Reese, Lizette Woodworth
REESE, Lizette Woodworth
Born 9 January 1856, Waverly, Maryland; died 17 December 1935, Baltimore, Maryland
Daughter of David and Louisa Reese
Lizette Woodworth Reese's life as a child and young woman in Waverly, a suburban village of Baltimore, provided the material for most of her writing, both poetry and prose. In Reese's poems and reminiscences, Waverly becomes the symbol for a time and a value system more stable than those of the present. Reese not only grew up in Waverly but began her long teaching career in the local parish school. Her first poem, "The Deserted House," appeared in the Southern Magazine in June 1874. From this time until her death, Reese continued to write lyric poetry that was of fairly consistent quality.
Reese's first volume of poetry, A Branch of May (1887), was privately printed through subscriptions from friends. This volume of 33 poems was sent to several of the leading critics of the day, all of whom received it favorably. Reese's reputation grew with A Handful of Lavendar (1891), which was published by a national publisher.
The subject matter and style of Reese's poetry remained constant through her subsequent volumes. Her subjects are the eternal truths of life and death—joy and sorrow, expressed in images drawn from Reese's childhood experiences in the Maryland countryside and readings in English literature. Her best poems make arrestingly fresh use of images from ordinary experience; her central images are of village and orchard. The orchard becomes a primary image, for, as Reese says, "although not so open as the lane, or so secret as the wood, it keeps the free heart of the one, and somewhat of the privileged quiet of the other."
Reese was generally praised for the freshness of her images in a time when most lyric poetry was marked by the tired conventions of excessive and archaic expression. Her forte was the short lyric, but she was also an accomplished sonneteer. Her best known poem was the sonnet "Tears," which first appeared in Scribner's magazine in 1899 and was repeatedly anthologized. The poem presents a series of arresting metaphors about the futility of grieving over the fugitive cares of life.
Although primarily a lyric poet, Reese published one successful long narrative poem, Little Henrietta (1927), and was at the time of her death working on another, which was published posthumously as The Old House in the Country (1936). Little Henrietta probes the grief and eventual reconciliation over the death of a young child, and The Old House is an attempt to unify the diverse recollections of childhood memories.
Childhood memories form the substance of two volumes of autobiographical reminiscence, A Victorian Village (1929) and The York Road (1931). These prose works poetically present the recollections and associations brought to Reese's mind by people, places, and events from her childhood and young adulthood. At the time of her death, Reese was re-working these experiences into an autobiographical novel, published posthumously as Worleys (1936).
Reese is neglected today, although she was one of the finest poets writing during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. She is a transition figure between the stylized conventions of the Victorian poets and the free form and subject matter of the moderns. At its best, Reese's poetry is characterized by a striking intensity and freshness of image.
A Quiet Road (1896). A Wayside Lute (1909). Spicewood (1920). Wild Cherry (1923). The Selected Poems (1926). White April, and Other Poems (1930). Pastures, and Other Poems (1933).
Gregory, H., and M. Zaturenska, A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940 (1946). Klein, L. R. M., "Lizette Woodworth Reese" (dissertation, 1943). Rittenhouse, J. B., in The Younger American Poets (1906).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Personalist (1900). SAQ (April 1930, Jan. 1957). SUS (1969).
—HARRIETTE CUTTINO BUCHANAN