by Covington, Jeffrey
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William Rose Benét 1886-1950
While regarded mainly as an essayist and magazine editor with connections to several major writers of the early twentieth century, William Rose Benét was also a minor poet whose work appeared throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. Between 1915 and 1950 he published over thirty books including poetry collections, a novel in verse form, children's books, and collections of essays on literature. Benét is perhaps most well known for founding and editing several well-respected literary magazines during the first half of the century, including the Literary Review and the Saturday Review of Literature.
Born in 1886 in Fort Hamilton, New York, Benét was the first of three children and his siblings--Stephen Vincent Benét and Laura Benét--all later become poets. Initially wishing to follow the career path of his military officer father, Benét graduated from the Albany Academy in 1904 and applied for admission at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He decided, however, to enroll in the School of Science at Yale University, graduating in 1907. While at Yale he dabbled in numerous literary activities, serving as chairman of the Yale Courant and editor of the Yale Record, and befriending Henry Seidel Canby and Sinclair Lewis. After his time at Yale, Benét married Teresa Frances Thompson in 1912, with whom he would have three children before her death in 1919 from influenza. Her death inspired the poems he later collected in Perpetual Light.
Benét moved to New York in 1911 and began working at Century Magazine starting as an office boy and working towards the position of assistant editor, which he held from 1914 to 1918. His first book of poetry, Merchants from Cathay, was well-received when it appeared in 1913: the New York Times called it “a book of real poetry, magical, imaginative, vigorous,” while the North American Review described Benét as a poet with “a quaint originality and a definiteness of point of view that win respect and give pleasure.” Some critics also compared his poetry to work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Butler Yeats because of its exotic and fantastic nature. Benét later acknowledged that readers deemed his poetry “mystic,” writing, arguing that
any one who deals at all with the thing called poetry is necessarily and inexorably a mystic… The present day poets who would most abjure and deny the word “mystic” are mystics… Critics with scalpel intellect are mystics in that sense when confronted by the art that moves them. (Preface xiii)Benet’s work first appeared in Poetry Magazine with “The Falconer of God,” in 1914, followed by “On a Window Display in a Western City” in 1915, and then with what many consider to be his best poem, “The Horse Thief,” in 1916. Benét would continue to publish several other works in Poetry through 1919, his poems often appearing alongside those of Harriet Monroe, Ezra Pound and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Although his connections with Poetry brought Benet more attention, he was generally overlooked during literary discussions within the magazine. He published his second collection, The Falconer of God and Other Poems, in 1914, toning down some of the thematic concerns of his first book; however, readers noticed Benét’s continuing reliance upon and commitment to Victorian literary traditions. Benét’s next collection, 1918’s The Burglar of the Zodiac and Other Poems, demonstrated his efforts to make his poetry more “modern.”
Benét left his position at Century in 1918, volunteering to serve in World War I where he moved his way up the ranks to second lieutenant; however, in the end he saw only ground service in Florida and Texas. Following the war, Benét moved to New York City working odd jobs at several magazines before founding the Literary Review supplement to the New York Evening Post with Canby, Amy Loveman and Christopher Morley in 1920. In 1923, Benét married poet Elinor Wylie, whose Collected Poems he later edited. In 1924, he and his Literary Review collaborators founded the Saturday Review of Literature, with Benét serving as editor until his death in 1950. During his tenure, Benét continued to publish numerous books of poetry, culminating in The Dust Which is God, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography in verse published in 1942. Critics lauded the book for its “patriotic” American spirit in the midst of World War II, comparing it to other popular works by Carl Sandburg and Benét’s own brother, Stephen Vincent Benét. Benét’s last book of poetry, The Spirit of the Scene, was published posthumously in 1951.
Selected Works by William Rose Benét
- The Burglar of the Zodiac and Other Poems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918.
- The Dust Which is God. New York: Dodd and Mead, 1941.
- “The Falconer of God”. Poetry 4.3 (June 1914): 96
- “Green and Gray”, “Gray”, “Information”, “Solid Earth”. Poetry 14.2 (May 1919): 82-84.
- “The Horse Thief”. Poetry 8.1 (April 1916): 17
- “Kites”. Poetry 10.5 (August 1917): 232.
- Man Possessed: Being the Selected Poems of William Rose Benét. New York: Doran, 1927.
- Merchants from Cathay. New York: Century, 1913
- “On a Window Display in a Western City”. Poetry 6.5 (August 1915): 234.
- Perpetual Light. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919
- “The Price”. Poetry 11.1 (October 1917): 6.
- Griffith, John. “William Rose Benét.”American Poets, 1880-1945: First Series. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit: Gale, 1986. 35-39.
- Millett, Fred B. Contemporary American Authors: A Critical Survey and 219 Bio-Bibliographies. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1944. 249-50
- Olson, Stanley. Elinor Wylie: A Life Apart. New York: Dial, 1979
- Untermeyer, Louis. From Another World. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939. 229-53.
- Winwar, Frances. “Two Poets: Stephen Vincent and William Rose Benét”. College English 2.5 (1941): 415-27.