5.23.2017 Doc of the Day

1. Henrik Ibsen, 1914.
2. Par Lagerkvist, Anders Osterling, 1951.
3. Poetry Foundation, circa 2000.

cropped-typewriter
Numero Uno“From Munich, on June 29, 1890, Ibsen wrote to the Swedish poet, Count Carl Soilsky: ‘Our intention has all along been to spend the summer in the Tyrol again.  But circumstances are against our doing so. I am at present engaged upon a new dramatic work, which for several reasons has made very slow progress, and I do not leave Munich until I can take with me the completed first draft.  There is little or no prospect of my being able to complete it in July.’  Ibsen did not leave Munich at all that season.  On October 30 he wrote: ‘At present I am utterly engrossed in a new play.  Not one leisure hour have I had for several months.’  Three weeks later (November 20) he wrote to his French translator, Count Prozor: ‘My new play is finished; the manuscript went off to Copenhagen the day before yesterday…. It produces a curious feeling of emptiness to be thus suddenly separated from a work which has occupied one’s time and thoughts for several months, to the exclusion of all else.  But it is a good thing, too, to have done with it.  The constant intercourse with the fictitious personages was beginning to make me quite nervous.’  To the same correspondent he wrote on December 4: ‘The title of the play is Hedda Gabler.  My intention in giving it this name was to indicate that Hedda, as a personality, is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife.  It was not my desire to deal in this play with so-called problems.  What I principally wanted to do was to depict human beings, human emotions, and human destinies, upon a groundwork of certain of the social conditions and principles of the present day.”So far we read the history of the play in the official ‘Correspondence.’  Some interesting glimpses into the poet’s moods during the period between the completion of The Lady from the Sea and the publication of Hedda Gabler are to be found in the series of letters to Fraulein Emilie Bardach, of Vienna, published by Dr. George Brandes.  This young lady Ibsen met at Gossensass in the Tyrol in the autumn of 1889.  The record of their brief friendship belongs to the history of The Master Builder rather than to that of Hedda Gabler, but the allusions to his work in his letters to her during the winter of 1889 demand some examination.

So early as October 7, 1889, he writes to her: ‘A new poem begins to dawn in me.  I will execute it this winter, and try to transfer to it the bright atmosphere of the summer.  But I feel that it will end in sadness—such is my nature.’  Was this ‘dawning’ poem Hedda Gabler?  Or was it rather The Master Builder that was germinating in his mind?  Who shall say?  The latter hypothesis seems the more probable, for it is hard to believe that at any stage in the incubation of Hedda Gabler he can have conceived it as even beginning in gaiety.  A week later, however, he appears to have made up his mind that the time had not come for the poetic utilisation of his recent experiences.  He writes on October 15: ‘Here I sit as usual at my writing-table.  Now I would fain work, but am unable to.  My fancy, indeed, is very active.  But it always wanders away ours.  I cannot repress my summer memories—nor do I wish to.  I live through my experience again and again and yet again.  To transmute it all into a poem, I find, in the meantime, impossible.’  Clearly, then, he felt that his imagination ought to have been engaged on some theme having no relation to his summer experiences—the theme, no doubt, of Hedda Gabler.  In his next letter, dated October 29, he writes: ‘Do not be troubled because I cannot, in the meantime, create (dichten).  In reality I am for ever creating, or, at any rate, dreaming of something which, when in the fulness of time it ripens, will reveal itself as a creation (Dichtung).’  On November 19 he says: ‘I am very busily occupied with preparations for my new poem.  I sit almost the whole day at my writing-table.  Go out only in the evening for a little while.’  The five following letters contain no allusion to the play; but on September 18, 1890, he wrote: ‘My wife and son are at present at Riva, on the Lake of Garda, and will probably remain there until the middle of October, or even longer.  Thus I am quite alone here, and cannot get away.  The new play on which I am at present engaged will probably not be ready until November, though I sit at my writing-table daily, and almost the whole day long.’

Here ends the history of Hedda Gabler, so far as the poet’s letters carry us. Its hard clear outlines, and perhaps somewhat bleak atmosphere, seem to have resulted from a sort of reaction against the sentimental “dreamery” begotten of his Gossensass experiences. He sought refuge in the chill materialism of Hedda from the ardent transcendentalism of Hilda, whom he already heard knocking at the door. He was not yet in the mood to deal with her on the plane of poetry.(C)

Hedda Gabler was published in Copenhagen on December 16, 1890. This was the first of Ibsen’s plays to be translated from proof-sheets and published in England and America almost simultaneously with its first appearance in Scandinavia. The earliest theatrical performance took place at the Residenz Theater, Munich, on the last day of January 1891, in the presence of the poet, Frau Conrad-Ramlo playing the title-part. The Lessing Theater, Berlin, followed suit on February 10. Not till February 25 was the play seen in Copenhagen, with Fru Hennings as Hedda. On the following night it was given for the first time in Christiania, the Norwegian Hedda being Froken Constance Bruun. It was this production which the poet saw when he visited the Christiania Theater for the first time after his return to Norway, August 28, 1891. It would take pages to give even the baldest list of the productions and revivals of Hedda Gabler in Scandinavia and Germany, where it has always ranked among Ibsen’s most popular works. The admirable production of the play by Miss Elizabeth Robins and Miss Marion Lea, at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, April 20, 1891, may rank as the second great step towards the popularisation of Ibsen in England, the first being the Charrington-Achurch production of A Doll’s House in 1889. Miss Robins afterwards repeated her fine performance of Hedda many times, in London, in the English provinces, and in New York. The character has also been acted in London by Eleonora Duse, and as I write (March, 5, 1907) by Mrs. Patrick Campbell, at the Court Theatre. In Australia and America, Hedda has frequently been acted by Miss Nance O’Neill and other actresses—quite recently by a Russian actress, Madame Alla Nazimova, who (playing in English) seems to have made a notable success both in this part and in Nora. The first French Hedda Gabler was Mlle. Marthe Brandes, who played the part at the Vaudeville Theatre, Paris, on December 17, 1891, the performance being introduced by a lecture by M. Jules Lemaitre. In Holland, in Italy, in Russia, the play has been acted times without number. In short (as might easily have been foretold) it has rivalled A Doll’s Housein world-wide popularity.

It has been suggested,(D) I think without sufficient ground, that Ibsen deliberately conceived Hedda Gabler as an “international” play, and that the scene is really the “west end” of any European city. To me it seems quite clear that Ibsen had Christiania in mind, and the Christiania of a somewhat earlier period than the ‘nineties. The electric cars, telephones, and other conspicuous factors in the life of a modern capital are notably absent from the play. There is no electric light in Secretary Falk’s villa. It is still the habit for ladies to return on foot from evening parties, with gallant swains escorting them. This “suburbanism,” which so distressed the London critics of 1891, was characteristic of the Christiania Ibsen himself had known in the ‘sixties—the Christiania of Love’s Comedy—rather than of the greatly extended and modernised city of the end of the century. Moreover Lovborg’s allusions to the fiord, and the suggested picture of Sheriff Elvsted, his family and his avocations are all distinctively Norwegian. The truth seems to be very simple—the environment and the subsidiary personages are all thoroughly national, but Hedda herself is an “international” type, a product of civilisation by no means peculiar to Norway.

We cannot point to any individual model or models who “sat to” Ibsen for the character of Hedda.(E) The late Grant Allen declared that Hedda was “nothing more nor less than the girl we take down to dinner in London nineteen times out of twenty”; in which case Ibsen must have suffered from a superfluidity of models, rather than from any difficulty in finding one. But the fact is that in this, as in all other instances, the word “model” must be taken in a very different sense from that in which it is commonly used in painting. Ibsen undoubtedly used models for this trait and that, but never for a whole figure. If his characters can be called portraits at all, they are composite portraits. Even when it seems pretty clear that the initial impulse towards the creation of a particular character came from some individual, the original figure is entirely transmuted in the process of harmonisation with the dramatic scheme. We need not, therefore, look for a definite prototype of Hedda; but Dr. Brandes shows that two of that lady’s exploits were probably suggested by the anecdotic history of the day.

Ibsen had no doubt heard how the wife of a well-known Norwegian composer, in a fit of raging jealousy excited by her husband’s prolonged absence from home, burnt the manuscript of a symphony which he had just finished. The circumstances under which Hedda burns Lovborg’s manuscript are, of course, entirely different and infinitely more dramatic; but here we have merely another instance of the dramatisation or “poetisation” of the raw material of life. Again, a still more painful incident probably came to his knowledge about the same time. A beautiful and very intellectual woman was married to a well-known man who had been addicted to drink, but had entirely conquered the vice. One day a mad whim seized her to put his self-mastery and her power over him to the test. As it happened to be his birthday, she rolled into his study a small keg of brandy, and then withdrew. She returned some time after wards to find that he had broached the keg, and lay insensible on the floor. In this anecdote we cannot but recognise the germ, not only of Hedda’s temptation of Lovborg, but of a large part of her character.

“Thus,” says Dr. Brandes, “out of small and scattered traits of reality Ibsen fashioned his close-knit and profoundly thought-out works of art.”

For the character of Eilert Lovborg, again, Ibsen seem unquestionably to have borrowed several traits from a definite original. A young Danish man of letters, whom Dr. Brandes calls Holm, was an enthusiastic admirer of Ibsen, and came to be on very friendly terms with him. One day Ibsen was astonished to receive, in Munich, a parcel addressed from Berlin by this young man, containing, without a word of explanation, a packet of his (Ibsen’s) letters, and a photograph which he had presented to Holm. Ibsen brooded and brooded over the incident, and at last came to the conclusion that the young man had intended to return her letters and photograph to a young lady to whom he was known to be attached, and had in a fit of aberration mixed up the two objects of his worship. Some time after, Holm appeared at Ibsen’s rooms. He talked quite rationally, but professed to have no knowledge whatever of the letter-incident, though he admitted the truth of Ibsen’s conjecture that the “belle dame sans merci” had demanded the return of her letters and portrait. Ibsen was determined to get at the root of the mystery; and a little inquiry into his young friend’s habits revealed the fact that he broke his fast on a bottle of port wine, consumed a bottle of Rhine wine at lunch, of Burgundy at dinner, and finished off the evening with one or two more bottles of port. Then he heard, too, how, in the course of a night’s carouse, Holm had lost the manuscript of a book; and in these traits he saw the outline of the figure of Eilert Lovborg.

Some time elapsed, and again Ibsen received a postal packet from Holm. This one contained his will, in which Ibsen figured as his residuary legatee. But many other legatees were mentioned in the instrument—all of them ladies, such as Fraulein Alma Rothbart, of Bremen, and Fraulein Elise Kraushaar, of Berlin. The bequests to these meritorious spinsters were so generous that their sum considerably exceeded the amount of the testator’s property. Ibsen gently but firmly declined the proffered inheritance; but Holm’s will no doubt suggested to him the figure of that red-haired “Mademoiselle Diana,” who is heard of but not seen in Hedda Gabler, and enabled him to add some further traits to the portraiture of Lovborg. When the play appeared, Holm recognised himself with glee in the character of the bibulous man of letters, and thereafter adopted “Eilert Lovborg” as his pseudonym. I do not, therefore, see why Dr. Brandes should suppress his real name; but I willingly imitate him in erring on the side of discretion. The poor fellow died several years ago.

Some critics have been greatly troubled as to the precise meaning of Hedda’s fantastic vision of Lovborg “with vine-leaves in his hair.” Surely this is a very obvious image or symbol of the beautiful, the ideal, aspect of bacchic elation and revelry. Antique art, or I am much mistaken, shows us many figures of Dionysus himself and his followers with vine-leaves entwined their hair. To Ibsen’s mind, at any rate, the image had long been familiar. In Peer Gynt (Act iv. sc. 8), when Peer, having carried off Anitra, finds himself in a particularly festive mood, he cries: “Were there vine-leaves around, I would garland my brow.” Again, in Emperor and Galilean (Pt. ii. Act 1) where Julian, in the procession of Dionysus, impersonates the god himself, it is directed that he shall wear a wreath of vine-leaves. Professor Dietrichson relates that among the young artists whose society Ibsen frequented during his first years in Rome, it was customary, at their little festivals, for the revellers to deck themselves in this fashion. But the image is so obvious that there is no need to trace it to any personal experience. The attempt to place Hedda’s vine-leaves among Ibsen’s obscurities is an example of the firm resolution not to understand which animated the criticism of the ‘nineties.

Dr. Brandes has dealt very severely with the character of Eilert Lovborg, alleging that we cannot believe in the genius attributed to him. But where is he described as a genius? The poet represents him as a very able student of sociology; but that is quite a different thing from attributing to him such genius as must necessarily shine forth in every word he utters. Dr. Brandes, indeed, declines to believe even in his ability as a sociologist, on the ground that it is idle to write about the social development of the future. “To our prosaic minds,” he says, “it may seem as if the most sensible utterance on the subject is that of the fool of the play: ‘The future! Good heavens, we know nothing of the future.'” The best retort to this criticism is that which Eilert himself makes: “There’s a thing or two to be said about it all the same.” The intelligent forecasting of the future (as Mr. H. G. Wells has shown) is not only clearly distinguishable from fantastic Utopianism, but is indispensable to any large statesmanship or enlightened social activity. With very real and very great respect for Dr. Brandes, I cannot think that he has been fortunate in his treatment of Lovborg’s character. It has been represented as an absurdity that he would think of reading abstracts from his new book to a man like Tesman, whom he despises. But though Tesman is a ninny, he is, as Hedda says, a “specialist”—he is a competent, plodding student of his subject. Lovborg may quite naturally wish to see how his new method, or his excursion into a new field, strikes the average scholar of the Tesman type. He is, in fact, “trying it on the dog”—neither an unreasonable nor an unusual proceeding. There is, no doubt, a certain improbability in the way in which Lovborg is represented as carrying his manuscript around, and especially in Mrs. Elvsted’s production of his rough draft from her pocket; but these are mechanical trifles, on which only a niggling criticism would dream of laying stress.

Of all Ibsen’s works, Hedda Gabler is the most detached, the most objective—a character-study pure and simple.  It is impossible—or so it seems to me—to extract any sort of general idea from it.  One cannot even call it a satire, unless one is prepared to apply that term to the record of a ‘case’ in a work of criminology.  Reverting to Dumas’s dictum that a play should contain ‘a painting, a judgment, an ideal,’ we may say the Hedda Gabler fulfils only the first of these requirements.  The poet does not even pass judgment on his heroine: he simply paints her full-length portrait with scientific impassivity.  But what a portrait!  How searching in insight, how brilliant in colouring, how rich in detail! Grant Allen’s remark, above quoted, was, of course, a whimsical exaggeration; the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end.  But particular traits and tendencies of the Hedda type are very common in modern life, and not only among women.  Hyperaesthesia lies at the root of her tragedy.  With a keenly critical, relentlessly solvent intelligence, she combines a morbid shrinking from all the gross and prosaic detail of the sensual life.  She has nothing to take her out of herself—not a single intellectual interest or moral enthusiasm.  She cherishes, in a languid way, a petty social ambition; and even that she finds obstructed and baffled.  At the same time she learns that another woman has had the courage to love and venture all, where she, in her cowardice, only hankered and refrained.  Her malign egoism rises up uncontrolled, and calls to its aid her quick and subtle intellect.  She ruins the other woman’s happiness, but in doing so incurs a danger from which her sense of personal dignity revolts.  Life has no such charm for her that she cares to purchase it at the cost of squalid humiliation and self-contempt.  The good and the bad in her alike impel her to have done with it all; and a pistol-shot ends what is surely one of the most poignant character-tragedies in literature.  Ibsen’s brain never worked at higher pressure than in the conception and adjustment of those ‘crowded hours’ in which Hedda, tangled in the web of Will and Circumstance, struggles on till she is too weary to struggle any more.”      Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler; translated by Edmond Gosse and William Archer, Introduction, by William Archer, 1914

"S&g1" by User:Kosmopolitat -
“S&g1” by User:Kosmopolitat –
Numero Dos“I wish to express my warm thanks to the Swedish Academy for awarding me the Nobel Prize in Literature.  This is so great an honour that one may be excused for asking oneself – have I really deserved it?

Speaking for myself, I dare not even pose the question!  Having taken no part in making this decision, however, I can enjoy it with a free conscience.  The responsibility rests with my esteemed colleagues and for this, too, I am truly thankful!

We have heard great speeches today and will presently hear more.  I shall therefore refrain from making one but will ask you instead to bear with me while I read you a passage from a book of mine that has never been published.

I was wondering what I should say on this solemn occasion, when something rather strange happened; I unearthed an old manuscript dating back to 1922, twenty-nine years ago.

As I read it, I came upon a passage which more or less expressed what I would have said in my speech, except that it did so in the form of a story, which is much better suited to my taste.  It is about the enigma of our life which makes human destiny at once so great and so hard.  I wrote it nearly thirty years ago.

I was staying at the time in a little place in the Pyrenees on the shores of the Mediterranean, a very lovely part of the world.  I will now read you the first part of it as well as I can.

The Myth of Mankind

Once upon a time there was a world, and a man and a woman came to it on a fine morning, not to dwell there for any length of time, but just for a brief visit.  They knew many other worlds, and this one seemed to them shabbier and poorer than those others.

True, it was beautiful enough with its trees and mountains, its forests and copses, the skies above with ever-changing clouds and the wind which came softly at dusk and stirred everything so mysteriously.  But, for all that, it was still a poor world compared to those they possessed far, far away.

Thus they decided to remain here for only a short while, for they loved each other and it seemed as though nowhere else was their love so wonderful as in just this world.  Here, love was not something one took for granted and that permeated everyone and everything, but was like a visitor from whom wondrous things were expected.

Everything that had been clear and natural in their life became mysterious, sinister, and veiled.  They were strangers abandoned to unknown powers.

The love that united them was a marvel – it was perishable; it could fade away and die.

So for a while they wished to remain in this new world they had found for themselves.

It was not always daylight here.  After the light of day, dusk would fall upon all things, wiping out, obliterating them.  The man and woman lay together in the darkness listening to the wind as it whispered in the trees.

They drew closer to each other, asking: why are we here at all?

Then the man built a house for himself and the woman, a house of stones and moss, for were they not to move on shortly?  The woman spread sweet-scented grass on the earthen floor and awaited him home at dusk.

They loved each other more than ever and went about their daily chores.  One day, when the man was out in the fields, he felt a great longing come upon him for her whom he loved above all things.

He bent down and kissed the earth she had lain upon. …

In a youthful manifesto of 1913 entitled Ordkonst och bildkonst [Verbal Art and Pictorial Art], Pär Lagerkvist, whose name was then unknown, had the audacity to find fault with the decadence of the literature of his time which, according to him, did not answer the requirements of art.  His essay contains declarations which in their far too categorial form border on truism, but which in the light of his later work take on another, more profound meaning.  Thus the young writer declared, «The writer’s mission is to explain his time from an artist’s point of view and to express the thought and feeling of this time for us and generations to come.»  Today we can affirm that Lagerkvist himself, as far as one can follow him in his ascent toward maturity and greatness, amply accomplished this goal.

Today we call attention to this Swedish writer, not to present him in a general fashion – which would indeed seem superfluous – but to render to his work and to his person the homage due to them.  Our attention is drawn above all to the impassioned, unfaltering sincerity, the ardent, unwearying patience, that have been the living forces behind his work.  By these purely spiritual qualities, Pär Lagerkvist should answer fairly well, at least as a type of creative mind, to what Nobel said in the Sibylline terms of his will: «in an idealistic sense».   Undeniably he belongs to that group of writers who, boldly and directly, have dedicated themselves to the vital questions of humanity, and who have tirelessly returned to the fundamental problems of our existence, with all that is overwhelming and sorrowful.  The era in which he lived, whose materials determined his vocation, was menaced by rising clouds and by the eruptions of catastrophes.  It is on this sombre and chaotic scene that he began to fight; it is in this country without sun that he discovered the flame of his inspiration.

Lagerkvist, with a precocious instinct of the imagination, apprehended the approaching disaster so far in advance that he was the prophet of anguish in Nordic literature; but he is also one of the most vigilant guardians of the spirit’s sacred fire which threatens to be extinguished in the storm. A number of those listening to me surely recall the short story in Lagerkvist’s Onda Sagor (1924) [Evil Tales], in which one sees the child of ten, on a luminous spring day, walking with his father along the railroad track; they hear together the songs of the birds in the forest, and then, on their way back, in the dusk, they are suddenly surprised by the unknown noise which cleaves the air. «I had an obscure foreboding of what that meant; it was the anguish which was going to come, all the unknown, which Father did not know, and from which he could not protect me. Here is what this world will be, what this life will be for me, not like Father’s life in which everything was reassuring and well established. It was not a real world, not a real life. It was only something ablaze which rushed into the depths of obscurity, obscurity without end.» This childhood memory now appears to us as a symbol of the theme that dominates Pär Lagerkvist’s work; at the same time, one might say that it proves to us that his subsequent works are authentic and logically necessary.

It is impossible, with the short time at our disposal today, to examine all these works in turn. The important thing is that, while Pär Lagerkvist makes use of different genres, dramatic or lyric, epic or satiric, his way of grasping reality remains fundamentally the same. It does not matter in his case if the results are not always on a level with the intentions, for each work plays the role of a stone in an edifice he intends to build; each is a part of his mission, a mission that always bears on the same subject: the misery and grandeur of what is human, the slavery to which earthly life condemns us, and the heroic struggle of the spirit for its liberation. This is the theme in all the works we choose to recall at this time: Gäst hos verkligheten (1925) [Guest of Reality]; Hjärtats sånger (1926) [Songs from the Heart]; Han som fick leva om sitt liv (1928) [He Who Lived His Life Over Again]; Dvärgen (1944) [The Dwarfl]; Barabbas (1950). It is needless to cite others to give an idea of the scope of Lagerkvist’s inspirations and the power of his genius.

One of the foreign experts who, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nobel Foundation, criticized the historic series of Nobel Prize laureates, gave as criteria two conditions which seemed equally indispensable to him: on the one hand the artistic value of the finished work, on the other its international reputation. Insofar as this last condition is concerned, it can immediately be objected that those who write in a language that is not widespread will find themselves at a great disadvantage. In any case, it is extremely rare that a Nordic writer could make a reputation with the international public, and, therefore, a fair judgment on this kind of candidate is an especially delicate matter. However, Nobel’s will explicitly prescribes that the Prizes should be awarded«without any consideration of nationality, so that they should be awarded to the worthiest, be he Scandinavian or not.» That should also signify that if a writer seems worthy of the Nobel Prize, the fact that he is Swedish, for example, should not in the end hinder him from obtaining it. As for Pär Lagerkvist, we must consider another factor, which pleases us very much: his last work has attracted much sympathy and esteem outside our frontiers. This was further proved by the insistent recommendations with which Lagerkvist’s candidacy has been sustained by a majority of foreign advisers. He does not owe his Prize to the Academy circle itself. That the moving interpretations of the inner conflicts of Barabbas have found such repercussions even in foreign languages clearly shows the profoundly inspired character of this work, which is all the more remarkable as the style of it is original and in a sense untranslatable. Indeed, in this language at once harsh and sensitive, Lagerkvist’s compatriots often hear the echo of Småland folklore reechoing under the starry vault of Biblical legend. This reminds us once more that regional individuality can sometimes be transformed into something universal and accessible to all.

On each page of Pär Lagerkvist’s work are words and ideas which, in their profound and fearful tenderness, carry at the very heart of their purity a message of terror.  Their origin is in a simple, rustic life, laborious and frugal of words.  But these words, these thoughts, handled by a master, have been placed at the service of other designs and have been given a greater purpose, that of raising to the level of art an interpretation of the time, the world, and man’s eternal condition.  That is why in the statement of the reasons for awarding the Nobel Prize to Pär Lagerkvist, it seems legitimate to us to affirm that this national literary production has risen to the European level.

Dr. Lagerkvist – We who have followed you from close by know how repugnant it is to you to be placed in the limelight.  But since that seems inevitable at this moment, I beg you only to believe in the sincerity of our congratulations at the moment when you receive this award which, according to us, you have deserved more than any other at the present time.  I have been obliged to sing your praises in front of you.  But if the occasion were less solemn, I would be tempted to tell you quite simply, in the old Swedish manner: may it bring you happiness.

And now, it remains for me to ask you to receive from the hands of our King the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1951.”       Par Lagerkvist, Nobel Lecture & Anders Osterling Nobel Dinner Speech; 1951 

typewriter writer write
Numero Tres” New Hampshire’s poet laureate at the time of her untimely death at age forty-seven, Jane Kenyon was noted for verse that probed the inner psyche, particularly with regard to her own battle against the depression that lasted throughout much of her adult life. Writing for the last two decades of her life at her farm in northern New England, Kenyon is also remembered for her stoic portraits of domestic and rural life; as essayist Gary Roberts noted in Contemporary Women Poets, her poetry was “acutely faithful to the familiarities and mysteries of home life, and it is distinguished by intense calmness in the face of routine disappointments and tragedies.”

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kenyon spent her first two decades in the Midwest, attending the University of Michigan in her hometown through completion of her master’s degree in 1972. It was while she was a student at the University of Michigan that Kenyon met her future husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. After her marriage, Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, a New Hampshire farm that had been in Hall’s family for generations and where she would spend the remainder of her life.

Kenyon published only four volumes of poetry during her life: From Room to Room, The Boat of Quiet Hours, Let Evening Come, and Constance, and translated a volume of works by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Despite her relatively small output, her poetry was highly lauded by critics throughout her lifetime. As fellow poet Carol Muske remarked in the New York Times when describing Kenyon’s The Boat of Quiet Hours, “These poems surprise beauty at every turn and capture truth at its familiar New England slant. Here, in Keats’s terms, is a capable poet.” Indeed, Kenyon’s work has often been compared with that of English Romantic poet John Keats; Roberts dubbed her a “Keatsian poet” and noted that, “like Keats, she attempts to redeem morbidity with a peculiar kind of gusto, one which seeks a quiet annihilation of self-identity through identification with benign things.”

The cycles of nature held special significance for Kenyon, who returned to them again and again, both in her variations on Keats’s ode “To Autumn,” and in other pastoral verse. In Let Evening Come, her third published collection—and one that found the poet taking what Poetry essayist Paul Breslin called “a darker turn”—Kenyon explored nature’s cycles in other ways: the fall of light from day to dusk to night, and the cycles of relationships with family and friends throughout a long span of years brought to a close by death. Let Evening Come “shows [Kenyon] at the height of her powers,” according to Muske in a review of the 1990 volume for the New York Times Book Review, with the poet’s “descriptive skills . . . as notable as her dramatic ones. Her rendering of natural settings, in lines of well-judged rhythm and simple syntax, contribute to the [volume’s] memorableness.”

Constance began Kenyon’s study of depression, and her work in this regard has been compared with that of the late poet Sylvia Plath. Comparing the two, Breslin wrote that “Kenyon’s language is much quieter, less self-dramatizing” than that of Plath, and where the earlier poet “would give herself up, writing her lyrical surrender to oblivion, . . . Kenyon fought to the end.” Breslin noted the absence of self-pity in Kenyon’s work, and the poet’s ability to separate from self and acknowledge the grief and emotional pain of others, as in her poems “Coats,” “Sleepers in Jaipur,” and “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863,” which imagines a mortally wounded soldier lying in wait for death on the historic battlefield.

In Otherwise, a posthumous collection containing twenty poems written just prior to her death as well as several taken from her earlier books, Kenyon ‘chronicles the uncertainty of living as culpable, temporary creatures,’ according to Nation contributor Emily Gordon.  As Muske added in the New York Times Book Review, Kenyon avoids sentimentality throughout Otherwise.  ‘The poet here sears a housewife’s apron, hangs wash on the line, walks a family dog and draws her thought from a melancholy, ecstatic soul as if from the common well, ‘where the fearful and rash alike must come for water.’  In ecstasy,’ Muske continued, Kenyon ‘sees this world as a kind of threshold through which we enter God’s wonder.’ …

On the way to the village store
I drive through a down-draft
from the neighbor’s chimney.
Woodsmoke tumbles from the eaves
backlit by sun, reminding me
of the fire and sulfur of Grandmother’s
vengeful God, the one who disapproves
of jeans and shorts for girls,
dancing, strong waters, and adultery.
A moment later the smoke enters
the car, although the windows are tight,
insinuating that I might, like Judas,
and the foolish virgins, and the rich
young man, have been made for unquenchable
fire. God will need something to burn
if the fire is to be unquenchable.
“All things work together for the good
for those who love God,” she said
to comfort me at Uncle Hazen’s funeral,
where Father held me up to see
the maroon gladiolus that trembled
as we approached the bier, the elaborate
shirred satin, brass fittings, anything,
oh, anything but Uncle’s squelched
and made-up face.
“No! NO! How is it good to be dead?”
I cried afterward, wild-eyed and flushed.
“God’s ways are not our ways,”
she said then out of pity

and the wish to forestall the argument.”     The Poetry Foundation, “Jane Kenyon;” circa 2000, & Jane Kenyon, “The Argument”