Elinor Wylie: “Wild Peaches”?
A wild peach’s sweetness is easy to savor. It grows spontaneously; its discovery feels providential, a reward for one who strays from the path. But a peach essentially is a human creation, the product of years of rigorous cultivation. Wild peaches are wild because their farmer has abandoned them, or because a traveler has tossed one into a soil and climate favorable to it. Inheritance and errancy, abundance under control and then out of it again—from the start, Elinor Wylie’s poem provokes us to entertain these tensions. It’s a specifically American poem, conceived after an escape from America. It plainly professes New World roots while drawing on a European poetic inheritance. Its dramatized anxieties held at a mild ironic distance strike a modernist note, while its lyricism and traditional prosody would seem to date it well before those harrowed, unstable years between World War I and the experimental fertility of the Roaring Twenties.
The four Petrarchan sonnets that compose the poem are relentlessly musical, heaped with what critic Morton Dauwen Zabel called the “tray after tray of choice images” that distinguish Wylie’s work. They are delicious, and the cadences hypnotic, as in the poem’s first description of nature:
The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and scuppernong;
All seasons sweet, but autumn best of all.
The squirrels in their silver fur will fall
Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.
The local color is vivid and correct throughout this poem, from the coonskin cap of the speaker’s pioneer companion to the flora and fauna of the southeastern United States (scuppernong and chestnuts, speckled quail and canvasback).
But as richly imagined as the first three sections are, they are hypothetical, at the direction of the male companion (“You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore”), and tinged with foreboding. At the beginning of the poem, the two characters’ relocation from Baltimore to the wilds of coastal Maryland or Virginia is deliberate and presumably romantic:
When the world turns completely upside down
You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore
Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore;
We’ll live among wild peach trees, miles from town,
You’ll wear a coonskin cap, and I a gown
Homespun, dyed butternut’s dark gold color.
But then the scene takes an unsettling turn:
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor,
We’ll swim in milk and honey till we drown.
Here, in the same breath, Wylie alludes to Odysseus’s fate-battered but noble adventurers, and the exodus of the Israelites to the promised land as recounted in the Bible. This image of prosperity and sweet delirium is also one of self-annihilation, suggesting that some aspect of this adventure doesn’t sit well with the speaker. She addresses the verses to him and seems to keep his point of view foremost—“The squirrels . . . will fall . . . before your shot” and “By February you may find the skins / Of garter snakes . . .”—but it is this touch of dread at the start that reveals the reproach mixed with her devotion. After all, it is his “lotus-eating ancestor,” not hers, who leads them into the wilderness.
The upheaval that spurs the lover’s desire to flee is ambiguous. Is it private or public? Just when and why will the world turn “completely upside down”? The phrase echoes the title of a protest ballad from the English Civil War in the 17th century; legend has it that an English general sang it as he surrendered to the French and American forces in Virginia in 1781. Whether or not Wylie meant to allude to this turning point in American history, it does serve to further dislocate the poem in time. The couple’s arrival on a “river-boat from Baltimore” to live among once-cultivated peach trees indicates that the mid-Atlantic has already been well settled, and the scene occurs closer to Wylie’s time than the Colonial era; whoever they are, chronologically they are more gleaners than settlers.
This lack of temporal specificity tempts us to read the poem as an escape fantasy, brought on by romantic turmoil or global crisis—or both. Wylie’s own world certainly had turned upside down by the time she wrote “Wild Peaches” and the other poems that appeared in her first full volume in 1921. The privileged child of a high-ranking public servant, Elinor had lived in the Washington, D.C., area since she was young. She married a personally troubled local lawyer, whom she left for an older and more prominent attorney, Horace Wylie, in 1910. The following year, she and Horace fled the social persecution that followed their affair by boarding a boat to England, where Wylie began to read and write poetry seriously. By all accounts, they had planned to stay there for good, but when World War I broke out, Elinor and Horace feared their American passports would be scrutinized and their assumed names discovered. In 1916, they returned to America, married, and settled again in Virginia. The union didn’t last.
As the poem continues to spill its bounty of sunshine, fruit, and wild game, hints of death and violence color the pastoral daydream. The rhythms and sounds remain languid, however, as the “squirrels in their silver fur will fall / Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot,” and “we’ll trample bright persimmons, while you kill / Bronze partridge, speckled quail, and canvasback.” The endless harvest months yield “fruits red and purple, sombre-bloomed and black”; the snakes’ shed skins are “dwindled and harsh, dead-white and cloudy-clear.” Wylie envisions a sun that is brilliant but severe: it “burns from copper into brass.” It forestalls frost, never quite letting winter take hold; the puddles are only “roofed with glass” until noon, when the hot sun “makes the boys unfold / Their knitted mufflers.” In the second sonnet, Wylie reiterates that “peaches grow wild and pigs can live in clover,” and so we’re reminded that the speaker and her partner are not practiced farmers but hunter-gatherers amid this untended growth, where “strawberries go begging” and plums are ripe for plucking by blackbirds as well as humans. “We shall live well—we shall live very well,” goes the speaker’s blithe refrain, but her (or is it her partner’s?) assurance betrays their vulnerability to the vagaries of providence.
So the speaker is free but uneasy in this land of plenty—and she isn’t even there yet. Although she characterizes herself as a passive helpmeet in a homespun gown, she has visualized the flight into the wilderness acutely and completely. The scene is a synthesis of Wylie’s imagination and memory—the mid-Atlantic landscape as she experienced it during her youth in the late 19th century, and as a maturing poet hounded away—and forced back—to her homeland during a time of social change and personal instability. While Ezra Pound was exhorting American poets to “break the pentameter” and “make it new,” Wylie instead adopted traditional lyric forms and reached back to the Romantics and late-Victorian Aesthetes to find her poetic models. During a career that spanned only seven years, Wylie would ascend in a small but high-profile coterie of lyric poets that included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, and Louise Bogan. Though they decidedly were not associated with the modernist movement, they shared the modernists’ struggle to integrate increasingly complex cultural inheritances, and their openness to dramatizing conflicting interior states. In “Wild Peaches,” the speaker’s senses are exquisitely honed, but so is her skepticism.
Bogan praised this skill of Wylie’s for “fusing thought and passion into the most complex forms.” While the imagery of “Wild Peaches” is voluptuous, its prosody is genteel and well controlled, especially here in the middle two sonnets. Wylie carefully balances her ratio of poly- and monosyllabic words, as in these lines: “When strawberries go begging, and the sleek / Blue plums lie open to the blackbird’s beak,” and “Fat pockets dribble chestnuts as they pass.” She also has an ear for subtle repeated sounds within a line:
Peaches grow wild, and pigs can live in clover;
A barrel of salted herrings lasts a year;
The spring begins before the winter’s over.
By February you may find the skins
Of garter snakes and water moccasins
Dwindled and harsh, dead-white and cloudy-clear.
Irregular stresses energize the iambic pentameter, and end-stopped lines are balanced with enjambments:
The sun, which burns from copper into brass,
Melts these at noon, and makes the boys unfold
Their knitted mufflers; full as they can hold,
Fat pockets dribble chestnuts as they pass.
The last sonnet breaks through this well-wrought sensuousness, laying bare the speaker’s apprehensions:
Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There’s something in this richness that I hate.
Up until now, the poet has placed herself in the background, a mostly passive witness to her partner’s actions and the leisurely churn of the seasons, an observer of the world around her rather than of her own thoughts and feelings. Now the speaker’s declarations become terse and urgent, but she can’t clearly articulate her unease or hostility to her partner’s proposals. She couches her connection to her tradition in aesthetic, not spiritual terms (“I love the look, austere, immaculate, / Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones”), which points up her emotional and cultural distance from it. “There’s something in my very blood that owns / Bare hills,” she declares, exploiting what Wylie scholar Judith Farr calls her “johnnycake side” as she reaches to claim restraint as a birthright. As a further gesture of reserve, the sonnet’s octave is one line short. In stark but vague avowals (“something in this richness,” “something in my very blood”), Wylie has mounted a rejection of her partner’s overbearing escape plan. Now she takes out a finer brush and paints the New England landscape in clipped sibilants:
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Steering through slanted pastures fenced with stones.
I love those skies, thin blue or snowy gray,
Those fields sparse-planted, rendering meager sheaves. . . .
She then contrasts the Northern with the Southern landscape by collapsing the lush seasonal fantasia of the previous three sonnets to only four lines. The sibilance is softened by f’s and b’s and long vowels:
That spring, briefer than apple-blossom’s breath,
Summer so much too beautiful to stay,
Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves,
And sleepy winter, like the sleep of death.
At once haughty and self-scrutinizing, the speaker’s confession dramatizes the anxiety of an aesthete as well as a lover. She mistrusts the easy sweetness of the lotus (or peach) and its power to turn the sensuous to senselessness. Her pious ancestors believed that worldly passions could pervert a passion for the world to come; Wylie seems to borrow their fundamentalism to understand her imagination’s lavish attention to the physical world and her urge to prune it back. Without spiritual conviction, her atavistic drive to pare surfaces to their essence leaves her vulnerable to natural law. Physical beauty, like passion, is contingent and impermanent; we can manipulate and revel in its bounty, but it is beyond our control and will one day overwhelm our efforts. “Wild Peaches” finds a lyric poet struggling to confront and transcend her inheritance in a rapidly changing landscape. It was a burden she shared with her modernist contemporaries.