Eternal Passion in English Poetry, a volume edited by Edith Wharton and her friend Robert Norton, contains what they considered the most beautiful English love-poems. It is a perfect read for around Valentine’s Day. We do not have her copy of that book for a very simple reason: Wharton never owned one. It was published two years after her death. However, the book was the product of a lifetime of reading. Many of the poets—Tennyson, Browning, Shakespeare—she had read ever since she was a child. Of the 40 poets included, only 4 are women. They are Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and the now largely forgotten Alice Meynell.
Yet Meynell (1847-1922) was well respected in her time and well known by Wharton. In her memoir A Backward Glance, Wharton speaks of how Meynell “always showed me great kindness when I was in London” and perhaps enviously mentions “the prestige surrounding Mrs. Meynell in her own family.”
Interestingly, A Backward Glance juxtaposes Meynell, a leading Catholic suffragist, with another popular author Wharton knew: Mrs. Humphrey Ward, a fierce anti-suffragist. Both women were included in Wharton’s first edited work, The Book of the Homeless, published to raise money for World War I refugees.
Meynell’s sonnet “Renouncement,” which Wharton and Norton selected for Eternal Passion, was a particular favorite of Wharton’s, as shown by her markings in Richard Le Gallienne’s Retrospective Reviews underlining his examination of the poem. “Renouncement” is also included in the only work by Meynell we now have in Wharton’s library, her 1913 volume simply titled Poems. Inside there is a beautiful portrait of Meynell by John Singer Sargent. The book itself is unmarked.
I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,
I shun the thought that lurks in all delight—
The thought of thee—and in the blue heaven’s height,
And in the sweetest passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the fairest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,—
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart.