// you’re reading...

Baltimore Neighborhoods

Lizette Woodworth Reese and the Poetry of Spring

Reese in the garden of Emily Spencer Hayden's home, Nancy's Fancy in Waverly. Emily Spencer Hayden Collection, PP92.132, MdHS.

Reese in the garden of Nancy’s Fancy, her friend Emily Spencer Hayden’s home in Waverly. Emily Spencer Hayden Collection, PP92.132, MdHS.

Lizette Woodworth Reese was one of the most beloved poets to live and write in Baltimore. Her crisp but lyrical poems captured the beauty of the city and her beloved Waverly neighborhood. Her work was deep and insightful but never overwrought or overly sentimental. It frequently drew comparison to the simple but elegant work of Emily Dickinson. She adored Maryland in springtime, and her anthologies are dominated by imagery of the countryside just outside the city coming into bloom.

Reese and her twin sister, Sophia, were born on January 9, 1856 to Louisa Gabler and David Reese in Waverly (then Huntingdon), which at the time stood on the outskirts of Baltimore. Huntington was still pastoral and open with lovely homes dotting the landscape. Reese and her family lived in a cottage that had beautiful gardens and apple trees. Reese’s childhood was a relatively happy and privileged one. She and her siblings were educated primarily in Baltimore’s public schools; Reese graduated from Eastern High School, where she was memorialized after her death.

Her personality and poetry reflected traits of both her parents, who were very much opposites. Her father, David, was frequently away from the family for long stretches. He traveled far and wide, once roaming as far as Chile. He served in the Confederate army and worked as a builder. During these times, Reese and her family would often temporarily move in with her grandparents in their Huntington house. She, in her memoir, A Victorian Village, described her father as a quiet but caring man. In her words, he had “a kind of secret nobility, which resulted in his doing generous deeds that no one except by accident ever found out. For instance, he was always giving money—lending, he gently called it—to men worse off than himself, or hunting up jobs for some dilapidated cart-driver, or cellar-digger, or carrier of hods with whom he had a stray acquaintance.”(1) His gruff exterior sometimes led to disagreements with neighbors, but he was softer with his children. Reese took this same approach to teaching. She was always gentle but firm with her students.

Her mother, Louisa, on the other hand, was a more vivacious person. She loved the spring and passed that affection along to her daughter. Reese wrote of her mother, “There was always the twist and turn of spring weather about her, expectancy, eagerness, an airy moodiness; she moved in a mist of adventure.”(2) The hardships of losing children and fighting poverty did not destroy her spirit: “And some of these experiences would have trampled down to the clods a more trivial, less opulent creature. But her gayety survived, being bone of her bone and nothing else.”(3) Reese’s poetry often conveys similar sentiments. The subjects of her poems could be somber, but she could always tease out the beauty from them.

A portrait of Reese in her usual uniform by Emily Spencer Hayden. Emily Spencer Hayden Collection, PP92.138, MdHS.

A portrait of Reese in usual uniform by Emily Spencer Hayden. Emily Spencer Hayden Collection, PP92.138, MdHS.

After completing high school, Reese remained in Waverly and began teaching at St. John’s Parish School in 1873, a school she had attended as a child. She spent two years working with the young children of the parish. Reese later reflected that she knew her inexperience would hinder her first years as a teacher, but her enthusiasm made up for it: “I was seventeen years of age, my frocks just lengthened, my blonde hair just put up, raw, eager, dreamy, fond of young people, and with the gift of authority. The last two were my chief and best assets, for, of the theory of teaching, or whether there were any, or the necessity of such a thing, I knew nothing at all.”(4) The following year, Southern Magazine published her poem “The Deserted House.” The poem was inspired by an empty looking house in her neighborhood on York Road that she would pass on her way to and from work. She continued to publish sporadically in various magazines until 1887, when she self-published her first anthology of poems, A Branch of May.

Reese’s poetry gained her acclaim, but it took a backseat to teaching. Her next book of poems would not be published until 1891. She truly enjoyed teaching. She left St. John’s to work at the Number Three School, a German-English school originally located on Trinity Street in Baltimore. The atmosphere there she found to be completely different. At St. John’s, Reese knew the students and their families. She had grown up with them, but her new school was a melting pot of cultures. During her tenure, the school moved to East Baltimore Street and the German component was dropped from the curriculum as the neighborhood changed. Immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, many very poor, moved to Baltimore, and blended with the German-American families. This was not always an easy transition, but Reese had the fortitude to tackle the cultural divide. One of her students, a boy named Schneider, Baltimore born and raised, took to tormenting one of the freshly immigrated boys, Salzberg. Schneider would beat up Salzberg on the way out to the playground, kicking him on his way down the stairs. When Salzberg confided in Reese, she got the two boys together and suggested to Salzberg to allow Schneider to kick him. She then advised Salzberg to retaliate with a swift punch and that she would defend his actions to the principal or any other teachers. Her plan worked: “Schneider looked at Salzberg; he looked at me; and again at Salzberg. That was the end of the matter.”(5)

St. John's Episcopal Chuch, where Reese began her teaching career. Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MC9601-9, MdHS.

St. John’s Episcopal Chuch, where Reese began her teaching career. Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MC9601-9, MdHS.

In 1897 Reese took a position teaching English literature at the city high school on Saratoga Street. The school was exclusively for African-American students. Reese taught at the school for four years and was continually surprised by the hardships her students faced. She recognized that their families often scraped by to keep their children in school, and appreciated the efforts that her own students put in to stay enrolled: girls took on seamstress work, boys worked as watchmen. In 1901, Reese was forced to leave the school after the city decided white teachers should no longer teach in black schools. She was transferred to Western High School, where she taught English literature and composition until her retirement in 1921.

At Western, she was well liked by the staff and students. Her students found her to be strict but fair. One of her pupils, Jan Mann, remembered her as “a good teacher. She had some humanity in her.”(6) Reese connected with her students, but they, including Mann, were amused by her peculiar dress. Her daily uniform consisted of prim and modest dark dresses with little to no adornment, and she always wore her hair pinned atop her head. Mann commented that, “she looked like something out of Dickens.”(7) Despite her basic dress, Reese was noted for her love of fashion and had strong opinions on the matter. She once suggested to her friend Emily Spencer Hayden’s daughter, Nan, that she purchase her mother a new hat, because Reese was tired of the “coal scuttle” that Emily always wore to their lunches together.(8) Reese had one fashionable indulgence: she regularly wore a dotted net veil with her hat even though it tended to tangle with her eyeglasses.

Reese's alma mater and where she taught for 20 years., Western High School. Baltimore City Buildings Collection, PP236.1431A, MdHS.

Reese’s alma mater and where she taught for 20 years., Western High School. Baltimore City Buildings Collection, PP236.1431A, MdHS.

During her time as a teacher, Reese continued to publish new work at irregular intervals. After publishing A Branch of May in 1887, she submitted individual pieces to various magazines, and in 1891, she released a book, A Handful of Lavender. This book expanded upon A Branch of May, including original poems and some new works, but this time around, Houghton Mifflin Company produced the volume and her 1896 follow-up A Quiet Road.

The years of 1896 to 1909 were quiet ones for Reese. She wrote infrequently, because, “[she] had nothing to say, except at long intervals, and therefore did not try to say it.”(9) She found writing to be a tremendously labored and difficult process. She carefully weighed every word and phrase in her works: “My thought was quick, the picture in my mind clear, but the expression slow in coming; it was always a hard process to make my words as vital and as distinct as my thoughts and my pictures were.”(10) This even carried over into her work as a teacher where writing reports filled her with dread, because, “I knew it would take me a day to do the work for which my comrades took only an hour or two.”(11)

Despite her struggles, her best known sonnet, “Tears,” came out of this period, which was published in Scribner’s Magazine in November, 1899. Her work garnered her high praise and was complimented by Baltimore’s tastemakers. H. L. Mencken pronounced her work “one of the imperishable glories of American literature” and was an ardent supporter throughout her career.(12) She was often surprised by the accolades she received. When positive reviews came in, she would “run with the notices to my mother, and read them aloud to her, and her cool acceptance of them did much to keep me from growing heady.”(13) Reese published fifteen volumes of her work in total, including two memoirs and one novel. In 1931 she was named poet laureate of Maryland by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

"The Good Shepherd," memorial to Lizette Woodworth Reese by Grace Turnbull on 33rd Street in Baltimore. (Not MdHS collection via MonumentCity)

“The Good Shepherd,” memorial to Lizette Woodworth Reese by Grace Turnbull on 33rd Street in Baltimore. (Not MdHS collection via MonumentCity.net)

Reese was also active in the city’s literary and arts scene. A quiet person by nature, the small, somewhat frail woman could cut an imposing figure,  when she wanted to. She captivated her audiences with her witty banter delivered “with a touch of staccato in her voice and sometimes a lively lisping lilt.”(14) She was honorary president of the Poetry Society of Maryland and was a co-founder of the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore. She also called several of the city’s artists as friends. She spent considerable time with amateur photographer and fellow Western High School alumna and Waverly neighbor, Emily Spencer Hayden. Reese enjoyed passing her time in Hayden’s orchard at her home, Nancy’s Fancy, while Hayden documented their time together on film. Another such friend was sculptor Grace Turnbull, who was commissioned after Reese’s death to create a monument to her work. The hand-sculpted marble statue, entitled “The Good Shepherd,” stands on 33rd Street, the site of her alma mater. It depicts a shepherd tending to his flock referencing the shepherd metaphor often seen in her poems, as well as her role as a teacher. The statue also includes the inscription of her best known work, “Tears.”

Reese never gained international fame, but the town she loved does keep her memory alive. When she passed away in 1935, she was widely mourned in Waverly and Maryland at large. Her friends and admirers made great efforts to properly eulogize the woman whose life had impacted so many others. Along with the Turnbull sculpture, traces of Reese can be seen around the city. A memorial foundation donated a brass plague cast by Beatrice Fenton to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in 1944. It hangs in the central branch on the second floor. A tablet bearing the words of “Tears” was also placed by the main office of the new Western High School to honor her commitment to the school. Reese is buried at the St. John’s Episcopal Church in her beloved Waverly. (Lara Westwood)

The memorial plague by Beatrice Fenton which hangs in the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

The memorial plague by Beatrice Fenton which hangs in the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Subject Vertical File, MdHS.

“Tears” by Lizette Woodworth Reese from A Wayside Lute

When I consider Life and its few years—

A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun;

A call to battle, and the battle done

Ere the last echo dies within our ears;

A rose choked in the grass; an hour of fears;

The gusts that past a darkening shore do beat;

The burst of music down an unlistening street—

I wonder at the idleness of tears.

Ye old, old dead and ye of yesternight,

Chieftains, and bards, and keepers of the sheep,

By every cup of sorrow that you had,

Loose me from tears, and make me aright

How each hath back what once he stayed to weep;

Homer his sight, David his little lad!

 

“April Weather” by Lizette Woodworth Reese

from A Handful of Lavender

Oh, hush, my heart, and take thine ease,

For here is April weather!

The daffodils beneath the trees

Are all a-row together.

 

The thrush is back with his old note;

The scarlet tulip is blowing;

And white – ay, white as my love’s throat –

The dogwood boughs are growing.

 

The lilac bush is sweet again;

Down every wind that passes,

Fly flakes from hedgerow and from lane;

The bees are in the grasses.

 

A Grief goes out, and Joy comes in,

And Care us but a feather;

And every lad his love can win,

For here is April weather.

Sources and Further Reading:

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (9) (10) (11) (13): Reese, Lizette Woodworth. A Victorian Village, Reminiscences of Other Days. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1929.

(6) (7) Mann, Janet, OH 8258

(8) Agle, Nan. “I Remember…Lizette Woodworth Reese as a House Guest.” The Baltimore Sun, April 18, 1976.

(12) Kinsolving, Arthur B. “Great Poets and God: Lizette Woodworth Reese.” In The Lizette Woodworth Reese Memorial Association, City of Baltimore, State of Maryland, Inc.: Lizette Woodworth Reese, 1856-1935. Baltimore: Reese Association, 1939.

(14) Robinson, David M. “Address: Lizette Woodworth Reese, the Poet.” In Lizette Woodworth Reese, 1856-1935: A Tribute. Baltimore: Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1944.

Bain, Robert, and William Osbourne. “Lizette Woodworth Reese.” In Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. “The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project.” Lizette Woodworth Reese.

Bissell, Brooke. “The Enigma of Lizette Reese.” The Baltimore Sun, January 9, 1955.

“David Reese.” The Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1899.

Enoch Pratt Free Library. Lizette Woodworth Reese Collection.

James, Edward T. “Lizette Woodworth Reese.” In Notable American Women, 1607-1950; a Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Reese, Lizette Woodworth. A Handful of Lavender. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1891.

Reese, Lizette Woodworth, and Richard Bennett. The York Road. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1931.

Reese, Lizette Woodworth, and Robert J. Jones. In Praise of Common Things: Lizette Woodworth Reese Revisited. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Reese, Lizette Woodworth, and Thomas Bird Mosher. A Wayside Lute. Portland, Maine: Thomas B. Mosher, 1909.

Shivers, Frank R. “‘Shallow, Kittenish Fellows’ and Other Traditionalists” In Maryland Wits & Baltimore Bards: A Literary History with Notes on Washington Writers. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Discussion

3 Responses to “Lizette Woodworth Reese and the Poetry of Spring”

  1. Very nicely done. Who is the author?

    Posted by Edward Papenfuse | 27. Jan, 2016, 1:33 pm
  2. LWR is being inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame on April 7, 2016.

    Posted by Joe Stewart | 29. Jan, 2016, 10:52 am

Reply to Joe Stewart

Current day month ye@r *

Facebook

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Pinterest