Eloise Robinson, the vanishing heroine of the Joyce Kilmer anecdote

PART ONE

Another mysterious disappearance of a writer from the world stage. And it’s unfolding right here in the purlieu of Baroque Mansions…

I like to think that anyone who’s read my long Remembrance Day post – reprised now for a few years, and by Don Share as well – will feel a natural interest in Eloise Robinson, the plucky young woman who was entertaining the troops at the Front, on behalf of the YMCA, by reciting poetry to them; I myself have come to feel quite fond of her. I’ll refresh your mental image of her activities with this description by Guy Davenport:

“Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems.”

Well, this year’s post had a comment from fellow poet Mark Granier, with a photograph he had found online which looks as if it is quite probably of ‘our’ Eloise Robinson: excitement! I tried and failed to turn anything up a couple of years ago, and here was a young woman looking exactly – frankly – as I had imagined her. Right down to the expression on her face.

That made me really happy. And then, just this week, an email came bouncing into the Baroque inbox from another wonderful poet, the indefatigable John Clegg. He writes – firstly, in terms of the photo: “I think the photo probably is of Eloise Robinson: she’s the right age (about 29) and it’s from the right place (box of World War I photos).” He then writes, in great detail, about his search for more information about our heroine:

… As I was doing some archival research in the library anyway I thought I’d spend my lunch hour finding out more about Eloise Robinson and seeing if the photo was likely to be of her. I haven’t found out very much useful, and what I’ve got raises more questions than answers.

Here’s a potted biography:

1889: Born Mary Eloise Robinson, in Amelia, Ohio

1909: Western College, Oxford, Ohio

1910: BA – Mt. Holyoke College, 1910

1912: MA – Wellesley 1912 (supervised by Katherine Lee Bates)

1914: MA thesis published as ‘The Minor Poems of Joseph Beaumont’

1916: ‘One of the organisers’ for the Ohio Valley Poetry Society

early 1918: sails to France as a YMCA canteen volunteer. Possibly meets Willard Wattles, another Poetry contributor.

June 1918: ‘in the wasteland of Picardy handing out chocolate and reciting poetry to the American Expeditionary Forces’ (Guy Davenport)

July 1918: writes to Poetry Magazine (23rd). Meets Mary Lawton.

August 1918: writes to Poetry Magazine (5th). ‘One of the soldiers thereupon recited it—it was Sergeant Kilmer himself! This was only a few weeks before he was killed […] I leave tonight for the Swiss border. And after that, Italy, and then the Polish-American front. It is all one mad scramble, but wonderful — simply wonderful. I cannot be too thankful I was able to come.’

And the rest is more or less complete silence.

Robinson was really doing very well for herself at this point: she’d had poems in some prestigious poetry magazines, and was friendly with Harriet Monroe (the letters and poetry submissions to Poetry are the only items of hers in any scholarly archive in any library in the USA). All her potted biographies in magazines mention that her first volume of poetry is forthcoming (the last of these biographies is from June 1918). The Beaumont book she’d edited had received very good reviews. She’d been nominated (twice) for the Helen Haire Levinson prize, and her poem ‘Fatherland’ had won a prize from Poetry as well (a ‘member’s choice’ prize for the favourite poem of the year). It does not seem at all believable that on returning from France she would settle down into an unpoetic silence. But of the two alternatives I can think of, neither sound very likely.

First, she might have been killed in the war. If so she was astonishingly unlucky – much worse-fated than Joyce Kilmer himself. The Armistice would have only been three months away. The Swiss front, where she was heading on the night of her last letter, was famously calm, and the worst fighting the Polish-Americans saw was the second battle of the Marne, which had already taken place. I can’t find casualty rates for different categories of non-combatants but I imagine that YMCA canteen volunteers had an easier war than many. (Presumably these poetry readings weren’t taking place actually on the frontline itself.) Her obituary wasn’t published in Poetry or anywhere else (though Poetry hadn’t started its current practice of printing the dates of recently deceased poets on the inside back cover, and normally didn’t contain obits). (This maybe shouldn’t count against the ‘died in the War’ hypothesis too much, because her obituary hasn’t been published anywhere else I can find either, and she can’t still be alive.) Ohio Valley Verse, which reprinted some of her (1917) poems in 1922, doesn’t seem to have mentioned that she was dead (as far as I can tell it doesn’t seem to have biographical information at all).

The second future I imagine for Eloise is that she got married after or during the war, and can’t be found because she changed her surname. Even if this is true, I don’t think she published a book of poetry, or had any more poems in Poetry: I went through all the Eloises and none of them look possible… Again, one would expect an obituary to include her maiden name, but I can’t find one. Ancestry websites offer no clues at all (and if you want to take up this wild goose chase yourself, I can tell you now that Eloise (Robinson) Cramer, Eloise (Robinson) Ott and Eloise (Robinson) Carroll are all false leads).

A final piece of evidence which might count for or against the marriage hypothesis: in 1927, a very minor composer called Ethel Glenn Hier set three Eloise Robinson poems to music. These compositions are credited as ‘Hier/Robinson’. I think it’s likely that the three poems are pre-war (I have a suspicion Hier was a member of the Ohio Valley Poetry Society at the same time as Robinson, where she may have encountered her work). But if Robinson was married it seems odd for her to be credited under her maiden name.

Another puzzle is where Guy Davenport heard the Joyce Kilmer anecdote, given that the Poetry archive wasn’t made public until quite recently (the excerpt of the letter printed in Poetry October 1918 contains a much worse anecdote, about a soldier Mary Lawton encountered who had a copy of Poetry attached to his wall.) Given that he was friends with Pound, I wonder if he didn’t hear it direct from Pound: Pound (Kilmer’s early champion) might have heard it himself from Harriet Monroe, and passed it onto Davenport knowing he was interested in Kilmer.

There’s more, there’s more. As John writes: “The real shame about the silence, whatever the cause, is that Robinson’s work was getting quite good…” And I’ll have a surprising comparison to make. Our Eloise is really rather interesting.

Tomorrow: Eloise’s poetry

 

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