Anna Wickham: A Memoir

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Author: R. D. Smith
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 110. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 18,914 words

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[(essay date 1984) In the following essay, Smith provides an overview of Wickham's poetry and an evaluation of several individual poems.]

Anna Wickham (born Edith Alice Mary Harper) 1884-1947

Here is no sacrificial I, Here are more I's than yet were in one human, Here I reveal our common mystery: I give you woman.

Anna Wickham said that these lines must preface all her books. In this, as in many things, she was frustrated; her thousand and more poems, most of them dashed off in pain, for fun, in anger, with glee, for cash or in desperation, are largely a record of her frustrations and her triumph over them. W. B. Yeats said that out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric (or in our modern sense, propaganda); that out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. He might have had Anna in mind. She was a bonnie fechter for freedom--especially freedom for women--for children's futures, against cant hypocrisy, and, more significantly, within herself against her fierce, contradictory nature. Lust, love, duty, will, restraint, passivity, ambition and a mistrust of ambition warred within her. So did a social rebelliousness with a need to conform. Since poetry with her came out of living, out of her immediate uncensored experience, and since her experience was simultaneously felt, thought about and analysed, it is not surprising that (as with all major artists) early experiences of parental conflict resulting in a crippling tension and areas of insecurity were lived out in both later relationships and her poetry.

Some of these deep contradictions were apparent in her own person. She was a woman with a strong, sensitive face and a sturdy body, who appears in photographs both observant and withdrawn. She gives an impression of being sunk in reflection while tensed for action. The poets, Louis Untermeyer, Oswell Blakeston and Paul Dehn, and the novelist David Garnett, who all fell in love with her at first sight, over a long span of years have described her appearance and manner. They agree to a remarkable extent, which indicates the consistent naturalism of her manner, and her 'star' quality, the breath-taking effect she had on people: even Harold Acton, whose aesthetic preciosity found her not comme il faut, and American celebrity-hunters were taken by the force of her personality.

She is remembered as handsome, big, and dark, of nectarine colouring, with flushed cheeks, and very humorous eyes. 'A magnificent gypsy of a woman, who always entered a room as if she had just stamped across the moors', she was careless of her appearance. Although she loved magnificent clothes, she had, as she indicates often in her writings, a touch of the slattern, which her more doting friends called 'a gypsy carelessness'. Garnett, though fascinated, was uneasy with her 'rag-bag' coterie. Acton was snooty about her performance at an upper-class lesbian poetry soirée in Paris, and an American culture snob called her 'a burly lady fortified in advance with garlic and wine'.

In England, 'struggling...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100926