Speyer, Leonora von Stosch

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SPEYER, Leonora von Stosch

Born 7 November 1872, Washington, D.C.; died 10 February 1956, New York, New York

Wrote under: Leonora Speyer

Daughter of Count Ferdinand von Stosch; married 1893 (divorced); Sir Edgar Speyer, 1902; children: four daughters

Daughter of a Prussian father who fought for the Union in the Civil War and a New England mother, Leonora von Stosch Speyer's first career was as a violinist. Having attended public schools, then the Brussels Conservatory, she made her debut at eighteen with the Boston Symphony and later played with the New York Philharmonic. Speyer had four daughters during her first marriage, which ended in divorce. In 1902, she married Sir Edgar Speyer, a banker, who gave up his British title to become an American citizen. In 1915 the couple moved to the U.S. and Speyer, already in her forties, began writing poetry.

When acute neuritis forced Speyer to give up the violin, she turned seriously to writing. Her career was highlighted by receipt of several prizes, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for her second book of poems, Fiddler's Farewell (1926). Speyer was president of the Poetry Society of America from 1934 to 1936; beginning in 1937, she taught a writing workshop at Columbia University for a number of years.

Speyer was obviously influenced by her friend Amy Lowell and other Imagist poets, and she is noticeably derivative of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Even so, her own voice is distinctive; it is direct, personal, and immediate, even when the subject is a remote place or distant time. Speyer writes in "House of Calvin" (Slow Wall, 1939), that she is one "who loved the lovely things of God," an attitude clearly reflected in her many nature poems. Music often provides subject or image, and she was praised for the "melodious and rhythmical sound effects" in her work. Speyer employs such diverse forms as free verse, prose poetry, ballads, and sonnets.

Speyer often uses fresh or startling images, as in "Bird in a Tree" (Slow Wall), when she writes of "The beak like tiny scissors / Snipping the sound to shape." Occasionally her images are strained or precious, but many succeed dramatically, as when "thunder crumbles the sky" in "Squall" (A Canopic Jar, 1921). The linking of antithetical terms is another of her favorite devices: in "Of Mountains" (Fiddler's Farewell) the hills are "stone wings" in "granite flight."

Least successful of Speyer's poems are those in which she invents female characters in the tradition of folklore. These tend to be melodramatic, sentimental, or even silly. "Monk and Lady" and "Ballad of Old Doc Higgins" (both from Naked Heel, 1931) are prime examples. More successful are poems whose heroines, such as Sappho, Medusa, Salome, Mary Magdalene, are drawn from myth or history. Also successful are poems that explore the relationships of modern women and men. The speaker of "The Ladder" (A Canopic Jar), for example, reveals herself a martyr to a faithless man, saying she "kissed the foot that bruised [her] as it passed." The sequence "Sonnets of a Not Unusual Situation" (Naked Heel) describes a woman with casual lovers in her past who now finds herself unable to establish intimacy with the man she loves.

From the study and practice of the violin, Speyer learned, she said, "the patience, the concentration, the knowledge of how to work" that helped her with her writing. But it was the writing, she also said, that gave her "a sense of…high noon in the soul."

Other Works:

American Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Verse (edited by Speyer, 1923). Nor Without Music (published with Slow Wall, 1946).


Reference works:


Other references:

Bellman (4 Jan. 1919). NYT (3 May 1927, 11 Feb. 1956). Poetry (July 1940). SR (23 May 1946).