Anna Bahlmann, art, books, Bright Fictions, Edith Wharton, Edith Wharton in Context, Gari Melchers, Irene Goldman-Price, Laura Rattray, Lily Bart, literature, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Melanie Dawson, My Dear Governess, Patrick Kurp, Taken in Faith: Poems, The Writing of Fiction, Thomas Traherne, Wallace Stevens
It was Helen Pinkerton who introduced me to Edith Wharton, and in honour of Wharton’s birthday today I’d like to share with you one of my favourite poems, Helen’s meditation “On Gari Melchers’s ‘Writing’ (1905) in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” which makes reference to Wharton and her passion for order in art and architecture.
The poem is part of a series called “Bright Fictions,” poems on works of art, and it appears in Helen’s 2002 collection Taken in Faith: Poems. It’s reproduced here by permission. I hope you’ll be inspired to read the other poems in the collection as well. You can see the Gari Melchers painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art website, and on my Edith Wharton board on Pinterest.
On Gari Melchers’s ‘Writing’ (1905) in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
By Helen Pinkerton
The house was quiet and the world was calm. – Wallace Stevens
How often did she make such quiet, one wonders,
This woman writing at a covered table—
Full summer light warming the roseate hues,
Mauve, red, and pink of dress and cloth and room.
A Wedgwood pier glass shows three Roman figures
In ritual dance—cool neoclassic Graces—
Beside a clay pot of geraniums.
Her taste eclectic—like our modern lives—
Loving the past but settled in the living,
She seems meticulous—even, perhaps,
Like Edith Wharton, passionate for order,
Feeling, as she did, that in house and novel,
“Order, the beauty even of Beauty is.”
Stevens, though you sought order in the sea
And grander heavens, the threat of nothingness
Unmanned you. Most women have no time for such,
For fate constrains them to immediate means,
The quiet art of keeping calm the house.
I love the image of Wharton as the woman in the painting, writing in the quiet house, in the calm world, keeping life in order by writing. There’s a clear visual parallel between the Melchers painting and the 1905 publicity photo of Wharton at her desk at The Mount, taken in the year she published her best-selling novel The House of Mirth, which happens to be the same year as the Melchers painting. Yet while Wharton sometimes posed for photographs at her desk, the real work of her writing life happened as she wrote in bed each morning. I wonder what that would have looked like, either in a photograph or a painting.
Irene Goldman-Price describes the scene in her introduction to My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann: “Most mornings Wharton would remain in bed with a light breakfast and a small dog or two beside her, writing, on blue stationery, long stories and short about the characters who inhabited her mind. Anna Bahlmann collected these pages—or was handed them by Wharton’s maid—and saw to it that they became manuscripts. Only glimpses of this work appear in Wharton’s letters.”
The curator’s notes for “Writing” say that Melchers’s wife Corinne often posed as his model, and that the painting is set in Holland, in Schuylenburg, the former home of the American painter George Hitchcock. I wonder what Mrs. Melchers is writing? Probably a letter; probably not a novel. The house is quiet and the world is calm. The summer light shines on the red geraniums, the red cloth-covered writing table, the woman’s white dress. Like Eleanor Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who “always wears white” (Chapter 12), this writing woman wears a colour that signals to the reader she can afford to wear a dress that’s unlikely to get dirty. She has money, comfort, a beautiful room, and the luxury of time to write on a summer afternoon. It’s likely that she has enough money to hire other women to help her keep her house calm. Does she have enough time to contemplate existential questions about the sea and the heavens? Maybe not. As Helen asks in the first line of her poem, “How often did she make such quiet”?
Patrick Kurp comments on the “revisionist reading of Stevens”—“the threat of nothingness / Unmanned you”—and says it makes him laugh: “There is an overdramatized quality to some of Stevens’ angst, all that ‘poetry is god’ business.” There’s no threat of nothingness in “Writing”: the scene is comfortable, even cosy, with its warm colours, its bright light, the cheerful geraniums in the clay pot. And yet, it’s impossible to know what the woman is writing. Just because the scene is beautiful doesn’t mean that the writing is calm or quiet. She could be, like Wharton, writing about the despair of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, or the agony of Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country.
The line “Order the beauty even of beauty is” comes from “The Vision,” by the 17th century poet Thomas Traherne, and Wharton chose it as the epigraph to her book The Writing of Fiction (1924)—although for some reason, the epigraph is omitted from the 1997 Touchstone edition that I keep by my own writing desk. Wharton was intensely interested in the well-ordered, well-organized life. As Melanie Dawson writes in a chapter on “Biography” in Edith Wharton in Context (2012), edited by Laura Rattray, Wharton’s “passions for gardening, decorating, and traveling were formidable and served as outlets for her energies when she was not writing. As with her compositions, these projects demanded long-term commitments and a broad, comprehensive vision, or the exercise of what she described [in her autobiography, A Backward Glance] as her ‘irresistible tendency to improve and organize.’”
For further reading:
Edith Wharton in Context, ed. Laura Rattray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann, edited by Irene Goldman-Price (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).
Taken in Faith: Poems, by Helen Pinkerton (Athens, OH: Swallow Press, 2002).
On writing with “dogged obstinacy”: Edith Wharton’s 151st birthday, 2013
“Satisfied! What a beggary state! Who would be satisfied with being satisfied?” Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, 2012
Helen Pinkerton introduced me to Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country