In the April 27, 1946 edition of Picture Post, a U. K. version of Life, an unusual three-page story was devoted to a poet who, even then, was two decades past her brief and limited fame. Anna Wickham struggled throughout her life against the control that men–first her father, then her husband, and finally, the male power structure of her time. Though she wrote quickly and spontaneously (her poems bear the marks far more of improvisation than careful craft) and managed to write hundreds of poems and publish three books (The Contemplative Quarry (1915); The Man With A Hammer (1916); and The Little Old House (1921)) while raising four boys and keeping house, she resented that expectations about how her time and energy should be spent and implicit contest between the domestic and the creative life.
There is no doubt that her poetry might have been more highly regarded now had she put more energy into her writing and less into her fights with the world, but then she wouldn’t have been the woman she was. In this article, Lionel Birch refers to her as a “Great She,” and she once snapped at a man threatening to eject her from an art auction, “You’d better retract, my good man. I may be a minor poet, but I’m a major woman.” One of her most stalwart supporters, Louis Untermeyer, who included some of her poems in most of his anthologies, called her “a magnificent gypsy of a woman, who always entered a room as if she had just stamped across the moors.” Rayner Heppenstall wrote that Wickham was “reputed to bite people’s heads off and try to pull other women’s breasts off.” Even the tough-minded George Orwell, a neighbor in the 1930s, considered her “ferocious looking.”
As she grew older, she became known as something of a character in Hampstead, where she ran a rough-and-tumble rooming house. She wrote more intermittently after 1930 and published less, but still did occasional readings (at which she was known to make such candid asides as, “Rubbish, but there it is.” And she tenaciously stuck to her opinions, rights, and routines throughout the war, even as houses a few feet from hers were destroyed in the Blitz, earning the respect of her neighbors and a certain local celebrity that was celebrated in the Picture Post photo essay.
In an autobiographical piece reprinted in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet (edited by R. D. Smith, Olivia Manning’s husband), Wickham once wrote, “I feel that women of my kind are a profound mistake. There have been few women poets of distinction, and, if we count only the suicides of Sappho, Lawrence Hope and Charlotte Mew, their despair rate has been very high.” Almost exactly a year after the Picture Post piece appeared, her youngest son, George, found her hanging in the kitchen in which she is shown sitting below. She was 63.
And so, to mark the end of two years devoted to the neglected works of women writers, I take the liberty to reprint the text and photos from the Picture Post article, remarkable for its time in its open-hearted recognition of Wickham’s struggles with her world.
Anna Wickham: Poetess and Landlady
Celebrated in America, appreciated in France–Anna Wickham, mistress of words that sing and words that devastate, is still without full honour in her own country.
In the living-room of Anna Wickham’s house in Hampstead hangs one of those landlady’s notices which look so familiar. But this is how it reads: “Tour bourgeoise. Anna Wickham’s Stabling for Poets, Artists, and their Executives. Creative mood respected. Meals at all hours.”
“Creative mood respected.” That is important to Anna Wickham, and you can see why, when you read a verse of one of her own poems, called, “Dedication to a Cook”:
If any ask why there’s no great She-Poet,
Let him come live with me, and he will know it.
If I’d indite an ode or mend a sonnet,
I must go choose a dish or tie a bonnet….
Anna Wickham herself is a Great She, and she is a poet of a flavour which you won’t find anywere else. She wrote that verse more than twenty years ago, when she was in the process of bringing up a family, looking after her husband, running a home, and generally having her creative moods disrespected by the tyranny of the kitchen range, and the dictatorship of the darning needle.
She was born in Wimbledon in 1884, went to Australia when she was six, came back to Paris to study singing with Jean De Reszke, when she was 21, got married shortly afterwards, abandoned her singing career, started writing poetry, and came slap up against the creative total-woman’s conflict between the demands of the Dream and the demands of the Race. There then pursued her a period of frenzied sweeping-up, in her successive Hampstead homes, until her sons at last grew up and went afield.
At that point she was once more in a position to respect her own creative moods–even though it meant that the dishes were left unwashed and stockings undarned. Today, her house remains a memorial of those bud-bursting years when the rabid itch to get lyrics down on to paper would never let her alone,a nd neither would the kitchen range.
For the house–the house in these pictures–was the battlefield on which her dreams fought a war of movement against her domesticity; and there the pots and pans still hang around in gangs, at teh scene of their crime.
The poet in her kitchen, where soufflés fight against sonnets for her time and exclusive attention. Anna Wickham, one of England’s rarest, but least-publicised, lyric poets, in the nerve-centre of her Hampstead home. Many of the most fruitful hours of her life have been spent just like this: waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for a dish to cook, waiting for the unborn poem to start knocking–and hoping they aren’t all going to start happening at once. The prevailing problem, to find time for dreams as well as for domesticity.
But as soon as Anna Wickham steps outside her front door, it is a different matter. When you see her walking down the Parliament Hill, with her big Indian shopping basket clanging against her knee like a great bamboo bell, you know that there is at least one free, sovereign, woman abroad on the earth. Free to do what? Free to spend time, or to use time, or to pass time. Free to walk or stop walking. Free to break her quarter-mile journey to the shops half-way, sit down on the kerb and eat a bun. Free to proceed, with or without broomstick, on the pond, or to declaim an old poem to a child operating against the tiddlers. Free, in fact, to deal with the dream when it arrives. Free to do any of the things which may lead to the making of a new poem.
People stare? Of course, people stare. The huge face, corrugated by the astringency of wisdom, the goblin eyes, and the laugh of a naughty little girl–these rightly rattle the giblets of the rolled-umbrella-man in the pub. the gawper in the street, the wondering child on the Heath.
In Hampstead one is used to Free Austrians and Free Hungarians. But it is not every day that you can see a Free Elizabethan reciting a barbed lyric to herself in the middle of East Heath Road. Anna Wickham declares that she does not write poetry: she exudes it. She does not speak of writing to, for, or about, people she meets. She talks of writing it “from” them. “I imagined that poem from So-and-So,” she says.
She has written poems passionate and poems compassionate, Mistress-poetry and Mother-poetry. And, in her conversation, she is master-mistress of the phrase-that-goes-home–either the phrase that kindles, or the phrase that trounes, or the phrase that heals.
One poem explains the ruthlessness:
If I had peace to sit and sing,
Then I could make a lovely thing;
But I am stung by goads and whips,
So I build songs like iron ships.
Let it be something for my song
If it is sometimes swift and strong.
Lastly, and because it is a question which is central to her poetry, let’s take the complaint of the Powdered and Pomaded Ones: “But why doesn’t she smarten herself up?” Let Anna Wickham, in an hitherto unpublished poem, answer:
I plant my hope,
On my Irish view of water
And my Italian attitude to soap.
I am my father’s daughter.
I bathe by spells,
At holy works,
And wash them with the Turks.
Them without sin,
I disregard my skin,
And thus I know
The sweats and smuts and anguish of my Loard,
All saints, and sluts, before the Water Board.
Young Fancy came to wreck,
From too much washing of the Heron’s neck.
You tell me that shows that the woman has no standards? I tell you her standards are something more than steeple-high. Listen to this:
God, thou great symmetry,
Who put a biting lust in me
From whence my sorrows spring,
For all the frittered days
That I have spent in shapeless ways,
Give me one perfect things.
And that poem constitutes one out of about 200 similar reasons why I count Anna Wickham as a blessing, and why I would have you meet her.
Written by Lionel Birch. Published in Picture Post, April 27, 1946