Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"The Writings of Anna Wickham"

I read Anna Wickham's "The Fired Pot" in the Norton Anthology, and was inspired by it to write a poem during NaPoWriMo. I decided that I had to get to know the woman and the poet better, and so bought a biography as well as The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet, edited by R. D. Smith. The Writings, published to celebrate the centenary of Anna Wickham's birth, includes selections from her published and unpublished poetry, an autobiographical fragment and other prose writings.

The book's front material summarizes the bare facts of a life:

Anna Wickham was born in Wimbledon in 1884. At the age of six she went with her parents to Australia, where she was educated in Brisbane. In 1904 she returned to England and, after a period studying singing at the Paris Opera, she married Patrick Hepburn, a London lawyer and astronomer, in 1905. They had four sons, the first, James, born in 1907: their third son died at the age of five. From 1905 she lived in Bloomsbury and, from 1909 until her death in 1947, in Hampstead. She had a long friendship with the lesbian writer and patron of the arts, Natalie Barney. Other friends, who included Kate O'Brien, Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, Ezra Pound, David Garnett, and D. H. Lawrence, often spoke of her immensely powerful effect on people.

Anna Wickham started writing at the age of six, and wrote compulsively, producing over 1400 poems in her lifetime, encouraged by Harold Munro of the Poetry Bookshop and Louis Untermeyer in America. Her collections included Songs of John Oland (1911), The Contemplative Quarry (1915), The Man with the Hammer (1916), The Little Old House (1921). In 1971 her Selected Poems was published by Chatto & Windus. Nevertheless, her neglect by critics is, as Kunitz said, "one of the great mysteries of contemporary literature....

The autobiographical fragment runs to 106 pages and is subtitled "Prelude to a Spring Clean." The house is Anna Wckham's metaphor for her life. It is the domestic arena to which women have traditionally been restricted and against which Wickham fought for the right to write. What complicated this feminist story was Wickham's love for her children. Unlike some women writers, Wickham liked being a mother. In her prose analysis "The Spirit of the Lawrence Women," she defended women's procreative powers against D. H. Lawrence's denigration of it. In theory, a woman could be both writer and mother, but practicality militated against such a fruitful combination, at least in her time.

Her husband, a passionate scholar of Romanesque churches, wanted her to be his muse and audience. Her desire to be a mind in her own right led to violent quarrels in the marriage. Encouraged by her father to win fame as a writer, to compensate for his own failure, and mesmerized by a strong-willed dramatic mother, who carried the family through hard times in Australia, Anna Wickham could not be contented to be any one's wife merely. Her poetry records that determined struggle.


  1. Jee, I have never read this poet, but enjoyed your summary of her life. Already you have whetted my appetite for learning more of her and her work. Look forward to seeing more of your thoughts on her and any recommendations you have for further reading.

  2. A woman poet who immigrated to Brisbane, had strong opinions, and thought a lot about feminism as it related to her own life? I'm getting "amazing role model" stars in my eyes already.

  3. She is certainly unusual for her times. Worth pursuing.