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Madeleva, Sister Mary

MADELEVA, Sister Mary

Born Mary Evaline Wolff, 24 May 1877, Cumberland, Wisconsin; died 25 July 1964, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of August and Lucy Arntz Wolff

The daughter of a German-born harness maker and a former teacher, Sister Mary Madeleva grew up in a mill town in rural Wisconsin. After a year at the University of Wisconsin, Madeleva transferred to St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, Indiana, from which she graduated in 1909. She received an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California. By 1908 she had joined the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which conducts St. Mary's, taking the name Sister Mary Madeleva, and her entire life was devoted to educating women. From 1934 to 1961, Madeleva served as president of St. Mary's; during this time she was responsible for the founding of the first American Catholic graduate school of theology for the laity. From 1942 to 1948, she was president of the Catholic Poetry Society of America.

Her prose works include essays and addresses on education as well as literary criticism. Madeleva's best-known study is "Chaucer's Nuns" (1925), in which she interprets details of the portrait of the prioress in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales by observing her in the context of religious life.

With the publication of Knights Errant, and Other Poems (1923), Madeleva became the first of the modern "nun-poets"—a peculiarly American phenomenon.

Most of Madeleva's poems are short lyrics, usually under 20 lines. Madeleva's only leisure, she explained, came in recuperating from illnesses; other moments were snatched between tasks, in walking from building to building, or during nights of insomnia. Only occasionally do her poems focus on secular themes: her visits to Oxford and the Holy Land, glimpses of nature, or literary interests. "Marginalium," for example, protests the death of the Lady of Shalott. The great bulk of Madeleva's work deals with religious experience.

Madeleva's religious poetry is always personal and devotional, never didactic or public. By dealing with her own experience, Madeleva avoids the pious and the platitudinous. Her verse abounds in nature imagery of an amiable sort. "My Windows," from Penelope, and Other Poems (1927), describes two "wonder-windows": One lets in "tranquillity and noon…magic and the moon"; the other looks on a garden with "a sudden rose, / A poppy's flame." It is through these windows that the poet sees God. Here as always Madeleva's theme is constant love and serene beauty; images of horror or despair are absent.

Even the tone of religious longing is usually carefully modulated. In "Petals and Wings," from Four Girls, and Other Poems (1941), field flowers—"Silent, at peace, and beautiful"—are contrasted with "wild, unlettered birds, / Song-silver things." The poet's question as to whether "petalled peace" or "wilding flight / Into the sun" is ultimately preferable remains unanswered, except in the hidden mind of God.

The mystical "The King's Secret" (in Penelope), generally recognized as Madeleva's best poem, is unlike almost all her other work. In this poem, her longest, Madeleva abandons her usual reticence and in explicitly erotic language, inspired by and even echoing the Song of Songs, speaks ecstatically of union with "this King Who is God and your Lover." Some critics, presumably not recognizing the biblical precedent, were critical of this breach of nunly decorum, and the poem was not included in Selected Poems (1939). In her later published work, Madeleva returned to the ascetic restraint of her first volume.

Other Works:

Chaucer's Nuns, and Other Essays (1925). Pearl—A Study in Spiritual Dryness (1925). A Question of Lovers, and Other Poems (1935). The Happy Christmas Wind, and Other Poems (1936). Christmas Eve, and Other Poems (1938). Gates, and Other Poems (1938). Addressed to Youth (1944). A Song of Bedlam Inn, and Other Poems (1946). Collected Poems (1947). A Lost Language, and Other Essays on Chaucer (1951). American Twelfth Night, and Other Poems (1955). The Four Last Things (1959). My First Seventy Years (1959). Conversations with Cassandra (1961). A Child Asks for a Star (1964).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

CB (1942, 1964). NCAB. TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

America (1937, 1938). Catholic Library World (1940). Commonweal (1956). Spirit (1939, 1948). Thought (1948).

—ARLENE ANDERSON SWIDLER

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