The Poets Louise Bogan (1897-1970)


About the Poet

Acclaimed as reviewer, autobiographer, and poet, Louise Bogan earned a place among the female voices of the mid-twentieth century. As a distinct loner living in a clannish New York circle, she produced an idiosyncratic style marked by epigram, dreamy landscapes, terse phrasing, and incisive images of sexual betrayal and patriarchal constraints on women. Of her 105 published titles, the majority are brief, but pungent and darkly truth-laden. She was much admired by Ford Madox Ford and Allen Tate. Her accomplished lyrics, conflicted subjects, and powerful physicality anticipated the themes and subjects of May Sarton and Sylvia Plath.

Bogan was born in Livermore Falls, Maine, on August 11, 1897. She attended Mount St. Mary's Academy before entering Boston's Girls' Latin School. In her mid-teens, she turned from fantasies of the operatic stage to poetry, which she published in the school journal, The Jabberwork, and in the Boston Evening Transcript. She patterned her writings after the late Victorians Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne, as well as the works of William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

While at Boston University, Bogan published in the Boston University Beacon. To her mother's dismay, before her sophomore year, she chose marriage to Silesian army officer Curt Alexander over a scholarship to Radcliffe. During World War I, the couple settled first in New York, then in Ancon, Panama, where she gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, affectionately called "Maidie." Bogan returned to New York to contemplate the emotional upheavals of motherhood and marriage to a demanding, self-centered mate. Shortly after Bogan's older brother Charles died in combat, the marriage frayed. In 1920, Alexander died of pneumonia following ulcer surgery. A widow's pension freed her to study piano in Vienna. In 1925, she married poet and bank researcher Raymond Holden, a charming, romantic wit. She remained with him until their divorce in 1937.

A private person, Bogan settled in New York and sent Maidie to live with her parents in Massachusetts. She supported herself by clerking in a bookshop and working in a public library, and she made a new home among Greenwich Village radicals Louise Bryant and John Reed and notable literati William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, and Conrad Aiken. Writing in the style of metaphysical poet John Donne, she submitted highly compressed, personal poems to various publications before issuing Body of This Death (1923) and Dark Summer (1929). She richly detailed both volumes with erotic fantasy and disdain for male-centered marriage. Subsequent contributions appeared in The Nation, The New Yorker, Scribner's, and Atlantic Monthly and won her Poetry magazine's 1930 John Reed Memorial Prize. In 1931, she joined The New Yorker staff as poetry critic, a post she held until 1969.

Bogan's work suffered from disruptions, first by a fire in 1929, which destroyed her manuscripts, then by loss of Holden's inheritance in the stock market crash, and finally by depression, which required hospitalization at the New York Neurological Institute. Illness and her pathologic jealousy ended her second marriage. Vivid self-revelation energizes The Sleeping Fury (1937), published the year she was divorced. She followed with Poems and New Poems (1941) and two works of criticism: the highly successful Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950 (1951) and Selected Criticism: Poetry and Prose (1955). Her Collected Poems (1954) won the Bollingen Prize.

Bogan's accomplishments include a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts award; publication of her entire canon in The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968), and her election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which honored her most enduring verse. In 1964, she published The Journal of Jules Renard, co-translated by Elizabeth Roget. After a fatal heart attack in her New York apartment on February 4, 1970, a posthumous collection, A Poet's Alphabet (1970), amassed her critical reviews of the influential poets of the age. It was followed by three more posthumous publications: a translation of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther; Novella (1971), collected letters to female friends in What the Woman Lived (1973); and a painfully honest, witty autobiography, Journey Around My Room (1980).

Chief Works

In her first collection, Bogan epitomized the faults of her sex in "Women" (1923), a stiff, pinched accusation devoid of sympathy. Composed in five quatrains rhyming abcb, the work belies the speaker, who advises her sex to suppress the feminine passions that bind them to diminished expectations. Sharp jabs strike out in nine lines beginning with "they" and a verb, each characterizing some flaw or fault. As though dissociating herself from membership in womanhood, she belittles women for circumscribing their lives and for reining in curiosity and emotion. Through misjudgment and limited horizons, they invest too much of self in "every whisper that speaks to them." Parallel to a lack of "wilderness" in the opening line, in the conclusion she disparages the self-defeat of far-ranging altruism and counsels women to "let . . . go by."

In 1941, Bogan published "Evening in the Sanitarium," which contained a more flowing line and generous compassion than she employed in "Women." The title introduces an elegy on desolation, the sunset of hope for institutionalized women. Dour and dispirited, the gentle voice quells belief that inmates can achieve a complete cure. Against their "half-healed hearts" batter insuperable odds — a return to childbirth, rejection, and the monotony of middle-class domesticity, which she characterizes as "[meeting] forever Jim home on the 5:35."

Bogan blames society for killing off the asylum's survivors. At the climax, she notes with an alliterative double beat, "There is life left." Pasted-on smiles, suicide, and habitual drinking compromise full recovery. Of her own burden, she speaks of "the obscene nightmare" of wretched childhoods. The poem closes on the seemingly endless corridor that leads to perpetual aquatherapy as Mrs. C and Miss R return to the unresolved conflicts that imprison them.

A change in Bogan's outlook is evident in "The Roman Fountain" (1968). In imagistic style, it blooms at the time of her December/June affair with Theodore Roethke. Written in an overlong pseudo-sonnet, its joyous lyricism, mirroring a baroque piazza centerpiece, takes shape around assonance (man-made/Shaping), consonance (flaw/fall), and an arrhythmic rhyme scheme of aabcddbbefgefgf. With light-edged trimeter lines, she exults in the beauty of water gushing from black bronze that lifts "clear gouts of water in air." Breaking at the end of the second stanza in the style of a fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet, she introduces deductions about sculpture with "O," an emotional embrace of the human touch and an acknowledgment of her own works of imagination.

From this same period, "The Dragonfly," commissioned by the Corning Glass Company, links to "Roman Fountain" by a concluding reference to summer. Unlike her more compact verse, the poem builds on the nothingness of insect wings and their seeming halt in midair. Composed in second person, the praise poem balances the harshness of "grappling love" and "beyond calculation or capture" with delight in iridescent colors and a weightlessness that seems to defy gravity. The buoyancy stalls in line 18 and outlines an unsentimental glimpse of mutability, the demise of the insect among the other seasonal "husks."

"Night" (1968), unlike the heavier sound patterns of "The Dragonfly," shimmers with s's and repeated breathy w sounds. Encompassed in a single sentence, the four-stanza verse gradually diminishes from six lines per stanza to five, then four as it affirms the timeless grandeur of nature. Set in the balance of life forms that inhabit the mating of salt water with fresh water, the estuary becomes the coastal pulse point, forever renewing itself with a steady, reassuring beat. The abrupt contrast of tidal rhythm with human circulation emerges from a direct address to the reader. Beginning with "O" as she did in "The Roman Fountain," Bogan pulls back from the shoreline to "narrowing dark hours," when the spirit is too obsessed with dwindling mortality to take comfort in communion with nature.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Contrast Bogan's "Evening in the Sanitarium" with Sylvia Plath's autobiographical recall in The Bell Jar or Anne Sexton's self-study in The Death Notebooks.

2. Compare the naturalism of Bogan's "Night" with that of Robert Frost's "Come In" or Stave V of Hart Crane's Voyages.

3. Explain how Bogan's "Women" implies that the more "provident" woman should reach out for "wilderness" and widened horizons. Contrast the poem's impetus with that of "The Sleeping Fury," which blames "false love" and "the kissed-out lie" for robbing women of contentment.

4. Compare the stunted women in Bogan's "Evening in the Sanitarium" with the futureless athlete in John Updike's "The Ex-Basketball Player."

5. Discuss water imagery in "The Roman Fountain." What does water symbolize in the poem?