Tuesday, February 23, 2016
A Discovery: Winifred Welles
More than anything else I just love the way that these things happen. I was working today on a new book about the artist Albert Wainwright and I was flicking through a folder of scans I have of his artwork and sketchbooks and came upon this page from a 1920s sketchbook with three loose drawings of boys. I almost just clicked to go to the next image but then paused to read the poem. Even in those few lines I was quite captivated. I noticed that there was a name at the bottom, though not one I had heard of and so I Googled away and soon discovered that this was a few lines from a longer poem called "Boy" by a woman called Winifred Welles ...and suddenly this is a whole new thing.
I couldn't immediately find a copy of the whole poem "Boy" but what Google does tell me is that I am now one of a very few people who have heard of Winifred who, despite having a number of poetry books and other books published in the first half of the twentieth century, is more or less forgotten. Essentially she is known to the internet only through a small number of blog posts a little like this one where the blogger has stumbled across her work through some apparently random path and been enchanted. Top of the list of ways to meet Winifred seems to be that a phrase from a brilliant poem of hers called "The Climb" was used as the title of a 1960s children's book (what we would now call a YA novel). The book was called Knee Deep in Thunder and a couple of people who have found Winifred have done so because they have wondered about the title of their favourite childhood book. This is the level of obscurity we are talking about. The most informative blog post I have found is this from "Knocking From Inside" in 2009. There is a copy of one of her books at Archive.org and a number of her poems also available in the form of pdfs of pages from The North American Review.
I can't imagine why she has been so forgotten. It is early days in my reading of her work but I wonder if people failed to see past the use of fairytale and local New England landscape to what I think might be a genuine mysticism. I eventually tracked down the poem "Boy" and it didn't disappoint after the excerpt. It was one of those poems you read and with each new line and thought your jaw hangs just a little bit lower. I could talk over the imagery for hours but I won't except to say that this seems to me to be a poem of great depths describing both the travails of being a boy in a completely non-sentimental way whilst also providing something like an initiatory map of trial and hardship with the promise of magic and knowledge to come.
Does no one see that in your wood
The season is not spring but winter?
You are too proud to wear a hood,
You love to drive a crystal splinter
Through your bare hands, your naked feet.
White nuts, snow berries you will eat,
If wild birds bring them, on your tongue
The taste of ice is piercing sweet.
Will no one say that being young
Is being hurt, it being bled,
Enduring dagger-thirsts, wolf-hungers,
Is being self-raised from the dead
More times than boys have toes and fingers?
Does no one know the unicorn
Kneels down to you as to your sister?
If with his single cryptic horn
He has crept close and sharply kissed her,
He is no less your animal;
He will run with you till befall
Your freshet, flower and furrowed mould.
Will no one say that growing tall
Is crouching down and feeling cold
Outside dark windows starred with frost?
That being innocent is only
Being locked out, alone and lost,
White as the snow, as still, as lonely?
I hope in the future to be able to provide a little more context and detail but for the time being I would recommend the "Knocking from Inside" blog post linked above as giving the most comprehensive account of her.