Articles

Lady of the Sonnets

James Dempsey

One thing I know: I owe him [Scofield Thayer] everything, he taught me the lesson of my life[,] gave me the shaking-up of my life.
I loved him, I really did.
“And yet you had a child by somebody else.”
I know. But I loved him.
ELAINE, FROM NOTEBOOKS OF E. E. CUMMINGS

Ellen Thayer, Scofield Thayer’s cousin, believed that Scofield first met Elaine Orr en route from England to the United States in June 1915, following the outbreak and escalation of the European war. “That year I was teaching at Bryn Mawr and he came to see me there,” she wrote. “He told me about Elaine[,] whom he had met on the steamer returning from Europe. He was evidently much interested in her. She was beautiful, well educated. He said he called her ‘the Lily Maid of Astolat.’” The Lily Maid in question was the fair Elaine of Arthurian legend, a virgin who died of unrequited love for Lancelot. Thayer’s courtship of Elaine was, naturally, a literary one.

In fact, Thayer had met Elaine Orr in the fall of 1912, when he wrote her a letter teasing her about being “so very, very young.” It may well have been Elaine’s tender years—she was just fifteen—that caused Thayer to be so unforthcoming about their relationship and to keep its existence a secret even from his family. A letter in December 1912 refers to their having met during a sea voyage, so it is possible that the meeting actually took place when Thayer was returning from one of his summer European trips.

The two had exchanged affectionate letters frequently during his stay at Oxford, and from England Thayer had sent the young Elaine books, including a copy of his friend Cuthbert Wright’s volume of verse, One Way of Love. It was in some ways a curious romantic gift, in that many of the poems in the collection celebrated love between men, but then such “Uranian” verse was popular at the time among young Progressives and aesthetes like Thayer. The relationship deepened; the following spring Thayer ordered a four-thousand-dollar Marquise diamond ring from Dreicer & Co. on Fifth Avenue, New York City, and, not long after, the engagement was announced in the New York Times. May F. Bennett, who founded the finishing school Elaine attended in Millbrook, New York, wrote Thayer on his “having won the love of our darling little Elaine” and congratulated him on the match. “My respect for her singular purity and beauty and truth are so great that I have had implicit confidence in her choice,” the letter went on. The writer also mentioned that Elaine and her sister had been through much after losing both parents unexpectedly, first their father, then their mother. “No girls ever were left so alone as those children were after their mother’s death,” the letter noted. “They have been tried in life’s furnace as many never are in a life time— and they are all coming out new gold.”

But the European war that Thayer had fled intruded rudely on his happiness. Less than a week after the announcement, Thayer received a letter from England in response to one he had sent to his Oxford friend Valentine Farrar. It was from Farrar’s mother, Mary, explaining that her son was dead. “He was shot through the head in the trenches on the morning of the 15th, and lived 39 hours, but was never conscious, nor did he have any suffering,” she wrote. “He had been out just seven weeks and when he was shot it was after seven days in the trenches.”

Thayer was dashed by the news. “He was the finest man I have known,” he wrote Elaine. “He was so holy that I always hesitated to touch him. Knowing him made me understand how the Apostles felt toward Christ. The highest aim we have is to people the world with men and women like him. Life came through his soul more perfectly and finely than anywhere else. In him there was a balance, a harmony, an essential concentration of manhood, which is the end of all our being.”

Elaine Orr came from a prominent family in Troy, New York, that had prospered in the paper business. Her father had died of a stroke in 1908, when Elaine was twelve, and her mother died suddenly three years later after a brief second marriage. Perhaps this shared loss of parents at an early age made for the sympathetic resonance between her and Thayer.

Thayer was utterly smitten with Elaine. “A friendship which from the first has been edged with a delicate fire, has, since I last wrote you, bit by bit become wholly suffused and is now the intense flame of conscious love,” he wrote in what was perhaps a draft of a letter to a friend. “Such strength as I have I exhaust in a desperate and constant attempt to be aware of what I feel. For some sensations are so profound as to inhibit the action of our intelligence. Yet, being human, we can but seek to comprehend them, however inadequately. . . . I cannot describe her to you. Anything that I might say would be only a foot-note, meaningless until you know herself, and afterward impertinent.” He also wrote, at a rare loss for words, “E.O. of an incommunicable loveliness.” Nor was it only Thayer who was struck by her beauty. John Dos Passos spoke of her as “the blessed Damozel, the fair, the lovable, the lily maid of Astol[a]t. . . . She seemed the poet’s dream.” Thayer described her as a “changeling,” a “fairy child,” “not like a mortal woman, at all.” She had an “Astartee quality,” he wrote. She was “a virgin of Ashtaroth” who “curled + smiled into the room.” Hildegarde Watson, wife of Thayer’s partner, herself a beauty who would appear in her husband’s avant-garde films, said she never saw anyone prettier.

E. E. Cummings probably first met Elaine on May 20, 1916, at a Cambridge party Thayer hosted following a performance of Galsworthy’s Justice, which was that spring enjoying successful runs in New York, Boston, and New Haven. Cummings fell harder than anyone. “I considered EO as a princess, something wonderful, unearthly, ethereal, the like of which I had never seen,” he wrote. (Cummings later wrote many love poems for Elaine, including his longest poem, the 290-line “Puella Mea.”)

In May 1916, Thayer’s old friend and rival T. S. Eliot wrote to wish him well on his imminent wedding, referring to the Thayer of their days in Magdalen College as “the connoisseur of puberty and lilies” (a phrase that interestingly brings together Thayer’s interest in younger women and his aestheticism) and paraphrasing Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray: “Only the soul can cure the senses, and only the senses can cure the soul.” He hoped that “domestic felicity may not extinguish the amateur” and that “possession of beauty may not quench the ardor of curiosity and that passionate detachment which your friends admired and your admirers envied.” Eliot’s wife, Vivien, also wrote to wish Thayer well: “How nice that you are going to be married! Nothing could be better! Try black silk sheets + pillow covers—they are extraordinarily effective—so long as you are willing to sacrifice yourself.” Having been close to Thayer, Vivien had no doubt sensed his inability or unwillingness to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to a relationship. Thayer would make many sacrifices for the causes of art and letters, but never for marriage. Cummings joined in the good wishes in June, sending along a poem beginning, “Oh friend, who has attained thyself in her,” along with a note saying, “I am very afraid . . . that it tries to honor a thing so perfect as your marriage with Elaine.” He signed off with the unwittingly prophetic salutation, “Wishing you happiness improbable.”

The war continued to thrum in the background of all this prenuptial joy. Conscription had been in force in England since February, and young men were being hurriedly trained and shipped across the Channel. Canadians were also already fighting and dying in the trenches. In April, President Wilson had warned Germany about its submarine activity. As the body count rose—the butchery that would be called the Battle of the Somme would begin that summer and extend into late fall—the pros and cons of entering the war were argued ferociously in American magazines and newspapers.

The wedding took place on June 21, 1916, in Elaine Orr’s hometown of Troy, New York; afterward, the couple seems to have spent some nights at the Dakota in New York City and perhaps on the island of Nantucket, before leaving for Santa Barbara, California, where Thayer had a connection in the person of his uncle, Ernest Thayer. The honeymoon began well. “Entering the room at the Dakota E.O. was a singularly enticing creature,” Thayer wrote. He was aware, he said, “of the peculiar definition and strangeness of a face ideally Romantic.” The idyll continued in California, whence Thayer reported to a friend that he and Elaine spent most of the day swimming and basking. “At irregular intervals we sip tea and nibble cinnamon toast. Thanks to the omnipresence of Poland Water, I scrub along excellently and Elaine, despite the burden of honeymooning with a philosopher, bears up.”

In July, they stayed at the Hotel Coronado. “The hotel is in the middle of a ten mile long beach and we have thus had a wonderful place for walking,” he wrote his mother. “The sea because of the stinging fish is not practicable on the ocean side, but back of us in [the] bay there are no fish and there we swim every morning and then walk across the strand to lie on the ocean beach facing the breakers.” They drove out to Point Loma, where Thayer so loved the “magnificent” view that he contemplated buying a home there, but he found that more difficult than he had imagined. “All the best land is owned by the Government and by the Theosophists, who have their headquarters in a group of domed buildings overlooking the Pacific,” he wrote. At the thriving Theosophist school, Thayer and his wife heard a lecture and watched the children perform a dance.

Later that summer, Thayer received notice of a second death in battle. This time it was his Harvard classmate Alan Seeger, whose poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” so eerily predicted how he would fall on the field of battle. This news, along with the still-fresh memory of Valentine Farrar’s death, may have put him in the somber mood manifested in another note from California, perhaps the draft of a letter to a former classmate, in which he recalled his time at Oxford and the war that had begun during his time in England:

Here, a mile or two from Santa Barbara, between the mountains and the sea, we have found what we sought—a hearth, a garden, a fountain, and from our window a patch of sea. We have taken refuge until this war shall be over. Natural beauty is the best anodyne and the unsullied Pacific is good to look upon. Even here I recall Oxford. My memory of her is darkened and her summer skies, heavy with calm, made almost sinister by this ever-gaining tide of death. Those are indeed gallant who still keep their post in that saddest of all cities. I like to think that you and I, though so irremediably far apart, yet in surroundings not unworthy her high nurture, still retain in our minds untarnished her grey buildings and her glittering streams.

Cummings remained a regular correspondent. He had produced to Thayer’s order “Epithalamion,” a long poem crammed with classical allusions celebrating the marriage of his friend. Thayer was pleased with the result. “The poem is really corking and Elaine and I have to thank you from the bottom of our heart,” Thayer wrote Cummings that September. “It is not to have lived in vain, thus to have occasioned beauty. ‘Whose smiling is the swiftly singular adventure of one inadvertent star (With angels previously a loiterer)’ is completely worthy of that smile which is now always with me.” It was perhaps fitting, considering the relationship that would bloom between Cummings and Thayer’s wife, that Cummings began his poem with an image of sexual infidelity.

Thou aged unreluctant earth who dost
with quivering continual thighs invite
the thrilling rain the slender paramour
to toy with thy extraordinary lust,
(the sinuous rain which rising from thy bed
steals to his wife the sky and hour by hour
wholly renews her pale flesh with delight)
—immortally whence are the high gods fled?

There is no evidence that Thayer was reading the Dial during this period, but as a man of literary tastes who had spent time in Chicago, where the magazine was published, there is every reason to believe that he did. If so, he would have noticed a new byline in the December 28 issue, that of Randolph Bourne, whose leading article, “Seeing It Through,” expressed disappointment at H. G. Wells’s apparent acceptance of and resignation to the war. Bourne was patently talented. His passionate, trenchant prose contrasted sharply with the magazine’s usual fare of academic, muted, and remote editorials. Bourne had already made a name for himself in other magazines and was now stamping his style on the Dial.

In August, the Thayers moved into a house in Santa Barbara that was large enough to accommodate a cook and a butler-chauffeur, who, Thayer pointed out, were respectively a “negress” and an “Indian.” There was also a garage for the Dodge Roadster he had bought at the El Camino Real Motor Car Co. The butler-chauffeur, Harry King, was fitted out for uniforms in Santa Barbara. The couple settled in and continued their life of ease, bathing in the sea, reading, and shopping, punctuated by dinners with Thayer’s uncle and aunt and motoring along the coast. Their evenings out included plays, a visit to a circus, and attending a Rabindranath Tagore lecture entitled “The Cult of Nationalism,” which Thayer found too long. Thayer would later write of the popular poet and lecturer: “Among those who have not contributed to The Dial is Tagore. I like to look upon his wide-hooved nobility as upon that of the white cattle in the marshes about Risa with their great brown eyes like pregnant women waiting their time; but I should as soon think of inviting one of these cows to write for The Dial as to invite a contribution from Tagore.”

They visited Los Angeles to see a doctor after Elaine complained about trouble with her eyes. Thayer loathed the noisiness of the city.

The only out-of-the-ordinary incidents were two unexplained hospitalizations. In September, “Master M. Maruyama of Montecito” was admitted to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital (“c/o Mr. Scofield Thayer”). His physician was a Dr. Campbell, and he was released six days later. The following month Harry King, the butler-chauffeur, was admitted to the same hospital under the same doctor.

In the fall, the couple returned briefly to the East Coast, perhaps for Thanksgiving with their families, and on their journey back to California they stopped off in Chicago to meet James Sibley Watson, a Harvard friend of Thayer’s, and Watson’s new wife, Hildegarde. The Watsons had been married in October in Massachusetts. Their wedding had been attended by Cummings, who was also a friend of Watson’s. The Thayers were back on the West Coast at least by early December, according to a Santa Barbara drugstore shopping receipt. Their purchases are listed as Douche Can Complete, K.Y. Jelly, a thermometer, breath tablets, and two packages of sanitary napkins. By the New Year they had resumed their sybaritic honeymoon, riding, swimming, and reading. Thayer read Why Men Fight by Bertrand Russell, and the couple read Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady together. He had also bought Hugh Walpole’s The Dark Forest and Prince C. Hopkins’s Ethics of Murder. In March, they visited San Francisco, where they stayed at the Hotel St. Francis. (Later that year at the same hotel, the movie star and comedian Fatty Arbuckle would throw the notorious party at which a young woman died, a case that would fascinate Thayer.)

Cummings continued to keep in touch, and by early 1917 his friendship with Elaine had deepened to the point that he could write letters addressed only to her. “A jolly New year unto thy lord and his master (you), the wheels of whose dodge roll in the thunder (Longfellow),” he wrote. “He sent me a poem-book by one seeger, who evidently inherited the fashionable talent of dying. Do you know his work?” He then proceeded to produce several brutal parodies of Seeger’s work, which indeed sounded not unlike that of one of the more ornate Victorian disciples of Keats and Shelley.

Of interest here is the fact that Cummings is so disdainful of Seeger, who was a Harvard friend of Thayer’s and whose poems Thayer, as Seeger’s literary executor, had helped into publication. Moreover, Thayer’s own verse was not unlike that of Seeger, highly Romantic in form, diction, syntax, and subject matter. One can speculate that Cummings did not expect Elaine to share the contents of this letter with her husband. Cummings concluded by asking Elaine to tell “Scof.” that he was leaving that morning for New York, where he had found a job with a book distributor on West Thirteenth Street.

In a March letter to Thayer, Cummings writes, “Am so glad Elaine remembers me sometimes; it is mutual.” It would seem that Thayer was unaware that Cummings was writing directly to Elaine.

In April 1917, the United States finally entered the Great War. Thayer began clipping articles from the New York Times about the draft, including those that listed the names of the draft board members in New York. This was the beginning of what would be a careful campaign to avoid conscription. Meanwhile, he and his wife continued their honeymoon, visiting Los Angeles to dine and dance and, in Santa Barbara, indulging in their favorite pastimes of swimming, riding, and reading. They read James’s The Ambassadors together.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Thayers’ marriage started to fall apart. One of Thayer’s notes from the honeymoon reads, “We bask upon yellow sands and swim in blue waters and bask upon yellow sands,” and penciled in at a later date are the words, “Flagrant idealisation.” Things definitely began to unravel on the California honeymoon, and perhaps even before that. Thayer mentions a sudden moment of disillusionment, possibly in Nantucket.

E.O. at Nant. in stocking feet suddenly apperceived as banal. From a “spright” to a perfectly banal girl. As if a magic glass had been removed from before my eyes, a transforming glass. A magic cap doffed. An intoxication suddenly removed. Therefore rather an incantation or bewichery [sic] suddenly off. Cf. Midsummer Night’s Dream. As though she had doffed something that had endowed her with a magic charm.

During the honeymoon the couple stayed for a while at the palatial Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara, where Thayer described in his notes what seems like a moment of horror and desperation experienced by his bride. “E.O.’s cry at the Potter was not only the cry of the broken virgin,” he wrote, “it was also the cry of the lost soul when, driven backwards, without the strength of backbone to withstand the Devil’s push—when it feels the earth give way and only air beneath it.” He went on to describe her vulnerability thus: “The eyes opened wide like windows to break (E.O. at Potter).” Thayer’s writing was often impressionistic rather than journalistic, and while one cannot surmise the specifics of what he is describing here, it was obviously a moment of shock, pain, and fear for Elaine, one that drained her. “E.O. at Montecito like a snake that’s had its back broken,” Thayer noted. Another note perhaps suggests it was during the honeymoon, traditionally a time of love and intimacy, that Thayer told his wife he wanted nothing more to do with the marriage and that they were to live separately: “E.O. pausing in her breakfast at Montecito looked half-sick of her evil bargain.”

On the surface, things continued to seem ideal. The two were a good-looking, wealthy couple spending a year traveling, sightseeing, enjoying their prosperity and each other. But after what Thayer later called “the fatal spring,” he experienced a “neurotic turning away” from Elaine. What Thayer saw himself rejecting was not just Elaine but the institution of marriage itself, whose interminable familiarity bred contempt. “Long girls in bed in coition are like warm snakes,” he wrote. “They taste—after a year of marriage—like baked banana.” (Again, we see Thayer comparing those close to him with foodstuffs. Was this a form of metaphorical cannibalism?) He came to believe that cohabitation simply killed sexual attraction. “In so far as a man marry for sexual pleasure,” he wrote, “he kills the golden goose.”

One speculation is that in California Thayer convinced his wife that they should enjoy physical relationships with others. This is certainly one reading of an affectionate and unself-conscious letter from Thayer written in April 1917: “O yes, I’m coming down to L.A. Saturday too, yes, and I’ve engaged another single room with bath for myself. I wish one could do certain things by mail, no pun intended!” In the same letter, he made this request of Elaine: “I want you to cut your hair as you did before. I really couldn’t see it and I want to very much. . . . Of course, you suit yourself; only if you will, you will give me very great pleasure.” There are other tantalizingly unedifying references in Thayer’s notebooks to a situation between the two in a bedroom involving the cutting of the young bride’s hair. “E.O. ran upstairs like a defeated angel,” he wrote, “I having walked into—almost through her—like a dragoon. (After her haircut.) Later I turned her over as I had one time turned over the bodies of dead snakes, white beneath. She was equally limp absolutely defunct.” He tried another time to record what had happened: “E.O. turned over on bed after haircut weeping was like a dead horseshoe-crab so turned over on back, neither wet nor dry.” And then this: “Commemorative bells signalling the decisive step of my proposal; + the decisive end by her hair-cutting. Extreme psychic potency.” And this: “E.O. lay like a dry + oil-wrung shark on her face (after hair-cut).”

His aphorisms on marriage are many: marriage was “wholesale,” whereas prostitution was “retail.” Marriage was like a diving suit worn for protection against “those sharks which infest the glaucous waters of sexual adventure.” Monogamy was the “reductio ad absurdum” of marriage. To marry was “to enter a lobster-trap.”

As his marriage failed—or perhaps because of that failure—Thayer became an advocate of free love, a philosophy of sexual liberation that was enjoying something of a revival at the time among some intellectual groups. “Marriage occupies [the] same relation to love as the forced activities of sinners in Inferno do to their activities in this world,” he wrote. “Marriage is as if a profound and penetrating punishment for love.” Free love, on the other hand, “suits those in whom the nerves and intelligence predominates [sic]. For it gives novelty and curiosity has free way.” His devotion to these ideas he would later share with Alyse Gregory, who would become Thayer’s best friend. After marrying the chronically ill Llewelyn Powys in order that she might more easily care for him, Gregory wrote a letter to Thayer begging that he understand what she had done and not disdain her for stooping to the act of marriage.

Whatever the reason, physical, philosophical, or both, Thayer was finished and done with his beautiful wife just a year after marrying her. He noted, “Coition with a girl is like a bath in sensuality: with Elaine it was as though the water were only three inches deep.” And more metaphorically, “On top E.O. looks good milk,” he wrote, “but having drunk + in vain awaited nourishment one opines the good, the strength, the native vigor . . . [has] been withdrawn, drawn off, sucked out. A congenitally sucked egg.”

Thayer decided to cut short the extended honeymoon in California and return to the East. In a letter to his mother, Thayer blamed the couple’s abrupt decision on the appearance of sewage in the waters off Santa Barbara in which he and Elaine swam daily. Others, including his uncle Ernest, who had lived in the area since 1912, disagreed that this was the case, saying that any discoloration or smell could have been related to the harvesting of kelp, benign microorganisms, or even brush fires. Thayer, however, was obdurate. The couple headed east in June 1917, stopping in Chicago to have lunch at the Blackstone Hotel with the Watsons. Hildegarde Watson was struck by the sorry state of the Thayers’ marriage, which she connected to the troubled and uncertain feelings about the war that roiled the country. “But what an unsettled luncheon that appeared to me, full of unrest,” she remembered. “The Thayers were, before long to separate, there was the prospect of war, and all were confused by patriotic and pacifist feelings.” The Thayers returned to New York to live in separate apartments, Elaine in a spacious first-floor apartment at 3 Washington Square North and Thayer at the Benedick, an apartment for bachelors at 80 Washington Square East. There were evidently still physical relations between the two, as suggested by Thayer’s rather clinical note after a visit from Elaine: “E.O.’s face the colour of yellowish toilet-paper (taking douche, nose running, after coition in tears at 80).” Another note suggests dramatic and emotional scenes between the couple: “After my mother at Elm St. and after Elaine at Wash Sq, I ached equally after cleanliness,” he wrote, “a washing of this weeping, accusing, embracing filthiness, this thing called clinging womanhood.” We also see here Thayer conflating the person of Elaine with his mother.

When Thayer philosophizes about sex—which he does a great deal in his notebooks, almost never in his correspondence—he almost always sees the relationship between man and woman as a power struggle, and sex itself as a kind of currency:

The male of great possessions incorporates for the female those possessions more than does such a female for the male. To him she is, after all, a physical and animal object; to her he is primarily a power, a force, a something capable of increase, actually of multiplication, through the worldly power there inherent. He can enjoy his knowledge of acquiring money with or through her; but he cannot emotionally and intellectually synthesise this pleasure with his lust for her quite distinct and circumscribed person. She can thus largely synthesise her satisfaction in the worldly gain by association with him with her sexual satisfaction in possession of him, he being for her then primarily an indicted and relatively uncircumscribed vital force, a something capable of being jumped ahead, almost incommensurably, in power.

But while Thayer tried hard to be dismissive of Elaine (“I would no more feel like shooting E.O. than like shooting a mess of shit”), he was also obsessed by his former wife, referring to her in his personal notes hundreds of times. At times these references are to her physicality; she has “breasts like skinned pears,” inner thighs like “Banana-flesh.” She was “exquisite and clinging—the very best lingerie.” Once, when she entered a room at 3 Washington Square, Thayer remembered, he was sexually excited by her “illuminating eyes.”

He occasionally loved also her wit and perception. When she once said to Thayer, “You ought to have to work under someone sometime,” Thayer wondered, perhaps admiringly, if she was making a “double entente,” perhaps meaning “double entendre.” When she remarked to Thayer, “You have no small talk,” he felt she was, in a way, showing her respect for and pride in him. And at times her remarks were squirreled away into his notebook, perhaps for future literary use: “Occasionally E.O. stepped out of her role and, like an author (Cf. Pirandello), made a straight remark. ‘They talk about emotion; they mean sex.’”

But the obsession also showed his hatred of Elaine. She was like a “hairless Mexican dog,” “a meal-worm, or maggot.” During sex she was like a “white, hairless wolf,” her head sideways “like a floun[der’s].”

In June, he registered for the draft in New York. For some time he had been clipping newspaper articles on the draft from the New York Times, including those that listed the names of the members of his local draft board. Despite his draft registration, however, Thayer had no intention of joining the armed services. His response to his mother’s suggestion that he invest in Liberty loans carried echoes of the pacifist sentiments of Randolph Bourne: “No one understanding this war as I do can voluntarily contribute in any way to its continuance, least of all can he loan money and receive interest which to him appears blood-money in the most crass sense. There is only one possible course: to endeavour to reform the institution of our government and to stop the war. I cannot see how anyone who sympathized with Russell’s Why Men Fight can contribute to this so-called liberty loan. ‘O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!’”

Cover: "The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer"He and Elaine settled comfortably into their respective new digs, keeping up for a while the appearance of domestic felicity; Thayer explained to friends that his separate apartment was necessary for his work. In the fall, Thayer asked his lawyers to secure leases on his and his wife’s separate apartments. Elaine initially may not have been so sanguine about the situation, a fact that Thayer seems to recognize. “E.O. was made to go on acting her heart-lacerating role until the harvest of lyric grief was in,” he wrote some time later. “Only then was permitted to fall the heart-relieving—and what would have been . . . ruining— rain of truth, of sights of the real Elaine, of the real Lady of the Sonnets.”

Why “Lady of the Sonnets”? Partly, perhaps, because Elaine Thayer would eventually become the lover of poet Cummings, who wrote sheaves of idolatrous love poems and sonnets to and about Elaine. But what then was the “heart-lacerating role” she was forced to play? Was it that she was forced to maintain in society the fiction of her marriage to Thayer? Was it that she had to lie to Thayer’s family for so long about who was the father of the child she would eventually have with Cummings? We know that soon after that birth, Thayer’s uncle Ernest had excitedly congratulated Thayer on becoming a father, thrilled that the Thayer line was not to end with his nephew. And the child, Nancy, would be three years old when Elaine finally broke the news to Florence Thayer that the girl was in fact not her granddaughter.

There must also have been hurt for Elaine in the fact that both her husband and the father of her child voiced their opinion that the problems that would eventuate from the pregnancy could be easily averted by an abortion. This “Lady of the Sonnets” was not only a puzzle to others but perhaps also a puzzle to herself. She was a wife and a mother, but her husband had rejected her, and the father of her child would be poor, feckless, and unready for fatherhood. Neither man would want the child in her womb. Hers was indeed to be a “harvest of lyric grief.”


The above essay appears as Chapter Six (“Lady of the Sonnets”) in The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer, by James Dempsey. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014, pp. 35-46. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida.

JAMES DEMPSEY is the author of The Court Poetry of Chaucer, Zakary’s Zombies, Murphy’s American Dream, and, just released, The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer. He is an instructor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Mass.