who looked nothing like she remembered and broke the ice with small talk. He had difficulty opening his eyes but was happy to see her. That afternoon the doctor told Vincent her father had only a few days left. She stayed at the Somerville’s and wrote her mother and sisters that night a postcard saying she “found Papa very low.” She would not write them again for three weeks.

The reason was not the decline of her father; he in fact began recovering. Instead, she was spending all her time with Ella. The first night, at Ella’s suggestion, Ella stayed in Vincent’s bed. “After that we slept together every night—at least we spent the nights together.” Apart from visiting her father for the hour or so it was permitted, Vincent spent almost all her time with Ella. It was unlike her dreary life at Camden; they canoed, attended parties, went to dances and saw a vaudeville medicine show. Vincent read her a long poem she had been writing about her physical and spiritual confinement; about how Infinity was binding her in; about how all remorse was hers (“All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret.”). She called it “the down underground poem.” Ella preferred her reading Burns because she trilled the rs. Her family wrote letter after letter to find out what she was doing. (Her mother possibly feared that she was being thrown over in favor of her charming but unreliable ex-husband.) When Vincent finally responded, it was clear life in Kingman far surpassed anything she could otherwise hope for in Camden. Her mother despaired of being able to lure her back.

On March 21 Cora wrote again to ask Vincent to return, this time with bait: “I am going to try to catch you now with something that may interest and encourage you.” In The Magazine Maker she had read of a poetry contest. “One thousand dollars has been set aside to be distributed in three prizes to authors of the best three poems submitted before June 1, 1912. . . . Nov 1st of this year Mr. [Mitchell] Kennerley will put out the volume under the title ‘The Lyric Year.’ . . . This seems to be a great chance for you. . . . Come home and make a good try so you can have chances to run up to school and use the typewriter.” Vincent was home by March 31. The day before a disconsolate Ella would write that her departure caused Ella to become “temporarily deranged”: “One thing is certain, old girl; when you make a place for yourself in someone’s heart, no one else can fill it.” It was Vincent’s first conquest.

Although she would ultimately send several poems under separate cover to Kennerley (all signed E. St. Vincent Millay; to avoid sexist bias?), she labored hardest on her “down underground poem.” But having seen a world that was not Camden, she experienced relief from Infinity pressing down on her. She had seen life that was meant to be enjoyed and more she reveled in, for the first time, the feeling of being adored. On top of the experiences in Kingman, while she was away, Cora had arranged that the family would move out of the tenement in the working district into a white, two-story, free-standing house with indoor bathrooms. It was all miraculous, beyond any but a poetic explanation:

“I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things . . . “

Just as with her father, it was a reprieve from the grave:

“Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.”

So she came to call the poem “Renaissance,” which she finished by May 27 and sent to Kennerley. The poem did not change the course of Western letters. It did not attempt to justify the ways of God to man. It did not sing of arms and the man. But it accomplished something that art usually cannot. It altered the destiny of someone who by the laws of American capitalism and social systems ought never to have escaped poverty or left Maine. And in the process it introduced Edna St. Vincent Millay to both Mr. Earle and Mr. Ficke. We’ll see how she fared in those encounters in the second part.

______________________

Notes:

* The strange career of Ferdinand Earle was gathered from the following: Samuel Orcutt & Ambrose Beardsley, The History of the Old Town of Derby, Connecticut, 1642-1880 (Springfield, Mass: Springfield Printing Co: 1880); Henry Reed Stiles, The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut: … 1635-1891. Volume II: Geneologies and Biographies (Hartford, Conn: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co: 1892); Ruth Wing (ed.), Blue Book of the Screen [for 1923] (Hollywood, Cal: Blue Book of the Screen, Inc: c1924); New York Times, August 1, 1890; December 17, 1890; January 25, 1891; October 28, 1891March 20, 1894; [obit. of Gen. Earle,] January 3, 1903; [first divorce,] September 4, 1907; [Earle mobbed,] September 5, 1907; [terms of settlement,] September 6, 1907; September 7, 1907; [Mrs. Earle arrives in France,] September 14, 1907; September 15, 1907; [practical joke on Earle,] October 3, 1907January 28, 1908March 14, 1908; April 9, 1908; [Earle’s return to Monroe,] April 10, 1908June 13, 1908; [Earle arrested,] August 26, 1908August 27, 1908; [Earle in jail,] August 27, 1908; August 28, 1908; August 29, 1908; September 16, 1908; [G.K. Chesterton’s observations,] September 20, 1908; October 19, 1908; [summons on Earle,] March 27, 1909; March 28, 1909; April 10, 1909; April 12, 1909; April 17, 1909; May 5, 1909; [Earle with Goldman,] June 9, 1909; September 17, 1909; September 18, 1909; February 20, 1910; June 1, 1910July 18, 1910; September 8, 1910;  October 26, 1910; December 31, 1910;  [Review of Sonnets,] January 8, 1911; [third wife,] November 25, 1911; January 26. 1913; October 12, 1913; [Divorce action by Dora,] November 9, 1913; November 25, 1913; November 25, 1913 (2);  November 26, 1913; November 30, 1913; [arrest of Earle and Charlotte Herman,] January 3, 1914; January 4, 1914; January 5, 1913; January 5, 1913 (2); January 6, 1913; January 6, 1913 (2); January 8, 1913; January 9, 1913; January 13, 1913; January 14, 1913; January 18, 1913; February 11, 1913; February 19, 1913; February 23, 1913; February 24, 1913; February 25, 1913; February 28, 1913; March 4, 1913; [abduction trial,] March 7, 1913; March 8, 1913; March 9, 1913; April 9, 1913; April 9, 1913 (2); [trial in divorce action by third wife,] November 29, 1914; January 15, 1915; June 3, 1915; [letter by Earle,] May 19, 1916; [Earle produces Rubaiyat,] May 9, 1920;  [Rubaiyat in “harmonious colors,”] July 18, 1920; [Earle to film Nibelungen,] August 22, 1920; February 12, 1922; May 21, 1922.

† The events at the lectures of Emma Goldman are reported on in The New York Times, May 15, 1909May 24, 1909; May 25, 1909; May 30, 1909 (profile); May 30, 1909 (letter); June 8, 1909.

‡ Williams either misunderstood the amount and distribution of the prize money or Earle was deceiving him (for any number of reasons constantly at work in Earle).

Sources:

Neil Baldwin, To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet (New York: Antheneum: 1984).

Davenport Public Library, “Charles August Ficke: An American Success Story,” DPL Quad City Memory (c2005).

Floyd Dell, The Homecoming (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc. c1933).

Christian Gauss, “The Summer’s Vintage of Verse,” The New York Times, August 10, 1907.

Andrew J. Krivak (ed.), The Letters of William Carlos Williams to Edgar Irving Williams, 1902-1912 (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: 2009).

Tom Longden, “Muse of poetry inspired Ficke,” DesMoinesRegister.com (November 3, 2008).

Paul L. Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: McGraw-Hill: c1981).

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty (New York: Random House: c2001).

Paula A. Mohr, “Ficke, Charles A.,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa (University of Iowa Press Digital Editions).

Marcia Noe, “Arthur Davison Ficke” in Philip A. Greasley (ed), Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Volume 1: The Authors (Bloomington, Ind: U. Indiana Press: c2001), pp 194-95.

Joseph Parisi, Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters: The First Fifty Years, 1912-1962 (New York: W.W. Norton: c2002).

Max Putzell, The Man in the Mirror: William Marion Reedy and his Magazine(Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press: 1998).

Jessie B. Rittenhouse, “The Lyric Year: The Great Symposium of Modern American Verse,” New York Times (December 1, 1912).

William H. Roba, “Twins in My Cradle: Arthur Davison Ficke, Iowa Poet,” Books at Iowa 39 (November 1983) .

Alan Shapiro, In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980-1991 (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern Universtiy Press: c1993).

Paul Thompson, “Soulful Spectricism Nothing But a Hoax,” New York Times Magazine (June 2, 1918).

William Carlos Williams, The Build-Up (New York: Random House: c1952).

[unsigned], “A 1913 Faust: Mr. Ficke’s Masterful Verion of the Old Theme,” New York Times (December 14, 1913).

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    • Art & History
    • May 21st, 2011

    This past weekend we stayed at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Maine, where Vincent gave some of her first public readings. The part of the lobby that was once a sort of music room is dedicated to her with books, many enlarged photos, and blown up passages from various poems backed with foamcore and attached to the walls (!) The intention is totally admirable, but…

    New owners have just begun their first season at the Inn, a lively and thoughtful couple, so they might eventually make that space a bit more subtle but still a place of tribute. I noticed an error in one of the lines on the wall and, well it’s poetry, every syllable matters. The previous owners had printed up the display so the new folks were happy to check my opinion online. Of course it’s “ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends…” not oh, and oh.

    We were on our way to Islesboro, one of the “three islands in a bay.”

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