Anna Wickham (1884-1947)

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Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 110. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,061 words

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[(essay date 1990) In the following essay, Schenck argues that Wickham has been improperly excluded from the canon of poetic modernism and that her formal conventionality heightens, rather than detracts from, the sociopolitical impact of her poems.]

Anna Wickham, like her exact contemporary Charlotte Mew, has lapsed into obscurity for reasons that have everything to do with the form of her verse and the manner of her dress--Harold Acton, for example, found her poetry as unfashionable as her person (Smith, in Wickham 2). Unlike Mina Loy, whose elegance after four babies was continually remarked, Wickham was large and haphazard in appearance. She once deliberately wore a wool jumper to an affair where Edith Sitwell was sure to show up in gold brocade. Wickham was prolific (nearly 1,400 poems in twenty years) where Mew was spare, yet both wrote overtly feminist poetry that has escaped notice for its failure to adhere to the experimentalist demands of a masculinist modernism. Thomas Hardy called Mew "far and away the best living woman poet--who will be read when others are forgotten" (Fitzgerald 174), and Anna Wickham had by 1932 an international reputation. Anthologies of the day printed more of her poems than those of de la Mare, Graves, and, in some volumes, even Yeats (Smith, in Wickham [The Writings of Anna Wickham] 23).

Neither Wickham nor Mew came from literary families or had anything like a formal education, and neither studied poetry formally, although Wickham's father apparently made her promise to become a poet. Mew destroyed everything that might constitute a record of her life except for the few pieces that make up her Collected Poems and some stories, and most of Wickham's papers and letters were lost in the 1943 bombing of her Hampstead home. Both Wickham and Mew questioned the Catholic church, but whereas Wickham's revisionary supplication of the feminized deity poignantly redresses banishment--"In nameless, shapeless God found I my rest, / Though for my solace I built God a breast"--Mew's resignation, in "Madeleine in Church," is complete--"I do not envy Him His victories, His arms are full of broken things" (Mew 26). Finally, both Wickham and Mew committed suicide. The indignity of Mew's death by the ingestion of disinfectant was matched only by the carelessness of her obituary: "Charlotte New [sic], said to be a writer" (Monro, in Mew xii). Wickham's fate is as banal: The London Picture Post did a feature on her in 1946 called "The Poet Landlady" (Smith, in Wickham 28).

A closer look at the life's work of the colorful Wickham, a free-spirited, half working-class Australian emigrée who began her career as an opera singer, then divided her life between London and Paris, might cause us to agree with Stanley Kunitz that the neglect of Anna Wickham is "one of the great mysteries of contemporary literature."1 A pacifist who nonetheless supported the Great War effort, a deprived and unhappy wife who remained faithful to her husband during the entire course of their tumultuous relationship...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100927