Words for Departure
Words for Departure
Louise Bogan's poem "Words for Departure" was published in her first book of poetry, Body of This Death (1923). In 1922, Bogan had spent six months in Vienna, immersing herself in her work and studying European poetry. When she returned from this period of study, she found a publisher, Robert M. McBride & Company of New York City and within months had published her first compilation of poems. The twenty-seven poems in this first collection of work often focus on romantic relationships and on sexual betrayal. This is true of "Words for Departure," as well, which, while offering advice for a departing lover, also reveals the depth of pain suffered at a lover's betrayal.
The poems in this first book reveal Bogan's study of classical lyrical poetry, with its emphasis on traditional themes. The author uses the classical lyrical motifs of love, time, nature, and rebirth in "Words for Departure" to suggest that all four of these themes are permanently interwoven when love is lost. Bogan studied the poetry of William Butler Yeats and was influenced by modern poetry, but she also adopted the ideas of English Renaissance poets such as John Donne, including some of the metaphysical poet's traditions.
"Words for Departure" was written only a few years after Bogan's husband died but, because the marriage was not a happy one, it is difficult to identify his death as a source for this poem. While Bogan used her poetry to tell stories, the narrative is never obvious and the source of the image not easily defined. Instead the reader must work at deciphering the meaning.
Many of the poems from Body of This Death were reprinted in Bogan's later books, though this is not true for "Words for Departure," which is contained only in this first collection. Body of This Death has been out of print for many years and as of 2004 was difficult to find; however, "Words for Departure" can be found online at some poetry Websites.
Louise Bogan was born August 11, 1897, in Livermore Falls, Maine. During her early childhood, the family moved frequently, although Bogan's education was not neglected during these moves. In 1910 Bogan enrolled in Boston's Girls' Latin School, where she studied Latin, Greek, and French, in addition to the more traditional high school subjects of mathematics, science, and history. While still in high school, Bogan began publishing her first poems, initially in her high school literary magazine, the Jabberwock, and later in the Boston Evening Transcript. In 1916, after her education at the Girls' Latin School was completed, Bogan enrolled at Boston University, but only studied there for a year. That same year, she married Curt Alexander, who was in the army. In 1917, the couple moved to New York City, and then Bogan's husband was transferred to Panama, where the couple's daughter Mathilde (Maidie) was born. Bogan was unhappy in Panama and with her marriage in general, and in 1918 she took her daughter and returned to her parents' home in Massachusetts. She briefly reconciled with her husband after the war ended but then left him again in 1919. Alexander died the following year, and Bogan used her army widow's pension to support her fledgling career as a writer in New York City.
In New York, Bogan quickly became active in the literary life of the city. She tried to make up for the lack of a formal education by reading, especially the works of early twentieth-century poets such as William Butler Yeats, whose work influenced her own. She used this time to develop her own writing skills, often publishing poems in literary journals such as Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and the Measure.
By 1923, Bogan had a publisher for her first book of poems, Body of This Death (1923), from which the poem "Words for Departure" is taken. Many of the poems in this collection reflect themes
of sexual betrayal, which is not surprising considering that Bogan's mother's frequent sexual infidelity occupied much of the author's childhood. After the publication of her first book, Bogan also began to write poetry reviews and criticism, particularly for the New Yorker, an endeavor that continued for thirty-eight years.
In 1925, Bogan married again, this time to poet Raymond Holden. The marriage allowed Bogan to reclaim Maidie from her parents' home, where the child had been living since 1919. The marriage, however, was unsuccessful and, by 1931, a severely depressed Bogan had entered the New York Neurological Institute, hoping to find a cure for the depression that plagued her for the rest of her life. Bogan and Holden were divorced in 1937, and she never married again.
During the next thirty years, Bogan continued to write and publish. Her autobiography Journey around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan was published posthumously in 1980. Bogan received many awards in her lifetime, including the John Reed Memorial Prize in 1930 and the Helen Haire Levinson Memorial Prize in 1937. In 1933 and 1937, Bogan was awarded Guggenheim fellowships. In 1944 she received a Library of Congress fellowship in American Letters, and in 1945 she was awarded the Library of Congress Chair in Poetry, a position she held until 1946. Additional recognition quickly followed with the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award in 1948 and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1951. In 1955, Bogan received the Bollingen Prize in poetry for Collected Poems, 1923–1953 (1954). During the next several years, she continued to earn honors for her poetry, receiving an Academy of American Poets fellow-ship in 1958, a Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in poetry in 1961, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1967. Bogan died February 4, 1970, in her New York apartment.
Bogan's lyrical poem "Words for Departure" offers instructions for a departing lover, but the poem goes beyond simple leave-taking to create an image of love found and then lost. The poem is divided into three sections, each containing several stanzas. The first section is one of oppositions and takes place in the present tense. The second section is focused on memories, recalling the lover as he was in the past. The final section pushes the lover away and looks to the future. The poem itself is filled with ambiguities that reveal the pain the speaker feels at her lover's betrayal. In the end, although she instructs him on how a lover should leave, her own grief at this loss is captured in her inability to watch him leave.
The first line of Bogan's poem begins with the word "nothing," a word that is repeated several times in the first section of the poem. With the first line, the author also creates an opposition that dominates the entire poem. Initially the first line suggests a stagnant existence, when time stops and nothing is remembered and nothing is forgotten. The speaker would like time to stand still, but the poem quickly moves into real time, as images of the passing day reveal that she cannot hold back time. The author recalls the early morning world outside the lovers' room, with the noise of wagons moving on the pavement and the evidence of recent rain still on the windowsill. The use of "we awoke" reveals they are lovers who have shared this room during the night.
There is a world beyond their room, and it is this world that will intrude. The town exists just outside the window. Bogan creates images of the town in only a few words. The chimney pots that grace the rooflines are compared to trees, only this image is a "grotesque" caricature of nature in which birds must nestle among the roofs in manmade perches rather then those created by nature's hand. In this instance, pavement and buildings have replaced nature, defiling what nature has constructed. The word "grotesque" also refers to the narrator's individual world, which is in turmoil because the loved one will leave that day for another love. The loss of the lover is a distortion of the author's own world, an incongruity in her natural world, where love has been replaced by treachery.
The second stanza of the first section repeats the opening of the first stanza, with the repetition of the word "nothing" and the same opposition of ideas and lack of movement that opened the poem. The moment of separation is approaching, but the poet has not yet accepted the end of the love affair, and she cannot look beyond this moment to a future without her lover. All she sees at this moment is nothing. In the next lines Bogan's focus shifts subtly from the lovers to the passage of time that marks their final hours together. The hours of the day are marked by "bells" that remind the speaker that only a few hours remain before the lover leaves her. The warm summer day begins to cool as evening approaches. While the first stanza noted the morning of their final day, the second stanza observes that time is continuing its unstoppable move toward the day's conclusion. The day wanes and the "streets" become "deserted." Soon the moon begins to light the dusk and the day is ending. The dark signals both the end of the day and the end of the relationship.
The last stanza of the first section develops a fuller picture of the lovers. While they were not described in the poem's opening lines, in these lines the lovers stand together, face-to-face, with hands clasped and foreheads touching. It is the moment of their parting. Once again the author uses nothing to describe this couple. Nothing remains of the love that once existed. In line 14 Bogan suggests that the woman never really possessed her partner's love and thus she cannot have lost what she has never had. In this moment of dissolution, she gains nothing and loses nothing, and in the final line of this section, she explains that he has not offered her the gift of love, nor has he denied his love for another. Initially it appears that in the nothingness of their love's finality, the lovers will part without words of love or recrimination. The speaker seems to accept that there is nothing that remains of the love they once knew, but the following sections of the poem reveal that she cannot walk away so easily.
The second section of the poem moves backward from the present tense of the first section to an image of the lovers' past. In lines 17 and 18 the narrator begins to reveal the depth of her attachment for her lover. He was not a brief moment in her life, a quick stop at an unfamiliar town. Her love for him was sure and steady and not a love, as she reminds the reader in line 18, from which she had fled. In these lines the author offers the first suggestion of the depth of pain with which she has been left. She was committed to loving him and did not deny him the fullness of her love. These lines also reveal a growing tone of bitterness that the poet is unable to mask.
In the final five lines of the second section of the poem, the author uses images from nature to explain the importance of the lover in her life. Lines 19 and 20 describe the newness of the relationship and the inexperience of the lover. Their initial time together was tentative, the hesitancy of new love described as "awkward as flesh." And yet how can flesh, nature's creation, be awkward? The tension created with the pairing of words such as "flesh" and "awkward" suggests the speaker is returning to the lovers' earliest days together, searching for signs of incompatibility that she might have missed. Perhaps she missed warnings of what was to come? She describes her lover's initial touch as uncertain and as weightless as early morning frost or the dusting of ash that adds no weight and yet covers and obscures a surface. Both the frost and the ash continue the oppositions the author favors in this poem: one image is of clean white purity, while the other image is the remains of something annihilated. Ash, so easily stirred by wind, is grey; it is nature's response to the fire that destroys life, and it hides what might remain after the fire has been extinguished. The lover's touch, once so light and pure, was really something darker that hid the betrayal that lay below.
Line 21 continues this image of something hidden. The rind of fruit hides what is concealed within, but the image is incomplete, and the rind is not pealed away to reveal the fruit. The lover is without substance. There is nothing below the surface, no depth of feeling. The next image focuses on the purity of an apple. The speaker is all interior, all emotion. She has no outer rind to protect her and is instead open to all the emotions that flow from her. The two fruits continue the opposition noted elsewhere in the poem. The cliché about the fundamental differences between apples and oranges is a familiar one, but Bogan uses this old cliché in a new manner. In this case the rind of the orange is paired with the white-juiced interior of the apple to demonstrate that the lovers never belonged together. In the final line of the second section, the author compares the lovers to music that has been written but never completed. The music that would have given voice to the lyrics is missing, just as the lovers were unable to find completeness in their relationship. Now that their relationship is ending, their song together will never be completed; their story is left unfinished.
At the beginning of the third section, the speaker tells her lover that there will be no further recounting of the past. He is told to "Go from mine," the speaker's world, "to the other," the world of a new lover. She tells him to create a new life with a new lover, and yet there is ambivalence in these final words. This ambivalence is present in the opposition of images relayed in this section of the poem. Initially the lover is told to "Be together" with his new love, to "eat" and "dance," but the contrast appears with the inclusion of the word "despair" in this line. The lover will know contentment initially, but the time with the new love will not be without its grief. This idea is continued in line 27, when the author instructs the lover to "Sleep, be threatened, endure." The speaker reminds the lover that his sleep will also be coupled with discord, just as it was when they were together. He will "know the way of that," since the lover experienced those same emotions of unhappiness when he was with the speaker. Although the lover is moving on to someone new, the patterns of the old relationship will not be lost, and happiness will continue to be elusive for someone who is so easily dissatisfied with a lover. In these lines the tone of bitterness that earlier crept into the poem becomes more obvious. Although the speaker suggested in line 15 there would be no recrimination, the lover's betrayal and the pain it has caused linger near the surface, and she is unable to let him walk away without pointing out his weaknesses.
In these next four lines, the speaker looks ahead to the end of her lover's next relationship. She is sure he will treat his next lover the same way he treated her, and so she offers him advice on how to leave the new lover. When that relationship ends, he is told to "be insolent." He should be impertinent and disrespectful as he departs, but he should also not linger. As he cuts off the relationship, he should do so quickly, with a quick "strike." And he should not be too serious, but instead be "absurd," and yet he is also instructed to "be mad." The opposition of images that began this poem continues in the final lines. Contrasting phrases such as "be absurd" but "be mad" suggest that this is how he treated the poet when he was preparing to leave her. There was no logic or fairness in how her lover treated her. He was absurd, then angry, and then disrespectful. Since he treated her so badly, he should continue this behavior with his new love and "be insolent" but not "talk." These commands reveal the depth of her pain. She has been betrayed, and love neither ends simply and easily, nor ends without pain. She predicts that this new love will soon lose the "bloom" of happiness and end with silence, just as their love ended with a lover's silence. The reader never hears the word of the lover in these lines. He is silent, but the poet's accusations serve to tell his story.
In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker moves from the future and her lover's next relationship back into the present and the moment of leave-taking. She tells her lover to walk away into the dark; he should not need a lantern to light the way. Rather than illuminate his departure, the speaker prefers this leave-taking to occur at night. If she cannot see him actually leave, there can be "some uncertainty" about his departure. If he walks into the darkness and completely disappears, she need not ever see him actually leave. There will be no need to imagine him with his new love. In the final two lines of "Words for Departure" the speaker reveals the depth of her pain at her lover's betrayal. She has used the previous seven lines to chastise him and to predict his inability to find happiness, but as he leaves all that is forgotten as she tries to grasp the enormity of his leaving.
Beginning and Ending
In "Words for Departure," Bogan offers many contrasting images, but one important aspect of the poem is the duel image of the lovers beginning and ending their relationship. In her descriptions of the lovers' earliest time together, the speaker gives voice to memories that are now clouded with pain. In line 19 the speaker describes the hesitancy of a new relationship. In the beginning her lover was unsure of himself. She describes his ineptitude as "awkward as flesh." The analogy reveals one of the tensions in the poem. Awkwardness with a new lover is understandable, and the uncertainty of action that accompanies new love is to be expected, but the speaker couples it with the word "flesh," a word that denotes something that is natural. Flesh cannot be awkward, but as the speaker looks back to the beginning, she searches for hints that might have anticipated this loss. The pairing of these words in the same phrase suggests that perhaps the awkwardness of flesh should have warned her that they did not belong together. The end of the relation actually occurs in lines 12 and 13, even though he does not walk away until line 34. The emotional parting is depicted in the image of the lovers "Hand clasped hand, /Forehead still bowed to forehead." This is their last touch, and it is the last moment before the author is swept away by the pain of her lover's leave-taking. The speaker continues to recount their time together and to offer bitter words about how the relationship has ended, but it is this last touching that signals the end of love. In the final section of the poem, the speaker tells her lover, "you have learned from the beginning." With this phrase the speaker brings the beginning forward to the end, and the cycle of beginnings and endings is complete.
Bogan's poem is filled with images of grief at the loss of love's promise. She begins with the simple phrase, "Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten." The speaker cannot bear to remember, nor can she possibly forget. The repetition of the word nothing describes the emptiness of her life as her lover prepares to leave her. She has not yet accepted that her lover is leaving, and she cannot yet look beyond it. Instead there is only nothing. In line 14 she acknowledges she never really possessed him. This realization offers little relief for her grief, and so in the next several lines she gives voice to her pain. She questions whether she missed signs that they did not belong together, and in moments of pain and irony she instructs him how to break-up with his next lover. The depth of her grief is captured in the final two lines of the poem, when the speaker instructs her lover to go in darkness. If he leaves without light, she will not actually see him leave, and hence there will be "some uncertainty about [his] departure." In these final lines it becomes clear that she cannot sustain the anger of the previous lines, and all she feels now is grief.
Light and Darkness
Bogan's poem begins with dawn, with the rain of the night still lingering on the windowsills and the chirping of early-morning birds outside. The lovers' day of parting begins in the light of morning. Traditionally dawn signals a new beginning, a rebirth. This dawn signals the end of one relationship and the beginning of the speaker's life without her lover. When the day ends and dusk begins to fall, the speaker begins to reflect on her time with her lover as she prepares for his departure. In this case darkness not only ends the day, it also ends their time together as a couple. She asks him to walk away in the dark. She wants no light to illuminate his going. Darkness signifies a conclusion, but for the speaker it also helps create an illusion that might sustain her for a few more hours.
Movement of Time
In "Words for Departure" the poet plays with time, slipping between present, past, and future tense. The poem opens in the present tense; it is the morning of the last day. Even though she would like to hold time static, the day marches on. She hears the bells ringing the time, "separated hour from hour." The heat of the summer wanes and the coolness of dusk approaches, and the day is nearly gone as the first section of the poem ends. In the second section, the author recalls the past. She reflects on the lovers' time together, remembering hints from time past that might have portended this ending. In the final section, she tells her lover to learn from the past, even as she looks to a future in which he will be as dissatisfied with his new lover as he was with the old one whom he leaves this day. At the end of the poem, the speaker reverts to present tense as she bids her lover to leave. In shifting time from present to past to future and back again to the present, the speaker uses manipulation of time to paint a complex picture of this final day with her lover. The poet adds a depth to the narrative that a straightforward chronological story would lack, and the reader is allowed to experience both the speaker's pain and the lover's duplicity in a series of images.
Topics For Further Study
- Poetry should create images and pictures in the reader's mind. Using Bogan's poem, draw or illustrate one of the images her poem creates.
- Bogan's poem was published in the early 1920s. Her poem depicts unmarried lovers who are ending their relationship. Examine the cultural and social lives of women in the early 1920s. Pay close attention to the life of an unmarried woman living alone, and try to determine what options were available for women who did not wish to marry.
- The nineteenth amendment, giving women the right to vote, was finally approved in 1920. Re-search the suffrage movement and try to determine the reasons why so many people were opposed to allowing women to vote.
- Bogan was inspired by several poets, especially the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne. Compare Bogan's poem to one of Donne's poems. You might consider choosing "Woman's Constancy" or "The Sun Rising" as possible poems for this exercise. What similarities do you note? In what ways has Bogan altered Donne's ideas to fit her own poetic needs and style?
- It is often helpful when studying poetry to try and write a poem. Poems need not have a rhyme scheme or be of any predetermined length to be successful, and often imitating a poet's style is an effective way to get started writing poetry. Choose the topic of lost love and create your own poem, modeling it after Bogan's poem.
Lyric poetry uses nature to depict images of order and disorder. In Bogan's poem, the messiness of the break-up of this love affair is reflected in the images of nature that are present. The birds that scatter in line 4 settle in "chimneypots" that mirror "grotesque trees." Rather than find haven in a tree, the birds look to manmade perches. This reversal of nature is what the poet finds in the disorder of her own life. What she thought was the naturalness of love has now been revealed to be as false as the birds' perches. Initially the oranges and apples in lines 21 and 22 might suggest the perfection of nature that the poet thought analogous to the lovers, and yet on close examination, the orange is revealed as a rind with no center, while the apple contains a center with no covering. These fruits are imperfect examples of nature, just as her love affair was imperfect. Earlier the love seemed ideal, but now the speaker notices the differences and the disruptions in nature that had been hidden.
The center section of Bogan's poem is occupied with the speaker's remembrance of the lovers' past. In line 16 she recalls, "I have remembered you." These words reveal that she will not forget him. He was not a brief moment in her life, not "the town visited once." She loved him deeply and did not withhold herself. Rather than protect herself from love, she welcomed love and did not run from it. She was not "the road falling behind running feet." She stood still and embraced him in love. The speaker uses these memories to probe for reasons why their love did not last. She reflects on the lovers' time together and acknowledges their differences. In recalling these memories, the speaker is able to begin grieving for what is being lost.
Analogy is a common element of poetry, used to suggest a similarity between things that appear on the surface to be dissimilar. For example, the lover is "a rind" with no substance inside. The speaker, on the other hand, is the fruit of the apple, all emotion with no thick skin to protect her. The use of analogy in Bogan's poem is subtle, which means that the reader needs to read the poem carefully to understand all the analogies.
Simply put, imagery refers to the images in a poem. The relationships between images can suggest important meanings in a poem, and with imagery, a poet uses language and specific words to create meaning. For instance, Bogan includes images from nature to illustrate the disruption in her natural world. She also includes an image of the lovers' parting, with hands clasped and foreheads touching, an image that reveals the depth of loss that shakes her being. The contrasting images Bogan includes help create tension in the poem and add to its complexity.
Lyric poems are strongly associated with emotion, imagination, and a song-like resonance, especially when associated with an individual speaker or speakers. Lyric poetry emerged during the Archaic Age, around the eighth century b.c. The poems of this time period were shorter than the previous narrative poetry of Homer or the didactic poetry of Hesiod. Since lyric poetry is so individual and emotional in its content, it is by its very nature also subjective. Lyric poetry is also the most common form of poetry, especially since its attributes are common to many other forms of poetry. Bogan's poem combines many of the attributes of lyric poetry, with its emphasis on love and loss and on nature and chaos.
Metaphysical poetry began in the seventeenth century as a revolt against the conventions of the Petrarchan poetry so popular in the Elizabethan period. Metaphysical poetry is notable for its use of psychological analysis of love, its depiction of the poet's complexity of thought, and its imagery of the disillusionment of love. The seventeenth-century poet John Donne is most often associated with metaphysical poetry. Bogan studied Donne's work carefully, and her poem "Words for Departure" contains effective images of disillusionment, as well as a psychological analysis of what went wrong in the love affair.
A narrative poem is a poem that tells a story or recounts events. Bogan's poem tells the story of her lover's departure from her life. However, Bogan makes this structure her own by refusing to tell the story in a straight chronological form. Instead she shifts time in her narrative and creates tension and complexity in her story. The story ends with the poet's recognition that she cannot change what is happening. Her lover will leave in spite of her words and neither her love for him nor her anger at his actions will change what is happening.
Paralelism is a grammatical device that conveys equal importance of two or more ideas by using the same syntax for each idea. For example, Bogan uses parallelism to describe the emptiness she feels as her lover is preparing to leave her. In line 1 she explains, "Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten." She again repeats this structure in line 6 with "Nothing was accepted, nothing looked beyond." Bogan returns to this structure in line 14 with "Nothing was lost, nothing possessed." All three lines have exactly the same structure. This use of parallelism focuses the reader's attention on these lines and on specific words and signifies that they are important elements of the poem.
The word poem is generally assigned to mean a literary composition distinguished by emotion, imagination, and meaning. But the term poem may also fit certain designated formulas, such as a sonnet or a sestina, which are defined by a specific length and/or a particular rhyme scheme. A poem may also include divisions into stanzas, a sort of paragraph-like division of ideas, and may also include a specific number of stressed or unstressed syllables in each line. Bogan's poem is divided into separate sections, with each section also divided into stanzas of varying lengths. Every word in Bogan's poem suggests an image or idea, and nothing is wasted. Modern poetry has moved away from the strict formulas used by early poets, but even contemporary poets still strive for an impassioned response to their poems. Bogan studied the Renaissance lyric poets, and she is able to make effective use of traditional poetic forms.
Cultural and Societal Changes
The early 1920s was a period of clashing ideals and traditions, of contradictions and sometimes frightening possibilities. The end of World War I resulted in a carpe diem attitude, an eat-drink-and be-merry view of the world. The loss of life from the war, followed by the flu epidemic of 1918, left many people frightened and unsure about the future. Many people just wanted to be happy and have fun after this terrible period in history. During this same time, women won the right to vote in 1920, after a seventy-two-year struggle. Although they often voted as the men in their lives instructed, winning the right to vote suggested to women that perhaps they were equal to men. And there were other changes afoot that would set women free from the household duties that consumed their time. Apartments were being built, and smaller apartments did not require much work to keep clean. The sale of canned and convenience foods was growing, and as a result, some of the drudgery of cooking was eliminated. Bakeries and commercial laundries opened. There were washing machines and irons to aid with cleaning, and many houses had telephones and radios. It was easier to keep in touch with the outside world. New inventions permeated every aspect of people's lives. Automobiles made transportation available to many people, who now used cars to journey beyond their towns, whereas in the past most people lived and died within only a few miles of their birthplace. The car also led to greater sexual freedom. In the past, few young men and women had the opportunity to be alone. Most young people lived with their parents, and cars offered a privacy not previously experienced.
By July 1920 leading newspapers were reporting the scandalous news that women's skirts were now at least nine inches off the ground. For the first time, women were showing their ankles. Over the next few months, skirt lengths continued to rise. Suddenly women were wearing thin, shapeless dresses that stopped well above the woman's shin-bone. Women were no longer strapped-in by corsets. Suddenly the softness of a woman's body was available to be touched. Women were also wearing cosmetics and cutting their hair and letting it hang loosely. The new hairstyles and clothing were easier to maintain. Women were also dancing, and it was not the ladylike waltz that had been considered so proper in the past. In the new dances, women were pressed close to their partners and no stiff corset separated the dancing pair. Moreover, young women were smoking in public and drinking, although the latter occurred somewhat more privately. Prohibition, after all, had supposedly outlawed drinking.
This youthful rebellion by young women did not go unnoticed. Parents were appalled, but most thought the descriptions that filled the newspapers were of other people's children. There were attempts to curtail women's freedom and return them to the repressive old days. Religious journals denounced the new kind of freer dancing as carnal, and parents were lectured from pulpits to take better control of their children, especially their daughters. Additional opposition to women's freedom came from leading women who proposed that a society be created to monitor women's clothing styles. Across the United States, local clergymen were asked to submit their ideas for the proper female dress. In several states, bills were proposed that would make wearing skirts more than three inches above the ankle a crime; in one state even two inches above the ankle would be illegal. Bills were also introduced that would make the exposure of more than three inches of a woman's throat a crime.
The changes in women's clothing and behavior signaled huge changes in society. Women were demanding more independence, and not just from corsets, but from antiquated rules that repressed and defined women as chaste and pure and as destined only for marriage and motherhood. Bogan's poem "Words for Departure" depicts a woman being abandoned by her lover. There is no suggestion that the couple is married, although a divorce would still have been considered scandalous. This freedom for young women was every parent's nightmare, but it was independence that women craved. The early 1920s marks a time when women escaped from their traditional roles and sought the opportunity to express themselves, a freedom of expression evidenced in Bogan's poem.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: In the United States, women finally have the right to vote. The nineteenth amendment to the Constitution is approved August 26, 1920. It has taken more than seventy years of hard work, beginning with a women's rights convention in 1848, for women to finally achieve this right.
Today: The bitter and lengthy fight for the right to vote seems far removed for women today.
- 1920s: In January 1921 in London, the first women to serve on a divorce-court jury are sworn in. Divorce, however, is still rare and is still considered scandalous, particularly for women.
Today: Divorce is much more common, and few cases go to trial. A woman's ability to divorce is no longer decided by men, and society is much more accepting of divorce.
- 1920s: By 1922, the flapper girl has changed the image of women. A woman can now smoke and drink in public, wear lipstick, and wear short skirts. She no longer has to cover her body from neck to toes. Sexual freedom for women is also a part of this movement, although the double standard that condemns women's sexuality remains in effect.
Today: Women in Western countries show even more of their bodies in public, and there is no hesitancy about smoking and drinking or wearing cosmetics. Many women feel free to express their individuality in whatever way they choose.
- 1920s: T. S. Eliot publishes The Waste Land in October 1922. Eliot's long poem moves poetry in a new direction, incorporating a variety of poetic forms, languages, and references to older works. His poem also captures the despair of World War I and proves a counterpoint to the recklessness that otherwise grips the early 1920s.
Today: Poetry is less regimented by formulas and is more individualistic. Eliot's poem, now largely relegated to classroom study, no longer seems so shocking, unless it is studied within its historical context.
Bogan's poem "Words for Departure" was included in her first published collection of poems, Body of This Death. Although she was a young poet at the time of its publication, Bogan had already published poems in poetry magazines and so there was some notice paid in 1923 to this thin book of twenty-seven poems. As Martha Collins observes in her study of Bogan's work titled Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, critics in general found her first collection to be a "small book" filled with rather short poems. Collins states that "Bogan's strongest admirers have almost always been poets."
Perhaps Collins's observation helps explain the mixed reviews that greeted Bogan's first book. In a letter written March 1, 1924, and included in Ruth Limmer's collection of Bogan's personal letters (What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920–1970), Bogan mentions several unfavorable reviews. She writes, "The Dial certainly gave [Body of This Death] a rotten smack, didn't it?" Bogan also notes, "Johnny Weaver in the Brooklyn Eagle put me down as very slight and wanted to know why all the hosannas had been raised." Bogan then mentions a third critic, John Gould Fletcher, who "in The Freeman said my 'lack of thought' was painful." Bogan's attitude seems to be nonchalant about these negative reviews, however, perhaps because she has more confidence in her own work than did the critics.
Although Bogan did not highlight any positive reviews of Body of This Death in her letters of this period, there were reviews that praised the book's many strengths. Two of the first reviews of Bogan's early poetry are included in Collins's book. In a review originally published in the Nation, Mark Van Doren suggests that Bogan's poems "take effect directly upon the imagination." Van Doren acknowledges that Bogan's poems are not easily understood, but he observes, "Miss Bogan has always spoken with intensity and intelligent skill." He concludes his review with high praise, writing the book "may be a classic."
Collins also includes an essay originally contained in Llewellyn Jones's First Impressions: Essays on Poetry, Criticism and Prose. Jones writes of Bogan's first book that the poetry in this collection depicts the struggle "against all that stifles, diverts, and disarms life." According to Jones, Bogan's poems also portray the struggle "against the pettiness that haunts the footsteps of love." Jones compares Bogan's work to that of William Butler Yeats, whose work Bogan admired. Like Yeats, says Jones, Bogan "has not sacrificed beauty to … austerity." Jones finds Bogan "is not afraid to deck her beauty in imagery, natural or classical." It appears Jones had read earlier criticism of Bogan's work because the critic urges readers to "make allowances" for those poems that seem obscure to the reader, since the poet "is giving us subjective poetry distilled from what is evidently intense experience."
As Lee Upton notes in his essay "The Re-Making of a Poet: Louise Bogan," "whether poets are born or made, surely they are remade by their critics." While Bogan's first work may not have achieved overwhelming critical acclaim, she did eventually hold an important place in critical discussions of modern poetry.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. Metzger teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. In this essay, Metzger explores the fractured depiction of self in Bogan's "Words for Departure," which she suggests can be read as an icon of the poet's own childhood experiences.
In composing poetry, Bogan used a variety of poetic forms, but the poems in Body of This Death, and the poem that is the subject of this essay, "Words for Departure," are lyric poems, often defined by their emotional response to the grief, chaos, and betrayal associated with love. Bogan writes in her autobiography Journey around My Room that lyric poetry is "the most intense, the most condensed, the most purified form of language," and thus it is to be expected that she would turn to lyric poetry to express the fabric of emotion that is rendered by the betrayal of love. Bogan was an intensely private person, who rarely revealed the personal details of her own life. The posthumous publication of her autobiography and letters opened her life to study and to the inevitable rereading of her poetry in a search for the connections between her poems and the events and people depicted in her autobiographical writings. As only one example of what might be constructed from an examination of these connections, Bogan's poem "Words for Departure" can be examined as illustrating an effort by Bogan to locate herself in her poems of betrayed love.
Many critics have cited Bogan's turbulent childhood, her mother's infidelity, and Bogan's first marriage as explanation of why Bogan's many poems in her first collection of poetry, Body of This Death, are so centered on betrayal. In her autobiography, Bogan recounts episodes of her life, always presented as brief vignettes, like photos in an album that reveal the incongruity of her life. Many of the episodes that involve her mother are marked by tumult and discord. As a response to all this strife, Bogan also notes something as simple as her mother sewing, the click of a needle against a thimble, as a moment "that meant peace." There must have been much discord for Bogan, who, writing so many years after the events that are recalled, remembers a needle click as a particular sound that suggested peace in this stormy household. Bogan also writes of her mother's friend Dede, whose presence scared the child and who brought disruption to the house as she acted as "go-between" between Bogan's mother and her lover. Bogan knew that her mother had lovers, had even walked in unexpectedly and caught her mother with her lover. Thus, it is easy to appreciate Bogan's comments that when her mother "dressed to go to town, the fear came back." These trips meant "going to the city; it meant her other world; it meant trouble." Bogan's mother was prone to sudden anger, blaming everyone, and presumably her daughter, when things went wrong. Her mother would suddenly disappear for weeks and then just as suddenly reappear, creating tumult and tension in her daughter's life.
Still another betrayal occured in 1909 when Bogan's family moved to Boston. Bogan was only a teenager when she began to study drawing with a Miss Cooper, whom the young girl began to idolize as genteel and refined—the qualities that Bogan's mother most lacked and that the young girl most admired. Miss Cooper was thought to be perfect, for about two years. Bogan was about fifteen years old when she discovered that her idol was human, and she writes in her autobiography that Miss Cooper betrayed her. The betrayal was as simple as a sigh, a moment that signaled dissatisfaction or discontent, or perhaps boredom. Whatever the meaning of the sigh, the perfection of Miss Cooper's persona was disrupted, never to reappear. Bogan's days at the drawing studio had given her a peaceful retreat from her mother's chaotic world, and so the betrayal was all the more painful. She describes angry tears, disillusionment, and dismay. Bogan's reaction was extreme, but this disillusionment, coupled with all the chaos and betrayal of her early life, eventually led a very young Bogan to marry an unsuitable older man as a means of escape. She did not write of the marriage in her autobiography, but when asked what she has sought in her life, she replied that she sought love. She explains that she has sought love because she "worked from memory and example." Her mother constantly sought reassurance of her own worth in love affairs, and Bogan experienced her father's anger and the fighting between parents. Bogan writes in her autobiography how all the agony of her childhood "has long been absorbed" into her work. It is this absorption of agony that Bogan captures and reveals in "Words for Departure."
In her essay "Lethal Brevity: Louise Bogan's Lyric Career," Marcia Aldrich says, "[l]ike many other writers early in the century, Bogan turned cultural and personal disappointments into modernist poetry." In her discussion of Body of This Death, Aldrich charges that the subject of "women in the throes of love" is a traditional one for poets, but that in this instance "the volume finds that the literary life of feeling is one of depersonalization and disillusionment." The poems in Body of This Death provide no happy endings, as the title certainly suggests. The poems contained within, according to Aldrich, "define a possessive love between unequal lovers." This critique is certainly true of "Words for Departure." In the poem, it is the male lover who holds all the power. Regardless of the depth of her love for him, the speaker cannot prevent his leaving. All control rests with the male lover and not with the female narrator, and as Aldrich suggests, these lovers are unequal. And yet, as Christine Colasurdo notes in "The Dramatic Ambivalence of Self in the Poetry of Louise Bogan," Bogan's poems are not victim poems. Colasurdo suggests that "What appear to be victim poems are in fact celebrations of the self's emergence from family constraints, failed love, and rigid gender roles." Bogan is a woman who has survived her family and her husband. It is not easy for Bogan to reveal herself, and as Colasurdo observes, Bogan was "a poet who vigorously avoided self-display in her life and work." And yet, she is a poet who also created poems that use the language of suppression and silence.
Although Bogan does use the language of self-suppression, especially in her multiple uses of the word "nothing" in "Words for Departure," she also reveals the painful experience of love, especially in the last line of the poem: "Let there be some uncertainty about your departure." As a child and as a young wife, Bogan experienced many departures. Her ambivalence at these many comings and goings is part of what creates so much tension in her poetry. In his essay "The Re-Making of a Poet: Louise Bogan," Lee Upton points out that Bogan seems to present "a closed face" to critics. Consequently, Bogan emerges as stern and limited and perceived as a poet who depicts "female victims without imagining a more compelling conception of women." Noting that Bogan's poems are "profoundly oppositional," Upton explains that "[s]eparation rather than unity propels her poetics." In "Words for Departure," a lover leaves. He also leaves behind anger, grief, and betrayal. These are mismatched lovers; one, perhaps a man, but equally possibly a woman, is secretive. This lover is the "rind"; nothing is known of the interior, what this lover is feeling or thinking. This lover has mysteries to unlock, words and feelings that remain hidden. The other lover is the opposite, the interior, the "white-juiced apple"; everything is known and nothing is hidden. As Bogan notes in her autobiography, separations, secrets, and deception defined her childhood. Her poetry is charged with her personal story of betrayal. Bogan, whose public "closed face" gives away nothing of her personal life, gives voice to a lover's betrayal in "Words for Departure." Her mother had "her fantasies, her despairs, her secrets, her subterfuges." She was like the rind, the lover whose secrets and whose departure brings such pain.
What Do I Read Next?
- Collected Poems, 1923–1954 (1954), by Louise Bogan, is a collection of her early poems. Also included are three poems written after World War II ended. Bogan was awarded the 1955 Bollingen Prize for this collection.
- The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923–1968 (1968) was Bogan's final work of poetry. This collection earned Bogan the best reviews she ever received for a book of poetry.
- The Metaphysical Poets (1960, 3d ed.), edited by Helen Gardner, provides a good introduction that helps explain the characteristics of metaphysical poetry. The collection of poetry included provides a selection of poets, over many years.
- The Poetry of John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets, reissued in 1989 and edited by Joseph E. Grennen, includes a comprehensive selection of Donne's work. Donne is considered the most important of the metaphysical poets, and he had an influence on Bogan's poetry.
- Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing (1982), by Kate Farrell and Kenneth Koch, is a collection of poetry selected from among twenty-three modern poets. In addition to a collection of wonderful poems, the authors also provide guides to help fledgling writers create their own poems.
- Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (1996, 2d ed.), by Harvey Seymour and Robert McDowell, is a good basic text to help the student understand form and function in modern poetry. One strength of this book is its emphasis on metrical structure and stanza forms.
Upton also indicates that it is Bogan's position as an outsider that leads to many of the oppositional forces found in her poems. Bogan writes in her autobiography that she was "a member of a racial and religious minority." She knew this from a young age; she experienced the bigotry directed against Irish Catholics, and she understood that she "was a 'Mick,'" regardless of her other "faults or virtues." Her status as an outsider, says Upton, can be found in her poetry: "[d]ivided voices dominate her work and require that we read her poems not as simple polemics but as explorations of multiple levels of psychological crisis." The opposition noted in "Words for Departure," the countering of "Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten," the repetition of this parallelism throughout the poem—these are Bogan's divided voice. She creates divisions and breaks in unity in her poetry, just as her life was a series of moves, separations, betrayals, and broken attachments. In exploring meaning in Bogan's poetry, Upton suggests that for Bogan "separation became a means of survival." While still quite young, she removed herself from her parents and husband and even her young daughter, and moved to New York City to live on her own. This leaving is what she understands as normal, given her own childhood experiences.
Bogan, who had so little control over her childhood existence, tried as an adult to control her own life. In her essay "Music in the Granite Hill," Deborah Pope suggests that the women in Bogan's poems "struggle to establish a sense of selfhood and control over their emotional and social environments, which constantly operate to defeat them." Pope proposes that "Words for Departure" is part of a poetic sequence that reveals the emotional turmoil of Bogan's failed marriage. As Pope also notes, with so much turmoil in her own early life, Bogan sought control in her poetry. "Words for Departure" reveals a stasis in the poet's world. Each movement of the poem is balanced; lines and phrasing are parallel, the oppositions counterpoised and the symmetry clear. Nothing is out of control, and yet, one lover is leaving and another is in pain. Yet even that inequity is equal. The lover does leave, but the other lover assumes control also. It is this lover's voice that is heard in the poem and this lover who demands that her lover leave in the dark. It is the abandoned lover who issues warning and it is this lover who commands the reader's attention. Like Bogan, this lover is a survivor. Upton suggests that Bogan's poetry "explores the unconscious dynamics of women's experience." It may also reveal the dynamics of Bogan's own life.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on "Words for Departure," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay excerpt, Aldrich places Bogan's career within the context of an aesthetic of romantic crisis and argues that Bogan did not evolve into a mature poet due to her status as a feminine lyric poet of the time.
The modernist poet Louise Bogan never wrote poetry easily or voluminously. Over her lifetime she published 105 collected poems, most of them written while she was in her twenties or thirties. The Sleeping Fury, published in 1937 when Bogan was forty years old, was her last book of new poems. She wrote no poetry from 1941 to 1949, and the Collected Poems, 1923–1953 added but three lyrics to the work gathered in Poems and New Poems, published in 1941. In her twenties Bogan was already contrasting her own writing blocks with Keats's "sitting down every morning and writing 200 lines, fully and easily" (Letters). In middle age she wrote poetry with still greater difficulty and infrequency, reaching an impasse that persisted for some thirty years, even while she remained active as a translator and critic until her death in 1970. "The woman who died without producing an oeuvre" was the harsh epitaph Bogan wrote for herself when still in her thirties; she was haunted by the possibility that history would remember her only for what she did not accomplish (Journey).
One reason for Bogan's small output, offered by many of those who have written about her, is strict standards of artistic excellence, which created an anxious perfectionism that approached self-censorship. Bogan felt, as she herself recognized, "the knife of the perfectionist attitude at my throat" (Letters). But if such standards—based in a modernist, originally masculine aesthetic of impersonality—help account for Bogan's limited production overall, they do not in themselves explain the shape of her creative career, the decline and disappearance of poetry in her middle and late years. After all, Bogan worked in a modernist idiom from the start. In Louise Bogan's Aesthetic of Limitation, Gloria Bowles provides a more adequate explanation of the volume of poetry Bogan produced—or did not produce—at different stages of life. Along with the psychoaesthetics of perfectionism, Bowles cites biographical and vocational factors. The "burden" of Bogan's reviewing for the New Yorker, "her precarious psychological balance, her perfectionism, her sense of being unappreciated, and her idea of the innate limitations of the woman poet combined to effectively put an end to her art in her early forties." All of these factors are comprised in Bogan's sense of the vocation of the feminine lyric poet, which was shaped by an ideology of youthful romantic love, traditionally both the subject matter of the feminine lyric and the source of the woman poet's inspiration. It is this sense of vocation that most directly enforced change over the course of her career. For what does such a complex of assumptions leave to the middle-aged feminine lyricist?
The Traffic in Pleasure: Early Careers
Bogan was one of a number of women writers of the 1920s, including Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who redefined and modernized the feminine lyric. Their signature was established forms like the sonnet, and they retained the traditional concentration on intense personal feeling. In renewing the feminine lyric, however, they replaced celebrations of religious faith and the domestic sphere, predominant in poetry of the nineteenth century, with powerful sensual experience as the chosen means of transcendence. Bogan and her contemporaries still relied on love, but now it was the engine of physical sensation. Teasdale reported in a letter that she had set up a shrine to Aphrodite and declared, "She is more real to me than the Virgin." Whereas Eliot had advanced a universal, ideal order of European tradition, Bogan and her compatriots acknowledged a specific line of women's poetry leading into their own. Teasdale's anthology of love poetry by women, The Answering Voice, distills this tradition as it developed up to World War I, emphasizing idealistic yearning, disappointment, and memory. Although Bogan disdained the exaggerated posturing of sentimental nineteenth-century verse on the subject of love, she credited women with maintaining the line of feeling in American poetry against any exclusive modernist impulse toward irony and impersonality. Bogan identified herself with a lyric of emotion because it derived from the valid foundation of women's art: "Women's feeling, at best, is closely attached to the organic heart of life"; to women belonged the functions of "security, receptivity, enclosure, nurturance." Albeit ambivalently, Bogan accepted the sentimental tradition as one that sustained her own poetry. The headline of her obituary in the New York Times—"Louise Bogan, Noted Poet Who Wrote about Love, Dead"—dramatizes the extent to which she was identified with the one subject.
It was not a subject free from impediments. Indeed, Bogan's struggle as a writer was from the outset contingent on the identification of the female poet with heterosexual love, the well of feeling. Remarks in "The Heart and the Lyre," Bogan's evaluation of the female tradition, suggest why. Here she links strength of emotion with the feminine lyric gift: "In women, more than in men, the intensity of their emotions is the key to the treasures of the spirit." How and when could one find special strength of feeling? It was available in moments of crisis, in the throes of romance. Of "Zone," first published in Poem and New Poems, Bogan noted, "I wrote a poem which derives directly from emotional crisis, as, I feel, a lyric must" (Journey). This belief, too, was an inherited feature of the feminine lyric; Teasdale, for example, placed herself in a tradition based in the inevitability of women's frustration in love. But the conviction that the lyric derives from moments of crisis creates difficulties in composition, for crisis is not a sustainable form of experience. As Malcolm Cowley emphasized, Bogan's theory made it impossible for her to write a great deal. Even in her youth, a reliance upon extreme feeling limited Bogan's opportunities to create poetry.
An aesthetic of romantic crisis does permit a certain production of poetry if one has a supply of crises—such as was provided to Bogan by her biography through her twenties. She was born in 1897 into an Irish Catholic family then residing in Livermore Falls, Maine. After several other shifts, her parents moved to Boston when she was still a young girl. Her mother was, in Bogan's account, a handsome but vain woman who derived her sense of identity through attracting the romantic interest of men, however fleeting and destructive. Her energies were compulsively channeled into a traffic in pleasure—the upkeep of her figure and dress, endless arrangements of liaisons. These sexual adventures dominated Bogan's life as a young girl. On one occasion she suffered an episode of blindness lasting two days; she was never able to recall what scene had precipitated this symptom. She was "the highly charged and neurotically inclined product of an extraordinary childhood and an unfortunate early marriage, into which last state [she] had rushed to escape the first" (Letters). Living with her family during her freshman year at Boston College, Bogan won a scholarship to Radcliffe but chose to marry Curt Alexander, a corporal in the army, rather than remain at home and attend college. Shortly after the marriage, Alexander was transferred to the Canal Zone, and Bogan, by this time pregnant, followed. She found the exotic Panamanian landscape "alien and hostile" and the marriage an even stranger threshold: "All we had in common was sex" (Journey). After the birth of their daughter, Alexander refused sexual relations with Bogan, and the marriage quickly deteriorated.
Like many other writers early in the century, Bogan turned cultural and personal disappointment into modernist poetry. Her first book, Body of This Death, published in 1923 and dedicated to her mother and daughter, takes as its subject women in the throes of love. The subject is fully traditional, but the results are not promising, for the volume finds that the literary life of feeling is one of depersonalization and disillusionment. Body of This Death studies the bourgeois family and marriage; the latter is sought to escape the former, but it proves an equivalent entrapment. Figures who seek to detach themselves from family through romantic passion discover that it provides no ultimate remedy. The mother's power over the daughter's fate frames many of her attempted escapes, and marital rites of passage fail. Women are identified with beautiful, often aestheticized, objects—stones, marble girls who hear "no echo save their own." The volume builds a spiral of betrayals, each ending in an image of arrest.
To love never in this manner!
To be quiet in the fern
Like a thing gone dead and still.
("Men Loved Wholly beyond Wisdom")
Female destiny is the experience of "being trapped—of being used, of being made an object" (Journey).
Body of This Death begins on a note of hope. Heterosexual consummation, romantic love, would be the means to Bogan's self-creation; sexual love and fertility would empower her. The book's lead-off poem, "A Tale," expresses a longing for love as a means of control, as well as transcendence in the manner of the feminine lyric. Bogan, in the person of the poem's youthful protagonist, hopes for "a land of change" away from the suffocatingly familiar props of her New England childhood. Outwardly she succeeds in severing ties to her family, breaking apart what had shut her in "as lock upon lock." But the allegiance to passion under conditions of inequality, what amounts to women's objectification in male desire, can be debilitating and cruel. The body, for all its sensory power, betrays women who are conventionally young and desirable in a man's world.
To be enduring, save where, south
of hidden deserts, torn fire glares
On beauty with a rusted mouth.
Where something dreadful and another
Look quietly upon each other.
The metonymy of the mouth, rusted and partial, paves the way to the subjects of the last couplet. There the dehumanized "something and another" figure the depersonalizing effect of the youth's fate. "A Tale" initiates the pattern of sexual quest and failed release in Body of This Death. In the dramatic disappointment of Bogan's journey's end, we find the source of the projected landscapes:
Here I could well devise the journey to nothing,
At night getting down from the wagon by the black barns,
The zenith a point of darkness, breaking to bits,
Showering motionless stars over the houses.
Scenes relentless—the black and white grooves of a woodcut.
("A Letter," Journey)
The "withered arbor" in "Statue and Birds" is another sample of disillusionment, the statue representing the results of the transformation of strong experience into the lyric, the essence of Bogan's sense of her poetic process.
Here, in the withered arbor, like the arrested wind,
Straight sides, carven knees,
Stands the statue, with hands flung out in alarm
Over the lintel sway the woven bracts of the vine
In a pattern of angles.
The quill of the fountain falters, woods rake on the sky
Their brusque tangles.
The birds walk by slowly, circling the marble girl,
The golden quails,
The pheasants, closed up in their arrowy wings,
Dragging their sharp tails.
The inquietudes of the sap and of the blood are spent.
What is forsaken will rest.
But her heel is lifted,—she would flee,—the whistle of the birds
Fails on her breast.
The marble girl occupies the center of the arbor, around which the birds slowly circle and from which they depart. Their motion is opposed to the marble girl's stasis; art as static perfection opposed to the freedom of the birds. Against their natural movements we can measure the girl's beautiful but frozen gesture.
The emphasis on "Here" suggests that the text we read, the poem, is also an arbor of sorts. It, too, is a sanctuary, a shady recess enshrining the female statue. But in the poem's process, the statue erodes as statue. It becomes "the marble girl" and finally the "she" of the closing stanza. This final pronoun is a composite of the statue and the depersonalized poet. The walls soften with the poet's late discovery of herself within them. Thus Bogan places her own female beauty in a withered arbor, suggesting an unnatural enervation, the loss of freedom for and by the figuration of art. Enshrinement in an artificial recess becomes another entrapment. The female statue suggests the aesthetic imperatives of Keats's Grecian urn: to attain final perfection, the marble girl must become "an object, in the double sense of being dead and also an object for aesthetic contemplation." In the marble girl's arrested form, Bogan encodes her own self-defeat and complicity within the tradition that objectifies women.
The persistence of the subject of love in the feminine lyric, whether in the traditional moods or with Boganian bitterness, exemplifies a dependence common among women on youthful heterosexual ties for self-definition. The rite of passage theme in "Betrothed" shows how thoroughly the conventional female of Bogan's period was still defined by heterosexual love relationships. The betrothal song, as a set piece of nineteenth-century poetry, celebrates a young woman's passage into marriage. Bogan represents the young woman as an elegiac figure of feminine dismay.
You have put your two hands upon me, and your mouth,
You have said my name as a prayer.
Here where trees are planted by the water
I have watched your eyes, cleansed from regret,
And your lips, closed over all that love cannot say.
My mother remembers the agony of her womb
And long years that seemed to promise more than this.
She says, "You do not want me,
You will go away."
In the country whereto I go
I shall not see the face of my friend
Nor her hair the color of sunburnt grasses;
Together we shall not find
The land on whose hills bends the new moon
In air traversed of birds.
The lover's hands and mouth, placed or imposed on the female, silence rather than caress, and this imposed silence seems linked to the daughter's failure to deliver herself cleanly from her mother's womb. The "you" of "Betrothed" makes proprietary claims upon the female, wrenching possession from the mother. Thus the poem emphasizes the continuity of possession from mother to husband, from daughter to wife, "lock upon lock." It is through relationship with the husband that Bogan discovers the crucial fact about women's sexual identity: they are defined by their relations with others. The female's identity never stands alone, cut free from the mother's claims of birth or from the husband's future rights.
If love as subject connects Bogan's lyric to the nineteenth century, it is still possible to distinguish women's relationships during the period of Bogan's first publications from those prevailing in the nineteenth century. The poems in Body of This Death define a possessive love between unequal lovers. Although the woman is often absorbed and transformed by such love, she must give up friends, family, home, and landscape, even her prior sense of self, to achieve her exaltation. The 1920s, when Bogan's volume was published, saw a shift away from a greater identification of women with women in the nineteenth century. The invention of the category of homosexuality late in the nineteenth century stands as a watershed between the two periods, creating that which is proscribed. A contemporary indicator of this shift is a group of essays compiled in the Nation under the title These Modern Women. Attempting to ascertain what distinguished contemporary women's experiences, the essays describe a reorientation away from the homosocial ties of girlhood toward heterosexual relationships.
Perhaps the most economical means to sketch the cultural pressures prevailing in the 1920s is to show that the female lyric poet responded to what produced like results in two great contemporary film actresses, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks. Their appeal to the film audience—by means of beauty, passion, and suffering—resembled the specifications for the desired and desiring female in the lyric. Garbo personified glamour, sensual expression, and inaccessibility to the general audience, a version of the closed poem encoding sexual appetite. Her film characters sacrificed themselves—to one man, for love. Brooks, on the other hand, exemplified the unbridled pleasure principle. In critical tributes her acting is a matter of instinctual physicality: she "needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence." Directors made similar observations about Garbo, believing she embodied what Roland Barthes in "The Face of Garbo" called the "lyricism of women." The impulse is to locate the basis of the actress's art in her youthful desirability. The same impulse exhibits itself in the critical response to lyric poets, whose art was the gesture of overflowing emotion. Their reception in the 1920s was not generally a matter of analysis; instead it was suffused in romance and infatuation. Many were celebrated beauties whose photographs accompanied their poems in print. Millay cut a romantic figure, rising to notice through public readings that captivated numbers of men, intensifying the propensity to collapse distinctions between poet and poetry. Wylie's much-publicized romantic life, in combination with the austere form of her beauty, was a considerable factor in the reception of her poems. In reviews, descriptions of her physical appearance and of her poems overlap.
Of course the most obvious ideal of physical beauty for women in this century has been youthfulness. As Lois Banner remarks, "An unlined face, hair neither gray nor white, a slim body with good muscle tone have been the signs of beauty achieved." After the 1920s the focus on youth came to include sophistication, glamour, and experience; however, a deepening of sensual experience was still contained within a paradigm of youth and beauty. Garbo quit the screen at age thirty-seven; Brooks's career began before she was twenty-one and lasted but thirteen years. Withdrawal from the public eye was necessary for the actresses to preserve their images from the revisions that would have accompanied their aging. They grew older behind closed doors and sunglasses. The assumption that the aging body is, in Kathleen Woodward's phrase, the "sign of deformation" links these retirements to Bogan's career. In her medium Bogan was as deeply immersed in a process of youthful passion, a romantic objectification of women. The lyric, in the hands of young women, embodied qualities of youth—compression, intensity, passion, and longing—without the marks of decline associated with old age.
The allotted role of women poets, a concern with romantic love, satisfied Bogan's youthful sense of the kind of poetry she aspired to write, even if the outcome of love, as represented in Body of This Death, was destructive. Many writers embraced their identification with love, youth, and desirability because of the opportunities offered but never imagined their fate when they no longer were young. In Western culture, certain forms of power pass swiftly from the old to the young. Marketability in the positions historically open to women, from waitressing to acting, depends upon youthfulness. Women experience anxiety in aging because, quite simply, they may be superseded; women poets were troubled by the process of aging because it seemed to deny them their subject—passion. Valuing love, women poets of the period simultaneously valued youth. When Bogan arrived in middle age, she was faced with alternative prospects: to change the focus and process of her writing or to retire from poetry.
Source: Marcia Aldritch, "Lethal Brevity: Louise Bogan's Lyric Career," in Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 105–20.
In the following essay, Upton discusses recent critical analyses of Bogan's work and how modern readings have come to recognize the ways that her poetry explores the unconscious dynamics of women's experience.
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Source: Lee Upton, "The Re-Making of a Poet: Louise Bogan," in Centennial Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall 1992, pp. 557–72.
Brett C. Millier
In the following essay, Miller discusses Bogan's education, her passionate nature, and her contributions to poetry.
The critic Malcolm Cowley remarked in a review of Louise Bogan's slim volume Poems and New Poems (1941) that she had "done something that has been achieved by very few of her contemporaries: she has added a dozen or more to our small stock of memorable lyrics. She has added nothing whatever to our inexhaustible store of trash." Bogan's reputation as a poet is secure on exactly that scale. She is remembered and studied as one of the finest lyric poets America has produced, though the fact that she was a woman and that she defended formal, lyric poetry in an age of expansive experimentation made evaluation of her work, until quite recently, somewhat condescending. Her achievement in poetry has also been overshadowed by her extensive critical writings; for thirty-eight years she was the poetry critic for The New Yorker magazine, the arbiter of taste in such matters for a literate and influential audience.
Louise Bogan was born of the unhappy marriage of Daniel and May Shields Bogan in Livermore Falls, Maine, a bustling mill town on the Androscoggin River. In 1897, the year of Louise's birth, Daniel Bogan was superintendent in a pulp mill in the town, the first of many such relatively white-collar mill jobs he would hold during her childhood. Louise was their third child; a son, Charles, had been born in 1884, and a second son, Edward, had died in infancy. Bogan grew up in the Irish communities of deepest New England, moving often with her family to a variety of hotels and boardinghouses and other temporary dwellings: to Milton, New Hampshire, in 1901; to Ballardvale, Massachusetts, in 1904; to Roxbury, near Boston, in 1909. These moves were prompted both by economics and by the family's unhappiness. May Shields Bogan was a beautiful and unstable woman prone to flaunting her many extramarital affairs (on at least one occasion witnessed by her daughter) and to mysterious and lengthy disappearances.
Despite these disruptions, Bogan was quite well educated, in a New Hampshire convent (1906–1908) and at Boston's excellent Girls' Latin School (1910–1915), where she received a classical education in Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, history, science, and the arts. Having fallen under the poetic spell of A. C. Swinburne and the French Symbolists, she was a constant contributor to Latin's literary magazine, The Jabberwock, until she was told by the headmaster to trim her ambitions: "No Irish girl could be editor of the school magazine." Such prejudice was prevalent in Boston at the time, and Bogan never ceased to resent it. She transcended these limitations, however, and continued to publish her high school poems, including four in the Boston Evening Transcript, and was named class poet. She was a wide and constant reader who followed her own tastes and developed early and intense literary ambitions.
The difficulties and instabilities of her childhood produced in Bogan a preoccupation with betrayal and a distrust of others, a highly romantic nature, and a preference for the arrangements of art over grim, workaday reality. She would suffer for most of her life from serious depression, which resulted in three lengthy hospital stays for treatment. She would drink heavily, and her work would suffer from what Elizabeth Frank in Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1985) has called "a principle of arrest": "Something stopped Louise Bogan dead in her tracks, not once, but many times." But her fine early education would form the foundation of her poetry and criticism, as would, in some sense, her unhappiness.
Sent by her parents to Boston University in 1916, Bogan did extremely well and earned a scholarship to Radcliffe for her sophomore year. She turned it down, however, for the chance to leave home in the company of a husband, Curt Alexander, a soldier of German origin nine years her senior. She moved with her husband to New York City, and then, when war was declared in 1917, to Panama, where she gave birth to their daughter, Mathilde (Maidie) Alexander. Miserable in the role of military wife and in the heat and humidity of Panama, Bogan wrote poems about her condition, including "Betrothed" (which appeared in her first collection) and "The Young Wife" (which she never collected) and schemed to get back to New England. She left Panama with her child in May 1918 and moved in with her parents in Massachusetts. At the end of the war she was briefly reconciled with her husband, and they lived for a time on army bases near Portland, Maine, and near Hoboken, New Jersey. In the summer of 1919 she left Alexander for good, delivering her daughter to her parents and finding herself an apartment in New York from which to launch her career as a woman of letters. Alexander died in 1920, and his army widow's pension enabled Bogan to stay in the city.
From her temporary job at Brentano's bookstore in New York, Bogan quickly became involved in the city's active literary community. Her earliest friendships included Lola Ridge, Malcolm Cowley, William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Maxwell Bodenheim, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Conrad Aiken, and, most important, Edmund Wilson. At the fringes of, but deeply skeptical about, the leftist politics common in the group, Bogan nonetheless found herself in an intense love affair with a young radical named John Coffey, who would shoplift (his speciality was furs) and then plead the cause of the poor in his courtroom appearances. Bogan drove the getaway car on one of these escapades, a fact that embarrassed her from time to time for the rest of her life. When Coffey finally succeeded in making his motives clear to a judge, he was committed to a hospital for the insane.
Bogan set about educating herself and honing her writing skills with great seriousness and dedication. Ever conscious of her educational deficiencies (she carried a lifelong resentment toward people with advanced degrees), she sought to make up for them by reading. In this period she discovered the poetry of William Butler Yeats, who, like Rainer Maria Rilke and W. H. Auden later, would become a poetic touchstone and an important influence on her work. Bogan's poems appeared in the best journals of her day, almost from the beginning of her stay in New York. She published often in Harriet Monroe's influential Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and was involved from the start with The Measure, a "little magazine" devoted to the formal lyric. She became acquainted with the work of the most important female poets of the day, including Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as the poetry of Edward Arlington Robinson, perhaps her most direct American influence. Also through her work on The Measure (and a brief stint as a card filer in the office of the anthropologist William Fielding Ogburn) she met and became friendly with Margaret Mead and the poet Léonie Adams. In 1922 Bogan spent six months alone in Vienna, absorbing European culture and writing, and by the fall of 1923 she had secured a publisher, Robert M. McBride, for her first book of poems.
Body of This Death (1923) contains several of Bogan's most memorable poems and in general reveals its author's preoccupations and tastes. Betrayal, particularly sexual betrayal, is a constant theme, though the poems are in no way "confessional." In private writing included in Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan (1980), Bogan echoes Emerson's charge that the poet tell his life story in "cipher": "The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem. Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there."
Like Emily Dickinson's "gift of screws," Bogan's poems are made of meticulously distilled experience, distanced from the source by objective language. Often presented by their titles as songs or chants or arias, her poems call attention to themselves as rhetorical acts in a common language. Such commitment to public discourse did not protect Bogan from occasional obscurity—the distillation sometimes reduced emotion to indecipherable symbolism. But Bogan saw herself in the tradition of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English lyric poetry, and she disciplined her poetic emotion to the formal rhyme and meter she instinctively preferred. Her well-known poem "The Alchemist" speaks to the method:
I burned my life,
that I might find A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief.
The poem's concluding second stanza admits the necessity of "unmysterious flesh" after all.
Several of the poems in Body of This Death address specifically female concerns and point to Bogan's ambivalent relationship with the tradition of female lyric poets. Her poems are by no means dogmatically feminist; Bogan held a deep distrust for all ideological commitment. In fact, she has been castigated somewhat unfairly by contemporary feminists for the dry pronouncements of her much-anthologized lyric "Women": "Women have no wilderness in them, /They are provident instead, /Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts /To eat dusty bread." Missing the ironic self-criticism in the poem ("As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills /They should let it go by"), feminist critics have read it as general condemnation of women and their ways of viewing experience. While the situation of women in Bogan's poems is rarely preferred to the situation of men, she is capable of wise and penetrating insight. "Betrothed," "Portrait," "My Voice Not Being Proud," "Medusa," "The Crows," "The Changed Woman," "Chanson Un Peu Naïve," and "Fifteenth Farewell" are all strong poems with female speakers or subjects. She saw herself and her work as arising from that definite tradition of female lyricists, represented in the generation just older than Bogan herself by the strong figures of Sara Teasdale, Millay, and Wylie. For Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle, the more typically modernist women poets of the period, she felt less affinity.
Early in 1924 Bogan's close friend Edmund Wilson suggested that she try her hand at criticism. That spring she published her first book review, of D. H. Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), in The New Republic. She would continue to write poetry reviews for the rest of her life, and as poems came to her less and less frequently as she grew older, Bogan became better known as a critic than as a poet. In 1931 she wrote her first review for The New Yorker, and twice a year until 1969 she presented the season's new poetry books to that magazine's discriminating audience while also continuing to write for The New Republic and the Nation.
Bogan's predilections in her criticism are similar to those in her poems: she showed a marked preference for crafted eloquence over free-verse expansiveness; she directed her readers away from contemporary fashions and toward what she called in the February 1925 issue of The Measure "the heft and swing of English poetry in the tradition"; and she would tolerate no slackness in thought or expression. She thought of herself as educating her audiences and shared with them the enthusiasms of her own reading, particularly William Butler Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, and W. H. Auden. She was critical when she saw the need to be, regardless of her relationship to the writer, and she lost friends in the process. In 1932 she reviewed her friend Allen Tate so harshly that he wrote to protest. Her reply, in a private letter dated 1 April, defended her objective view: "I was reviewing a book of poetry which aroused in me respect and irritation in about equal measure. If you objected to the tone of my review, I objected, straight down to a core beyond detachment, to the tone of some of the poems."
In 1925 Bogan married Raymond Holden, a sometime poet and novelist who had been a friend of Robert Frost. She retrieved her daughter from her parents and moved with Holden to Boston. Although Holden came from a wealthy family, he was in financial straits by the time he married Bogan. From the start their marriage suffered from economic strain, but for a time the relationship was relatively happy. They moved in a social and literary circle that included Rolfe Humphries and Adams, both of whom would be lifelong friends to Bogan. In 1926 they moved back to New York but spent the winter in Sante Fe, New Mexico, for Holden's health. In 1928 they bought a farmhouse in Hillsdale, New York, and amid the chaos of renovations Bogan found a measure of happiness and new poems. But in December 1929 the house burned to the ground (including almost all of Bogan's books, letters, and manuscripts). While the insurance money enabled the couple to set up a new life in New York, the happiest period in Bogan's life had clearly come to an end.
Dark Summer (1929), her second volume of poetry, marks Bogan's first work with her most helpful editor, John Hall Wheelock of Scribners. In what would become a pattern in Bogan's publishing life, the volume includes a selection of poems from Body of This Death as well as new work, which included the only two long poems she ever published: "The Flume," an autobiographical narrative based on the many waterways of her mill-town childhood (which she never again included in a collection); and "Summer Wish," a moving argument between two voices concerning the possibility of spring's renewal and the necessity for acceptance in fall. "Summer Wish" reflects the contemplative happiness of Bogan's stay in the house in Hillsdale and as such was almost anachronistic by the time it saw print.
The shorter lyrics of Dark Summer again show Bogan's mastery of observation, diction, meter, and rhyme in poems that generally emphasize acceptance and fulfillment rather than the disappointment and betrayal of her earlier work. "Cassandra" captures the mythical figure's sorrowing mood: "To me, one silly task is like another. /I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride. /This flesh will never give a child its mother." "Winter Swan" and "The Cupola" show the poet's descriptive powers, reminiscent of those of Moore. Other poems such as "The Crossed Apple" recall the language and tone of Robert Frost:
This apple's from a tree yet unbeholden, Where two kinds meet,—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Eat it; and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,
The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that's for me.
You take the rest.
The seasons and the passage of time are the subject of several of the strongest lyrics in the book, including "Division," "Girl's Song," "Feuer-Nacht," "Fiend's Weather," and "Come, Break with Time." The lovely first stanza of "Simple Autumnal" illustrates Bogan's preoccupation:
The measured blood beats out the year's delay.
The tearless eyes and heart, forbidden grief,
Watch the burned, restless, but abiding leaf,
The brighter branches arming the bright day.
In the year following the publication of Dark Summer, the marriage between Bogan and Holden began to fail, and Bogan fell ill with severe depression. In the spring of 1931 she checked herself into New York's Neurological Institute in hopes of finding a cure. "I refused to fall apart," she wrote to Wheelock, "so I have been taken apart, like a watch." In the mood of self-reflection following her release from the hospital, she wrote the autobiographical essay "Journey Around My Room," which would become the basis of the "autobiography" edited by her friend Ruth Limmer in 1980.
In 1932 Bogan was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship "for creative writing abroad" and set sail alone for Italy in April 1933. While she was away in Italy, France, and Austria, struggling to write and often depressed, her marriage fell apart completely. When she returned home several months early to remake her life, the enterprise was not immediately successful. In November 1933 she checked herself into New York Hospital's Westchester Division, this time admitting a "bad nervous crack-up."
She stayed at the hospital for nearly seven months and returned home a good deal healthier than when she had left. She divorced her husband, gathered her good friends—Edmund Wilson and Morton Dauwen Zabel in particular—around, and set about to do her work. Though she was able to write only a few poems, she took up her critical prose with enthusiasm and began to write short stories and autobiographical prose, which she hoped to make into a novel tentatively titled "Laura Dailey's Story." An excellent prose stylist and storyteller, Bogan eventually published thirteen stories in The New Yorker, but she did not complete her novel. She gave up writing both fiction and autobiography after 1936.
The years between 1935 and 1941 or so were some of the most fulfilling in Bogan's life, despite financial troubles (she was evicted from her apartment in September 1935 and had to retrieve her possessions from the street). She continued to write critical prose and began to prepare her third book of poems, The Sleeping Fury (1937). In June 1935 she began a happy love affair with the young poet Theodore Roethke, a dozen years her junior. She wrote to Wilson of her enthusiasm:
I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs) and he writes very very small lyrics. 26 years old and a frightful tank. We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced.… Well! Such goings on! A woman of my age! The affair lasted several months, and the two remained friends. Bogan had much to teach Roethke about lyric poetry, and she quickly assumed that role in his life. Several poems came to Bogan during this relationship, perhaps the last such spell of extended creativity she would experience. The new poems enabled her to publish The Sleeping Fury, which was then generally regarded as her strongest volume.
The lyrics of The Sleeping Fury reflect the hard-won wisdom of Bogan's psychological recovery as well as her renewed health and vitality. Its reviewers remarked the collection's "sparseness" but praised its integrity. Her friend Zabel noted in the 5 May 1937 New Republic the book's freedom from the fashionable ideologies of the day and defended its "old fashioned" values:
It is because they show so firmly what this depth can yield that these poems bring the finest vitality of the lyric tradition to bear on the confusions that threaten the poets who, by satire or prophecy, indignation or reform, have reacted against that tradition and cast it into contempt.… Her work, instinctive with self-criticism and emotional severity, speaks with one voice only; her rewards and those of her readers have a common source in the discipline to which the clarity of her music and her unsophistic craftsmanship are a testimony. It should be a model for poets in any decade or of any ambition.
The book opens and closes with "songs" and in between contains a handful of Bogan's finest lyrics. The opening of "Roman Fountain" reflects her memories of Italy and, perhaps, some of the sexual vitality of her affair with Roethke:
Up from the bronze, I saw
Water without a flaw
Rush to its rest in air,
Reach to its rest,
Bronze of the blackest shade,
An element man-made,
Shaping upright the bare
Clear gouts of water in air.
Several poems offer advice to an imagined reader who has suffered what Bogan has. "Hence-forth, from the Mind" counsels acceptance of the diminished emotional intensity of a healthy adult life. "Exhortation" repudiates that resolution through painful irony: "Give over seeking bastard joy /Nor cast for fortune's side-long look. /Indifference can be your toy; /The bitter heart can be your book."
In her title poem, "The Sleeping Fury," Bogan looks mental torment in the face:
Your hair fallen on your cheek, no longer in the sem blance of serpents,
Lifted in the gale; your mouth, that shrieked so, silent.
You, my scourge, my sister, lie asleep, like a child,
Who, after rage, for an hour quiet, sleeps out its tears.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And now I may look upon you,
Having once met your eyes. You lie in sleep and forget me.
Alone and strong in my peace, I look upon you in yours.
"Kept" shows a mature denial of sentimentalized memories of childhood and youth:
Time for the wood, the clay,
The trumpery dolls, the toys
Now to be put away:
We are not girls and boys.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Time for the pretty clay,
Time for the straw, the wood.
The playthings of the young
Get broken in the play,
Get broken, as they should.
Bogan also looks hard at alcohol, the friend and sometime nemesis of her life. In "To Wine" she ironically exhorts the "Cup, ignorant and cruel," to
Take from the mind its loss:
The lipless dead that lie
Face upward in the earth,
Strong hand and slender thigh;
Return to the vein
All that is worth
Grief. Give that beat again.
In 1937 Bogan applied for and was granted the remainder of her Guggenheim Fellowship, which she had been unable to complete in 1932. In April she sailed for Ireland. From the start the trip was a struggle for Bogan, who was frequently depressed and anxious. In the country of her ancestors she was unable for find a place for herself, and she sailed home several weeks later in a state of near collapse. A man on the boat train to Southampton came to her rescue and cared for her throughout the voyage home. After a week of recovery Bogan, who had remarked in her notebook three years before that "There can be no new love at 37, in a woman," began a relationship with the man, an electrician from the Bronx, that would last eight years. She kept it largely a secret from her friends, but by her own account the relationship was as happy and fulfilling as any she would ever have.
In the spring of 1938 Bogan moved into the apartment on West 169th Street where she would live for the rest of her life, engaging in a lively and energetic career as a literary critic and a woman of letters, squabbling with her fellow poets and critics, and publishing many incisive and insightful reviews and essays. She championed the cause of W. H. Auden as he arrived in the United States in 1939 and did a great deal in bringing public attention to his work. But poems came to her only occasionally. She struggled to produce enough work for a new book, and Poems and New Poems included old work as well as what Bogan called her "light verse," clever occasional poems on contemporary topics. In this category is the memorable couplet titled "Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell": "At midnight tears /Run into your ears."
The group of new poems in the volume opens with "Several Voices Out of a Cloud," a sharp attack on the ideological hacks Bogan saw dominating the world of poetry. The poem is uncharacteristically contemporary, in a manner reminiscent of Auden: "Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved!" she invites and concludes by naming the pretending poets:
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
And it isn't for you.
Other new poems have a variety of subjects: "Animal, Vegetable and Mineral" is a contemplation of the glass flowers exhibit at Harvard's Museum of Natural History; "To Be Sung on the Water" is a tender and playful love lyric; and "Zone" captures with icy accuracy the disquieting ambiguity of New England in the month of March: "Now we hear /What we heard last year, /And bear the wind's rude touch /And its ugly sound /Equally with so much /We have learned how to bear."
Bogan wrote no poems between the publication of Poems and New Poems in 1941 and 1948. The horror of World War II discouraged her about the power of poetry against such hatred, and she was troubled by what she saw as the obscurity of her own position. In hopes of finding a publisher that would promote her work more forcefully, Bogan left Scribners and Wheelock, with unfortunate results. She would not find a new publisher until 1954, and the sense of being on her own made writing poems more difficult. She once remarked to Wheelock that "A woman writes poetry with her ovaries." As she entered middle age Bogan began to feel that her time had past.
Bogan's essays and reviews did much to keep her name before the public in the war years and their wake. She began new, lasting friendships among young admirers of her work, including William Maxwell, a novelist and New Yorker staffer when he met Bogan in 1938; May Sarton, an established poet whom Bogan invited to her apartment in 1953; and Ruth Limmer, an English professor whom Bogan met in 1956 when she received an honorary doctorate from the Western College for Women (Limmer would become her literary executor). With the winding down of the war, literature could once again command attention, and Bogan began to be asked to serve on various poetry-prize juries. In 1944 she gave the Hopwood lecture at the University of Michigan. She also began to read her poems in public and accepted the position as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1945–1946). She was in the Library Fellows group that, amid controversy, awarded the first Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, then incarcerated in a mental institution in Washington, D.C., having been judged incompetent to stand trial for treason at the end of the war. She accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington and went on to teach at the University of Chicago and New York University, among other places. Bogan also began her work as a translator, working with Elizabeth Mayer on works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernst Juenger and with Elizabeth Roget on works by Jules Renard. In 1951 she published her critical study, Achievement in American Poetry, 1900–1950, which included an anthology with her selection of worthy poems from the period.
Bogan found a publisher in the new Noonday Press in the early 1950s and set about preparing herCollected Poems 1923–1953 (1954). She had only three new poems to add to the whole: "After the Persian," her contemplation of Persian art at New York's Metropolitan Museum; the light poem "Train Tune"; and, most remarkably, "Song for the Last Act." This poem is built around a refrain, varied to marvelous effect in each of its three stanzas: "Now that I have your face by heart, I look"; "Now that I have your voice by heart, I read"; "Now that I have your heart by heart, I see." The poem links desire and memory in a tone unmistakably valedictory, "O not departure, but a voyage done!" A year later Bogan published a volume of Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry (1955). Both volumes were respectfully reviewed, and she shared the 1955 Bollingen Prize with Léonie Adams.
Bogan's last years were a combination of honors, continued hard work, dark depression, and alcoholism. Between 1957 and 1964 she went annually to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where she found the time and peace to write poems as well as critical prose. Her collection The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923–1968 (1968) includes a dozen new poems, most of which had been begun much earlier. Most of her last poems are in free verse, as Bogan grew more willing to accept poems in the forms in which they came to her. Notable among these last works is "The Dragonfly," written on commission from the Corning Glass Company, which had a Steuben glass dragonfly carved to illustrate it. The poem "Night" provided the title for the collection. It recalls in both setting and sound poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Bogan's somewhat younger contemporary:
The cold remote islands
And the blue estuaries
Where what breathes, breathes
The restless wind of the inlets,
And what drinks, drinks
The incoming tide;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart.
The Blue Estuaries received strong reviews. William Meredith in the 13 October 1968 New York Times Book Review called Bogan "one of the best woman poets alive" and wondered at how her "reputation has lagged behind a career of stubborn, individual excellence." Hayden Carruth in the August 1969 issue of Poetry praised the poems despite their small number: "this book's best pages make it fundamentally irreducible." That assessment seems accurate; perhaps the forces or frailties that prevented Bogan from writing more afforded her marvelous control over her art.
Louise Bogan died at her apartment of a coronary occlusion on 4 February 1970. A memorial service, arranged by her friend William Jay Smith, was held at the Academy of Arts and Letters on 11 March, attended by 120 of her friends and admirers. At the service W. H. Auden noted Bogan's personal strength. "Aside from their technical excellence," he said of her poems, "what is most impressive … is the unflinching courage with which she faced her problems, and her determination never to surrender to self-pity, but to wrest beauty and joy out of dark places."
Source: Brett C. Millier, "Louise Bogan," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 169, American Poets Since World War II, Fifth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale, 1996, pp. 54–62.
In the following essay, Shloss discusses Bogan's personal struggles with her family, the passionate, often painful tones of her poetry, and her success as a writer and critic.
In 1970, at a memorial service for Louise Bogan, W.H. Auden identified what he thought to be the most enduring qualities of her lyric poetry: "aside from their technical excellence, [what] is most impressive about her poems is the unflinching courage with which she faced her problems, and her determination never to surrender to self-pity, but to wrest beauty and joy out of dark places." Auden had first met Bogan in 1941 when she was well established as a critic of poetry at the New Yorker and had already written four of the six books of verse on which her reputation as one of America's finest lyric poets was to rest. For almost thirty years, he had watched the unfolding of a talent. His appreciation of her gifts as poet, essayist, fiction writer, and autobiographer was shared by many of Bogan's friends, who also saw the violence of feeling which her work expressed and subdued through the regularities of form. Classical in their adherence to the laws of traditional poetic structure, romantic in their tendency to embrace the extremes of passionate experience, her best lyrics can stand with the work of the poets she most admired: Yeats, Rilke, and Auden. As Theodore Roethke had earlier written in honor of his friend, teacher, and mentor, "The best work will stay in the language as long as the language survives."
Bogan's journey to a place of prominence in American letters had been wrested from unpromising beginnings. Born on 11 August 1897, the daughter of Daniel Bogan, a clerk in a paper mill in Livermore Falls, Maine, and Mary Helen Murphy Shields Bogan, she was more properly destined for married life in the mill towns of New England. Her mother was a reckless, violent, and undependable woman who handled the disappointments of her marriage through numerous love affairs. The Bogan children, Louise and her brother, Charles, were raised in a succession of rooming houses and exposed to an equally consistent succession of their mother's lovers. These childhood circumstances would never leave Bogan's memory, and they account for one of the predominant emotional constellations in both her life and art: the belief that love was inextricably bound with rage, guilt, and betrayal. By the age of six or eight she had become "what I was for half my life: the semblance of a girl, in which some desires and illusions had been early assassinated: shot dead."
If her parents served as the source of Bogan's early grief, they also provided her, indirectly, with the resources for coping with that sorrow. Eventually Daniel Bogan moved his family to Boston. where Louise was given piano lessons and then sent to Girls' Latin School. She was trained in Greek and Latin, and in the classical structures of versification. These few years were almost the whole of her formal education. Although she wrote constantly (by the age of eighteen, she "had a thick pile of manuscripts in a drawer in the dining room"), she chose not to pursue a full college career. After one year at Boston University (1915–1916), she abandoned plans to go on to Radcliffe in favor of marriage, on 4 September 1916, to a young soldier of German origin, Curt Alexander. In part she married as an escape from the domestic traumas of her parents' household, but she proved to be more of her mother's child than she could comfortably admit; for in later years, she reenacted the cycle of lust and betrayal that she so regretted in her parent. It was as if she were drawn to recapitulate her position as a helpless, violated child until, with the help of psychoanalysis, she broke through the cycle of damage to a superior awareness.
Nowhere does her poetry discuss these painful experiences; nonetheless they underlie and explain the dynamics of many of her early lyrics. Later in life, she was able to formulate a theory about the relationship between poetry and the experiences in life which empower it: in Journey Around My Room (1980) she said, "The poet represses the out-right narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem. Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there." Yet initially, in her poetry and in her life, she sought passion for its own sake and was dismayed when it offered her so little that she wanted.
On 19 October 1917 Mathilde (Maidie), her only child, was born; several months later, two of her first poems were published in Others, a little magazine edited by Alfred Kreymborg in New York City. By May 1918 she had left Alexander at his station in Panama and returned to the home of her parents. This, too, was a temporary move, a prelude to a life of uncommon transience in which moving represented or expressed an underlying restlessness of spirit. Years later, her emotions governed by a hard-won and mature perspective, she wondered if she had eradicated the deepest sources of her own creativity in the course of mastering her otherwise self-destructive conflicts. To Morton Zabel she wrote in December 1935, "I don't recommend to you, this calm I have reached. It may be spiritual death or spiritual narcosis." But in the midst of young adulthood, she did not pause to analyze. She was pulled toward New York City, where she hoped to find a context for herself among the bohemians of Greenwich Village.
New York in 1919 did, in fact, nurture her talent and provide her with the friends who remained closest to her in later life: William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, Maxwell Bodenheim, Edmund Wilson, Léonie Adams, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Rolf Humphries were among her earliest acquaintances. Leaving Maidie with her parents, she found a lover; she worked and wrote. In 1920 she learned of Curt Alexander's death. Whatever remorse she may have felt about their broken relationship and the temporary abandonment of their child was seasoned with the rewards of poetic achievement. By 1921 Harriet Weaver had published five of her poems in Poetry; by 1923 Bogan had found a publisher for her first book of verse. Robert M. McBride and Company brought out Body of This Death.
The title of the book is taken from Rom. 7:24: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Its themes are those that would absorb her for her entire career: the betrayal of beauty by the flesh, the antipathy between passion and wisdom, the tension between time and the "crystal clasp" of art. Strongly influenced by Yeats, Bogan found highly personal and deeply feminine ways to express the yearning for transcendence which must succumb to the limitations of time and human error. "Knowledge" can stand as an example of themes whose variations are worked out by "A Tale," "Medusa," "A Letter," "Sonnet," and the other poems of this collection: "Now that I know /Now passion warms little /Of flesh in the mould, /And treasure is brittle,—I'll lie here and learn /How, over their ground, /Trees make a long shadow /And a light sound."
When Robert Frost read "A Tale," the opening poem of Body of This Death, he remarked, "That woman will be able to do anything." Other critics shared his appreciation of Bogan's technical mastery and commented on the intensity, fierceness, and pride which seemed to motivate the writing. But not everyone was as discerning or generous. Often reviewers were puzzled, finding the language "only obscurely significant" (Dial). The worst review came from John Gould Fletcher, who considered the book to have "an emptiness of thought that is positively painful" (Freeman).
Bogan took what she could from both praise and blame. Her allegiance to the life of letters was too deeply ingrained to let adverse reactions dis-courage her. Among those whose opinions she valued, the book's publication established her as a serious new talent. She would continue to write and to grow closer to Wilson and Humphries and the small group of writers who published in the Measure the New Republic, and the Nation.
In 1924 she met Raymond Peckham Holden, the son of a wealthy New York family, a man who aspired to the life of poet and novelist, and who later became the managing editor of the New Yorker. On 10 July 1925 they were married; and after living briefly in Boston, New York, and Santa Fe, they bought a farmhouse in Hillsdale, New York. This house became for Bogan the place of harmony and abundance which her own childhood had denied her. Here she cooked, gardened, raised her child, and learned to see the patterns of nature which life in the city had rendered obscure. Here, too, she wrote most of the lyrics for Dark Summer (1929), sending them, finally, to Edmund Wilson for criticism and advice about publication.
By recommending that she forward a copy of Body of This Death to Charles Scribner's Sons, Wilson initiated the strongest and most enduring publishing relationship of Bogan's career. Maxwell Perkins was favorably impressed with her work and John Hall Wheelock even more so. He offered Bogan a contract, asked for more work, and eventually published her next three volumes of poetry.
With these prospects before her, Bogan settled into one of the still, certain interludes of her life. Domestic order mirrored a psychic order that was all too rare in her experience of intimate relationships. It was precisely the fragility of this balanced, pastoral life that made its subsequent destruction so grim. After Christmas 1929, the Holdens returned to Hillsdale only to see their house on fire, manuscripts and notebooks—indeed all their possessions—destroyed in the blaze. Posed as she was between desire and rage, Bogan could not help but read the fire emblematically; and in fact, the equanimity of her marriage seems to have dissipated along with her more tangible belongings. Although Dark Summer had come out the previous September, the pleasure of its publication could not offset another kind of interior disintegration.
The middle period of Bogan's creative life is marked by a dichotomy between the increasing solidity of her reputation as a poet and the seeming vulnerability of her emotions. Even as she received the accolades of critics, she lapsed into a deepening depression. In public life, Yvor Winters reviewed Dark Summer, singling out "Come, Break with Time" and "Simple Autumnal" for special praise. They could, he said, stand "with the best songs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whether one selects examples from Campion, Jonson, or Dryden." From a much later vantage point, Elizabeth Frank named "Simple Autumnal" "one of the great lyrics in American poetry." She saw it as the effort of a writer to ally herself with the seasonal cycles of ripening and decay that Bogan's earlier poetry had tried to escape. Like Hart Crane's "Voyages," it is a song of reconciliation and acceptance, which moves toward integration of the personal and natural worlds. "Summer Wish" is even more accomplished and brings Bogan's work into the company of Yeats's "The Tower" and Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning." It is a meditative eclogue, a dialogue in which two voices confront the problem of despair. Although the second voice overwhelms the first, offering it a vision of stasis ("See now /Open above the field, stilled in wingstiffened flight, /The stretched hawk fly"), Bogan, in private life, was less and less able to find those quiet moments.
In April 1931 she submitted herself for a rest cure at the Neurological Institute in Manhattan. Once again, her private struggle was carried on amid an otherwise flourishing career. In 1933 when she was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant for travel in Europe, Bogan seized the opportunity, for she sensed that distance and change would grant her a perspective valuable both to her craft and to her domestic situation. In the first goal, she succeeded, but her marital problems were not so easily resolved. Very shortly after she returned from Europe, she once again admitted herself to a hospital for rest and personal reflection. By 1935, when she divorced Raymond Holden, the period of greatest turbulence in Bogan's life was over.
It is probably not fortuitous that the 1930s were also the time of Bogan's greatest achievements in prose writing. The self-reflection required by psychoanalysis may have spurred her autobiographical trilogy: "Journey Around My Room" (New Yorker, 1932), "Dove and Serpent" (New Yorker, 1933), and "Letdown" (New Yorker, 1934). All of these pieces constitute Bogan's inquiry into those steps that "started me toward this point, as opposed to all other points on the habitable globe." Her New Yorker stories, influenced by Viola Meynell, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov, often seemed to work through the issues that were most pressing in her actual experience—the destructiveness of romantic attachment, the need for private sources of strength and grace.
This belief in the value of turning inward can also explain Bogan's resistance to the social movements of the 1930s. She placed her faith in the lessons of psychoanalysis and in individual responses to fate; she gave no credence to solutions posed in terms of collective destiny. If one were "to lift the material world to the ideal," she said (New Republic, 1936), "it would be just as well to clear up the ideal, to know the human springs that feed it." Freud, with his discovery of the unconscious, was more important to her than Marx, with his belief in economic determinism; and as the 1930s passed, and as more and more of her intimate friends—Rolf Humphries, Léonie Adams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edmund Wilson—came to sympathize with the Communist cause, Bogan found herself increasingly isolated.
To Rolf Humphries and Edmund Wilson she proposed a political truce, since she needed their help in preparing her next book of poems. The Sleeping Fury, once again published by Scribners, appeared in 1937. The title of the book is also the name of a relief sculpture Bogan had seen in Rome at the Museo Nazionale delle Terme, "L'Erinni Addormentata"; and to some extent, this image of rage and grief, exhausted and given over to sleep, informs the entire collection of poems. Where Bogan's first two books had shown the influence of Yeats, The Sleeping Fury showed most clearly the influence of Rilke, whom she had been reading avidly for several years. When she had needed a language for anger, indignation, and bitter disappointment, Yeats's high blown rhetoric had been an adequate guide; now that she sought to transcend suffering and to express emotional equanimity, the German poet served her better. The most beautiful lyrics in this collection, "Henceforth from the Mind," "The Sleeping Fury," and "Song for a Lyre," have the quiet authority of a poet in full command of her art.
The Sleeping Fury was essentially Bogan's last full book of original verse; the books that followed it were collections of previously published works with new poems added to them. Poems and New Poems, which came out in 1941, was the last book Bogan published with Scribners before her break with John Hall Wheelock. Collected Poems, 1923–1953 was brought out by Cecil Hemley of Noonday Press in 1954. The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923–1968 which Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published in 1968, served as a summary of her poetic achievement as it stretched from youth to age.
Although the years after 1937 were years of declining productivity, they were years when Bogan consolidated her reputation and reaped the fruits of an earlier devotion to letters. Others were anxious to know her opinions. If it was as a poet that Bogan made her reputation, it was as a critic that she made her living. Her work for the New Yorker continued until shortly before her death. Twice a year she provided the magazine with omnibus reviews of the most interesting poetry of the previous months, and she wrote countless brief notices. On her resignation from the magazine in 1969, William Shawn, then editor in chief, wrote, "for thirty-eight years we have been in the extraordinary position of knowing beyond all question that no other magazine's reviewing of poetry was as perceptive or trustworthy or intelligent as our own."
Awards and requests for readings, talks, and teaching posts started coming in the 1940s. In 1944 she became a Fellow in American Letters at the Library of Congress; in the same year, she gave the Hopwood Lecture at the University of Michigan. In 1945 she went to Washington, D.C., as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The year 1948 was filled with invitations to universities, and though she remained acutely aware of her own lack of formal education and convinced that the academy had slighted her, a catalogue of her activities in this one year alone belies her own assessment: she went to a poetry conference at Sarah Lawrence College, gave a reading at the New School for Social Research with Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore, and Allen Tate, taught summer school at the University of Washington, and spoke at Bard "On the Pleasures of Formal Verse."
In 1951 she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1954 she was elected to the Academy of American Poets. In 1955 she shared the Bollingen Prize for poetry with Léonie Adams. In 1957 she was invited to the MacDowell Colony, and in the following year she participated in the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. An award from the Academy of American Poets came in 1959, and she received the Creative Arts award from Brandeis University in 1962. In 1969, a year before her death, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. On the more personal level, she had sustained the lifelong friendships of people she respected and had found room, at an age when other lives are often narrowing in scope, to admit new intimacies: William Maxwell, the new poetry editor for the New Yorker; Elizabeth Mayer, a German translator; and May Sarton, a younger writer and poet, are several examples.
Bogan's final years were lived in a kind of secular monasticism. Weaned from the destructive passions that had governed her youth, she lived alone and with the dignity of a hard-won victory over private terrors. To her lifelong friend, Morton Zabel, she wrote, "It is as though I had, after thirty years, really come into my whole being.… I can feel rage, but I am never humiliated, any more, and I am never lonely." Despite her brave words, her struggle was never simple and success never to be assumed. She could relapse into depressions until the end of her life. But she had, on the whole, found admission to the "temperate threshold" so avidly sought in and through her verse.
Poetry, to Bogan, was wrought from "rhythm as we first experience it … within the heartbeat, pulse and breath." Certainly, in her own case, it was an extension of self so vital that its excision would have left her vulnerable to inner demons and, as Stanley Kunitz put it, to "the deep night swarming with images of reproach and desire." But language did not fail her nor she it; and in her devotion to poetry she found forgiveness and personal reconciliation. To others she gave some of the most austere, searing, and beautiful lyrics written in America in this century.
Louise Bogan died on Wednesday, 4 February 1970. At her memorial service, Richard Wilbur, who spoke along with Auden, observed that "she remained faithful to the theme of passion." William Meredith, writing during her lifetime, was more encompassing in his praise: Louise Bogan was "one of the best women poets alive."
Source: Carol Shloss, "Louise Bogan," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45, American Poets, 1880–1945, First Series, edited by Peter Quartermain, Gale, 1986, pp. 52–59.
Aldrich, Marcia, "Lethal Brevity: Louise Bogan's Lyric Career," in Aging and Gender in Literature, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 105–20.
Bogan, Louise, Body of This Death, Robert M. McBride, 1923, pp. 10–11.
——, Journey around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan, written with Ruth Limmer, Viking Press, 1980, pp. 29–31, 34–35, 40–43, 48–50, 52–53, 68.
Colasurdo, Christine, "The Dramatic Ambivalence of Self in the Poetry of Louise Bogan," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, Autumn 1994, pp. 339–61.
Collins, Martha, ed., Critical Essays on Louise Bogan, G. K. Hall, 1984, pp. 2, 27–31.
Limmer, Ruth, ed., What the Woman Lived: Selected letters of Louise Bogan, 1920–1970, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973, p. 5.
Pope, Deborah, "Music in the Granite Hill: The Poetry of Louise Bogan," in A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women's Poetry, Louisiana State University Press, 1984, pp. 15–53.
Upton, Lee, "The Re-Making of a Poet: Louise Bogan," in Centennial Review, Vol. 3, No. 36, Fall 1992, pp. 557–72.
Van Doren, Mark, "Louise Bogan," in Nation, October 31, 1923, p. 494.
Allen, Frederick Lewis, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, 1931, reprint, Perennial, 2000.
Allen's book is a social history of the 1920s. It is a very readable and entertaining history of a period of great social change.
Clift, Eleanor, Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment, John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
This book chronicles the struggle for women to be given the right to vote. Clift's book is very readable, filled with interesting anecdotes that provide a glimpse into history.
Frank, Elizabeth, Louise Bogan: A Portrait, Knopf, 1985.
Frank won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for this biography. She provides a good overview of Bogan's life, including insights into Bogan's childhood and rocky relationship with her mother.
Ruiz, Vicki L., and Ellen Carol DuBois, eds., Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History, 3d ed., Routledge, 2000.
This book is a collection of thirty essays that provide a multicultural view of women's history. The essays cover all aspects of women's lives, including political, religious, social, racial, and sexual.