Ethelwyn Wetherald


by Wanda Campbell



Ethelwyn Wetherald
1857-1940


Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald was born on April 26, 1857, in Rockwood, Ontario, the sixth of eleven children of a Quaker minister. Educated at the Friends’ Boarding School in Union Springs, New York and at Pickering College in Ontario, she spent much of her life on the family farm near Fenwick on the Niagara Peninsula. At seventeen she sold her first poem to St. Nicholas Magazine (New York) and continued to contribute prose and poetry to American and Canadian periodicals including Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly, the Toronto Globe, and the Week, including articles on Canadian literary women. Her collaboration with Graeme Mercer Adam on An Algonquin Maiden: a Romance of the Early Days of Upper Canada was not well reviewed. In 1895, she published her first book of poems The House of Trees and Other Poems. Two more collections followed, and, in 1907, The Last Robin: Lyrics and Sonnets attracted the attention of Earl Grey who wrote a personal letter of appreciation and purchased several copies.

    In 1911, when she was fifty-four and unmarried, Wetherald adopted a daughter named Dorothy, and her next collection was of children’s poems for Dorothy entitled Tree-Top Mornings (1921). In 1931, John Garvin edited Lyrics and Sonnets, which “contains every poem that Miss Wetherald wishes preserved” (Introduction ix). She was still publishing poetry in periodicals until her death on March 9, 1940.

    Throughout her life, critics such as A.M. Stephen stressed the “charming simplicity” of Wetherald’s work: “One does not feel that her poems are ‘made.’ They are as spontaneous as the bird-songs of her orchard home” (112). Much attention was given to the tree house built for her by her brothers, and the “warbler” within. But as she herself points out, the house in the tree was not built until 1910, after all but her collected poems had appeared. She did indeed write several “bird” poems that celebrate pastoral life, but one also finds harsher portraits of bats and screech owls, alongside poems of aging, death, and thwarted love. [Page 161]

    In her brief essay on Wetherald in W.P. Percival’s Leading Canadian Poets, Katherine Hale argues that her poetry “appears” far more simple than it is, but also admits that the work is “uneven” because “she never took herself very much to task” (267). Hale compares Wetherald to Archibald Lampman in her evocation of what Huxley called “country ecstasies.” Lampman himself acknowledged this affinity with a verse he inscribed in his copy of Wetherald’s The House of Trees:

Little book, thy pages stir
With a poet’s brighter life;
In days that gloom with doubt and strife,
To many a silent sufferer.

Thou shalt bring a balm for pain,
Felt behind his prison bars,
The spirit of the sun and stars,
The spirit of the wind and rain.
                                                   
                                                   (qtd. by Whitridge 37)

“An ardent feminist,” according to Margaret Whitridge, Wetherald de- scribes a vacation at poet Helena Coleman’s island home near Ganonoque in 1911 in the company of “a group of women and girls” that included Marjorie Pickthall, as “one of the most memorable weeks of [her] life” (xvii). When asked of her influences she wrote, “of the Brownings, I much prefer Elizabeth to Robert” (xv). One of Wetherald’s enduring themes was that of love but, as she says in her poem “The Larger Love,” Wetherald wished to be challenged rather than flattered.

    In 1940, Charles G.D. Roberts wrote of Wetherald:

I never met her, but I admired her work very much. I think she will take a higher place as time goes on. Nowadays people are always looking for something violently new in verse, & indeed in all art,—& when they get it, how they try to pretend they like it.                                                                         (590)

His prediction appears to be coming true. Fifty years later, Carole Gerson, while contending that Wetherald’s later work “does not show developments in form or content,” compares her to Emily Dickinson; “the best of her poems are musical, restrained, and precise, and are equal to much of the work of her better-known Canadian contemporaries” (DLB 99:342). The editors of Aspiring Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women 1880-1900 [Page 162] write: “Ethelwyn Wetherald is arguably one of the most underrated writers of the turn of the century, given her skilled and socially conscious short fiction as well as her fine poetry” (11). Her work endures because she was able to recognize the “unheard Niagaras” among which we live and voice their quiet thunder in “all the languages rivers teach.”

Selected Biography

The House of the Trees, and Other Poems (Boston: Lamson, 1895)
Tangled in Stars (Boston: Badger, 1902)
The Radiant Road (Boston: Badger, 1904)
The Last Robin: Lyrics and Sonnets (Toronto: Briggs, 1907)
Tree-Top Mornings (Boston: Cornhill, 1921)
Lyrics and Sonnets (Toronto: Nelson, 1931)

Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, “Trees and a Poet,” Canadian Magazine 8.1 (1919): 51-4; O.J. Stevenson, “A Balm for Pain,” A People’s Best (Toronto: Musson, 1927): 193-200; A.M. Stephen, “Ethelwyn Wetherald,” The Golden Treasury of Canadian Verse (Toronto: Dent, 1928): 112-13; Katherine Hale, “Ethelwyn Wetherald,” Leading Canadian Poets, ed. W.P. Percival (Toronto: Ryerson, 1948): 265-71; Margaret Whitridge, “The Distaff Side of the Confederation Group: Women’s Contribution to Early Nationalist Canadian Literature,” Atlantis 4 (1978): 30-39; Carole Gerson, “Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald,” Dictionary of Literary Biography 99 (1990): 341-43; R.G. Moyles, “Ethelwyn Wetherald: an Early, Popular, and Prolific Poet,” Canadian Children’s Literature 59 (1990): 6-16; Lorraine McMullen and Sandra Campbell, eds. Aspiring Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women 1880-1900 (Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1993). [Page 163]

 

 

To a Poet

 

 
Come not to me with many-coloured words,
    That stifle like the scent of hot-house flowers,
    Or sparkle, gem-like, lull like summer showers,
Or trip, and trill, and tilt, like idle birds.

For I am weak, who would be strong and wise,

5
    And blind to the broad light that flows above,
    And wishful at the worshipped feet of love,
And earth-bound, moaning for the distant skies.

How did the sated heart within me burn,
    When on great Nature’s tender breast you lay,

10
    And looked on heaven, and through its bonds of clay,
You felt your unwinged spirit yearn and yearn.

Give me a phrase to match the sounding sea,
    A line to put the sunset hues to shame;
    Of spring’s hid meaning tell me but the name,
15
Of summer’s pomp, of autumn’s mystery.

Oh, we are walled with wonders, and our days
    Are a divine, unceasing miracle!
    Still on our lifeless toys we bend our dull,
Cold eyes, and ask, “Where are the sun’s glad rays?”
20

Give me a common verse that holds a heart,
    That feels its life-blood warm in every line;
    For I am weary of the clink and shine,
The tinsels, and the fripperies of art. [Page 164]

 

Week
12 January 1888 (5:102)

 

Love’s Phases

 

Love has a thousand phases. Oftentimes
    For very joy of her own life she weeps;
    Or like a timid wistful child she creeps
To sheltering arms; or like a spirit climbs
The white heights scaled by poets in their rhymes—
5
    Imagination’s lone and splendid steeps—
    Or drifts with idle oar upon the deeps
Of her own soul to undiscovered climes.

Here is the rapture of the dying saint,
    The exultation of the mother when

10
        Upon her breast her first-born faintly stirs
For the first time; and every morn doth paint
    Upon each rock and tree and stream and glen
        Some inextinguishable look of hers.

 

Week                                                         The Radiant Road 1904
2 August 1888 (5:572)

 

Woodland Worship

 

Here ’mid these leafy walls
    Are sylvan halls,
And all the Sabbaths of the year
    Are gathered here.

Upon their raptured mood
5
    My steps intrude,
Then wait—as some freed soul might wait
    At heaven’s gate.

Nowhere on earth—nowhere
    On sea or air,
10
Do I as easily escape
    This earthly shape, [Page 165]

As here upon the white
    And dizzy height
Of utmost worship, where it seems
15
    Too still for dreams.

 

The House of the Trees 1895

 

The Sound of the Axe

 

With the sound of an axe on the light wind’s tracks
    For my only company,
And a speck of sky like a human eye
    Blue, bending over me,

I lie at rest on the low moss pressed,
5
    Whose loose leaves downward drip;
As light they move as a word of love
    Or a finger to the lip.

’Neath the canopies of the sunbright trees
    Pierced by an Autumn ray,
10
To rich red flakes the old log breaks
    In exquisite decay.

While in the pines where no sun shines
    Perpetual morning lies.
What bed more sweet could stay her feet,
15
    Or hold her dreaming eyes?

No sound is there in the middle air
    But sudden wings that soar,
As strange bird’s cry goes drifting by—
    And then I hear once more
20

That sound of an axe till the great tree cracks,
    Then a crash comes as if all
The winds that through its bright leaves blew
    Were sorrowing in its fall. [Page 166]

 

The House of the Trees 1895

 

The Humming-Bird

 

Against my window-pane
    He plunges at a mass
Of buds—and strikes in vain
    The intervening glass.

O sprite of wings and fire
5
    Outstretching eagerly,
My soul, with like desire
    To probe thy mystery,

Comes close as breast to bloom,
    As bud to hot heart-beat,
10
And gains no inner room,
    And drains no hidden sweet.

 

The House of the Trees 1895

 

The Wind of Death

 

The wind of death, that softly blows
The last warm petal from the rose,
The last dry leaf from off the tree,
To-night has come to breathe on me.

There was a time I learned to hate
5
    As weaker mortals learn to love;
The passion held me fixed as fate,
Burned in my veins early and late;
    But now a wind falls from above—

The wind of death, that silently
10
Enshroudeth friend and enemy!

There was a time my soul was thrilled
    By keen ambition’s whip and spur;
My master forced me where he willed, [Page 167]
And with his power my life was filled:
15
    But now the old-time pulses stir

How faintly in the wind of death,
That bloweth lightly as a breath.

And once, but once, at Love’s dear feet
    I yielded strength and life and heart;
20
His look turned bitter into sweet,
His smile made all the world complete;
    The wind blows loves like leaves apart—

The wind of death, that tenderly
Is blowing ‘twixt my love and me.
25

O wind of death, that darkly blows
Each separate ship of human woes
Far out on a mysterious sea,
I turn, I turn my face to thee.

 

The House of the Trees 1895

 

Tangled in Stars

 

Tangled in stars and spirit-steeped in dew,
    The city worker to his desk returns.
    While ’mid the stony streets remembrance burns,
Like honey suckle running through and through
A barren hedge. He lifts his load anew,
5
    And carries it amid the thronging ferns
    And crowding leaves of memory, while yearns
Above him once again the open blue.

His letter-littered desk goes up in flowers;
    The world recedes, and backward dreamily
10
        Come days and nights, like jewels rare and few.
And while the consciousness of those bright hours [Page 168]
Abides with him, we know him yet to be
    Tangled in stars and spirit-steeped in dew.

 

Tangled in Stars 1902

 

Unheard Niagaras

 

We live among unheard Niagaras.
The force that pushes up the meadow grass,
That swells to ampler roundness ripening fruit,
That lifts the brier rose, were it not mute,
Would thunder o’er the green earth’s sunlit tracts
5
More loudly than a myriad cataracts.

 

Tangled in Stars 1902

 

A Winter Picture

 

An air as sharp as steel, a sky
    Pierced with a million points of fire;
The level fields, hard, white and dry,
    A road as straight and tense as wire.

No hint of human voice or face
5
    In frost below or fire above,
Save where the smoke’s blue billowing grace
    Flies flag-like from the roofs of love.

 

Tangled in Stars 1902

 

The World Well Lost

 

My one dark love shall fix the day,
    The solemn day when we shall wed;
Nor know I if on green or gray,
    On winter white or autumn red, [Page 169]

My happy bridal moon shall rise,
5
    Nor which of all the blossoming Mays
Shall wreathe the gates of Paradise
    Upon my dark love’s day of days.

But this I know: her steps will be
    Like rose-leaves falling from the rose,
10
Her eyes a fathomless strange sea
    To which my stream of being flows.

And this I know: her lips will rest
    As lightly on the drowsing lid
As leafy shadows on the breast
15
    Of some sweet grave all flower-hid.

In some sweet grave all flower-hid
    A thousand times the blooms of May
Shall visit us the leaves amid,
    When my love, Death, has named the day.
20

 

The Radiant Road 1904

 

The Screech Owl

 

Hearing the strange night-piercing sound
    Of woe that strove to sing,
I followed where it hid, and found
    A soft small-throated thing,
A feathered handful of gray grief,
5
Perched by the year’s last leaf.

And heeding not that in the sky
    The lamps of peace were lit,
It sent abroad that sobbing cry,
    And sad hearts echoed it.
10
O hush, poor grief, so gray, so wild,
God still is with His child! [Page 170]

 

The Last Robin 1907

 

In the Crowd

 

Here in the crowded city’s busy street,
    Swayed by the eager, jostling, hasting throng,
    Where Traffic’s voice grows harsher and more strong,
I see within the stream of hurrying feet
A company of trees in their retreat,
5
    Dew-bathed, dream-wrapped, and with a thrush’s song
    Emparadising all the place along
Whose paths I hear the pulse of Beauty beat.

’Twas yesterday I walked beneath the trees,
    To-day I tread the city’s stony ways;
10
        And still the spell that o’er my spirit came
Turns harshest sounds to shy bird ecstasies,
    Pours scent of pine through murky chimney haze,
        And gives each careworn face a woodland frame.

 

The Last Robin 1907

 

The One Face

 

When the long miles flew from the flying train,
    And carried with them river-bend and bay,
    Sky-reaching hills and little streams at play,
Dank marsh and many a fenceless, boundless plain
Freckled with cattle, fields of lustrous grain,
5
    Long rocky stretches, cities smoky gray,
    Sparkling at night and one dull roar by day,
And forests darkly glistening after rain,

I looked upon my fellow-travellers
    And saw, though each was gazing from his place,
10
        He chiefly viewed the spot from whence he came:
Mount, stream, town, prairie, deeply glistening firs,
    Were clustering round the one beloved face,
        Of which the outer world was but the frame. [Page 171]

 

The Last Robin 1907

 

The Larger Love

 

When other poets sing of love, and pour
    The honeyed stream of love’s idolatry
    About the feet of some supremest she,
Until, sweet-saturated to the core,
Her wings are drowned and can no longer soar,
5
    I think of my strong lover—like the sea,
    More full of salt than sweetness—challenging me
For his love’s sake to heights unscaled before.

Not his to exhale the airs that dull the brain
    With poison of dense perfume, but to sting
10
        Thought, feeling, fancy, into luminous deed;
That through the splendid tumult and the strain
    The form of Love may tower, a god-like thing,
        Crowned, shod and girdled with his richest meed.

 

The Last Robin 1907

 

The Prodigal Son
(A Week after His Return)

 

Muck of the sty, reek of the trough,
    Blackened my brow where all might see;
Yet while I was a great way off,
    My Father ran with compassion for me.

He put on my hand a ring of gold
5
    (There’s no escape from a ring, they say)
He put on my neck a chain to hold
    My passionate spirit from breaking away.

He put on my feet the shoes that miss
    No chance to walk in the narrow path,
10
He pressed on my lips the burning kiss
    That scorches deeper than fires of wrath. [Page 172]

He filled my body with meat and wine,
    He flooded my heart with Love’s white light,
Yet deep in the mire with sensual swine
15
I long—God help me—to wallow to-night.

Muck of the sty, reek of the trough,
    Blacken my soul where none may see;
Father, I yet am a long way off,
    Come quickly, Lord! Have compassion on me!
20

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

The Bat

 

Wings, wings,
And a sense of fear and loathing;
The mystery clothing
A blackness that seeks to hide
Out in the starlit spaces,
5
Far from the lamps and faces.
See where it beats and clings
There by the window bars.
Horror on wings,
Striving out to the stars!
10

Lord, Lord,
Thou art the star to the spirit
That doth inherit
To be of all men abhorred.
Thou art the sheltered spaces
15
To blackness fleeing from faces,
Through terrified tumult of flight.
Earth-foul, ripe for Thy sword.
Yet Thine are the wings that bear it,
And Thou art the house of its spirit,
20
Lord, Lord! [Page 173]

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

Two

 

Two came to me in the twilight, the vesper bird had begun,
One was the man that loved me, and with him another one.

Swift came the one that loved me, and sure as a river might run;
But swifter and surer before him, entered the other one.

Close came the one that loved me, his hand on my hand like a

5
            glove,
But close to the heart of my heart was clinging the one that I love.

‘Come without’, said the lover, the stars are beginning above;
So I walked by his side, while between us went viewless the one             that I love.

Strong was the voice of the lover, with tones like the warmth of the             sun;
Soon, soon they were drowned in the sea-strong voice of the

10
            viewless one.

He spoke and he left me in anger, there by the edge of the grove,
And men say now I am lonely—they see not the one that I love.

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

Marriage Vows

 

Since God hath wed me to myself,
There can be no divorce for me;
No easy flight, no sure escape,
From what I have been and shall be.

So, as a masterful brave spouse,

5
I’ll make the weaker vessel strong:
She shall observe her marriage vows
And to her Higher Self belong.

No indolence nor greed shall mar
The supple liveness of her frame; [Page 174]

10
No sullen doubt nor coldness bar
The path of the creative flame.

She shall not din within mine ears
The tale of old mistake and woe,
But let the dead and buried years

15
Lie nameless under silent snow.

Since with myself I’m forced to house
I’ll make the weaker vessel strong;
She shall observe her marriage vows,
And unto me, her lord, belong.

20

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

Hester Prynne Speaks

 

Two fires are mine: one strong within, love-born;
One fierce without, of human hate and scorn,
And on my breast, my Pearl, my flower of fire.

Two woes are mine: the sharp pang of desire,
And that sick moan of her who anguished much

5
Until she found the Garment’s hem to touch. [Page 175]

Two loves: my Pearl, and him who on my breast
Gave me my shame, my child, life’s worst and best,
Of lowest hell, of highest heaven are such.

Two souls have I: one in these baby eyes,

10
One answering human scorn with scornful cries.
Lord, would I had Thy Garment’s hem to touch!

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

Each to Her Own

 

One took me to a skyward-climbing vine,
    Behind whose pointed leaves a poet sang
    Soul-stealingly, so that the stones outrang
In praise of her, and hearts that ache and pine
Felt through their tears a radiance divine
5
    From farthest stars, until within them sprang
    Responsive holiness that dulled the pang—
And said, “Her matchless power might be thine.”

Then sharp I called to my light-thoughted muse,
    Running with brook-like rapture through the marsh,
10
        Her berry-scented garments stained and torn,
And clothed her in white robe and careful shoes,
    And told her heaven was fair and earth was harsh,
        While she with hanging head looked all forlorn.

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

Youth in Age

 

When younger women stand a breathing space
    Before their mirrors, with an inward smile
    At burnished hair or slender throat or wile
Of dimpled chin, or nest a rose in lace
And note how perfectly it mates the face,
5
    I, pallid, worn and hollow-templed, pile
    My heart with thoughts of secret triumphs, while
Young hopes are mine, young bliss and youth’s light pace.

For when my lover’s eyes are fixed on me
    There are no years, no hollows, no gray days,
10
        No harsh realities, no endless prose;
But only flowery lanes of poetry,
    Through which we wander, lost in sweet amaze
        That life could hold such fairness near its close. [Page 176]

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931

 

The Lonely Lake

 

The lap of waves on a lonely shore
    Will find in me not a pulse unstirred.
No sound beside save the splash of an oar,
    Whisper of leaves or cry of bird.

I know the brawl of a mountain brook,
5
The gleam of a pool in a forest nook,
Cold spring water bubbling up
To the fevered lip and the waiting cup,
The thunder of ocean along the beach
And all the languages river teach.
10

But a lonely lake and a lonely shore
    Speak to the loneliness in my heart,
And a vehement kinship evermore
    Binds us together though apart. [Page 177]

 

Lyrics and Sonnets 1931