Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Joan Murray, late 1930s–early 1940s

The only poem by Joan Murray (1917–1942) published during her short life appeared in the April 1941 issue of Decision: A Review of Free Culture, an impressive monthly periodical founded that year by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann. Contributors to Decision, which folded after only twelve issues, included Jean Cocteau, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, W. Somerset Maugham, William Carlos Williams, E.M. Forster, and Thomas Mann, as well as another recent immigrant to America, W.H. Auden, who helped out with the editing too. Auden (who was, incidentally, Klaus’s brother-in-law, having married Erika Mann in 1935 to facilitate her escape from Nazi Germany) was invited to compile for the April issue a selection of unpublished poems. In the event, however, he opted to devote all of his allotted pages to printing a work by a twenty-four-year-old student enrolled in his “Poetry and Culture” class at the New School.

This “remarkable piece,” as Auden described Joan Murray’s “Orpheus: Three Eclogues” in a headnote, reimagines Orpheus’s descent to the Underworld in quest of Eurydice, and culminates in the dreadful moment when he looks back at his beloved on the threshold of the land of the living. This story has appealed to poets from Ovid to Rilke, and it clearly had a particular charge for Murray, who from her early teens was aware of the possibility that she might die young. Her “Three Eclogues” give speeches to Orpheus, his mother Calliope, Eurydice, Charon, and the Shades that dramatize with startling freshness and eloquence the mysteries of life and death that the story broaches. Eurydice’s slow recovery of her physical being, for instance, is conveyed by Murray with exquisite precision and excitement:

Orpheus I shall tell you that I am. I shape! I shape!
Here is the well-placed head, the delicate trace of vein;
Through wrists and breasts whence these tattered drapes escape,
I put my hand upon my heart and feel its action once again.

The mention of her heart in the last line is particularly resonant, for it was a damaged heart valve caused by an early bout of rheumatic fever that led to Murray’s death, the year after this poem was published.

No explanation is given for Orpheus’s glance back as their journey nears its end:

I am turning, Eurydice, turning…
It is the wonder of a sleeping child that turns upon its sleep:
A doubt without discerning,
A shy hand stretched along the edgeless wall where fearful shadows weep.

The fatal turn proceeds as hypnotically and irresistibly as the inexplicable onset of a deadly disease, and Murray’s surprising use of the metaphor of the turning of a sleeping child typifies the fusion of the random and the inevitable that characterizes much of her finest work. Most moving of all, however, is the almost metaphysical conceit with which Eurydice responds to being reconsigned to death:

In my palms lie these two clear efforts of my eyes,
The very essence of this tormented moment.

With this formulation, at once stoical and dignified, Murray transforms Eurydice’s tears into piercing symbols of irreparable loss.

Auden’s admiration for his pupil’s poetry was deep and enduring. In 1946, four years after her death, he was asked to take over as editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a post he would hold until 1959. That first year, unimpressed by the manuscripts passed on to him for consideration by the press, he wrote to the editor in charge of the series with what must have seemed a somewhat unusual notion: “I have just heard that the poems of Joan Murray which I told you about are available, and, in my opinion, they are the best we have. May I have your permission to choose them?” Permission was given, and Murray’s Poems appeared in May of the following year, with a foreword by Auden in which he declared:

We are not publishing her poems out of charity, because she will never be able to write any more, but because they are good, and I hope that the reader will approach her work just as objectively as if she were still alive, and not be distracted by sentimental speculation about what she might have written in the future which was denied her.

In his final paragraph he lists a number of his favorite poems from the book, and suggests that any “true judge and lover of poetry” who alights on these in a bookstore “will neither leave the store without taking the volume with him, nor ever regret his purchase.”

Murray’s Poems also included an editor’s note by Grant Code. Code was a poet himself (his work had appeared in Eight More Harvard Poets in 1923) as well as a lecturer on theater and dance. Murray’s mother, Peggy, a diseuse, or monologist, and frequenter of theatrical circles, had commissioned Code to undertake the difficult task of sorting through her daughter’s papers in order to establish what poems should be included in the Yale volume, and which versions should be used. Murray’s manuscripts, Code reported, were in a bewildering state of “confusion, pages of prose mixed with pages of verse and scarcely two pages of anything together that belonged together.” Her spelling was “capricious,” her punctuation was absent or erratic, and her handwritten revisions on typescripts were often difficult or impossible to decipher. Few poems were titled and there was little to indicate the order of drafts or which versions were nearest a final or fair copy.


The problems, as he observes, were analogous to those confronting Emily Dickinson’s first editors, and like them he attempted to bring Murray’s verse into line with the conventions of the day—as, presumably, Murray herself had when readying “Orpheus: Three Eclogues” for publication in Decision. Code added connectives, punctuation, and titles, normally making use of the first line of each poem for these, while occasionally imposing a “descriptive title” of his own.

Code also arranged Murray’s work into seven sections whose contents are loosely thematically linked, and added subtitles that are missing from Farnoosh Fathi’s Drafts, Fragments, and Poems: The Complete Poetry, based on Murray’s original manuscripts. “An Epithalamium: Marriage Poem for an Age,” for instance, a wonderfully expansive poem that captures the awakening sexual consciousness of a choric group of young men and young women, was published in 1947 with the intriguing suggestion that it was written for a “Marriage Day in a Little-Known Country,” but that subtitle has now vanished; and “The Anchorite,” a disjointed but haunting meditation on loneliness, and idealism, has lost a puzzling but evocative phrase inserted between title and poem in Code’s edition: “The Hermit Sees Through a Month’s Dreaming.”

Code also set about diversifying the poems by arranging pieces that were written as single blocks of verse into a range of stanza patterns, as well as by adding parentheses and inserting speech marks that create a sense of dialogue, or at least of to-and-fro between different speakers or perspectives. Finally, he corrected neologistic compounds such as “tallgaunt” or “greyskirts” by adding a hyphen or separating into two words.

Poor Code has on occasion been pilloried by Murray’s admirers, but it is only with the publication of Fathi’s edition of her complete works that one is able to gauge the nature and extent of his editorial interventions. Despite Auden’s advocacy and a number of positive, if somewhat baffled, reviews in journals such as Poetry, The Saturday Review, and The New Yorker, Murray’s Poems slid rapidly from sight—although not before catching the attention of another of Auden’s choices for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, John Ashbery. In 1968 Peggy sold both her own papers and those of her daughter to Smith College; mysteriously, however, it appeared that only Peggy’s material arrived. The assumption was that the trunk containing her daughter’s manuscripts had slipped off the back of the truck transporting them and disappeared forever. In a piece written in 2003 for the Poetry Project Newsletter (and reprinted as the preface to this volume) Ashbery lamented the fact that Murray’s poetry could only be experienced in Code’s gussied-up versions, while also insisting that her imagination “was powerful enough to stand up to the ministrations of a well-meaning but somewhat heavy-handed editor.”

Having myself fallen under the spell of lines such as “A witch is more lovely than thought in the mountain rain,” or “Time was like the snail in his cupolaed house,” or “Drop your lids little architect admit the bats of wisdom in your head,” I embarked, in 2013, on an essay for Poetry outlining the distinctive and original aspects of Murray’s work. She seemed to me a crucial link between two of the century’s greatest writers, Auden and Ashbery, and to have evolved a poetry that was at once rigorously impersonal and yet expressive of a peculiar, almost electric vitality. I liked the mercurial nature of her work, her willingness to “resist the intelligence/Almost [or, on occasion, completely] successfully,” to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens (“Man Carrying Thing”). Like Stevens, Murray can often seem elusive, but her puzzling syntax and imagery generally communicate a sense of urgency, however oblique or far-fetched the statements made:

Dried leaves like scales over the land
And the slow blink down to winter.
Father of shivering times crazed by each spring’s demand
Why would you know your daughter?

Speculating about exactly what Code had done to her original versions, it occurred to me that I might as well check with the Smith archivists on the status of the trunk; it was, I was informed, still missing. My inquiry must, however, have stimulated a fresh search, for just before my essay went to press I received an e-mail from the Smith archivist Karen Kukil telling me that it had finally been located, having presumably languished in some dusty storeroom for the last half-century. I felt as excited, opening that e-mail, as the nameless narrator of Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” felt on approaching Juliana Bordereau’s desk. I was delighted, further, to learn that the trunk’s voluminous contents included letters, drafts of poems, and much prose as well. A large dent in its side supported the story that it had at some point been mishandled and dropped, but its recovery at least absolved the moving men of the more serious crime of having lost it altogether. As Fathi notes, she had the “exhilarating privilege of being the first to go through…the long-lost papers,” and this new volume is the result.


Murray’s correspondence, of which a selection is reproduced here, makes it clear that the startling transitions and unpredictable metaphors that characterize her poetry reflect her instinctive mental habits. Consider this paragraph, written when she was twenty, to the novelist Helen Anderson, whom she met on only four occasions, but who served as her initial literary mentor:

Paint me a scene of slopes and trees, but let there be two sad-boned horses dropped toward the dark brown and the greens. Give a world of white and snow. I’d henna the clouds or flip off to perdition. For there’s no meaning to it. Give me the lake, the woods, the spaces where you stand. The birds are quiet. The sunset back is still and voidless, the lake a half reflection, and the fields melted into the final mists that fill the shadow, and the trees, a drawing, a drawing back diffused, so that one cool colored thing may become essence of themselves. A simple question answered with a smile, perhaps, or perhaps a little dust that throws a star into relief. Who knows? This is what counts now, and the only thing that lasts. The actualities, the people, move, but blurring so swiftly with time, they are as unreliable as last night’s fooleries.

“Sad-boned horses…I’d henna the clouds…a little dust that throws a star into relief…as unreliable as last night’s fooleries….” Like that deployed in her poetry, Murray’s richly figurative language flirts with eccentricity and grammatical impasses, indeed consistently makes us wonder if the passage has been copied out correctly; it also, nevertheless, manages to incarnate a refreshingly open space in which words seem only loosely tethered to familiar usages and meanings, even to tremble with new energies and possibilities. She didn’t, it must be admitted, always find interesting or effective narrative forms for the images that unreel like a force of nature in both her poems and her imaginative prose, but she undoubtedly did so in her most ambitious works, such as “Epithalamium” or “Orpheus: Three Eclogues” (the poem so admired by Auden), or “The Dream of the Architect,” the most important and arresting of the unpublished pieces discovered by Fathi in the battered trunk.

The freedom and originality of Murray’s language clearly reflect the unconventional nature of her upbringing and schooling. She was born in London in 1917, in the midst of an air raid, to Canadian parents; her father, Stanley, who had served in the war with a British infantry regiment, was a painter and illustrator, and her mother a traveling solo performer whose act included monologues, dance routines, and songs. Stanley and Peggy separated when she was seven, and Murray seems to have had a little subsequent contact with her father. As a child she lived in London (a city that features frequently in her poetry) and Paris, but at the age of ten was sent to live with her maternal aunt and uncle in Chatham, Ontario, while her mother pursued the peripatetic life of a performer. There, the following year, Murray suffered her first bout of rheumatic fever, which left her with a badly damaged heart valve. An even more severe attack two years later had the doctors despairing of her life. It was an infection related to these early periods of illness that led to her premature death in 1942.

Her schooling was patchy, but included spells at an Ursuline convent boarding school in Chatham and at a high school in Detroit, where her aunt and uncle settled when she was fifteen; the headmistress of the latter described Murray as “a soul apart,” and she was clearly not well suited to a conventional education. After completing ninth grade she devoted herself to solitary study, and an account of her reading found among the newly discovered papers suggests a voracious appetite for books: all of Dickens, Ibsen “from stem to stern,” Maupassant, Balzac, Hardy, Anatole France, Poe, Irving, Hawthorne, Scott, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Wedekind, Maeterlinck, Thomas Mann, Goethe, Yeats, Housman, Eliot, Pound.

Initially she was attracted to a career, like her mother’s, as a performer, moving when she was eighteen to New York, where she acted and danced semiprofessionally with the Irvine Players and studied with Maria Ouspenskaya and Mikhail Mordkin. At twenty-two, however, she discovered poetry—or it discovered her: while Yeats, it seems, was the initial catalyst for this conversion, it was Auden, as her poems testify so vividly, whose idiom had the most effect on her attempts to develop her own poetic voice. She signed up to study with him in the spring of 1940, and the two clearly hit it off. Fathi includes a couple of drafts of letters to Auden found in the trunk—letters that she may or may not have actually sent: in one she refers to their shared sense of “affinity,” and in another invites him for a summer holiday with her and her mother in their apartment on Saranac Lake in upstate New York.

This “affinity” is also strikingly in evidence in her poem “To W.H. Auden,” which memorably catches the mix of fearless experiment, prophetic outrage, and nagging uncertainty so essential to the Auden of the 1930s:

London alleys and bus tickets snapped at Piccadilly
With the soot and the rain and the wind let loose….
We have watched you amble there without maturity,
Flung between candescent thoughts on land that killed the goose
Destined to lose the golden egg, this island that we knew,
This river, this Embankment, this power for the few.

Like so many of Murray’s poems, this one demonstrates her facility with rhyme and off-rhyme, as well as her ability to push the recognizably Audenesque (literally here, for Auden himself almost never set poems in London) in surprising new directions.

Code, for some reason, removed the title from this poem, employing instead its striking first line, “You, Held in the Thin Cusp of the Night.” He also conflated two drafts to make it twice as long as the version printed by Fathi. Despite this and a number of other questionable choices, Fathi finds much to praise in her predecessor’s heroic efforts to make Murray’s poetry adhere as closely as possible to the accepted standards of its time of publication—although she swiftly goes on to explain why her edition will undo all his “improvements.” “I’ve preserved,” she writes,

Murray’s formatting and punctuation exactly as it appeared in the typed manuscripts. While Murray probably would have fiddled further with the punctuation on many of these poems, I wanted to let the poems stand as they are, as much as possible, rather than channel edits.

Given the current consensus on how best to present the works of John Clare or Emily Dickinson or Samuel Greenberg or Murray herself (i.e., in their original states), this is wholly uncontroversial. I must confess, however, that an unprogressive part of me regrets the loss of tension that the 1947 edition offers between Murray’s wild and wacky idiom and the stiff, formal presentation of each poem, its rigorously correct mise-en-page valiantly signaling its ambition to be thought of as a well-wrought urn. On the other hand, and in ample recompense, this new edition makes us consistently and movingly conscious of the extent to which all Murray’s writing was work-in-progress, expansive, provisional, exploratory, and wholly unaware, it can often feel, that it would ever be published and read. As Ashbery put it in a passage composed for this edition and tacked on to his original essay, when printed in their original versions Murray’s poems “are given new space to breathe.”

Fathi has also added to the Murray canon. The book is divided into three sections. The first presents the original versions of the seventy-six poems that Code included in his 1947 edition, with a range of variants listed in the notes. Given the indeterminate nature of Murray’s style—surely one of the reasons that the book so appealed to Ashbery—it is not always easy to adjudicate one way or the other when pondering these editorial cruxes. “Give back night to receding sky,” runs the ninth line in the first poem in Code’s edition, which becomes “Give back height to receding sky” in Fathi’s. The point worth making is that the line, in either version, might easily have found a place in an early Auden lyric, or indeed in a poem such as John Ashbery’s “Clepsydra.”

Barbara Morgan Archives/UCLA/Getty Images

Martha Graham in Letter to the World, her ballet about Emily Dickinson, 1940; photograph by Barbara Morgan

The second section offers extended samples of Murray’s exuberant, unstructured, free-flowing letters. These combine gnomic pronouncements (“I am held speechless in the hands of some spirit indefinite and prostrate,” opens the first of them) and prose-poetic urban vignettes that capture her impressions of New York, where she spent much of that year: “Here where people are rivered in interminable blocks, wits have been sharpened at the wrong end…. Here is microscoped the whole humanity, shilly-shallying from filth to wider comprehensions.”

Indeed, despite that opening sentence, “speechless” is one thing Murray seems rarely to have been. She reflects eloquently on her reading and artistic ambitions—how, she wonders, can she “develop a wholeness and a purpose out of fringed ideas that seem so small and run tangent to each other”—and that summer she considered the possibility of joining Anderson and her boyfriend at an artists’ commune in Oregon, rigorously committing herself, like the ascetic in her poem of that name, to her artistic vocation “in a turret or in a desert with a sack cloth and nothing more.”

At this point she was trying to write a novel, but by 1940 poetry and poetic drama had come to obsess her—Peggy once accused Auden of having killed her daughter with the compositional fever that his classes had inspired in her. A letter to an unidentified woman known only as “Baroness” from the summer of 1941—Murray’s “living year” (to borrow Robert Gittings’s phrase for Keats in 1819), as well as her last—offers an interesting insight into the mythology of the Universal Architect that features prominently in a number of her poems. She was at work, at this point, on a dance drama, “The Dream of the Architect,” in which she hoped to interest Martha Graham. The mind of her architect-hero, she explains, is “epitomized in the desire to recreate what is desolated, to rebuild; the fact that the spirit exists beside every terrible destruction; that the sensitive but inarticulate line is being put upon innumerable plans while all is in shambles.”

This passage perhaps indicates that the source of her architectural myth was Yeats’s resonant declaration in “Lapis Lazuli”: “All things fall and are built again,/And those that build them again are gay.” But while her verse drama on the theme undoubtedly has its origins in the choric plays of Yeats and Auden, it also reveals Murray at her most inventive, making it hard to fathom why it was omitted by Code from his 1947 edition. “The Dream of the Architect” is undoubtedly the most precious treasure to have emerged from the misplaced trunk. Most of the other material included in the book’s third section of previously unpublished poetry dates from 1936, and is not, it must be acknowledged, of great interest. “The Dream of the Architect,” on the other hand, although incomplete, contains many fine and inventive passages.

The architect himself never speaks, but his “various sides,” as the letter to the Baroness explains, are articulated by a Chorus of Five Women. Other characters include the Civilian, the Leader, and the Boy. “We are the five dreams,” the Women declare in their opening speech,

      of the Unemployed Architect.
Five cities upon five hills, five arrangements of the intellect,
Five women of conception and delight
Structure within structure, life in life, breadth and height.

Like “Orpheus,” the play makes superb use of rhymes that often link hands only at the end of long, tumbling lines, although Murray also, on occasion, deploys short, syncopated ones. The play’s overall schema remains opaque but, again as in “Orpheus,” the shadow narrative that it develops curbs her tendency to heap up abstractions, instead propelling the play’s startling formulations onward with an exhilarating sense of purpose. While it’s hard to guess exactly what relation the three scenes that survive bear to Murray’s conception of the piece in its entirety, what remains might well serve as the cruelest testimony of all to the loss that poetry suffered with her premature demise early the following year. The speeches of the Boy in particular capture the uplifting sense of possibility coursing through Murray’s poetry at its best: “Free with a freedom that ran to meet me with the shock/Of new angers and new loves immediate and my own.” Certain lines, on the other hand, communicate a more ominous vision of the costs, or at least the imagined end, of such spontaneity:

The mad child’s vision made me like a reed
And playing my own music I was flung from the tired turret, time’s ejected seed.

Whether her silent architect—a semiparodic version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch who might be set beside the comic/heroic airman of Auden’s The Orators—would have managed to “recreate what is desolated” and build the just city does not become clear, but the poetry that his dream inspires is more than merely promising: it is a vivid and moving achievement.

During the summer that she was writing this play Murray was either staying with friends at Saranac Lake or taking long solitary walking trips through the New England countryside. From one of these she returned with a fever. It was initially hoped that this might have been a response to a blister, but it was soon diagnosed as an infection spreading from the heart. She died on January 4, 1942, some five and a half weeks before what would have been her twenty-fifth birthday, having decreed that one of her own poems be recited at the scattering of her ashes. This poem ends:

It is not I who am sleeping in the rock or the wedge,
And yet I thrust back the wrinkled earth for breath
And in the dark extend thin wind stalked fingers to extract the brittle ledge.