City has forgotten her `Tears'

Way Back When

Writer: Lizette Woodworth Reese was considered by many to be one of the greatest poets of her time.

May 01, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In a moment of characteristic modesty that was reflective of her life, Baltimore poet Lizette Woodworth Reese was asked which of her poems she wished to have inscribed on her tombstone.

"None," she said. "I want `I will sing unto the Lord a new song.' "

And indeed, poetry-loving visitors seeking out her grave in a quiet corner of St. John's-Huntingdon churchyard in Waverly, where she has rested since her death in 1935, will find a stone inscribed simply with her name, birth and death dates, the name of her parents and the inscription she desired.

But today, Reese, of whom H.L. Mencken said at her death, "I believe that, of all the women who have lived in Baltimore, she will be remembered the longest, just as Poe will be remembered the longest among the men," is largely forgotten, even in her hometown.

"Indeed, within the limits that she set for herself, she was one of the greatest poets of her time. She not only wrote `Tears,' that belongs among the greatest sonnets ever written; she also wrote several other poems that deserve to be ranked only a little way below it, and in all her life she never wrote any verse that was downright bad," Mencken said.

"Why then, is she so little read today?" asked The Sun in 1987. "Probably for two reasons," the paper concluded. "Because she wrote in what is now considered an old-fashioned-style, with traditional rhyme and meter, and because this noisy age simply can't appreciate the gentleness and delicacy of her poetry, as indicated by the titles of her books: `A Branch of May,' `A Handful of Lavender,' `A Quiet Road.' "

The late R.P. Harriss, venerable Baltimore newspaperman, author and critic, wrote in 1989, "If her name rings no bell for you, if you can't quote a line of her poetry, then you're fairly typical of literate Americans, including Baltimoreans. Yet in her lifetime she ranked with Frost. Her sonnet `Tears' was cited by eminent American and British literary critics as being among the greatest in the English language, and when she died, that 14-line masterpiece got printed -- sometimes on page 1 -- by major newspapers coast to coast," he wrote.

Reese, who was described in her obituary as a "slight, shy, retiring little gray-haired spinster," was born in 1856 and lived her entire life in Waverly. She was the daughter of David and Louisa Reese, her father being of Welsh ancestry and her mother German.

She was educated in private schools and at 17 began teaching at St. John's Parish School. In 1876, she began teaching at the English-German School and in 1901 joined the faculty of Western High School, where she taught English until retiring in 1921.

She published her first book of poems, "A Branch of May" in 1887, followed by "A Handful of Lavender" in 1891. Other works followed through the years including two prose works, "A Victorian Village" and "The York Road," which were both autobiographical. At her death, she left "Worley's," an unfinished mystery story of the Civil War period.

Reese, who composed many of her lines on street corners while waiting for trolleys, admitted that writing was difficult.

"People who can tell exactly how they do things are mechanical," she explained in an interview. "When you love things you do not analyze; you just do them."

Near the end of her life, she wrote, "To remember Waverly as it was and the York Road as a track ... have been two of my wealthiest experiences. It seems only a step from its quiet of then to its bustle of now."

"It was the unhurried Victorian Waverly which she remembered best and which she pictures in words with her unhurried pen," observed The Sun. "The village seems separate and distinctive now, associated as it is with her life and works."

At her death, The Sun said, "Her writings and her life were examples of Victorianism in its pristine clarity and beauty -- faithful to tradition, lightened with unfailing humor, never flagging interest in the things and people about her and unwavering religious faith."

Some critics have suggested that she looked upon the world through rose-tinted glasses.

"I have learned that life is good," she said in an interview, "and every person is capable of something noble."

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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