New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham
Edited and Introduced by Nathanael O’Reilly
Reviewed by KATIE HANSORD
The significance, value, and breadth of Anna Wickham’s poetry extends beyond categories of nation and resists the limitations of such categories. The category of woman, however, is central to her poetics, as both a culturally ‘inferior’ and structurally imposed designation, and as a proud personally and politically conceptualised identity, and marks Wickham’s important and consistent feminist contribution to poetry. ‘As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world’ (Three Guineas 197) are the words Virginia Woolf once chose to express this sense of solidarity with other women beyond national borders. Born Edith Alice Mary Harper in 1883, in London, Wickham lived in Australia from the ages of six to twenty, later living again in England, in Bloomsbury and Hampstead, as well as living in France, on Paris’ Left Bank. Wickham is noted to have taken her pen name from the Street in Brisbane on which she first promised her father to become a poet, and the early encouragement of her creativity was to be a seed which would grow and continue to bloom despite cultural bias and personal circumstance, including the opposition of her husband to her writing, and institutionalisation. She was connected with key modernist and lesbian modernist figures including Katherine Mansfield, and Natalie Clifford Barney, whose Salon she attended, becoming a member of Barney’s Académie des Femmes, and with whom she is noted to have ‘corresponded…for years, expressing passionate love and debating the role and problems of the woman artist’ (Feminist Companion 1162).
Wickham’s poetry represents a significant achievement within early twentieth century poetry and can be described as deeply concerned with an activist approach to issues of gender, class, sexuality, motherhood, and marriage. These are all issues that address inequalities still largely unresolved, although in many ways different and understood quite differently, today. These poems may be playful, experimental, self-conscious, and passionate poems that are varied but always conscious of their position and their place in terms of both political and poetic traditions and departures from them towards an imagined better world. In the previously unpublished poem ‘Hope and Sappho in the New Year,’ Wickham boldly suggests both lesbian and poetic desire and a class-conscious refusal of bourgeois devaluation as she asserts:
Let Justice be our mutual gift
Whose every prospect pleases
And do not mock my only shift
When you have three chemises
Then I will let your chains atone
For faults of comprehension-
Knowing you lived too long alone
In worlds of small dimension.
A refusal to accept such ‘worlds of small dimension’ reiterates the inclusion of emotional, psychological and structural disparities, as have frequently been noted in her previously published poem ‘Nervous Prostration’, in which she describes her husband as ‘a man of the Croydon class’ (New and Selected 19) and in which she plainly and honestly addresses the structural and emotional complexities of her heterosexual bourgeois marriage.
In poem ‘XX The Free Woman’ Wickham outlines a moral and intellectual approach to marriage for the woman who is free, writing:
What was not done on earth by incapacity
Of old, was promised for the life to be.
But I will build a heaven which shall prove
A lovelier paradise
To your brave mortal eyes
Than the eternal tranquil promise of the Good.
For freedom I will give perfected love,
For which you shall not pay in shelter or in food
For the work of my head and hands I will be
But I take no fee to be wedded, or to remain a
Wickham’s poetry is notable for its balanced concision and depth as much as for the expansive, inclusive, intersectional approach it takes. I am using the term intersectional to refer here to an approach which is understanding of the interconnected nature of oppression in terms of gender, class, and sexuality, although it should be acknowledged that the poems do not tend to address issues of racism specifically.
New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, edited and introduced by Nathanael O’Reilly, brings together for the first time in print a wide inclusion of previously unpublished poems, gathered from extensive research into Wickham’s archive at the British Library. Significantly, O’Reilly’s thoughtful and careful editorship of this collection restores Wickham’s original versions of the published poems included, as well as presenting the unpublished poems in their original style and punctuation, giving the reader a clearer sense of the poet’s intention and expression. One such example is the sparing use of full stops in the poems, suggesting again Wickham’s expansive, inclusive, and flowing mode that defies the limitations of ‘worlds of small dimension’. Until this publication, readers have not been able to access these poems in print, and the majority of Wickham’s poems, over one thousand, have not been in print. Sadly, some of her writing, including manuscripts and correspondence, was destroyed in a fire in 1943. This new collection includes one hundred previously published poems as well as one hundred and fifty previously unpublished poems, making it a substantial and impressive feat. Wickham’s published collections, now out of print, included Songs of John Oland (1911), The Contemplative Quarry (1915), The Man with the Hammer (1916) and The Little Old House (1921) and she had a wide reputation in the 1930s. This expanded collection of her poetry then, is to be warmly welcomed and applauded as a timely extension of the available poems of Anna Wickham, following on from the earlier publication in 1984 of The Writings of Anna Wickham Free Woman and Poet, edited and introduced by R.D. Smith, from Virago Press, and before that her Selected Poems, published in 1971 by Chatto & Windus, reflecting the renewed interest in Wickham during the women’s movement of the 1970s.
These previously unpublished poems give further insight into Wickham’s experimentation, variation of form and style, and poetic achievement. Jennifer Vaughn Jones’ A Poets Daring Life (2003) and Ann Vickery’s valuable work on Anna Wickham in Stressing the Modern (2007) as well as that of other Wickham scholars, may more easily be expanded upon by others with the publication of this new extensive collection of Wickham’s poetry. Although Wickham’s works are now much more critically recognised than has been the case in the past, it is to be hoped that the publication this new collection will go some way to further redressing what has tended to be seen as a baffling lack of critical attention for such an important poet. Equally importantly though, the publication of this collection opens out an expanded world of Wickham’s writings to all readers and lovers of poetry wanting to engage with a poetic voice that so eloquently and purposefully brings to the fore the issues of justice, equality, gender, and both the societal and personal freedoms that remain so crucial and relevant to readers today.
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy (Eds). The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Batsford: London, 1990.
Vickery, Ann. Stressing the Modern, Salt, 2007
Wickham, Anna. The Writings of Anna Wickham Free Woman and Poet, Edited and introduced by R.D. Smith, Virago Press, 1984.
Wickham, Anna. New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, Edited and Introduced by Nathanael O’Reilly, UWAP, Crawley 2017.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. London: Hogarth Press, 1938.
KATIE HANSORD is a writer and researcher living in Melbourne. Her PhD thesis examines nineteenth century Australian women’s poetry and politics. Her work has been published in ALS, Hecate, and JASAL, as well as LOR Journal and Long Paddock (Southerly Journal).