Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Poet’s Workshop – Emmeline B. Wells

Emmeline_B._Wells
Emmeline B. Wells

In my mind, the counterpart to Orson F. Whitney in Mormonism’s Home Literature Period is Emmeline B. Wells. Both were prolific, both wrote poetry and criticism, and both were General Authorities. I don’t yet know if the comparison is very good, but it is there in my mind now.

In contrast to Whitney, Wells is a bit more practical. Instead of his theoretical musings, she looks, at least in this case, at the practical–what the work of writing is like for the author. And there, Wells finds that, like is all too common for outsiders of many fields, that the work, the drudgery of writing is not understood at all. Instead, friends often assume that the poet or the writer can just dash off a few lines whenever the mood strikes.

So, Wells tries to explain that writing can be drudgery. And, she adds that for women the problem is often worse, because husbands only see what is physically apparent in the household, and sometimes don’t even value the intellectual accomplishments that an author manages to eek out during a workday.

This was written in 1883. I wish I could say that things have changed at all.

The Poet’s Workshop

by Amethyst (Emmeline B. Wells)

THE idea of a poet suggests beauty and loveliness. We read of the poet’s dream, the poet’s reverie, and his imaginings, until we create in our own minds an ideal picture of the poet and his surroundings. We think of him as seated with pencil in hand and in elegant negligence. The Roman dashing off line after line of exquisite sentiment, or historic lore in rhyme, that will live long after he has passed away, without any apparent effort, while he smiles blandly and is at peace with all mankind. There are persons who will ask one to write a poem with as much assurance as they would ask a mechanic to plane a board, but in the one case the carpenter would expect his wages, whereas the poet is expected to give his services gratis, and sometimes look upon it as a compliment to be invited to write. These are the people who have not the least idea what positive drudgery there is in being a writer. The author, or the correspondent, is expected to write when all others are out for pleasure; there is no cessation or vacation for him, it is an endless round, and if he positively refuses, why then he is looked upon as unobliging. He is invited here and there because he writes these sort of affairs up, until he gets the impression that he is never asked on his own account, but simply because he has the faculty of writing in a pleasant style. Probably the poet is expected to do more work without remuneration than any other person. “O, the rhymes will come,” and “it is easy for him,” and “I’m sure if I could write I wouldn’t refuse.” These are only one or two of the numerous comments made about poets.

But suppose we take a look into one of these dens of the poets, ordinary poets, not Tennyson or Whittier, who have arrived at the dignity of a mansion, whose star of fortune has risen to the highest point in the horizon and is illuminated with a halo of light in which appear clusters of stars less brilliant, that reflect the light of the leading, guiding star; not one of these, but some one just trying to earn a bare subsistence by the use of the pen. Gifted he may be, but without fortune to aid him, or influential patronage to give him prestige. We are apt to think of the poet writing pastoral pieces in the midst of sunny fields, where flocks graze and sleek cattle feed among the clover in the verdant meadows, while sparkling streams of crystal waters bubble near, and merry birds warble their sweetest notes in the groves hard by. All this is very pretty, but the poet sees it in imagination only, most likely while he sits by his midnight lamp and pries over musty old papers and books.

Let us take a peep at a poet’s work, in an attic or a basement, one whose mind soars aloft into the aerial realms of fancy, and who roams at will through the elysian fields that gild his daydreams and makes him seem above the “common herd.” In one corner is a chest or trunk half-open perhaps; you see part of a wardrobe, rolls of manuscript and letters tied with cords of every color, or scraps of faded ribbons, a bureau with the drawers all half-open and in disorder, two or three tables piled with papers in the direst confusion imaginable, but on one corner, a tea tray with soiled napkins, cup and saucer, part of a loaf of bread, a piece of cheese, and if we might be permitted to tell it, a raw onion, and oftener still a black bottle very significant in appearance. Late in the night when all the lights burn low, the streets and lanes are dark, and the stars keep watch in the midnight sky the poet pens his richest, most harmonious lays; or the correspondent, no longer tormented and interrupted by the calls of friends anxious to make his acquaintance or some one desirous of a notice from his able pen, begins the work so long delayed, and the cocks are crowing, and the sun tinging the eastern sky with the splendor and radiance of the new born day, ere he lays down his pen and finds rest in that dream-land where his poetic fancy has been so fondly straying. No wonder he is restless and nervous, sensitive and irritable, his mind constantly wrought to the highest pitch of extreme sensibility.

Now we have taken a look at the man who writes, let us for a moment look in upon a poet-woman; imagination almost invariably pictures to the mind’s eye what the woman is who writes the kind of articles we love to read, as we sit by the cosy fireside in the winter evenings, or repeat over and over in the pensive, summer twilight. We think of her as lovely in its proudest sense, gentle, amiable and courteous to all, sweetmannered, a lady in every respect, always becomingly dressed, and neat in appearance, dainty, even, fond of children and inclined to be devotional; almost without fault at all, and blind to the failings of others. Her home exquisite in all its arrangements, her husband, if she be so fortunate as to possess one, always proud and happy. Now let us consider the poets we have met, or the writers we have known. Among them are some pretty and sweet, perhaps a trifle inclined to jealousy, and not very amiable in their own homes. How can they be, they are not thinking of what to eat, or how to dress, or alas! of the husband’s wardrobe; and often when they try to darn his socks they are flitting in imagination among the soft, white, fleecy clouds, and yet they are only commonplace to look at, sometimes ugly in face and feature, but then we only see the outward, the beauty is within and only makes itself manifest by soul-stirring sentences, so delightfully arranged that although written in a garret, an attic, a dirty kitchen, or a dingy basement, they light up a thousand homes, and make gladness in human hearts enough to compensate for lack of beauty in form, or feature.

Few lady writers have been beautiful, even in youth, many passingly so, but to excel in lovliness only a very few; of those who have lived recently we can think of some who were noted for their excessive plainness. The story goes that a lady who was much given to scribbling and whose powers were the admiration of all the country round, and whose husband withal was very proud of her, was one day stoutly reproved by him for neglecting the little ones who were very noisy and troublesome. While baby not yet a year old, lay in the cradle crying for mama, one boy had spilt the ink, slapped his sister, and another had broken the window, while the mother sat writing on and on, as if unconscious of all surroundings; at last the irate parent and husband appeared upon the scene, and in dictatorial terms protested, tossing up her papers and exciting her angry passions; finally, womanlike, she began to cry, and refused to be comforted, but amid her sobs, she managed to make him understand she had just finished a touching little poem on domestic felicity or the pleasures of home. Suffice it to say he was convinced against his will, that she appreciated her home when he perused the poem, and never afterwards was known to rebel, for she won him over to her way of thinking, and all because she was a genius. But joking aside, to have the desire, the longing to write, the intense fascination, to be able to skim through the clouds of fancy and weave a golden web of fine spun threads, of which each one is like a jewel radiantly set, is something no one ever can comprehend, save one of these same fanciful, poetical scribblers, who live in a world of their own creation, and only come down from the towering heights of fancy, when they are hungry, cold or wretched. Such is the poet’s workshop, not what if really is but what it seems to him.

From The Contributor, volume 4 (April 1883)

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5 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: The Poet’s Workshop – Emmeline B. Wells”

  1. So it would seem that the complaint of being asked to write for free is not a new thing. *wink*

    Also: I think Wells draws the contrasts much too starkly, but, then again, I’m not a female Mormon living in the 19th century. Managing households was much, much more time and labor intensive back then.

    Finally: there are some quite attractive female and male Mormon writers these days. Of course again: 21st vs. 19th century.

  2. I’ll say it… as a poet and mother of 6, I identify with this, and I’m exceedingly grateful that I don’t have a husband who “tosses up papers” and “roundly criticizes” me for neglecting some tasks and occasionally, my kids in the fervor of finishing a project. If I didn’t have a husband like Jeff, who loves the fact that I write almost as much as I do, and encourages me in it, I would not be a writer.

    So that kind of paints the picture of why women writers have a sort of burden to bear, if they are in a traditional domestic-steward type role all the time. I had to laugh at that description of the women with chaos erupting all around her, writing about how wonderful motherhood/people in the family is/are. Done that.

    But I think I’d go on to say… even though I have to take it where I get it, I think I do have a little bit of an easier time finding room to write than my husband, who is paid by someone for his hours 8-5 pm, and when he comes home, needs to spend that time with his kids he missed out on. I can sit and jot a few things down at any time of day when inspiration strikes me; I can decide if I’ve got an impending deadline that it’s a PBS Kids morning. My husband can’t, because he’d get fired. :/

    I will also say that the idea of a husband being so domineering and the wife cowering like that just gets my gorge up a bit. Glad times have changed.

  3. I will admit to Mormon stay-at-home-mom writer envy. And I’m lucky (or rather have made certain lifestyle choices) that I can carve out time to write.

    And, on the other hand, I do get my commute in which to have some downtime for reading, thinking, jotting. The problem with being a SAHM is that you’re always on (although if you’re a good husband and dad, that’s true too).

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