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Branch, Anna Hempstead

BRANCH, Anna Hempstead

Born 18 March 1875, New London, Connecticut; died 8 September 1937, New London, Connecticut

Daughter of John Locke and Mary L. Bolles Branch

Anna Hempstead Branch, the younger of two children, was born at Hempstead House in New London, Connecticut, where her mother's family, the Hempsteads, had lived since 1640. Her father was a New York lawyer; her mother wrote popular children's stories and poems. Following Branch's graduation from Smith College in 1897, she studied dramaturgy at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, training which is reflected in her numerous verse plays and dramatic monologues.

Branch was connected with a number of philanthropic, social work, and art organizations, but most of her time was divided between the Christodora House, a lower east side settlement house, and Hempstead House, where she lived with her mother. At Christodora, Branch established and directed the activities of the Poet's Guild, an association organized to bring poetry to the neighborhood, especially the children, but which also provided occasions for such poets as Edwin Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale, Ridgely Torrence, Margaret Widdemer, and Branch herself to read and discuss poetry.

Branch's poems have a variety of subjects and settings, but even those poems with apparently secular subjects are tinged with a religious and mystical apprehension. In Branch's eclectic first volume, Heart of the Road (1901), many of the poems are "road" poems in which the road symbolizes transience. The dramatic monologue "The Keeper of the Halfway House," for instance, depicts an ironically dependent relationship between the transient and the permanent. An innkeeper, a priestly figure who points "the way" to travelers, sits beside a vacant chair, knowing someone will come and fill it and then move on. As the transients rely on the innkeeper's abiding presence, so does the innkeeper rely on the succession of travelers to fill his vacant chair. In the same volume Branch takes a hard look at the question of mortality and probes the nature of poetic inspiration. In this volume, the reader is struck by the haunting precision of some of Branch's lines and by her ability to sustain a mood.

Branch's second volume, The Shoes That Danced (1905), contains a strange mixture of settings (e.g., fairyland, New York City, a monastery) and of characters (e.g., Watteau, shop girls, a Puritan minister). Although in sections of the volume Branch indulges in greeting card sentiments, the title verse drama is intriguing and suggestive. Along with some masterful poems expressing metaphysical doubt and some unexceptional reworkings of great Romantic poems ("Selene" of Keats's "Endymion" and "The Wedding Feast" of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"), Rose of the Wind (1910) contains Branch's longest and most famous work, "Nimrod," a Miltonic epic named after the Babylonian king. Although it was highly regarded by Branch's contemporaries, the diction now seems strained and some of the imagery imitative. The interest of the epic centers on Branch's curious depiction of language. The work reflects Branch's private symbolism, her mystical apprehension of language.

Branch's most satisfying volume is Sonnets from a Lock Box (1929). In the title sequence of 38 sonnets, Branch sheds her personae and speaks in the first person. The sequence is distinguished from some of Branch's earlier work by its directness of expression and originality. It moves from a portrayal of various types of entrapment and enslavement to a search for a means of escape. Branch seeks liberation in mystical systems, invoking alchemy, astrology, cabalistic symbolism, numerology, and "Holy Logic." Yet Branch intimates that the problem and the solution are secondary to the poetry, the "music," that they inspire.

Branch's posthumous volume, Last Poems (1944), edited by Ridgely Torrence, her longtime associate at Christodora House, contains some extreme expressions of the mystical preoccupations evident in "Nimrod" and Sonnets from a Lock Box. The most striking poems and the verse drama draw their metaphors from alchemy and numerology. Yet Branch employs these esoteric images in order to approach her final subject—the equation of language, words, and poetry with the Divine.

Although Branch's poetry is at times derivative and contains a large population of fairies, kings, clouds, shepherds, along with the archaic diction appropriate to such a poetic population. Branch had a genuine gift and an authentic voice. Her deepest subjects are language and what is to her its truest expression, poetry—"the changeless reflection of the changing dream." For Branch, words are divine manifestations that not only create, order and give meaning to reality, but that are the very stuff of life: "I say that words are men and when we spell /In alphabets we deal with living things."

In her time, Branch was compared to Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and the metaphysical poets. E. A. Robinson and other contemporaries regarded Branch as a major figure, repeatedly including her name in discussions of poets of the day. Although she was not as successful as were Blake and Yeats in universalizing a private mystical system, she holds a secure place among the minor poets of the United States.

Other Works:

A Christmas Miracle and God Bless this House (1925). Bubble Blower's House (1926).

Bibliography:

Bolles, J. D., Father Was an Editor (1940). Cary, R., The Early Reception of E. A. Robinson: The First Twenty Years (1974). Widdemer, M., Golden Friends I Had (1964).

Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). TCA (1942).

Other reference:

NYT (9 Sept. 1937).

—ELLEN FRIEDMAN

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