Reese, Lizette Woodworth (1856–1935)

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Reese, Lizette Woodworth (1856–1935)

American poet . Born Lizette Woodworth Reese on January 9, 1856, in Huntingdon (later Waverly), Maryland; died on December 17, 1935, in Baltimore, Maryland; daughter of David Reese and Louise Sophia (Gabler) Reese; graduated from high school, 1873.

Taught at various Baltimore schools (1873–1921); published first poem, "The Deserted House" (1874); awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Goucher College (1931).

Selected works:

A Branch of May (1887); A Quiet Road (1896); "Tears" (sonnet, 1899); A Wayside Lute (1909); Spicewood (1920); Wild Cherry (1923); Little Henrietta (1927); A Victorian Village (1929).

In 1856, Lizette Reese and her twin sister were born in a village two miles from Baltimore, known then as Huntingdon and later as Waverly. Her father David Reese, somewhat of a drifter, served on the Confederate side in the Civil War and was later a prisoner of war. Lizette was schooled mostly in Baltimore public schools and lived her entire life a few miles from the cottage where she was born. The memory of her early rural surroundings stayed with her as an adult and perpetually colored her verse, even as she watched the city of Baltimore gradually swallow up her quiet village.

As a schoolgirl, Reese loved to tell fanciful stories and make up rhymes, and though busy teaching positions later left her almost no free time, the writing of prose and poetry remained lifelong passions. Reese began teaching in Baltimore schools at age 17 and did not retire until 1921. In 1874, at 18, she published her first poem, "The Deserted House," which was inspired by a walk to school. From then until the year she died, she continued to write and publish, although the demands of her teaching career made the process slow and sporadic.

After her first volume, A Branch of May (1887), Reese published nine more volumes of poetry. In 1890, three of her poems appeared in Edmund Clarence Stedman's Anthology, and in November 1899 her most famous sonnet "Tears" first appeared in Scribner's Magazine. During her 14-year retirement, she published more poetry and was active in community projects. Her writings only slowly gained recognition outside of Baltimore, but she was well respected by local citizens and fellow poets. Her 75th birthday was officiated by H.L. Mencken, a longtime supporter, who praised her "poetic integrity." In 1931, Goucher College gave her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa by the College of William and Mary, and she won the Mary P.L. Keats Memorial Prize.

Both Reese's subject matter and form were traditional, and she believed that poetry should deal in universal human experience. Her communication of these universal experiences is intense and very individual, often with a "nostalgic sadness" and with nature and her own bucolic childhood home as the backdrop. Her work was painstakingly crafted, and, as Harriet Monroe wrote, "delicately frail and fine, springing from a shy and isolated soul; an expression of wistfulness, of the ache of smothered emotion." Reese died just before her 80th birthday and on her stone are her own words:

The long day sped,
A roof, a bed;
No years,
No tears.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada