I find this to be a really sad and hopeless poem about loneliness and being without love in one’s life.
The poetic voice shuts out any dreams or hope of one day finding love and considers herself alone in the world. However, there is a suggestion that this loneliness happens even while she had a or some love affairs/marriages, but ones that she gets nothing from. In spite of this miserable state of affairs, she disguises her pain and battles on with life, never giving into her despair and finding some slight reasons that life is worth living.
Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am in nature none of these.
I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
The little nourishment I get.
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.
Elinor Wylie (1885-1928)
Wow! Another interesting mini-biography for you.
Although she is known by Elinor Wylie this is actually her third surname. Born a Hoyt (a prominent American family full of politicians and a couple of writers), she married and had a child with Philip Hichborn in 1906 before leaving him due to his mental issues. After this she ran off to London with Horace Wylie, a married man who had stalked her for years – nice, I guess persistence does sometimes pay off! At the time this was a huge scandal in the US.
Eventually he got divorced and they married in 1916, but it didn’t last for long and she remarried by 1923 to William Benet. Five years later she’d returned to London on her own and proceeded to fall in love with her best friend’s husband, Henry de Clifford Woodhouse. She died back in Benet’s apartment in New York, while preparing to publish a series of sonnets about her love for her Woodhouse! Crazy!
When I first read the poem I didn’t interpret it as fitting autobiographically, but I suppose you could see it. It is certainly about a woman that feels she never truly gets what she wants to out of life, but I read this as being part of an unhappy marriage (thus it could relate to her first marriage) rather than three marriages and a few scandalous affairs.
To understand the perspective in this poem, it is important to consider gender rights at the turn of the twentieth century. Women were still very much second class citizens and Wylie was educated with the mind that she would become a ‘society wife’ – in other words, she was trained to become a perfect wife for a well to do gentleman and thus her role was meant to be subservient to his wishes and his life.
I am not sure her training was particularly effective though, given her sordid run!
This roughly fits the theme of love in that this is about someone who feels unfulfilled and bereft of love. It also has a gender aspect as love and fulfillment is positioned as something extremely difficult for a woman to achieve.
We begin with Wylie shutting out any hope of things getting better in her own head as hope will only serve to leave her confused about what she can get out of life. The hope she is referring to is compared to an eagle and an antelope, which suggest she is thinking about freedom and possibly also togetherness. She dismisses these thoughts as irrelevant to her.
The second stanza expands upon this. She stresses the fact that she is alone and complains that as a woman life is full of difficulties. To expand upon this she compares a woman’s life to trying to get water from a stone, demonstrating an extremely negative perspective of the life prospects of women.
In the final stanza, she speaks of disguising her pain in public and plodding along despite the lack of joy in her life. Life is presented as if it drags by, but she says it never quite becomes too terrible that she cannot bear it any more and she finds some tiny elements of joy that keep her going.
Language and techniques
The title/opening line is absolutely wonderful and you could probably write a whole essay just about it.
‘Now’ immediately indicates a shift in attitude from her previous view. This suggests the poetic voice is trying to convince herself to abandon a hope that has previously existed. Not only this, but she is definitive about it as she has room for ‘no charitable hope’. She wants to purge any last trace of hope from her mind, which tells me that this hope has held her down or misled her to suffering previously.
What about ‘charitable hope’ itself? Another way of thinking about ‘hope’ is of dreaming. Hopes represent our desires and wishes, but are not necessarily particularly achievable or close. If we spend all our days lamenting the fact that our dreams don’t come true, then we are going to be in a state of despair constantly.
However, we are not just dealing with hope, but ‘charitable hope’. A very basic definition of charity would be something set up to make someone in need feel a bit better. However, they are not a lasting solution to problems, but a temporary measure to get people back on track. In this case it is the hope that has been providing a short term medicine to the wounds that have left our poetic voice hurt and miserable. As such this form of hope is merely a short term plaster that deceives her from the reality of life and one she therefore feels she needs to rip off in order to face the truth. In the next line she represents the hope as ‘confus[ing her] mind’, which implies that she feels her hope has no chance of being realised.
These dreams she is now trying to dismiss are compared to an ‘eagle’ and an ‘antelope’. These animals represents two things: freedom and togetherness/family. The eagle is a particularly powerful symbol in the US: the bald eagle was adopted as a national symbol in 1782 just 6 years after freedom was won from the British. This association seems obvious when we see eagles hunting solo in empty skies, soaring high and proud.
Antelopes are a less clear symbol of freedom, but their nimbleness and speed mean that they are able to escape and outrun their predators (most of the time). However, antelopes are also heavily associated with their state of togetherness. They roam in large herds and flock together as another form of protection. An eagle can also be seen to represent togetherness as they mate for life and thus could reflect the image of perfect, monogamous marital existence.
If you agree with my idea of what these animals represent, then we see what Wylie presents her poetic voice/herself as not possessing. She states ‘I am in nature none of these things’, which acknowledges that her life shares neither of these connotations.
This definitive distancing of herself from freedom and togetherness is further explored in the second stanza. She stresses that ‘being human, [I am] born alone’, which show a degree of cynicism about the world we enter as she feels that humans are born without love and support. The word alone is highly emotive and conveys a sense of despair for her situation as it is termed so absolutely and as if this is an indisputable fact. This comment is at once about her existence and also a comment on the wider human condition and paints the human world as somewhere very bleak and cold.
Following on from this she associates her gender with even greater difficulties. She presents women as being ‘hard beset’, which means they are faced with many problems and this relates directly to the gender inequality meaning that women were not free to pursue their own lives, but rather were brought up to serve men. Again this is specific to her and made a generalised comment about the lives of women.
If we weren’t convinced that her life was a pretty depressing state of affairs, she gives us a oft used metaphor comparing her joy in life being achieved through ‘squeezing from a stone’. When you squeeze a stone you do not get any liquid coming out and thus she feels like she is striving hard to get something out of the stone/life, but receives ‘little nourishment’. Nourishment suggests that what she is striving for (or what she was hoping for), namely freedom and love, is an absolute basic necessity for keeping us alive and healthy.
While the first two stanzas may make it sound as though our poetic voice is position a gun against her temple, the third seems to offer a bit of light in the face of her despair.
Life goes on, but it is a struggle. She faces it in ‘masks outrageous’, which implies that has to wear a disguise in public to hide her misery. The fact this disguise is ‘outrageous’ stresses just how difficult she has found it to put on a brave face as the disguise must be completely divorced from the reality of her emotions.
We get a sense of just how melancholy an existence she lives as she describes it as ‘austere’ and with years going ‘by in single file’. Austerity is the very basic existence, doing just enough to survive and nothing more. Yes, I know that years do go by in single file, but Wylie presents them as occurring one by one to emphasise how life seems to drag on. Contrast this with the common idiom time flies when you are having fun. Misery seems to drag on forever.
Yeah, yeah, I know it still sounds like she is getting ready to pull the trigger. However, the ‘But’ at the beginning of the second last line saves us. This tells us that despite her suffering there is some way she can survive. Her saviour here is the fact that ‘none [of the years] has merited my fear’, meaning that she has never sunken so low into misery that she has had enough. ‘None has quite escaped my smile’ finally gives us a tiny ray of light as even in her misery, at lacking freedom and true love/togetherness, she is able to find some joy in the world.
Key things to comment on here are the control of the poem in the state of such misery.
Each of the three stanzas follows an ABAB rhyme scheme (I know the first stanzas B rhyme is tortuous, but it is meant to be a rhyme) and are regular in terms of syllables. This reflects the sense that the poetic voice has come to terms with her misery and is in a state of acceptance rather than emotional anguish.
The enjambment of the opening three lines leads to a quicker pace than the rest of the poem and reflects the emotion linked to struggling with this deceptive hope for a better, more fulfilled existence. However, this gives way to the slow and deliberate caesuras at the start of the second stanza, which makes these statements about the condition of humanity and women seem to definitive and immovable.
As above. We have an opening wobble of emotion and deep misery as hope is put to bed, but then a cold acceptance of the reality of her fate. Within this acceptance we find a slight glimmer of joy peaking out in the final line.