Return to Anne Wilkinson's CanWWR page
Jump to the bibliography
Anne Cochran Wilkinson was born on 21 September 1910 in Toronto, Ontario, the second of three children born to Mary Elizabeth Osler and George Sutton Gibbons (Coldwell, xxiii). Wilkinson's mother came from the prominent Osler family who immigrated to Canada in April 1837. Wilkinson's maternal grandfather, Sir Edmund Osler, was a member of parliament, the founder of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Toronto, and the director of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Sir Edmund's brother, Sir William Osler, was a distinguished physician, and the Regius Professor of Medicine of Oxford University (Roland). Wilkinson's father, George Gibbons, was a barrister and though he sought to be a liberal candidate in the 1917 election, he was defeated (Coldwell, xxiii).
The family was Anglican; however, religion did not play a prominent role in their lives. They attended church rarely, and Anne would later claim to be an "atheist Anglican" (Coldwell, 178).
For the first nine years of her life, Wilkinson lived in London, Ontario at Lornhurst, a property belonging to her paternal grandfather (Armitage 1). Following the death of Wilkinson's father in 1919, her mother and the three children moved to Toronto to live with Sir Edmund at Craigleigh, a place she described as "ceremonial...and somewhat feudal" (Wilkinson 166). She lived there until the age of fourteen. However, during the summers, Wilkinson spent much of her time at Roches Point, the family estate, enjoying childhood among a crowd of cousins, aunts, and uncles (Coldwell 166). After the death of Sir Edmund, the estate was divided among three of his children, including Anne's mother, Mary.
Wilkinson's childhood had a profound effect on her writing and remained a prominent theme, not only in her early journals, but also in her later poems. She viewed her family's distinction with mixed feelings. As a child, she was aware of the special attention her mother received, both for being beautiful, and for being related to the Oslers. Wilkinson recalls: "thanks to Canadian Pacific connections we never travel in Canada or the U.S. without word being sent ahead to insure that we are specially cared for. No queuing for meals, and only the most courtly attention from custom and immigration officials" (Coldwell 181). While she appreciated the benefits of attention, Wilkinson also found it embarrassing as a child, and as an adult, she found her membership in the large family somewhat claustrophobic.
Wilkinson's education was intermittent and unconventional. Wilkinson's mother was an advocate of the Montessori method of education which can be characterized by "an emphasis on independence...and a respect for a child's natural psychological development" (Sunday Times). Wilkinson also received some instruction from a governess; however, her first experience of structured education began when she attended one term at a small school in Santa Barbara run by Mrs. Howard and her two daughters (Irvine 15). After moving to Toronto, Wilkinson and her younger sister, Mary, attended Mr. Yeoman's Ojai Valley School, a boarding school which limited her education to the works of "Shakespeare, Bach, and folk music" (Coldwell 180). She also had a governess and read extensively at home; books like Heidi, Wind in the Willows and The Princess and the Goblin were favoured in her childhood, though her grandfather also encouraged her to read works by Austen and Thackeray. Later in life, Wilkinson's discontinuous education would create a challenge, as it distanced her from the literary world (Coldwell ix).
Wilkinson married her husband, Fredrick Robert Wilkinson, a physician, on 23 July 1932. They had a total of four children. Jeremy, the eldest, was born in 1935, and in 1941, they had another son, Alan. Two of their children, another boy and a girl, tragically died shortly after birth, after which the Wilkinsons adopted a little girl named Heather (Irvine 16). It was following the death of her second child in 1943 that Anne began writing intensively. During the flourishing years of her career, Wilkinson's husband succumbed to depression and drinking, and despite her efforts to hold the marriage together, it fell apart and the couple separated in May 1952, and divorced February 1954 (Coldwell x, xvi). Dr. Wilkinson remarried a young nurse following the separation (Coldwell xiv).
Wilkinson never possessed excellent health. Her mother considered her a "delicate child" whose nerves were the source of much anxiety (Coldwell 173). When she was young, she was forced to wear a brace and orthopaedic shoes to help the curvature of her spine, her round shoulders, and her excessively flat feet (Coldwell 188). As an adult, her health issues became more severe, though it has been speculated that much of her health problems were the result of psychic distress. She spent considerable time around her maternal grandfather and wrote in her poem "Summer Acres": "I was the child of old men heavy with honour" (Coldwell 51). She lamented after a two-week stay at Craigleigh: "Alone with the grandfather I aged, became an old woman, my flesh mortal, the skin on my hands dry and wrinkled, my hair white. Old age is and was my particular infection" (Coldwell 210). In her later years as a writer, Wilkinson suffered from arthritis, pericarditis, and finally, lung cancer, which would kill her at the young age of fifty-one. Much of her later writing focused on themes of "approaching death" and "a changed paradise of remembered sensuous pleasure and the certainty of impending pain," which reflects Wilkinson's preoccupation with her failing health, and her rather melancholic nostalgia for her childhood at places like Roches Point (Daniells).
Wilkinson began her writing career rather late in life, beginning in her late thirties and ending with her death in 1961. Initially, she wrote in her journals, and wrote her poetry in relative isolation. However, her mother, considered a "great reader and patron of the arts", encouraged her to write, and sent her poems to poet E.J Pratt (Coldwell ix). In 1946, Alan Crawley, the editor of Contemporary Verse, published several of her poems, including "Pastoral" and "Theme and Variation" along with works by James Reaney and P.K Page. Her writing was accepted with enthusiasm. Crawley stated: "have no idea of the delight and exhilaration I had in reading the manuscript. It is such a rare thing for me to find such freshness and vitality and originality of expression and I do thank you very deeply for letting me have the reading." (McCullagh, 34). His criticism was greeted with refreshed eagerness to improve. Wilkinson also began publishing poems in The Canadian Forum and The Northern Review (Armitage 3).
Counterpoint to Sleep included poems such as "Summer Acres" and "Tower Lullaby". "Summer Acres" became one of Wilkinson's most celebrated poems, a melancholy reflection of Craigleigh long after the passing of her childhood. While remaining a place of rich memories, the estate, in Wilkinson's mind, was also in a state of decline that would inevitably "tumble, leaf over root to their ruin," and holds the sad memories of her father's death (Irvine, 52). Counterpoint to Sleep, like all of Wilkinson's later books, was received with great interest and garnered Wilkinson quick acclaim. Critics likened her to Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson, and complimented her "satiric, sometimes savage turn of thought" (Armitage, 6). Critics praised her imagery and "intensiveness", while poet and editor Goodridge MacDonald congratulated her work for "possessing body and flavour" despite its narrow range of emotion (Armitage, 6).
The Hangman Ties the Holly was not quickly accepted and Wilkinson reworked the poems several times. Her previous publisher, Sutherland, was not interested in her new book, so Wilkinson turned to Kildare Dobbs, an editor at Macmillan of Canada. Supportive yet critical, Dobbs proceeded to correspond with Wilkinson, and helped her edit, revise and re-write her collection which she had titled Which Way is Up? (Irvine, 34). In August, 1954, the manuscript was accepted by John Gray at Macmillan. The book included poems such as "Lens", "Letter to My Children" and "Dirge". Wilkinson's self-reflexive style comes through in several of her poems, including "Lens" in which she muses over the influence of gender on a poet's writing. Wilkinson's writing also frequently carries autobiographical nuances, including "Dirge," which echoes her own failed marriage four years prior to the book's publishing. Northrop Frye stated "human nature is her metaphor" in which she reflected "a union of life and death in nature" (Armitage, 7). While Wilkinson was criticized for echoing Dylan Thomas too much in her previous collection of poetry, The Hangman surprised readers like poet Margaret Avison and Fred Cogswell with its "striking new ways" and "quick profuse images" (Armitage, 8).
In January 1956, Wilkinson's mother died (Coldwell xxv). Overcome by the loss of a second parent and one with whom she had been so close, Wilkinson put up her pen for fourteen months. However, prior to the devastating loss, Wilkinson had turned her attention to writing an autobiography that would bring life to her childhood. The history focused on her mother, with "every chapter beginning with some reference to her" (Coldwell xi). The title was inspired by a letter written by Ellen Osler, William Osler's mother, who wrote to him: "There are often 'Lions in the Way' when I write a note...but neither lions nor dim sight hinder loving thoughts toward those who are absent" (Bean, 817).
Swann and Daphne was a children's story Wilkinson published in the year prior to her death. A modern fairy tale, it tells the story of two young children of unusual appearance who fail to assimilate into their society and seek comfort in their friendship (Wilkinson). Preoccupied with her failing health, Wilkinson wrote a story that was criticized by J De Bruyn as "humourless and melancholy" while Sheila Egoff argued that it was "more allegory than narrative" (Armitage 9). General consensus focuses on the inappropriate medium of the children's story for a theme that was most definitely adult in nature.
Wilkinson began writing a memoir titled "The Curate's Egg" which was later shortened and published in The Tamarack Review under the title Four Corners of My World in the summer of 1961 (Irwine, 38). It depicted a more personal picture of her past. In 1968, editor and critic A.J.M Smith published a collection of Wilkinson's works (including Four Corners of My World) titled The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson. However, it was an incomplete collection, which omitted forty-six poems, sixteen of which had been published previously in periodicals (Armitage 205). The book's success lay primarily in reviving interest in Wilkinson's work that had ebbed over the ten years since her death. In 1992, Coldwell published The Tightrope Walker: Autobiographical writings of Anne Wilkinson, and in 2003, Dean Irvine published a collection of her works which included Counterpoint to Sleep and The Hangman Ties the Holly. This latest collection was titled Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson, and was intended to "raise her public profile and generate new audiences for her poetry." Irvine praises, "The undiminished value of Wilkinson's poetry lies in her remarkably intricate reinvention of language, rhythm and thyme. Her style is the result of painstaking attention to craft" (Irvine, 19). Wilkinson remained an influential poet well after her death. Critically acclaimed writers such as Michael Ondaatje weave Wilkinson's poetry and character into his novels, In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, and Oskar Morawetz composed music to her poem "Elegy" in 1989 (Irwine 24).
Bean, William B. "Lions In the Way: A Discursive History of the Oslers." The Journal of the American Medical Association. 177.11. 1961. 817.
Coldwell, Joan, ed. The tightrope walker: autobiographical writings of Anne Wilkinson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1992.
Daniells, Roy. "Purged with Pity and Fear." Canadian Literature. Issue 39. Web. 23 March 2012. < http://www.canlit.ca/ >
Irvine, Dean. Heresies : the complete poems of Anne Wilkinson, 1924-1961. Signal Edition. Montreal: Vehicule Press. 2004. Print.
McCullagh, Joan. Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 1976. 32-61. Print.
"Montessori: A Unique Approach to Acquiring Education." The Sunday Times. 27 Nov 2011. Web. 23 Mar 2012. < http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/ >
Wilkinson, Anne. Swann and Daphne. Don Mills: Oxford University Press. 1960.