Born 19 August 1908, Cobourg, Ontario, Canada
Daughter of Joseph Edward and Octavia Winder Boylan; married Eric Jacobsen, 1932
Although born in Canada, Josephine Jacobsen lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and Whitefield, New Hampshire; frequent and extensive travel enriched her poetry and fiction. Her interest in the drama has produced two critical studies with William R. Mueller: The Testament of Samuel Beckett (1964) and Ionesco and Genet: Playwrights of Silence (1968). Written for the intelligent lay reader, the volumes give keen insight particularly into these dramatists' position regarding man's loss of faith in traditional values: "Beckett's protagonists lament the loss; Ionesco's either lament it or are oblivious to it; most of Genet's clasp the loss to them and, by making it their own, rise above it." Other criticism includes discerning poetry reviews and essays on contemporary writers—Lowell, Frost, Cummings, Williams, and Salinger.
The five volumes of Jacobsen's poetry span nearly 40 years and explore the themes with which she contends the best poetry must deal—frustration, helpless pain, betrayed integrity, and a desolate and piercing sense of dislocation. Never shirking the dark side of human experience, Jacobsen finds that a lack of communication and the isolation of individuals are responsible for the misery of humanity. The poems insist people face up to mortality, recognize their animal nature, struggle to communicate, and mourn the sadness of old age and distress as much as the loss of childhood and innocence. Still, Jacobsen remains a steady poet of affirmation; she insists on our moral obligation to humankind and to nature, and she undergirds her poetry with vigorous religious convictions.
A 1975 National Book Award nominee, The Shade Seller (1974) contains 42 new poems as well as generous selections from the previous volumes and represents Jacobsen's best work. Subjects are drawn from history, from travel, from nature, from religion, and from an analysis of the relation of the poem to the reader and of the poem itself. Particularly effective are her poetic vignettes, such as "My Small Aunt" and "The Shade Seller." In "Birdsong of the Lesser Poet" and "When the Five Prominent Poets," Jacobsen examines the power of the Muse who inexplicably visits the lesser poet and who should never be summoned casually ("they dropped the Muse's name. / Who came. / It was awful. / The door in shivers and a path / plowed like a twister through everything…")
Jacobsen's short stories are set primarily in the city (Baltimore), in the Caribbean Islands, in Mexico, or in Morocco. All of the stories with foreign settings share a Jamesian theme of the American away from home (as one character remarks, "We are, after all, strangers"). "On the Island" (1965), "The Jungle of Lord Lion" (1969), and "The Gesture" (1976) present violent deeds (murder, betrayal, threatened execution) juxtaposed against the beauty of exotic birds, lush flora, and island animals. The lives and sufferings of the natives, however, remain alien domains the visitors cannot enter. "A Walk with Raschid" (1972), Jacobsen's most successful story, is set in Morocco; against the symbolic call of the muezzin, Jacobsen writes an agonizing story of betrayed integrity.
The city stories, particularly "The Taxi" (1967), "Help" (1971), "Nel Bagno" (1974), and "A Stroll around the Square" (1974) center on radically different women who face epiphanies of imminent danger, injustice, temporary isolation, or an unexpected kinship with the past. Rich imagery and detail abound: Mrs. Birdsong runs to answer the telephone "that was ripping the hot night silence"; Violet throws away her accusing note and watches it "splinter with a fine, mild contempt, pity,"
Jacobsen's short stories have been included among the O. Henry prize stories (1967, 1971, 1973, 1975), as well as in Fifty Years of the American Short Story (1970). Poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1971-73), Jacobsen was one of four women so honored in the history of that post. As critic, poet, and short story writer, Jacobsen herself evinces the trait she praised in Julia Randall: "a quality of underlying radiance—a sort of receptive joy under the full recognition of suffering and even horror."
Let Each Man Remember (1940). For the Unlost (1946). The Human Climate (1953). The Animal Inside (1966). A Walk with Raschid, and Other Stories (1978). Prize Stories of 1985: The O. Henry Awards (1989). Prize Stories of 1993: The O. Henry Awards (1993). The Instant of Knowing: Lectures, Criticisms and Occasional Prose (1997). "The Poet and the Poem", at the Library of Congress (recording, 1990). What Goes Without Saying: Collected Stories of Josephine Jacobsen (1996). World Up Baltimore: A Poetry Collection (recording, 1997).
Ivey, J. E., Notes Toward Time: Mezzo-Soprano, Flute/Alto Flute Harp (musical score, 1984). Prettyman, E. S., "Josephine Jacobsen: Commitment to Wonder" (thesis, 1985). Laurels: Eight Women Poets (1998). Poetry Baltimore: Poems about a City (1997). Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets (1998).
NR (4 Jan. 1975). NYTBR (11 Dec. 1966). Poetry (May 1975). Winston-Salem Journal (13 Aug. 1978). The Writing Life: Roland Flint and Josephine Jacobsen (audiovisual, 1995).