Untermeyer, Jean Starr

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Born 13 May 1886, Zanesville, Ohio; died 27 July 1970, New York, New York

Daughter of Abram E. and Johanna Schonfeld Starr; married Louis Untermeyer, 1907 (divorced 1933, remarried, divorced again in 1951); children: Richard (died 1927)

An artistic child, Jean Starr Untermeyer was sent by her Midwestern family to Kohut's College Preparatory School in New York. She also attended special courses at Columbia University. In 1907 she married poet and editor Louis Untermeyer, a friend and associate of many leading literary figures. Several years later, Untermeyer began secretly writing poems, which her husband discovered and submitted to magazines. She felt she had absorbed poetry "by osmosis" from her husband and his coterie and that music was her "major passion." A brief career as a lieder singer in Vienna and London in 1924 was interrupted by marital problems. The Untermeyers separated in 1926; but the suicide of their only child, Richard, in 1927, brought about a temporary reconciliation. They divorced in 1933, later remarried, and obtained a final divorce in 1951 after many years of separation. Untermeyer taught at Olivett College (1936-37, 1940) and at the New School for Social Research (1948-55).

Untermeyer's memoir, Private Collection (1965), describes her childhood, early married life, and acquaintances; but it is her poetry that reveals the more intimate, emotional aspects of her life. In an essay published in the Bookman (June 1923), Untermeyer defends the woman artist' right to use her own experience in her art. In addition—six years before Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own—Untermeyer discusses a woman's need for "peace and privacy," for relief from domestic routine, and time in which to do creative work. Recognizing that "the sexual instinct is…bound up with the artistic impulse," Untermeyer calls upon scientific research to discover something "to liberate woman in her sex life." "Love minus Art = Wife" is a telling line in "Love and Art," part of a dream sequence that concludes Dreams Out of Darkness (1921).

Untermeyer's most domestic work appears in her early poems. In "Autumn" (Growing Pains, 1918), she portrays in exquisite detail her mother, now "so shaken and so powerless," when she was "high priestess" of her home, involved in the seasonal ritual of canning and preserving. "Birth" celebrates the "exultation and…fertile pain" of her sister's labor.

Numerous poems, published throughout Untermeyer's career, portray a woman whose lover has betrayed or abandoned her. She seeks solace in religion, music, or nature; or, she seeks to repress or renounce her self and, mystically, to achieve a state that provides, paradoxically, both security and freedom. Usually the woman counters faithlessness with faith and forgiveness. Although her suffering may leave her withdrawn, "without elation," and "disheveled," as in "Overseen" (Love and Need, 1940), she is strong and proud. Untermeyer also wrote light verse, occasional poetry, and many poems with war or nature as their subject.

Untermeyer translated Oscar Bie's Schubert, the Man (1928), the official Schubert centennial biography. Her highly praised translation of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil (1946) took her five years to complete. Her last book, Re-creations (1970), contains translations of French, German, and Hebrew poems.

Untermeyer's early poems were often highly imagistic, and many were in free verse, but she moved—counter to most of her contemporaries—to more traditional, rhymed forms. Critics praised her ear for sound and rhythm—qualities that reflect her love of music.

Other Works:

Steep Ascent (1927). Wingéd Child (1936). Later Poems (1958). Job's Daughter (1967).


Untermeyer, L., ed., Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology (1936).

Other references:

CSM (5 Sept. 1942). Poetry (Aug. 1936, July 1941). SR (15 Feb. 1941).