- Selected Poems of Edith Wharton ed. by Irene Goldman-Price
Irene Goldman-Price’s Selected Poems of Edith Wharton is a gift to Wharton scholars, enthusiasts, and students alike. A collection of 134 poems, including 50 that have never before been published, the volume brings into focus Wharton’s poetic gifts and broadens our view of the writer who is best known for her prose, most popularly her fiction and travel writing. Goldman-Price’s recent editorial projects—this collection, as well as My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlman—make available to readers and Wharton scholars parts of Wharton’s oeuvre that are either little known, previously unknown, or difficult to access. In Selected Poems, Goldman-Price takes a pedagogical approach to her presentation of the poems, structuring the book around eight themes that she has identified as predominating in Wharton’s poetry. As editor, she has organized the book into sections determined by these themes, with poems arranged in chronological order within each section, a structure intended to show Wharton’s growth as a poet as she treats each theme across her career. Goldman-Price introduces each section with a short commentary on the nature of the theme in question and the role it played in Wharton’s life and imagination. In her brief prefaces to many of the poems, she places each poem in the context of Wharton’s life or illustrates how the poem addresses the theme in question.
Layered over this thematic infrastructure is a biographical organization. Goldman-Price breaks down Wharton’s poetry writing into five main phases: her youth, before her marriage in the late nineteenth century; the early years of her marriage to Teddy Wharton, when she kept a poetry notebook; the period during and following her extramarital relationship with Morton Fullerton; World War I and its aftermath; and her old age, when she was living in the south of France and contemplating her own mortality. This organization, which Goldman-Price weaves into her commentary on the poems, encourages the reader to think first about Wharton as an artist responding to events and experiences in her own life. Her travels and her reading are inscribed in the poems, many of which reference places she has visited, works of art she has seen in Europe, historical episodes or tales from mythology, or which are an homage [End Page 333] to an admired writer, such as Dante, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Walt Whitman. Goldman-Price teaches us how to read Wharton’s poetry by providing us with a biographical framework for her art. Her approach is enlightening both for Wharton scholars and for those who are new to Wharton’s writing and biography, particularly with regard to the poems that were previously unpublished and thus not widely studied.
Aside from Goldman-Price’s editorial decisions about how to present the work, the poetry itself, as a collection, stands as a dazzling example of Wharton’s brilliance with words and narrative. Much of what readers admire in Wharton’s fiction, such as her skill at creating dramatic irony, is present in many of the poems; for example, “Cynthia” stands beside The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome as a fine example of Wharton’s ability to turn the ironic knife. Her relish of the English language and her command of the structure of formal poetry are on full display in these poems. She had a particular fondness for the sonnet form and mastered it, and this appreciation for and adherence to formal poetic structure parallels her love of architecture and spatial design.
Although Wharton made her reputation on her prose writing, she called poetry her “chiefest passion and . . . greatest joy” (xiii). This collection enriches and enlarges our view of Wharton as an artist; her use of language in her poems is unlike anything we see in her fiction or nonfiction. We observe the contours of her imagination in such poems as “La Folle du Logis” and “Life.” As Goldman-Price says, the...